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LGHL Asks: What will the change to a 4-2-5 scheme mean for OSU’s pass defense?

Will the Buckeyes be able to stop the pass after an atrocious 2020?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 19 Big Ten Championship Game - Northwestern v Ohio State
Haskell Garrett (92) anchors the Buckeye defense.
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Throughout the month of August, LGHL writers will be attempting to answer some of the most important questions about Ohio State’s 2021 football season. To catch up on all editions of LGHL Asks, click HERE.

LGHL Asks: What will the change to a 4-2-5 scheme mean for OSU’s pass defense?

Short answer: the change in scheme has got to help. Let’s take a look at the Bucks’ pass defenses the past three years.

2018: In terms of points, the Buckeyes scored an average of 42.4 points per game (8th in the nation, out of 130) and gave up 25.5 points per game (52nd in the nation). Obviously, the defense lagged behind the offense, and the pass defense was the reason. Ohio State yielded an average of 404 yards of offense to opponents, 245.2 in the air, and 158.8 on the ground. They had some great defensive backs – Jordan Fuller, Damon Arnette, Kendall Sheffield, Jeff Okudah, and Shaun Wade. Aside from Malik Harrison, though, the linebackers were suspect, and even with Chase Young, the Bucks didn’t mount much of a pass rush.

2019: One of the best years ever for Ohio State football. The offense racked up 46.9 points per game (3rd of 130 in the nation), and the defense gave up only 13.7 points per game (4th in the nation). Opponents passed for a paltry 156 yards a game and ran for only 104. They couldn’t run against the Bucks’ defensive line, and they didn’t have time for a decent passing game because, in this season, Chase Young was a madman.

2020: Last season. A disaster with regard to pass defense, a disaster underscored by the performance in the national championship game against Alabama. The Ohio State defense gave up 25.8 points per game and 304 yards per game passing. The rush defense was good (97.9 yards/game), but nobody really had to run against the Buckeyes. The blame fell on the secondary and the linebackers.

2021: Time for a change. The strength of the Buckeye defense this year is the D-line. Maximize its effectiveness. One weakness last year was at the linebacker position, and the top four of them are gone. Put fewer of them on the field on any given play. The secondary remains a question mark. We haven’t seen some of these guys in meaningful action. But one thing that’s not in question is the speed of the defensive backs. Use it. Pass defense is all about matchups.

So how does the 4-2-5 scheme improve the pass defense over the previous base 4-3-4 defense? It would seem to be just another nickel scheme, but not really.

The 4-3-4 base is primarily a run defense. It made sense to use it as a base defense when your primary conference opponents – Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa – were all run-first offenses. They aren’t any more. The Bucks would use a nickel in “obvious passing situations.” With today’s offenses, is there such a thing? Teams pass in any situation. The 4-2-5 is a passing defense. It relies on speed and intuition, rather than “read and react,” on man-to-man coverage with superior athletes, rather than a passive zone. “Aggressive” should be its by-word.

We have to assume that the four down linemen and the middle linebacker can stop the run. I have no doubt that they can. Haskell Garrett and whoever plays alongside him (Taron Vincent, Antwan Jackson) will take away the inside running game and eat up three blockers between them. Garrett’s a monster and will be a first team All-American this year.

One difference in the 4-2-5 is the role of the defensive ends, or edge rushers. They need to be strong and fast, and they’re given a great deal of freedom in how they play. The Buckeyes are absolutely loaded at this position. Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith, and Tyler Friday have all played really well, and Harrison is looking to break out into an All-American caliber of player. And then we add the five-star new guys, Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau. Sawyer looked unblockable in the spring game, and Tuimoloau might be better.

Indiana v Ohio State
Bucks will rely on Zach Harrison to help supply the pass rush.
Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Playing outside the offensive tackles, these ends stop running plays from going wide and rush, rush, rush the passer. The 4-2-5 uses the edges and frequent blitzes (from anywhere) to confuse blockers, maximize pressure on the quarterback, and generally disrupt the passing game. The pass rush in 2019 made the difference with the defense that year. The relative absence of it last year really hurt.

One play last year (or, at least, a variation of it) beat the Buckeyes time and again – a quick slant run by a wide receiver. When Ohio State was in a 4-3-4, that receiver was often covered (actually, “chased”) by a much slower linebacker. Then there was a speedy runner loose in the middle. The fifth DB in the base 4-2-5 defense should be able to counter that play, especially if the pass rush can thwart the deep passing game. Again – matchups.

Keys to beating the 4-2-5 revolve around a successful running game, a quick passing game, and run-pass options (RPOs). As I said, I don’t think teams can run against Ohio State. (A possible exception would be Alabama, with an offensive line that does everything well.) As to RPOs, the Buckeyes don’t seem to have trouble with running quarterbacks (well, maybe Lawrence in 2019); recently, they’ve had trouble with teams who had good passers and good receivers. Ohio State will counter the RPO and the short passing game with team speed—especially from the safeties and the outside linebacker.

In the secondary, the Buckeyes likely will customize the 4-2-5. Rather than three cornerbacks to take on three wideouts, a strong safety on the tight end, and a free safety, the Bucks will probably use three cornerbacks, one safety, and a hybrid “Bullet.” The Bullet’s primary responsibility will still be pass coverage, but he’ll come up fast, like a linebacker, to support the run defense. Don’t be surprised to see the outside linebacker give way to a fourth cornerback on second and very long or third and long. That Bullet can play like a small, fast linebacker.

To sum it up, the 4-2-5 will improve the pass defense because it highlights Buckeye strengths — speed and the defensive line. Replacing a linebacker with another back may reduce team size, but the tradeoff for more speed will be worth it. The pass rush will frustrate opponents into mistakes: holding calls, fumbles, and interceptions.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 19 Big Ten Championship Game - Northwestern v Ohio State
Josh Proctor needs to steady the secondary.
Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Ohio State defense, however, must minimalize its own errors. They don’t miss many tackles, but sometimes the secondary is out of position, confused; sometimes they’re called for interference in an effort to catch up.

Oh, for another Jordan Fuller, a sage who calls the defense and holds everyone together. But he’s doing those things now for the Los Angeles Rams. Josh Proctor, can you step up and supply a steadying hand?