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Ohio State’s defensive line has greatly underperformed

The Buckeyes have a laundry list of issues following their loss to Oregon.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

You know how people say it’s impossible to choose a favorite child, or even their favorite pizza? You love all your kids, and pizza is always good. Well, choosing our biggest positional disappointment from an Ohio State defense that has woefully underperformed is kind of like the opposite of that. I’m disappointed in the whole thing — there are no favorites. The secondary has been the only pleasant surprise, but I think it’s fair to say that there are glaring weaknesses in that unit as well (cough, a certain safety, cough).

While I am optimistic that the players and coaches can turn it around, I won’t put a guarantee on it. To me, the improvement needs to flow from front to back, so I am singling out the defensive line as my biggest disappointment thus far.

Unlike the linebackers and the defensive backs, we didn’t have many concerns about the big guys up front… initially at least. The Buckeyes return a ton of experience on the line and were supposed to be led by preseason award and All-American candidates such as Zach Harrison and Haskell Garrett. Through two games, those two players have produced one memorable play – the same play – and not much else. As the unit projected to lead this defense, the front four has failed to hold up their end of the deal.

It has only been two games, but the defensive line has fallen well short of expectations. I would argue that they are actually the poorest performing unit — by a mile. The run defense is what jumps out most to me, with regards to their dismal display thus far. Ohio State opponents have rushed for an average of 236 yards per game, on 5.4 yards per carry. The numbers would be even worse had Mo Ibrahim not been injured during the OSU’s opener at Minnesota. Teams are running the ball at-will against the Buckeyes, and opposing running backs have found the endzone six times already.

The run defense (or lack thereof) is a result of multiple failures, but the guys up front are literally the first line of defense. They have gotten no push at the line of scrimmage, and they are being bullied by the opposition. Tommy Togiai is missed, but I did not anticipate his physicality being missed this much. Haskell Garrett and Taron Vincent are talented as hell, and they are physically imposing dudes, but the middle of the line has been stood up far too often. And don’t get me started on the perimeter!

That would have been a poor and dramatic ending, so yes, let me vent on the defensive ends as well. I am still only focusing on the run defense here… Containment, especially against teams that give you option looks and use pulling guards on perimeter runs, is of the utmost importance. Ohio State players and coaches have failed – egregiously – to contain anything. That was on full display against Oregon, as the Ducks got to the outside with ease. The left side was especially vulnerable.

The lack of containment can also be attributed to coaching. Kerry Coombs and Al Washington have failed their players, but Larry Johnson might also deserve some of the blame… or is it simply that his experienced unit has failed to execute?

Against Oregon, the Buckeyes clearly failed to set the edge. If Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith, and others regularly attacked the mesh point due to coaches’ orders, so be it. However, at some point, you have to catch on to what the other team is doing. Far too often, I saw ends collapsing the middle with their heads down. After a billion read option plays and outside runs, maybe sit home and read the play? Players with multiple years of starting experience need to rely on feel an instinct at some point, and the defensive ends did neither against Oregon… or their instincts were all wrong.

The pass rush as a whole has been abysmal so far in 2021. It was not a whole lot better in 2020, but the Buckeyes did seem to create consistent pressure last season — they just didn’t get home as often as we would have liked. Through two games this year? The pressure is non-existent. Harrison has one strip sack, but he has been a ghost otherwise. He is a preseason award nominee and potential first-round draft pick. Tyreke Smith has been equally unproductive. You don’t expect sacks from the interior, but they need to be able to collapse the pocket. Again, we have seen none of that through two games.

If the linebackers are going to struggle all year, this defensive line needs to make up for their lack of experience. Those linebackers need reps to improve, but what is the excuse up front? They have all the reps you could ask for. They also have uber-recruits sitting on the bench. If the poor performance continues, those guys need to be on the field.

To me, the defensive line is a unit Ohio State should have been able to rely on — similar to the wide receivers. Not to say that the talent level is the same, but Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson are going to be security blankets and lifesavers at some point. The defensive line should help keep this defensive afloat while young guys get experience. So far, they have been bullied. That isn’t coaching. That is nastiness and want-to. The guys up front on defense don’t seem to have a lot of either right now. Here’s hoping they get their swagger back against inferior opponents, because the Buckeyes will need them to turn this thing around.