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Film Study: How will Ohio State attack Notre Dame’s pass defense?

Notre Dame’s bend-not-break style will be difficult to crack, but Ohio State has the offensive tools to get the job done.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Ohio State offense brings back a long list of talented individuals, and will be looking to make a statement against Notre Dame to start the 2022 season. Notre Dame will bring a stingy defense to Columbus built on Marcus Freeman’s philosophy and called by former head coach Al Golden. This experienced group may not have a long list of household names, but they do bring a toughness and organization that is challenging for opposing offenses.

Using teams with similar defensive coverages, we’re going to look back at Ohio State’s film from last year and discuss ways the Buckeyes might choose to attack Notre Dame’s defense. Ohio State played a few programs who run two-high base looks, and a few teams on the schedule last year ran the same coverages the Fighting Irish will bring to the table. Looking at this film will give an indication of what has worked previously and how the Buckeyes will approach the secondary and defensive front of Notre Dame.

Ohio State has all the talent to make plays against anyone, but being mistake free is where the Buckeyes will need to start. Breaking down a defense like Notre Dame’s will take establishing a physical running game as well as patience in the passing game. The Buckeyes will have some challenges, but if they stick to a specific game plan, they will be able find success against a well-coached defense.

Attacking two-high safeties

Notre Dame aligns with two-high safeties, and that is predominantly their base look. Out of their base 4-2-5 defense, they are able to play Cover-4, Cover-4 Match, Cover-2, and they mix in the occasional one-high safety looks rotating their safeties. With their three-safety personnel they are able to run their base coverages against most formational looks. By doing this, it allows teams to gear up their attack, but they are also extremely hard to get past because of this. The focus on structure and consistency makes their bend-not-break style incredibly challenging in the red zone, which will be the difference in this game.

To get started, we’re looking back to the Michigan State game. The Spartans relied mostly on a traditional Cover-4 “quarters” look. In the traditional quarters look, the two corners and two safeties are responsible for their one quarter of the field. In this look, the underneath and middle of the formation are vulnerable. Jaxon Smith-Njigba runs a shallow and keeps the linebackers from sinking. Olave runs a skinny post, and after pushing vertical he splits the two-safeties. Stroud throws the ball when Olave breaks off his route.

Attacking vertically and splitting the safeties is one of the only ways to create big plays passing downfield.

In the next play, Oregon is in a traditional Cover-4, and their secondary is playing significantly off the ball. Looking at how Oregon’s defense is aligned, the middle of the field between the safety is wide open once again. The difference here is the two linebackers are playing a wall technique, which can prevent in-breaking routes. Oregon’s linebacker carries Ruckert up the seam after the threat of the in-breaking route is not there, and the safety over top is deeper than he should be. This creates a window over top of the linebacker and in front of the safety.

In this case, this shows the precision and patience needed to attack a disciplined Cover-4 look.

Attacking two-high safeties is not impossible, and as shown big plays are still common. The most important aspect of attacking this look is patience. Taking what the defense gives you is what Ohio State ran into trouble with against these types of looks last year. The big plays come with patience and set up. If the Buckeyes can do those two things they will be able to take advantage of the windows that come from these two-high looks.

Attacking Cover-4 Match

When we first looked at Notre Dame’s defense, we looked at their Cover-4 match look. This is a modern principle used to combat RPO’s and minimize the challenges crossing routes creates. By having natural levels and defined responsibilities, the defenses are able to combat most route combinations when done correctly.

If both receivers push vertical classic quarters look, the corner is responsible for their quarter. If their man challenges that, it becomes his responsibility to stick with it. For the safety, he takes the corner’s man if he comes inside, and stays on No. 2 if he pushes vertically or towards the middle of the formation. Both responsibilities are tied to one another, but the switch is built in naturally, making this coverage the new fix-it-all coverage for defenses.

In this first play, Ohio State is playing against Michigan, who relied on this coverage to slow down Ohio State’s explosive passing attack. The first way to attack this look is to attack the middle of the formation with in-breaking routes from the outside receivers. In this play, Ruckert pushes vertical and Olave runs a drag route across the formation. Olave comes clear and has a lot of room to run if he is thrown the ball. Stroud makes a throw to Smith-Njigba instead, which is a nice completion, but is simply taking what is given by the defense.

When playing a coverage that emphasizes taking away the vertical downfield passing attack, the best way to attack is by consistently taking advantage of short underneath routes. There is no more underneath route than a running back screen.

Michigan only rushes four here, which plays into what the Buckeyes wanted to accomplish. Ohio State’s receivers push vertical up the field and the secondary runs with them, opening up a ton of running room underneath. Treveyon Henderson slips out and has blockers, but the main thing to look at here is the space the Buckeyes have to work with underneath. Utilizing this space will be a significant point of emphasis in how the Buckeyes will attack Notre Dame.

In this last look for the Buckeyes, Ohio State has Smith-Njigba lined up in the backfield. They motion him out to empty, creating a matchup of a receiver versus an EDGE defender. Notre Dame’s “vyper” backer would be this player, and to replace him as a rusher they bring a linebacker. By bringing the linebacker, this vacates space in the middle, and if the defender over the slot receiver gives up his inside leverage, there is a lot of room to work for the receiver — which is exactly which happens.

Once again the secondary bails out to keep everything in front of them. This leaves a wide open area for the Buckeyes to complete an easy one across the middle. Smith-Njigba turns the play into a nice gain after the catch.

Looking at these three plays shows that there are plenty of opportunities and ways to attack this look. The Buckeyes were able to be patient against Michigan, but once the lead got widened by the Wolverines this went out the window. None of the plays above were monumental game-changing plays, but the Buckeyes were able to take chunks of yardage in each example.

The importance of patience against the defensive look Notre Dame runs can’t be emphasized enough. If they can be patient in the passing game and move the chains consistently, eventually a hole will open for a big play opportunity. When that moment comes, the Buckeyes will need to make the most of it.

What Notre Dame does on defense is not complex, and they don’t need complexity to be successful. They rarely bring defensive backs on blitzes, and rely on the structure to force the offense in to mistakes. By doing this they create a chess match for offenses, and if the offense gets too aggressive they have the players to make the Buckeyes pay. Notre Dame’s pass rush is not as dynamic as Michigan’s, which played a more significant role in Ohio State’s lack of success than the coverages themselves.

If Ohio State can give Stroud time, the offense should be able to pick apart the defense by finding windows in the zone. Emphasizing that patience and establishing the run was how teams were successful against Notre Dame last year. When the Irish gave up big plays, they happened during long sustained drives, and in those drives Notre Dame ended up making a grave mistake.

The Buckeyes are a team with the talent to take advantage of those mistakes.