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Column: Where have all the sacks gone?

Ohio State used to be one of the most dominant pass rushing teams in the country, but recent years show this is not the case anymore.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Wisconsin at Ohio State Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ohio State built their success under Urban Meyer on the backs of dominant play in the trenches. College football has changed as quarterbacks get the ball out faster, but the Buckeyes’ pass rush statistics falling off has now become a trend.

In 2022, the Buckeyes ranked 38th in total sacks with 34 on the year, which is good for 2.6 per game. To add to those numbers on all downs, Ohio State ranked 67th converting sacks on 8.1 percent of opportunities. Looking at how the game of football comes together, the lack of pass rush can attribute itself to some of the issues on the back end, and vice versa.

With better coverage, there would probably be more sacks, and with more sacks the coverage would probably feel better than it has been in recent years. That is why there needs to be better execution up front when it comes to getting to the passer.

Jim Knowles’ tenure relies on pressure from the second level, not the same level of individual effort that a Chase Young or Joey Bosa brought to the table. The difference in the numbers between the years with those rushers and now show there has been a drop off.

Ohio State Sack Leaders by Year

Player Sack Total
Player Sack Total
Jack Sawyer (2022) 4.5
Haskell Garrett (2021) 5.5
Jonathon Cooper (2020) 3.5 (Covid Year)
Chase Young (2019) 16.5
Chase Young (2018) 10.5
Nick Bosa (2017) 8.5
Tyquan Lewis (2016) 8
Tyquan Lewis (2015) 8
Joey Bosa (2014) 13.5
Noah Spence & Joey Bosa (2013) 7.5

Looking at each season on the list, the numbers aren’t always flashy, with two outliers being very obvious in Chase Young’s 16.5 sacks in 2019 as well as Joey Bosa’s 13.5 in 2014. In 2014, Bosa was followed by two players in Michael Bennett and Darron Lee who had 7.5 and 6.5 sacks, respectively. Those players would have led the 2022 team in sacks.

Diving into Young’s Heisman finalist year – obviously not a fair expectation to hold players to – but Davon Hamilton and Baron Browning had 6.0 and 5.0 sacks. Even in a year where a player was a one man wrecking crew, the Buckeyes still had two players produce more sacks than this season’s leader in each of the past three seasons.

This is a trend. The Buckeyes can’t just point to a strong year of individual players because there isn’t always going to be a “best player in school history” level player to anchor the defensive line.

Ohio State Team Total with Sack Leader

Year Team Sack Total Sack Leader
Year Team Sack Total Sack Leader
2022 34 4.5
2021 37 5.5
2020 21 3.5 (Covid Year)
2019 53 16.5
2018 41 10.5
2017 45 8.5
2016 28 8
2015 38 8
2014 45 13.5
2013 40 7.5

Even in the years without a double-digit sack leader, the Buckeyes have taken a step back since the peak in 2019. Playing only seven games, the Buckeyes averaged a higher per-game sack total in 2021 than the following two seasons, meaning the defense has been on a downward trajectory from a pass rush standpoint.

Using both tables, we can see that there isn’t necessarily a direct impact on the total with a dominant individual rusher. That being said, there needs to be a better success rate in the pass rushing area for the defense to improve in the passing game.

For Ohio State, this lack of pass rushing can be attributed to the changing scheme in three of the last four seasons. There is also the questions surrounding player skillset. The top-end recruits on the defensive line in recent years have not come in with the pass rushing traits.

Zach Harrison was the player who was supposed to follow in the footsteps as a five-star recruit. His best season total was 3.5, which he had as a freshman and a senior. While Harrison turned out to be more than just a pure pass-rusher, that raises questions about development in the room, and the Buckeyes now have two more five-stars who are expected to have big years in 2023.

Looking at J.T. Tuimoloau as the first five-star, he’s had 3.5 sacks in his first two seasons. He has five pass deflections to go with those sacks, and is similar to Harrison in the way he is able to impact games in a variety of ways. For the Buckeyes defense to a take a leap, this might be an area where an individual improvement in one aspect of his game can take the defense to another level.

On the other side of the line, Jack Sawyer has moved into a new role which provided its own sets of challenges. As the year went on, his comfort grew as well as his sack total, which tells me that Sawyer is the player to watch in this department. Sawyer has the athleticism and bend to become a 10-sack player. If the other players can provide a similar output, there is a real optimism that the pass rush can have a huge impact on how opponents game plan.

The importance of this all lies in the passing defense as a holistic unit, and that is why this trend of lower sack numbers stands out.

Knowles wants to play man-coverage, and he wants to do this to be able to play with how offenses are able to prepare for playing Ohio State. We saw late in the year how the Buckeyes pass rush and blitzers failing to get to the quarterback can lead to opposing quarterbacks making big throws.

Yards per game with Sack Total

Year Passing Yards Per Game Sack Total
Year Passing Yards Per Game Sack Total
2022 200.5 34
2021 246.5 37
2020 300.4 21
2019 156 53
2018 245.2 41
2017 195.9 45
2016 172.2 28
2015 184.5 38
2014 201.1 45
2013 268 40

This final table above shows us that there is a weak correlation between sack totals and pass yards per game. There are tons of other variables that go into this, including opponents passing offense rankings, level of secondary play, and how often teams are playing from behind against the Buckeyes. But with that context, there is definitely some evidence that the higher a sack number is, the lower the passing yard number is.

The Buckeyes definitely need to take some steps forward in the secondary this year, and in a second season under a coach that should be an expectation. Notice the lack of improvement in year two of Coombs is a significant reason the Buckeyes now employ Knowles. That raises the expectations in year two for all three levels, and there is a pathway forward in 2023.

Knowles is known for his gambling nature, this is boom-or-bust when it comes to his coverages and blitzes. If the back end can’t cover there are easy throws for opposing quarterbacks because the blitz won’t be able to get home in time. In situations where defenders are asked to cover for a long time, this can result in the unfortunate big plays that occurred late in the year.

Now neither group was perfect. Improved play is needed in both areas. That being said, there is a drop off in performance in line with Ohio State’s peak in sack totals. This year was a major improvement in the pass yards per game category. One issue that came about in research was Ohio State played the 38th best passing yards per game offense in the regular season in Maryland.

Ohio State played Penn State (45th), Michigan (79th), and Maryland (38th), allowing 322.3 yards per game against the three. These were not necessarily great passing units, but once the talent was closer to equal, the Buckeyes were exposed in both fronts. They only got regular pressure against Maryland, this exposed the secondary to some struggles. Against Penn State, the Buckeyes had five sacks, but Parker Washington had a day. In the biggest jump in yards of the three, Michigan allowed just one sack.

One of the back breaking plays that swung the momentum against Michigan was the max-pressure which left Cam Brown on an island. He missed a tackle, and a touchdown was given up turning the whole game on its head. For the Buckeyes, the synergy of the defensive backs and defensive line will be challenged again.

Teams will be looking for ways to attack Ohio State’s secondary in blitzing situations, and Knowles has a tendency to gamble in third-and-long situations. If teams can time these plays up, there are direct opportunities for opponents to make big plays.

Ohio State improved in many areas last season, but the Buckeyes will need to improve in the pass rushing next season for the defense to take another step. We saw that the drop off has had a direct impact on how the passing defense has looked statistically.

Without taking a shot at Larry Johnson due to his legacy, the development has fallen short on the defensive line, and with the recruiting struggles on the back end, the results from both showed on the field. Both will be challenged this year with the returning five-stars on the defensive line. The defensive backfield will also have a raised recruiting profile compared to past seasons.

Combining those things with the return of the linebackers, and there is a recipe for immense improvement in every defensive category. For Knowles, the defense needs to take another step forward in 2023 and this is the area to start.