Ohio State’s defense had lofty expectations coming into the season after Ryan Day made the decision to bring in an almost entirely new staff. Headlined by Jim Knowles, one of the most heralded defensive coordinators in recent memory, and highlighted by two additional staff hires in Perry Eliano and Tim Walton.
Knowles brought a scheme that was responsible for a top-10 defense the previous season, which he’s brought to Ohio State, and the Buckeyes have provided Knowles with his highest level of talent as a coach. Knowles brings an aggressive defensive philosophy, and so far the team has been able to execute for the most part.
Heading into this season, what successful meant for this defense was hard to quantify. Being better than last season’s atrocious defense was a starting point, but with national title expectations, just being better might not have been enough. Now with six games of data points, it is safe to say the defense is not only good, but a few fixes away from being arguably the best defense in the country.
Knowles has done an incredible job of creating belief in the players, but the scheme itself has been as dynamic as advertised. Today, we’re going to look at a few bright spots on how this defense has been able to turn the corner this season.
Last year, the Buckeyes rarely blitzed, choosing to sit their linebackers in zones and get picked apart by quarterbacks. This frustrating experience reared its ugly head against Nebraska, Penn State, and even Tulsa. Ohio State becoming a team that blitzes quite often has been the biggest transformation defensively.
Knowles’ aggressive defense relies on turning up the pressure, which was evident in Ohio State’s matchup against Wisconsin. The Buckeyes are lined up in man coverage with a one-high safety look. Inside the box, the linebackers are showing blitz, lining up close to the line of scrimmage. Ohio State has dropped into coverage out of this look, brought one backer, and have brought all six rushers. This type of alignment is what makes Knowles so hard to plan for.
After the snap, Ohio State brings six rushers including the linebackers, who come on a slight delay. Ohio State makes this a four-on-three pressure to the right side. Steele Chambers takes the center out of the play, defensive tackle Jerron Cage steps directly in to the right guard, and J.T. Tuimoloau is one-on-one with end. By delaying Tommy Eichenberg, this gives hime an opportunity to go the opposite way of the guard blocking Cage.
The pressure does not get home, but ends up rushing the throw of the quarterback, which falls harmlessly incomplete.
The next play is one of the best Knowles pressures he draws up. Ohio State brings six on this play. Wisconsin lines up in their classic 11 wing personnel, and Ohio State is showing a a max pressure against this look. This forces Wisconsin to check into their max-protection, keeping both the tight end and running back in to block.
At the snap, Ohio State brings six rushers between the offensive tackles. By overloading the middle, this allows the blitzing safety in Josh Proctor to blow past the tight end help in the middle, and the other interior pressure takes Wisconsin’s running back help away immediately. The other aspect to this is dropping the ends into the flats after showing them as bringing pressure. This takes the defensive tackles to the outside of the pass protection, which widens the guards opening up the middle even more.
The interior blitzers force Mertz off his spot immediately, and once again forces an incompletion.
Now stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Jim Knowles’ defense is safety-driven. This can mean a lot of things, but for Knowles this means they are the position group responsible for filling the gaps of his interior calls. If the Buckeyes vacate the middle, the safety will be there to fill in the run game. If Ohio State brings the ends inside, the safety outside will have contain responsibility. This also means they’re basically always the duct-tape for anything that needs fixed in coverage or in run fits. This is why the job of new safeties coach Perry Eliano deserves some appreciation.
Throughout the season, we have seen the safeties come up with some huge plays, but the first one we’re looking at comes from confidence in the scheme. After the Toledo game, Knowles talked about how on Ronnie Hickman’s interception, they went over this exact look and play in practice.
Toledo is running an RPO. Ohio State is in man-coverage on the outside with Hickman playing the middle safety. Toledo runs a slant to the top side of the screen, and the corner back Denzel Burke is playing outside leverage. The receiver gets an easy release because of this, and Burke is playing a trail technique which makes Toledo’s quarterback confident he can make the throw. Hickman understands the coverage on the outside, uses his eyes, and then undercuts the route when Finn throws the ball, coming up with a pick.
This is a small play in a relatively unimportant moment, but the multiple levels of understanding from Burke and Hickman here to trust the scheme results in an interception.
Moving on, situational football was non-existent for the Buckeyes last season. The safety play for the Buckeyes has been incredible in this regard, which started early in the season. Against Notre Dame, Ohio State is tasked with slowing down All-American tight end Michael Mayer, and all offseason the curiosity about how Knowles would go about this was heard on every single podcast.
In a 3rd-and-7 scenario in the first quarter, Notre Dame was looking to keep their early game momentum going. Lathan Ransom has the coverage responsibility of guarding Mayer one-on-one. Ransom keeps his leverage and Mayer does a bad job here stopping short of the sticks. This allows Ransom to hit Mayer before the sticks and stop him short of a first down.
Once again a small play, but the situational understanding has been a common theme in defensive improvement for the Buckeyes this season. Combining that with determination and ability has led to quite a few more big third down stops this year.
Lastly, this is probably my favorite play from the first half of the season. Not much needs to be said here, but this is the epitome of safety help — err, recovery.
The Buckeyes are in a two-high cover-4 type of look here. Freshman J.K. Johnson is outside at corner and Tanner McAlister is inside at safety. Johnson has no one out in his zone and does not run with the receiver, and McAlister overcommits to the inside route. This ends up working out due to great effort and trust in technique by McAlister, who makes an incredible play to break up the pass.
Looking back to last season, a huge reason Ryan Day was forced to make changes was how poorly Ohio State defended the run. This season, the Buckeyes are giving up 3.0 opponent yards per rush, which is good for ninth in the country. Knowles has made this a point of emphasis, and the emergence of Tommy Eichenberg as well as Steele Chambers as of late has ignited immense improvement stopping the run. The combination of scheme and role responsibility has been a pleasant change of pace this season.
In the play below from Ohio State’s Week 1 matchup against Notre Dame, the Buckeyes are backed up into the red zone. Notre Dame runs an inside zone read option with a bubble screen off of the motion. A lot for such a simple play, but the motion and read are there to challenge the discipline of the defense. For the inside handoff, Mike Hall wins his matchup stuffing the run, but Eichenberg and Hickman both fill correctly in the hole as well. Denzel Burke takes away the bubble screen at the snap. The final aspect of the quarterback keeper is handled by J.T. Tuimoloau and Steele Chambers, who are both in position to stop the quarterback.
Seeing this occurring in Week 1 is one thing, but throughout the year the Buckeyes have been incredibly effective at stopping the run because of the level of organization in run fits.
After the 2021 season, every Ohio State fan’s favorite scenario was 3rd-and-1. Now hopefully you read that sarcastically, because every time this happened last year, the entire collective on Twitter had the same melt down.
The reason the Notre Dame game was important for this article was because this was where the foundation was laid. Ohio State started off bad against the run last season, and it only got worse as they played better teams. Notre Dame has shown that they are by no means world beaters, but this was still a game Ohio State’s defense could have struggled in.
In the next example, Notre Dame runs their pin-and-pull concept. The play starts and ends because of the defensive line getting penetration. Tuimoloau defeats a double team, Eichenberg evades the puller, and Hickman reacts with them all meeting in the backfield for tackle for loss. This was just the beginning. Outside of Braelon Allen’s big run and a few De’Quan Finn scrambles, nobody has been able to run against the Buckeyes.
One of the major points of emphasis this offseason was making sure this Ohio State team would be tough. Last year, the Buckeye defense was pushed around time and time again throughout the year. In came Jim Knowles, and his scheme and philosophy have been an incredible vehicle for toughness.
The Buckeyes are playing defense in a diverse scheme that is getting after the quarterback and continually shutting down opponents’ run games. There are quite a few real tests to come, but the foundation Knowles has laid through six games is absolutely nothing to scoff at, regardless of how you feel about the competition Ohio State has played.
For Ohio State, they will want to continue down this path and maintain the disciplined, aggressive, and physical approach that they’ve been playing with. Through the first half of the season, the most expensive defensive coordinator in the country has been worth it, but he was brought in to win more than the first six games. We will see if the Buckeyes can keep it up as they face off against some tougher competition down the stretch.