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Column: Ohio State’s defense has struggled, and there’s plenty of blame to go around

There should also be plenty of optimism from fans. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it didn’t fall in one either. There is time for the Buckeyes (all of them) to turn it around.

Kerry Coombs was the first to fall on the sword for OSU’s defensive struggles, but he is far from the only one at fault
Photo by Gaelen Morse/Getty Images

Ohio State’s defense has struggled immensely in 2021. That is what they call a massive understatement. However, this season is still in its infancy, and the reality is this: Kerry Coombs — and his staff, to a certain extent — has had the deck stacked against him (or them). Coombs’ first offseason as the defensive coordinator was upended by a pandemic. The Buckeyes struggled in 2020, resulting in one of the worst defensive showings in program history.

Many of the issues that plagued OSU last year, have rolled over into the 2021 season. The staff did have a full offseason to prepare, but this time around, they were dealing with inexperience and turnover at numerous positions. This is not to provide excuses. The defense has been embarrassing. However, we have seen talented units turn it around from one year to the next, and I believe that this defense has a ton of talent, based on precedent, they have the ability to turn it around

The 2018 defense finished 71st in the country in total yards, giving up 403 per game. They followed that up (with many of the same players), by finishing first in 2019 — cutting that number down to 260. Of course, that year’s team had Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, and others, but the point remains. Rather than a one-year slip, the Buckeyes are now trending towards back-to-back seasons in which they fail to even remotely meet the standard of what this program expects.

Plenty of the blame goes to Coombs. He does seem overwhelmed in this elevated role, and the failure to adjust (or stubbornness to do so), and he has become a source of frustration for Ryan Day, his players, and invested fans. Nobody dislikes Coombs; that is nearly impossible. He was, is, and should be an important piece of the puzzle moving forward. His recruiting prowess, ability to coach defensive backs, and energy level are all without question a benefit to the program. Who knows, he may even perform well in a co-defensive coordinator role, paired up with a creative coach who shares his same energy and passion. But as it currently stands, many people want Coombs out.

I am not willing to say that Coombs should be given a demotion or walking papers; that is up to Day. Buckeye fans have seen and/or heard his frustration, so any developments regarding Coombs would not be a surprise. However, to completely move on from a once (and still) beloved Ohio State coaching figure, there should be a plan in place. The easiest transition would be from Coombs to another coach already on OSU’s staff, but I do not believe that a “star” defensive coordinator in the room.

Day is an offensive genius, and would presumably like to leave the defense up to a defensive mastermind. We may dislike Brett Venables at Clemson, but he is a hell of a resource for Dabo Swinney.

Whether Day promotes from within, or goes out and makes a play for former Buckeye Marcus Freeman or soon-to-be fired Manny Diaz, that is up to him. But maybe — just maybe — players should share in the blame that is mostly falling on Coombs’ shoulders from much of the fan base. Same goes for position coaches working under Coombs; I refuse to believe that the performance of this defense falls at the feet of just one individual.

However, that same individual is brought up repeatedly as the main source of frustration. Let’s spread the wealth, and point out that individual players, position groups, and the coaches of those position groups have underperformed thus far in 2021.


Defensive Line

Larry Johnson can coach them up, this year it seems as if he also needs to fire them up
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For me, it starts up front. One thing that we knew coming in to the season was that the Ohio State defensive line would be stout. We knew it. Well, through three games, I would argue that they have been M.I.A. They rarely get pressure, have only a handful of sacks on the season, and consistently get beat in the run game.

Even worse, it seems like nobody plays with passion, Haskell Garrett sometimes seems like he is on an island out there, only recently joined on “I Give a Shit Island” by Tyleik Williams. There is no energy up front. The defensive line should be the biggest, nastiest, most intense group of guys on the team in most cases. This Ohio State unit plays with no intensity… or if they do, we only see it in flashes. The coaches were relying on a special season from the defensive line, and they have failed to hold up their end of the deal. The feeble front line has made the back seven more vulnerable by losing the initial battle(s).

Larry Johnson coaches the defensive line, and it would be blasphemous to go after the GOAT. Obviously he needs to make some adjustments to help his guys be successful, but he deserves time and patience.

L.J. has been developing and coaching pros for a long time, and he has played a major role in recruiting some of the up-and-comers. It seems like he just needs to light a fire under the players, and if that fire burns out, put in somebody else who is going to play with intensity. Williams is a great example.

He lost his black stripe on Sept. 15 and made his presence known three days later against Tulsa. After coming up with a sack, he showed real emotion. Maybe we haven’t seen enough of that because nobody is getting to the quarterback, but emotion has been lacking from that group.

The fact of the matter is, Johnson can only do so much to put his guys in a position to be successful. If the scheme, and what they’re being asked to do, takes them out of position, that’s one thing. However, players control their effort level and their intensity on the field. If Johnson is guilty of anything, it is failing to get a rise out of certain players. Hopefully a few embarrassing performances will change their collective mindset.


Linebackers

Al Washington has DC potential, but needs to tighten up mistakes in his own position room — or push to get other guys on the field
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The linebackers… are the linebackers. We knew this was going to be an issue in 2021. The Buckeyes lost four decades of experience between Tuf Borland, Pete Werner, Bryant Browning, and Justin Hilliard. Their backups did not see much action in previous seasons, so the Teradja Mitchells and Tommy Eichenbergs of the world were going to need time. It is obvious to anyone watching that they consistently struggle with assignments, reading the play, and reacting quickly. Coaches need to account for that. Make the game easy, or “Keep It Simple Stupid.” The linebackers out there now are thinking too much. The staff needs to help them see ball, get ball. But again, coaching and scheme can only do so much.

Eichenberg, Mitchell, Cody Simon, and a host of these other guys were great football players in high school. Athleticism won them plenty of battles, but it’s not as if they received their opponents’ playbooks beforehand. At some point, they were forced to read and react appropriately. The game is still played the same way. Only now, the athletes are bigger and faster, and the playbook is more creative. Linebackers still need to trust their instincts when it matters most. It has been suggested that K’Vaughan Pope has been playing less because he doesn’t listen to coaches, well maybe the Buckeyes need more freelancers.

Coaches can tell you where to stand and what to look at, but they can’t turn your head and hips for you. A.J. Hawk and James Laurinaitis weren’t great just because their coaches put them in the right spot. Instincts and natural ability took over at some point, and the current crop of Buckeye linebackers need to trust their own — even if it occasionally gets them an earful from position coach Al Washington.

Speaking of Washington; he seems like a force to be reckoned with. We see his spirit and his enthusiasm on social media and things of that nature. So is that not translating to his players? Is he putting them in poor spots? Or is it a combination of things?

This part is total speculation on my part, but he has to see that a player like Simon should be on the field almost exclusively. He’s not perfect by any means, but he has been a playmaker when he is on the field. Washington was rumored to be the leading candidate for Tennessee’s defensive coordinator job, so he should be given the responsibility or freedom to make changes with his linebackers.

If Coombs is shooting him down, that is a shame. If that is not the case, then Washington has been banging his head against a wall for three weeks. The linebackers are committing the same mistakes over and over, and that is at least partially on their position coach. If he is going to be the next DC at Ohio State or anywhere else, he should at least be able to show improvement within his own position group. I think that it will come in time, but time is running out.


Secondary

Secondary coach Matt Barnes
Ohio State Athletics

Lastly, we get to the secondary. And guess what? It’s been pretty impressive, relatively speaking! For a unit that struggled so badly last year, and was expected to do the same in 2021, the defensive backs have played well for the most part. They did surrender over 400 yards passing to Tulsa, but many of those yards were a result of a poor scheme or broken coverage. Coverage errors need to be eliminated, but the bigger point is that Tulsa was not making Ohio State pay in a lot of one-on-one matchups.

The corners have been a revelation — especially Denzel Burke. He has arguably been the defensive MVP through three games. In the odd absence of Sevyn Banks, multiple players have stepped up, and that is great to see from a unit that many expected to struggle. Safety needs to be figured out, but the loss of Josh Proctor was a big one. He will not be easily replaced, but the Buckeyes should have an answer on their roster. If one guy is not cutting it (over and over), it’s next man up. Put Ryan Watts or Marcus Hooker out there. It can’t hurt!

Failure to settle on a solid safety rotation is probably Matt Barnes’ biggest blemish so far. As the exclusive DB coach, he has otherwise been solid. That being said, the Buckeyes should not continue putting Bryson Shaw on the field like he’s Mike Doss or Malik Hooker. If he is going to be part of the rotation, fine. For what it’s worth, he had a great hit against Tulsa, and you can see his athleticism pop at times. Unfortunately, his inexperience and tendency to take poor angles show up with far more regularity.

If 10 other guys get it together, but the last line of defense is out of position, the results will remain the same. During this stretch of Akron, Rutgers, Maryland, Barnes needs to welcome change.


The players and coaches on the defensive side of the ball have not failed. They have stumbled out of the blocks — Kerry Coombs included. It is almost impossible to go anywhere but up from here, and that is the sort of optimism they need to have… same goes for the fans. These players and coaches are accomplished individuals. They are at Ohio State for a reason. Are they all in the right roles? Maybe not. But this is the roster and coaching staff that we have to cheer for.

Coombs won a ring with the Buckeyes, and he has made cornerbacks millions upon millions of dollars in the NFL. Larry Johnson has singlehandedly coached more defensive line talent than most teams see in an entire decade. Al Washington and Matt Barnes helped coach back-to-back playoff teams, and if they weren’t employed here, they would be welcomed in at dozens of schools elsewhere.

The players on this roster were part of some of the best recruiting classes to ever come through Ohio State. The ingredients are there! Can they put it all together? I think they can, but it starts with self-reflection from everybody, and some real damn passion and effort to improve.