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

Ohio State’s defense is... not great! So I’m going to fix it. Last time the run defense was the focus. Now let’s work on the pass defense.

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

Welcome back to another installment of Defense 101: Fixing Ohio State’s defense from the ground up! In the previous article, I focused largely on Ohio State’s run defense, and for good reason. In the last two games, OSU has given up a million yards and an abundance of touchdowns in a way Buckeye fans haven’t seen in a long time... perhaps ever.

Unfortunately for fans, players, and coaches, the run defense isn’t the only issue. The pass defense isn’t great either, and was largely the biggest issue coming into this season as OSU allowed 464 passing yards and 5 touchdowns in the National Championship game against Alabama.

So we’ve fixed the run defense (theoretically) and honestly that was a large task in itself, so is it realistic that we can fix the pass defense as well? Who knows, but I’m going to give it the old college try. So as a recap, OSU runs a 4-2-5 defense. The scheme, which has come under a lot of fire, actually refers to the pass defense strategy, as stopping the run is basically the same regardless of scheme. So lets start there...


The Scheme

Ohio State under the guidance (?), direction (?) command (?) of Ryan Day, runs a single high-safety defense (more on this later) that includes Cover 1 and Cover 3 options. This defense was made famous by Pete Carroll and the Seahawks. This defense gave birth to what became known as the Legion of Boom and put fear into a lot of NFL offenses.

But why would this particular defense put fear into offensive coaches? I’ll put in basic terms, this defense relies on the defensive backs living on an island, which allows the in-the-box defenders to wreck havoc in the run game and pressure the quarterback. Defenses like to match coverages that look the same, but do different things. Cover 1 and Cover 3 both rely on a single high safety which is why Ohio State relies on both coverages.

As an aside, the number in the coverage typically refers to how many people are deep, let’s say 15 yards and deeper. So Cover 1 = 1 person deep, Cover 2 = 2 people deep, Cover 3 = 3 people deep. Now that we’ve covered that, lets talk coverages.


Cover 1

Cover 1 is essentially man to man defense. As mentioned before, in Cover 1 there is only one person deep with “zone” responsibilities. This means that every other player is in man defense. Man defense is simply following one particular player everywhere he goes across the field. If you’re counting, there are seven people who can be in pass coverage at one time. One of the benefits of Cover 1 is that you can add players who don’t have a specific man to guard into the coverage, essentially playing some sort of. You can also have them double-team a dynamic playmaker, or you can have them blitz.

As you can see in the image below, the defense is lined up in a 4-2-5. Players are lined up in front of the player that they are responsible for. In this instance, the offense only has six players who can run a route, so there is a linebacker who is free to play zone or blitz.


Cover 3

Cover 3 is a zone defense. Zone, unlike man, means that defenders do not guard one particular player; instead the guard an area of the field or a “zone,” and become responsible for anyone who comes into that area. In Cover 3, defenses drop all seven non-linemen into zone and they each cover their predetermined area.

The benefit to a zone defense is that while you are defending the pass, all eyes are focused on the quarterback. The defense can react to the pass as expected, but can also provide help if the offense runs the ball. Like every defense, there are fundamental flaws in Cover 3, but if you are running Cover 3, your primary goal is to prevent big plays, defend the run, and keep all pass short so that your defense can rally to the ball.

This is a “bend but don’t break” style of coverage. Cover 3 should force QBs to throw short routes to the flats or attempt tight window throws up the seam (effectively the hash lines in college football).


Is the scheme broken?

The term “scheme” is simply how you defend the run and pass. A scheme itself cannot be broken. The issue with a scheme is when either you do not have the right players to run the particular scheme, or you cannot coach the scheme. I have a hard time believing that Ohio State’s bevy of four and five-star players cannot properly play Cover 1 and/or Cover 3, so that just leaves the issue of coaching.

With obvious exceptions, most defenses are pretty standard; I call out a specific scheme, anyone who knows what the defense is should be able to draw it up. There is not a cute way to play Cover 1 or Cover 3. You can disguise your coverage (which Ohio State does not do), you can trick teams by moving players around, by adding blitzes, or even by switching play responsibilities, but it’s still Cover 1 or Cover 3.

Which leads to the biggest problem in Ohio State’s defense, when you watch the film, you have no idea what defense they’re running. Players are not in the right position, their eyes are not in the right place, and therefore they are not doing the right things. Therefore, nothing that the specific defensive scheme is designed to stop is actually being stopped.


So how do you fix it?

So again I ask, if the scheme is not the issue and it’s most likely not going to be changed midseason — or perhaps ever as long as Ryan Day is the head coach at Ohio State — what can be done instead? Well, the coaches can get back to the basics and teach players the fundamentals.

Pass defense has a lot of minor intricacies that I'm not going to break down in this article. Like everything, there are many different techniques to do the same thing, but the fundamentals never change.

Defending the pass really begins with two things; first, know it’s a pass and second, know your responsibilities. It may seem redundant to say that you have to know it’s a pass, but on any given play there are three to five players who have both run and pass responsibilities, and if they cannot identify the pass they’re already at a disadvantage. So let’s get into fundamental:

  1. Line up correctly: If you do not line up correctly you’ve already lost. You must align yourself based on what the offense is showing. One of the benefits of the 4-2-5 defense is that alignment should be easy, because the defense essentially has the same position on both sides. The offense dictates your alignment.
  2. Know the coverage: This is definitely defense 101. You need to know if you’re playing Cover 1 or Cover 3, because each player has drastically different responsibilities determined by the coverage.
  3. Read your keys: This is of the utmost importance, because the key will tell you whether it’s a run or pass. Multiple players on defense have run and pass responsibilities so it’s important to know what the offense is doing so that you can react correctly.
  4. Execute the correct responsibility: This is underrated; defense is the epitome of teamwork. In man coverage, you are singularly responsible for one player. If you do not guard that player then you’ve let your team down and potentially let a big play occur. In zone, you are responsible for an area of the field. To even attempt to defend the pass, everyone has to know what they’re responsible for, how to execute said responsibility, and ultimately actually execute it.
  5. Trust your eyes/communicate/play fast: Sometimes this is really the most important part of defense. The offense’s whole job is to confuse you; the opposing players are on scholarship too, so they are likely pretty good at what they do. If you trust your eyes, communicate with your team, work as a cohesive unit, and play fast, you at least give yourself a chance.

If you read the previous article, you may notice that I basically have the same fundamentals for preventing the run and the pass. No, that is not laziness on my part, instead it’s because in order to play defense, you need the same fundamentals no matter the situation.

Defenses are best when they’re simple and players can just play. That is essentially the No. 1 issue with Ohio State’s D. It is not simple, players cannot just play, and they do not have the correct fundamentals.


Know the defense

If we’re being honest, outside of their linebackers, Ohio State’s pass defense has been presently surprising. Despite injuries to the expected starters, freshman corner Denzel Burke has shown himself to be a reliable option who has grown with each quarter of action, and Cam Brown played pretty well on one leg against Oregon, after missing the season opener against Minnesota.

The biggest issues with OSU’s pass defense have been the lack of pressure by the defensive line and poor fundamentals and play recognition by the linebackers, slot corner, and bullet.

In the clip below, there are two separate passes by Oregon QB Anthony Brown and the biggest issue with both is that it’s impossible to tell what defense is being played. This is because the players either don’t know the defense or don’t know their responsibilities.

In the first play, there are some teaching points for the corner, but overall, this is just a good throw and catch. The issues pile up after that. First, the defensive line gets zero pass rush which gives Brown a lot of time to find a receiver.

Second, some players are playing man while others are playing zone. Watch the slot corner at the bottom. He sees it’s pass, does not trust his eyes. and stands in one place, which allows the wide receiver to run past him.

The bigger issue though is that everyone else is playing man. The receiver who ran past him was his responsibility and luckily, Brown didn’t see him or it would’ve been a bigger play.

On the second play, Ohio State’s defense blitzes. This time the corners play man and the bullet and slot corner both play zone. You can argue that this is Cover 3, but most blitzes are paired with man coverage, because there aren’t enough people to cover every zone when there are extra guys rushing the passer.

If you watch each player, they are all doing something different. The players at the top of the screen are playing zone and the CB doesn’t get enough depth, which leads to a double covered look. At the bottom, OSU safety Bryan Shaw is playing man, while the slot corner is playing zone; once again letting a WR run right past him.

Luckily the defense was not burnt by these plays, but a better QB is going to take notice and hit a big play. If you cannot look at the defensive players and tell what coverage they’re running, you have a major issue.


Read your keys and trust your eyes

A lot of offenses use run-pass options and play action passes to confuse the defense. This is where the importance of reading your keys and trusting your eyes comes into play. In this play, Oregon runs what I believe is an RPO, but OSU is clearly not prepared for it.

The defense appears to be expecting run and doesn’t consider that Oregon might pass. The entire linebacker corp bites on the run fake and therefore is unable to defend the pass. The worst part of this play is that no one sees the linebacker blitzing — including Cody Simon who actually runs into the TE and for some reason continues to try and defend the player who is clearly not getting the ball.

If Simon actually defends the tight end, Brown has no where to go with the ball and gets sacked by OSU’s Javontae Jean-Baptise for a safety. Kudos to Oregon for calling this play, but OSU should have had it defended. Instead Oregon drives 99 yards and scores a touchdown.


This is becoming a pattern

If you’re starting to see a theme, you’re not alone. In this clip, either the players again have no idea what they’re doing, or they have absolutely zero idea how to play man coverage.

Let’s start with bullet Ronnie Hickman. He immediately bails on the snap, implying that it’s a zone, although let’s be honest, that doesn’t make sense because he doesn’t drop to the deep third of the field and there is already a deep safety.

By him dropping at the snap, he single handedly gives the TE a huge cushion which Brown immediately finds. Now just because the ball goes to the spot that Hickman cleared out doesn’t mean that we should look at what the other players on the field were doing on the play.

Both corners and the free safety are playing some sort of zone which further emphasizes that Hickman is in the wrong spot. Lathan Ransom is lined up like he’s playing man, but he literally does nothing and allows a free release. One linebacker is also clearly playing man, while the other is completely lost. There are two wide receivers open on this play, and if it went on longer, I can’t promise that there wouldn’t have been more.


In conclusion, it’s almost impossible to tell what the correct coverage is on any given play. Each player is playing something different, and none of them are playing it particularly well. Wide receivers are left wide open and tight ends might as well not exist until they’ve caught a pass for a first down.

The pass rush is legitimately non-existent. The only reason that this defense wasn’t burned for a touchdown in the passing game is because Anthony Brown is not all that great of a quarterback and missed some open reads. Plus when you’re running so well, who needs to pass?

The first step to fixing this defense is honestly just to re-teach it as its clear that no one is on the same page; there is no cohesion or communication on this defense. There is no understanding of concept or even where they’re supposed to be on a given play. Some players are playing man, some are playing zone, and some are playing the run when it’s clearly a pass.

This defense is fundamentally broken. Kerry Coombs or who ever the active defensive coordinator is when this article drops needs to scrap the game plan and just let the defense play. Athletes play best when they’re not thinking. Get in the film room, find your best players who can do what is asked of them and hope for the best.

Now, I’m not sure that this can be fixed in-season; Ohio State is lucky that they haven’t played a team who believes in a 21st century passing attack or they could be 0-2.

The best hope for this passing defense is that the coaches stop trying to get cute. If only 11 players can play, then those 11 need to play every single snap. Lastly, go back to the seventh grade, install a first day of practice defense and allow your collection of athletes to simply be the best players on the field; which they should be in every single game aside from when/if they play Alabama and Georgia.