Ohio State’s defense closed out the spring with an incredibly strong showing in the annual Spring Game, with Team Gray winning the matchup 40-31 over the offense Team Scarlet. The Buckeyes are now in year two with Jim Knowles as the defensive coordinator, and despite a more simple game plan, the defense looked incredibly comfortable for the majority of the contest.
For a group that left a lot to be desired to close out the year, there were a lot of questions entering the game. None will be answered until the games truly matter, but there should be confidence taken from the game with how fast the Buckeyes were flying around. The groups with the biggest question marks arguably had the best day out of anyone during the scrimmage.
The cornerbacks who had the most questions played with confidence – despite not having an opportunity to go against the ones – showing they are up to the man-coverage challenges required in Knowles’ scheme. Missing two starting linebackers, the young guys showed they have the ability to play extended reps, and the safeties were able to work through some early confusion to communicate as well as play within their responsibilities comfortably. Lastly, the defensive line went up against an overly matched offensive line, but man did they look the part.
Any takeaways from the Spring Game should be taken with a grain of salt, but a year removed from Knowles’ first spring, there is much more confidence in the scheme from the players.
Last year, Ohio State showed a ton of improvement against the run game outside of one performance. With the complexities of the back end of Knowles’ scheme, understanding run fits while also understanding coverage responsibilities can put the defense in a bind. If one player fits incorrectly, this could lead to explosive plays — as we saw firsthand. Responsibility football is the main point of emphasis in year two, and with the basic schemes in the spring game there was a lot of confidence in responsibilities.
In the first play, we see how gap responsibility is important, especially against a zone run scheme. The defensive tackle to the top of the formation is in a 1-technique, meaning he is between the guard and center. In this look, the offense has the tackle one-on-one with the end, and the center and guard have a combo block on the one-tech. The job of the guard is to help the center get on the tackle and move up to the linebacker.
In this scenario the defensive tackle keeps the guard inside, giving the backer a gap to fill. The backer fits the hole, making the play at the line of scrimmage.
Once again, the defense is playing straight forward in the box. The Mike is lined up directly over the center, and the Will is splitting the 1- and 5-tech defensive end. This is an alignment that changes the count of the offensive linemen and disrupts how they are organizing their double team calls. The offensive line steps to the left. If you watch the defensive line their goal is to cross the face of the blockers to disrupt their paths to the blocks and on their double teams.
Looking at the play side, the 1-tech ends up playing the b-gap. This opens up the a-gap for the backer to fill and forces the running back into the backer.
The overall success of the day was the consistency the backers had in filling the gaps. The run fits were consistent and forced the offense into some uncomfortable third-and-long situations. For most of the first half, the Buckeye defense was making the offense work for every yard in the run game, but as stated earlier when the fits are wrong, big plays happen.
This play was in the offensive film review because it was incredibly well-blocked. The reason the stretch play worked so well is it attacked the tendencies the offense was showing throughout the game. With the defensive line crossing the face on the zone step, this allowed the blockers in this wide zone look to widen the defenders with ease creating those vertical lanes.
The linebackers got stuck in the mess, and the safety took a bad angle which opened the run way for Chip Trayanum to get the offense.
A sight for sore eyes would be an understatement whenever an Ohio State corner... err, member of the secondary makes a play when the ball is thrown. The Buckeye defense is going to play man coverage, and that means the corners, safeties, and any one else who draws man-coverage responsibility will need to be confident in their technique to be able to guard consistently. This aggressive coverage style will give up big plays, but if the corners are making plays consistently, they will force turnovers as well.
The first play that elevated my excitement for the secondary in pass coverage was this play later in the first quarter. Denzel Burke is in off-man coverage and on the solo receiver, meaning he won’t have any safety help deep. Being in off-man gives him the ability to read the quarterback’s drop in his peripheral and have his eyes on the receiver. Once the quarterback sets his back foot after three steps, Burke knows this ball is coming out quick.
He comes out of his break smooth and gets his hand on the football. This is much better than the last few seasons where off-man coverage meant teams can pick up seven yards every time they ran an out route.
One of the issues with coverage the last few years for the defense is Ohio State’s ability to pressure the passer consistently. A significant reason for that is the reliance on two to three players to produce every bit of pressure they get. Now the Buckeyes have confidence in blitzing backers and safeties to get additional pressure, but at the end of the day the pass rush will always be dictated by the defensive line.
If a team can get pressure rushing four, that opens up a significant amount of coverage opportunities. The comfortability of playing cover-2, cover-4, cover-2 cloud, cover-3, or any of the list of coverages that Knowles wants to run out is increased by getting pressure with four. Kenyatta Jackson is a two, he will play a lot of snaps, and seeing him get up the edge and turn the corner to get to the quarterback is exactly what the second unit has been missing for the Buckeyes.
Jackson gets the sack, and the Buckeyes have six guys who can get after the passer without hesitation. Combining that personnel with the blitzing players can create an incredibly dangerous pass rush that will force turnovers.
Another issue that arose in coverage at times last season was players in zones not finding work. When at Ohio State’s coaches clinic, Perry Eliano discussed this. Fundamentally, when a defender reaches his zone, he then moves with the quarterbacks eyes and shoulders.
Styles is a robber to the top side of the formation in the play below. The goal was to show a two-high look, unfortunately the disguise was given away with all three safeties cheating to their zones. Styles comes down and sees the the No. 2 receiver to the top side cross the field. This alerts him to look across for a receiver from the other side crossing over to him.
This is exactly what happens, and Styles is able to break up the pass despite the receiver settling in the middle of the zone. Last season, the activity would not have been there to make a play like this.
The last play shows this same principal that was discussed in the previous play. Ohio State’s defense is in man coverage, and this can create a bind for defenders when the quarterback gets outside the pocket. C.J. Hicks takes away the check down to Williams immediately. On the top, side the defenders run into each other which gives the receiver a few steps of space. Hicks has his hands on Williams, but his eyes are on the quarterback as well, which allows him to slide off to break up a pass.
This should not be used as evidence for Ohio State’s future success, but there is a lot of positivity that should be taken out of the Spring Game. From last year to now, the Buckeyes have improved in so many areas, and the additional reps some of these players were getting due to injuries should make the team that much deeper come fall. The more players confident in playing in Knowles’ scheme will lead to fresher legs at the end of the year.
In the run game, the defense gave up a few big plays, but with the young linebackers playing every snap there was bound to be some youthful mistakes. Those mistakes also had excellent plays to go with them. The defensive line and linebackers controlled the line of scrimmage for the majority of the day.
On the back end, Ohio State made plays on the ball and looked confident in man and zone coverages. The Burke example was a true pass break-up, and there were plenty of other examples of tight coverage. There were additional plays made by the safeties breaking up passes, the linebackers getting in passing lanes, and the defensive line getting pressure.
The offense was definitely a step behind the defense due to the new quarterback and offensive linemen. The defense should have been the better side of the ball given all the returning players, so it is a positive that they showed up and were better, winning the day.