The Ohio State Buckeyes have made their first move, as Ryan Day has announced that Jim Knowles will be the next defensive coordinator at Ohio State starting on Jan. 2. In this two-part series, my fellow LGHL’er Jordan Williams and I will be breaking down what to expect from Knowles when he gets to Ohio State. Knowles has a track record of having an immediate impact on the programs he has coached at, and brings an aggressive coaching style along with him.
When you look at a Knowles’ defense, you can see discipline, physicality, and variety — which are all aspects we expect from an Ohio State defense. Being blunt, outside of the 2019 season with Chase Young, Jordan Fuller, Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette, and a veteran linebacker core, the Buckeyes have been bad defensively. By adding Knowles to the staff, coach Day is telling the college football world that Ohio State is going to have a great defense or take a big swing trying.
Not known for being a recruiter, the Knowles hire is based on his ability as a schemer and game-planner. His multiple looks and approach that relies on positional versatility should flourish with the talent at Ohio State. In this article, we are going to take our first look at what Knowles is bringing to Columbus.
We are going to take a look at how Knowles’ 4-2-5 base defense is different from Ohio State’s. They utilize a different type of hybrid position, which deserves its own explanation in itself, and we are also going to discuss the pass defense philosophies and coverage in the back end as well. We are all going to learn today, and this is going to be a fun change of pace compared to the stiff, basic Ohio State defense.
Jim Knowles is a complex Ivy League man, and his defense takes on his personality as his alignment is not as simple as being a pure 4-2-5 like Ohio State’s. The term I’ve seen thrown around by people much smarter than I is a quasi three-down look 4-2-5 that utilizes a hybrid edge player called a Leo. This defense in a lot of ways is a combination of 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 that a lot of NFL teams are beginning to deploy regularly.
With the size and athleticism of players, this role can be utilized in a lot of ways. They play with three true safety types on the field to give the defense the ability to disguise coverage and still have the bodies in the run game. Lastly, before we take a look at a screen grab of the basic alignment, the corners tend to play uptight and press a lot.
In the below image I have circled a few key positions that show the difference in Knowles’ defense and Ohio State’s defense. The first player to take a look at is No. 30, who plays the Leo position for Oklahoma State. This is not a position currently used at Ohio State, but they have quite a few players who may fit well into the role. This player is currently lined up as a traditional stand up end, but he can also step back to be a third linebacker.
The two players marked “SS” are the equivalent to Ohio State’s Bullet and cover safety. Against 12-personnel, they have three strong safety types in the defense, and this allows them to match the heavy personnel. Looking at the safety and corners, this is one-high shell, meaning they can be in Cover-1 or Cover-3, or they just want to give that impression.
The last interesting part here is the defensive line alignment. Their right defensive tackle is in a one technique in the A-Gap, the left defensive tackle is in a 2i shading the inside shoulder of the right guard, and the defensive end in a traditional 7-technique shaded outside the right tackle. Knowles is known for moving his down players along the line to create gap confusion for the opposing offensive line. The complexities are just getting started, but this is a good look at a base alignment for a Knowles defense.
The Leo is a special position often referred to as the Jack linebacker, which is a hybrid edge player. In the picture above, we can see him aligned in a traditional stand up edge role. This player has a lot of responsibilities, including being a traditional edge rusher, dropping into coverage, playing in the run game, and creating matchup problems for opposing offenses.
Ohio State does not currently do anything like this, going with two traditional defensive ends, a nose tackle, and a 3-tech defensive tackle. This will be an interesting position to monitor as we prepare for next year, because there are a lot of personnel directions they can go with this role. Jack Sawyer fits the physical profile, if Zach Harrison returns he fits the athletic profile, and if Sonny Styles gets in the weight room early he fits the versatility profile. Utilizing versatile athletes is a key in the modern day defense, and if Knowles can figure out how he wants to utilize this role with Ohio State’s personnel, it can be an extremely fun position to watch.
Knowles uses a variety of coverages from Cover-1 to Cover-5, but rather than getting into all of them, I want to look at two clips that show the Cowboys in man coverage and how they utilize zone pattern matching concepts.
In Ohio State’s defense, the Buckeyes utilize true zones, meaning they literally stay in an area on the field even if there are no offensive players in that part of the field. For Oklahoma State under Knowles, they utilized a Cover-4 with pattern matching, which means that they hold traditional Cover-4 zones, but play man principles.
In the play below, the first thing we need to look at is the alignment of the defensive backs. All five defensive backs are lined up straight across the field at about 10 yards away from the line of scrimmage. Given that the down and distance is 3rd-and-17, they are giving additional cushion, but this was a regular coverage in passing situations defensively for the Cowboys. For the zones/route matches, the middle safety plays the running back to the flats, the two cover safeties take vertical routes up field with the one on the left hash taking the tight end. The corners end up in man straight up because of this, but play in a Quarters drop with the off the ball depth and outside leverage keeping everything in front of them.
This play is one of the many ways they mix up alignment and do everything they can to create confusion for the quarterback.
In the next play, we’re going to see something we’re much more familiar with in a traditional Cover-1 look. There’s two reasons we are looking at this — the first to look at how multiple his coverages are, and the second to show what his man coverage looks like.
Taking a look at the alignment, Oklahoma State is in a 2-High Shell, meaning their safeties are aligned in a two-high look. Once the ball is snapped, the safety (No. 25) to the trips side rolls down and takes the number three receiver, the tight end. With the tight end flexed, the corner and cover safety have two off receivers, so they mirror the alignment of the receiver by being two yards off the ball.
The middle safety is responsible for the deep middle zone, but due to alignment as well as matchups he is in a tough position to help to the trips side. He is late in his rotation because he has to be able to help the backside corner vertically as well as the trip side. This puts him in a bind, but with good coverage this is good late help. The Will linebacker has running back responsibility, and the Mike backer gets to drop in a “Robber” zone looking for inside breaking routes and crossing patterns to disrupt.
With his personnel groupings, the coverage versatility is extremely wide and this is going to be an incredible change of pace for the Buckeyes in 2022.
When we talk about Jim Knowles being aggressive, his mix and volume of blitzes is the reason why. Constantly saying he wants his defense to play offense, this is his approach to his organized chaos that makes opposing teams so uncomfortable. By not only mixing in stunts to aid his blitzes, they aren’t afraid to blitz anybody on the defense.
In the next play, we see Baylor line up in an 11-personnel trips set to the left. When we talk about 4-2-5, this is where the quasi three-man front comes into play. The Leo is lined up as an outside backer, and the Mike linebacker replaces him in a crossfire blitz, making the Mike the outside edge rusher and the Leo the inside blitzer. They bring all six of the defenders in the box in pressure, leaving five to defend five players. This is a Cover-0 look from a 2-Shell, and if the blitz does not get him this can lead to a big play.
The blitz does not get home, but the pressure is enough to rush the throw and leads to an incompletion. This is Knowles’ M.O. in first down situations — forcing the offense’s hand by applying force.
In the last play we’re going to look at today, we are going to see how a Knowles defense shows pressure to create the same confusion as bringing additional pressure. By showing blitz it can change the count, and with the volume of different blitzes being called, this makes it extremely challenging for opposing offensive lines to gauge what the defense is doing. By blitzing from depth, it makes the offensive line prepare for that. By showing pressure and not bringing any, the offensive line has to prepare for that as well.
This play is an example of just how much chaos happens at the snap under Knowles. Looking at the down and distance, we can see that 3rd-and-7 is an obvious passing situation. Knowles rolls out his Dime personnel, taking out a down linemen for another defensive back. Oklahoma State shows a five-man pressure with a Cover-2 Man Under look behind it. With the safety (No. 3)’s alignment over the slot receiver, this disguises the cover safety (No. 2), who is showing a blitz off the edge giving the quarterback a questionable pre-snap look.
The cover-safety turns to cover the slot receiver, and the Cowboys only rush four. The Mike linebacker runs a stunt with the nose tackle, and the rest of the rushers stick to their direct rush lane. This play shows everything you need to know about a Knowles defense. There is disguise, pressure, and a variety of possible looks pre-snap that remain hard to decipher through. This is what Ohio State needs in a defense, and this is why Knowles is the guy.
We are just scratching the surface with this nutty professor, and throughout the offseason we will look into more details and learn about the Knowles defense together. Today, we learned how his defenses line up and got into the controlled chaos that is his goal. The takeaway not mentioned in this was how well-coached his players are. He demands a lot from them in a lot of ways, and they are expected to be able to do everything from coverage to blitzing. For the Buckeyes, this is not going to be a one day transition, but once this defense is going full steam ahead, this Ohio State team will be scary again.
My final takeaway for now is this: Jim Knowles is absolutely nuts, and historically the nuttiest professors are the most successful defensive coordinators in the business. We focused on the back end, passing defense, and alignment in this film study, but we still have a lot to learn. It will be extremely interesting to see how the Buckeyes transition under Knowles and how much he brings over. Until then, we will continue to try to provide more breakdowns on Knowles’ work at the other OSU. Every snap I watched to put this article was a new adventure, and this is going to be a really fun defense to watch moving forward.
On Monday, Jordan will be taking you through the front-seven and how a Knowles defense attacks the opposing team’s run game. Make sure you check it out and as always, we hope you learned something.