The offseason creeps by, and I continue to look forward to next year. Hurry up, please. I’ve discussed looking forward to seeing several offensive stars mature in their second real seasons: C.J. Stroud, TreVeyon Henderson, and Marvin Harrison, Jr. I wrote about looking forward to Ohio State’s great recruiting class of 2021 stepping up and dominating next season.
Now, I’m turning my attention to the other side of the ball – to the defense. And I’m not going small here. I’m looking forward to an entirely new defense. Sure, I’m happy that Jim Knowles is here to take control, and I think that his hefty, nearly $2 million dollar salary is money well spent. It could pay off in a championship. I’ll say a few things about Knowles and his defensive programs later. First, I’m going to describe the kind of Buckeye defense that I’m looking forward to.
Where are the Silver Bullets?
Old-timey Buckeye defenses were feared. Opposing teams who won the opening toss deferred their choice, not because having the first possession of the second half would give them some edge, maybe an extra series. No, they deferred because they feared going three-and-out against a ferocious Buck D, feared punting from deep in their territory, feared turning the ball over on the first possession. Simply put, they didn’t have much hope of success.
Coin-toss winners in 2021, among Buckeye foes, baffled me. Why would they want to give the ball to Stroud right off the bat? Why wouldn’t they want their offense up against a sub-par Buckeye defense that rather routinely gave up yards and touchdowns on the first possession?
For the record, in 2021 Ohio State ranked tied for 59th (with Middle Tennessee State) in total defense, out of 130 teams. About the middle of the pack. Against the rush, OSU ranked 28th, but against the pass they ranked 97th (again, of 130 teams). The scoring defense was somewhat better, with the Bucks giving up 22.8 points a game (ranking 28th). These aren’t elite numbers. They aren’t the numbers of champions.
A sharp (and fast) decline
In 2019, the Buckeyes did have the defensive numbers to be champs. (Ah, the Clemson game that slipped away.) When we think of 2019, we think of Justin Fields or, maybe, J.K. Dobbins. But the Ohio State defense finished the season ranked No. 1 in total defense, yielding only 259.7 yards per game. They were also first in yards per play at only 4.13. 12th against the run (just three yards per carry) and fourth against the pass, these Buckeyes stopped everything.
The shortened 2020 season, though the Buckeyes made it to the national championship game, marked the beginning of serious defensive decline. They dropped from first to 59th in total defense and were a dismal 85th against the pass, giving up 304 passing yards a game. The 2019 Bucks gave up 1.8 touchdowns per game; that scoring defense nearly doubled in 2020 at 3.3 touchdowns a game.
We have to ask: why the sudden and very sharp decline? It’s easy to blame coaches and play-calling, but let’s look at some of the players involved as well.
Who are the defensive leaders?
In 2019, Chase Young, as we recall, had a monster year; he had 16.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. But he wasn’t a solo act. Linebacker Malik Harrison had 16.5 TFL. Baron Browning, although rarely a starter, contributed 11 TFL and five sacks. Young had seven (yes, 7!) forced fumbles during the year.
There were no players in 2021 who had double-figure TFLs. Haskell Garrett had seven, Tommy Eichenberg and Tyleik Williams six and a half each. Garrett also led in sacks with five and a half, while Williams had five. It’s somewhat unusual to have interior linemen as your sack leaders.
What about the vaunted edge rushers? Tyreke Smith and J.T. Tuimoloau had 3.5 sacks, followed by Jack Sawyer (3) and the nearly absent Zach Harrison (2). Linebackers? They didn’t rush the passer the way that the 2019 backers did. Eichenberg, for instance, didn’t have a sack for the season. Simply put, when the Buckeyes were on defense, the game was played several yards on the Bucks’ side of the line of scrimmage. In 2019, it was played on the other side.
Here’s my point. Not only did the lack of a fearsome pass rush enable opposing teams to pass successfully, there were no leaders on the defense. No Chase Young or Malik Harrison to show others how it’s done, how to play with fire. I don’t expect Zach Harrison to reach 21 sacks in a season. But only two? It’s hard not to have mixed feelings about his return for 2022. Maybe under a new coaching staff we can see if he’s a different player, a difference maker.
What about 2022?
I’m looking forward to a pass rush in 2022. I expect Tuimoloau and Sawyer to have big years, along with Williams on the inside. I look for a lot more blitzing, not only from the linebackers but also from the safeties and even an occasional corner blitz. A strong pass rush will disrupt the opposing quarterback and help the defensive backs in their coverages.
I’m looking forward to a much better run defense in 2022. Let’s face it. Oregon, Michigan, and Utah could all run the ball consistently against the Buckeye D. The defensive tackles must jam up the middle, stopping the inside running game and clogging blocking paths to the linebackers. Ohio State linebackers, so accustomed apparently to getting burned on pass plays, are indecisive. It takes them far too long to read “run,” and, consequently, they stay put, some five or six yards from the line of scrimmage, seemingly waiting for a guard to come out and lock on or for a tight end to come from the outside and take them in. Really. Watch the film. They stand there like sitting ducks. Malik Harrison? Raekwon McMillan? Darron Lee? Don’t think so. Those guys were always on the move, always heading for the ball – or the quarterback.
I’m looking forward to better secondary play. Ronnie Hickman had a great year. But what does it say about your defense if a safety is your top tackler, with nearly double the number of tackles as the second-leading defender? Denzel Burke can play lockdown corner on the opponents’ top receiver. We’ll see if Cam Brown can do it consistently on the other side. If so, Ohio State gains lots more flexibility for the safeties. Lots more coverage and blitzing options. I’m looking for the secondary to understand their roles in any situation.
Obviously, in 2021 they often were confused, out of position. And, just as obviously, they gave up some big plays. They also had a lot of trouble preventing third down conversions, another crucial stat for wins – and championships. A championship defense gets the ball back to their offense quickly.
Jim Knowles: savior?
I guess that I’m talking about aggressiveness and leadership. And that brings us back to Jim Knowles. Those are his trademarks, the keys to his success as a defensive coordinator. Knowles took over as the Oklahoma State defensive coordinator for the 2018 season, so he’s run the Cowboys’ D for four years. Frankly, that defense was terrible when Knowles arrived. They were, I suppose, a typical Big 12 team — one that put up a lot of points and gave up a lot of points. It was a league of gunslinging quarterbacks and speedy wideouts. But Knowles’s defense improved annually, and it was the 2021 performance that drew Ryan Day’s attention.
While the Buckeyes were yielding 374 yards per game, the Cowboys were giving up only 298, good enough to rank fourth in the nation in total defense. Opponents rushed for only 87.6 yards a game. Day wanted that defense in Columbus.
Aggressiveness? Whereas Garrett’s seven tackles for loss led the Buckeye defenders, Oklahoma State had five players with double-digit TFLs. They had three players with more sacks than Garrett’s six. And the guys in the enemy backfield were defensive ends and linebackers, not interior linemen like Garrett. The Cowboys’ Malcolm Rodriguez, another linebacker, had four forced fumbles during the season. Ohio State had no defender with more than one. In addition to his job as defensive coordinator, Knowles will coach the Buckeye linebackers, who have been a weak spot for a few years now.
Sounds good. I look forward to seeing what Knowles can do with all of the Buckeye four-and five-star talent that he’ll find on the Buckeye roster. That’s a luxury that he didn’t have in Stillwater. Maybe the Buck D will again be feared.