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Defense 101: Fixing Ohio State’s run defense from the ground up

Ohio State’s defensive issues start and end with technique and that's an indictment on the coaching.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Defense 101: A Beginners Guide to Playing Defense

Yes, this is another article about Ohio State’s defense, but unlike other articles, the purpose of this is not to yell, scream, cuss, or cry about the defense. This is not the article that is going to be calling for Kerry Coombs’ job, although I do think that Ryan Day needs to move on at defensive coordinator. In this article I am going to teach fundamental defense that can be understood at a 7th grade level.

Though I have been emotional on the issues with OSU’s defense in other articles and on Twitter, I am taking emotion out of it in order to hopefully explain a little bit about the Buckeyes’ defensive issues. It’s easy to see that something is wrong, but not always easy to tell exactly what it is that is wrong, and I'm seeing a lot of people inaccurately discussing the issues with this defense.

While many people believe that the defensive issues are all scheme based, the issues are way deeper than scheme. As former Buckeye Joshua Perry stated, this is the same scheme that Jeff Hafley used in his one season as DC. As we’re all aware, that season went well enough that Hafley is now the coach at Boston College and unfortunately can’t be called upon to fix this defense.

So if the issue isn't scheme, then what is it? Well let’s look at another Perry tweet before we take a deep dive into the defense and try to fix this thing from the ground up.

Ok, one more...

Sorry, I cant help myself as Perry is one of the only former Buckeyes who seem to

1. understand the issue

2. be bold enough to talk about the issue (even if his tweets are rather vague)

3. has the ability to set aside his love for Coombs to speak real to a fanbase seeking answers.

Now I know a lot about defense, but it’s nice to have a former player’s tweets as a starting point, so again if the issues aren’t scheme related, and following Perry’s point that you don’t need three first rounders to run this defense, WHAT IS THE ISSUE??

Thanks for asking, the issue is not the scheme, it is not the players specifically, as there are some players who deserve to play less which leaves... ding ding ding coaching. But it’s not just coaching in general, it’s coaching technique, which is the job of coaches.

One last thing, you may be asking why don’t these former four and five-star athletes know technique? Well, most of these players were the best players on every team that they were on growing up team; except for a few powerhouses, a lot of them were probably the best player in the history of their school. This means that instead of teaching technique and fundamentals, in many cases, the coaches let the players play, because when you can out athlete everyone, you don’t need technique.

That’s all well and good until you get to college and can no longer just assume that any given player will be a far superior athlete than everyone else on the field. The largest learning curve for players as they transition from high school to college is technique, fundamentals, and realizing that they are no longer the best athlete on the field.

In this article I will show why Ohio State’s defense is fundamentally broken and what changes can be made in season, because without change this season is over.

What is a 4-2-5

Ohio State runs a 4-2-5, which in basic terms is four defensive lineman, two linebackers, and five “defensive backs.” The five defensive backs consist of two out side corners and one free safety. The last two positions are where it can get interesting, in Ohio State’s defense, the last two positions are a slot cornerback and a safety/lb hybrid (better known as the Bullet).

The benefit to a 4-2-5 in a traditional sense is it keep six people in the box to defend the run, it has a “true” corner in the slot and a larger safety hybrid who can become the seventh man in run sets or can defend a tight end better then a smaller corner can.

Another benefit in my opinion is that it is an even defense, take the safety out of the picture as he is the last line of defense and the unit is split evenly — five and five — right down the middle, which should lead to very sound defense.

Defending the run

Now, Ohio State typically has a strong run defense, and I think this may be the easiest thing for them to fix this season. If you listen to Day, essentially the team went so hard on defending the pass that they created issues in their run defense. So what are the steps to defending the run?

  1. Line up correctly: Nothing matters if your alignment is off, but that is the benefit of a 4-2-5; if taught correctly, there should be no one out of position. It is the most basic form of defense — you never have to change where you line up. As you get more complex, you may switch the SCB/Bullet to align with the TE/Slot WR, but that is a conversation for another article
  2. Find/read your keys: What does this mean? Every player has a “key,” which is who they look at to tell what the play is going to be (run vs. pass) and where the play is going (inside, outside, left or right). For everyone besides the two outside corners, the key is someone on the offensive line. This is where we run into Ohio State’s first issue. When you watch the play below it’s obvious that the players are not reading their keys; half the defense does not know what the play is, where it’s going, and — if that’s the case — they can’t stop it.
  3. Fill your gaps/set the edge: In basic terms, gaps are the spaces in between the offensive line. To defend the run, you have to have gap integrity and set the edge. Setting the edge is simply not letting the offense get outside of you. On the outside there is max of two or three players, and on the inside there are six to eight. You want to push all plays back inside to your help. This is where we see another issue in OSU’s fundamentals.

As a defense, if you line up correctly, read your keys, fill your gaps and set the edge, it is very hard for the opposing offense to run the ball. When you play defense correctly, it puts all of the onus on the offense to physically move you out of the way so that they can run the ball.

Offenses do not want to physically move every defensive player out the way, so they resort to motion and distraction in hopes that they can confuse you. If they can confuse you, and get you out of your gaps, it makes it easier to run the ball. This leads me to my last point.

4. STAY DISCIPLINED/Keep your eyes out of the backfield: One of the main issues with Ohio State’s defense right now is that they can fairly easily be taken out of the game by motion. To read your keys, you have to be looking at your keys, but if you’re looking at the window dressing, you’re not going to know what to do, where to go, or how to stop it.

Ohio State’s defense has the tendency to follow the window dressing and get out of their gaps, giving the offense the advantage. It is the offense’s job to confuse you, it’s the defense’s job to stay sound and play disciplined.

5. Communicate, trust your eyes, and play fast: These last things should be natural, anything that happens on the field should be communicated to the rest of the defense, so that everyone knows what’s happening.

You need to trust your eyes, if you see the guard pulling, then it’s a run and you need to fill your gap. If you communicate with your team, trust your eyes, then you can play fast and make a play.

Of all things that Ohio State’s defense is not doing, this is the most damning. You can accept mistakes, because as long as you’re playing fast and communicating, you can make adjustments and make plays.

Now that we’ve covered the basics lets look at some film and see where OSU is messed up.

In this play, Oregon running back C.J. Verdell scores a touchdown, because the only thing the defense does right is line up correctly.

The offensive tackle down blocks and the guards pull, which means that the play is going behind the guards. OSU defensive end Zach Harrison goes inside and doesn’t set the edge. As an aside, as a defensive lineman if someone doesn’t block you it means someone else is coming to block you. That could be a pulling guard or a tight end. Harrison went so far inside that the guard just side stepped him to block someone else, because there was no way he could make the tackle.

The corner isn’t reading the OT, so he thinks that it’s a pass and plays man coverage on a blocking defender, taking him out of the play. The linebackers appear to read the play, but they don't trust their eyes or play fast; they don't fill their gaps which allows the running back to get outside. Lastly, Buckeye safety Bryan Shaw, who is the last line of defense, has no idea where the play is going, he stands in place for far too long, then takes a bad angle and Verdell gets an easy touchdown.

One this touchdown, the defense faces the same issue. The defensive line is running a twist, which effectively takes them out of the play. Only one linebacker reads the play correctly, but he can’t get outside because the corner is not reading his key, which is the offensive tackle. He plays man coverage on a blocking WR and runs into his the only linebacker who knows where the play is going.

The safety reads the play this time, but again takes a terrible angle, not that it would have helped, because — since no one set the edge — there was a 300-pound guard running full speed at whomever tried to get in his way.

Surprise, surprise bad defense is not just about runs to the outside. In this example Verdell goes right up the middle for a big gain. In a moment of honesty, this play makes me want to remove all emotionless content and scream to the high heavens. The first issue with this play is alignment. There is only one linebacker in the box who is in position to defend the run.

At the snap Tommy Eichenberg reads run and actually reacts, but he runs past his gap. Since he is the only linebacker in the box, it also allows him to get blocked by two Oregon players.

Teradja Mitchell is again aligned incorrectly, whether that’s his mistake or a coaching issue, we don’t really know. But, he reads run, but does not trust his eyes. No one is blocking him, if he fills his gap this is maybe a three-yard run; instead he bounces in place for far too long and never has a chance to make this play.

While Eichenberg was not perfect on this play, him being in decent position forced the running back to cut back and he would’ve run straight into an awaiting Mitchell if he was in the right place.

Oregon has a really good defense, so I wanted to include a clip of them defending the run to emphasize the enormous difference between the two defenses right now.

The first thing I want to point out is that Oregon is in man coverage, which means they only have five defenders committed to the run. In most cases, this is a win for the offense. So how does Oregon make this play? First of all, their defensive lineman get off the ball and into their gaps.

Them getting into their gaps leads to Noah Sewell to be untouched by the OSU offensive line. Sewell read run and immediately filled to the only gap that did not have an Oregon defender already in it. By doing this, he met the running back in the backfield and made the play.

Aside from the technique, take a look at the effort, even the players in the secondary eventually recognize its run and every Oregon defender is fighting to the ball. The effort is evident on every level of the defense and that cannot be said for Ohio State.

In Conclusion...

Ohio State’s run defense is very bad. It is not for lack of athletes, it is not due to scheme. It is largely because the players do not have solid fundamentals. They may occasionally do one or two things correctly, but they do not consistently play well and they do not consistently play together. They do not read their keys, they’re not trusting their eyes, they’re not playing fast, there is no communication, and — most disheartening — there is no pride or effort by the defense.

It is clear to me, and hopefully to you after this article, that the Ohio State coaching staff is not putting their players in the best position to succeed.

Unless there is another dramatically bad showing from the defense, Ryan Day will not be firing coaches midseason. Due to that fact, the coaching staff has to find a way to fix the issues that are plaguing this defense. They need to simplify the players’ responsibilities and let them use the athleticism that made them four and five-star prospects to begin with.

Luckily, even in a bad defensive year, Ohio State was a very good run defense last season. There have obviously been personnel changes since 2020, but the run defense should be an easy fix from the early season issues.

Ohio State should be able to out athlete most teams on their schedule until (if) they make the College Football Playoffs. This team has four games against out-matched opponents to fix this defense. The run defense should be a simple fix. As for the pass defense, that is a totally different story (and article).

Check out the next installment of “Defense 101” tomorrow, as I attempt to fix Ohio State’s pass defense before its too late!