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Cover Six: Is Denzel Burke back to All-American status?

Ohio State easily beat Youngstown State as their defense continues to show improvement.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 09 Youngstown State at Ohio State Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In football terms, Cover Six is a zone coverage that combines Cover Four and Cover Two. While on the field it is designed to negate the deep pass while offering extra support underneath to protect against the run, in this case, Cover Six is a weekly column focused on Ohio State’s defense under coordinator Jim Knowles. Every week, it will cover six aspects of the defense’s performance, including big moments, key stats, film analysis, and areas in need of improvement. Join me as I follow the defense as it tries to bring back the Silver Bullets swagger that we know and love!

Cover 1: Denzel Burke, All American?

One of the biggest questions for this defense coming into 2023 was the performance of the secondary. All spring and summer we’ve heard reports that the secondary was playing better, getting more hands-on passes, and making it tough for the wide receivers. Denzel Burke’s name was brought up the most.

Burke is the leader of the room and the corners go as he goes. Burke burst on the scene having a borderline dominant year, but last season he dealt with injuries and struggled early. Despite getting better, it was hard to get the taste of the first few games out of our mouths as fans.

So far this season, Denzel has been excellent. Against Youngstown State Burke was targeted five times and didn’t allow a catch, plus added a pass breakup and had the first interception by an Ohio State corner since 2021. If Burke keeps playing like this he could end up on a few All-American teams and hear his name called in the NFL Draft. Before we go there though, let’s see how he performs against the Western Kentucky passing attack.

Cover 2: To be or not to be, that is the question…

To be aggressive or not to be, that is the question that Jim Knowles is asking himself when he creates the game plan for the Ohio State defense. In his first season, Knowles was aggressive choosing to blitz and try to create havoc for the opposing offense. It worked at times, but against Michigan and Georgia, it hurt the Buckeyes and ultimately contributed to losses. When asked about his defenses recording three tackles for loss against Youngstown State, Knowles had this to say;

“I’ve adjusted. When you’re at places where you need to live in that world, feast or famine type of world where you’re trying to make sure you take a lot of chances, do a lot of different things to somehow gain the advantage – I think I’ve adjusted my philosophy here. We have different players, and my job is to make sure we win the game, not get the TFLs. And a lot of times, I think the best philosophy here is to let the guys play.”

Knowles adjusted because he was burnt after becoming too aggressive in their biggest games last season. So the question is, can Ohio State reach its goals without being a disruptive defense that is at the top of the country in sacks and tackles for loss? Knowles seems to believe so, but here’s hoping he hasn’t overcorrected.

Cover 3: How many times do I have to teach you this lesson, old man

Let me start by saying this: Larry Johnson is a legend. For much of his career, he has been one of, if not the best defensive line coach in the country. All that being said, I’m not sure Johnson is a top-10 defensive line coach in the country at this point.

He hasn’t produced a top defensive line since Chase Young left despite still maintaining a high level of talent. While he has landed five-star talents like Jack Sawyer and JT Tuimoloau, he has yet to develop them into top-tier players. They’re talented and sometimes that talent shows up, but they haven’t been consistent nor have they shown an ability to generate pressure or sack the quarterback.

All of this is bad enough on its own, but when you include the fact that Johnson is openly feuding with his defensive coordinator’s scheme and he has used a questionable defensive line rotation for the past few years, it may be time for Johnson to hang up his whistle.

Against Youngstown State, Johnson decided not to start Mike Hall Jr., who easily has the most talent at defensive tackle. Also despite the lack of sack production from Jack and JT, he has barely played Kenyatta Jackson and has only used Caden Curry sparingly. Johnson may have lost his fastball.

It happens to the best coaches, but with all of the young talent in the room the defensive line room needs to be much better and it just hasn’t been. Johnson hasn’t learned from the mistakes of the last few seasons, and he still refuses to play young talent even if they show more than their older players in front of them. I’m not sure what else Johnson is looking for from players, but I know that this room needs to perform better or Ohio State will continue to be behind the top programs and will risk losing big games.

Cover 4: Jack Sawyer, you gotta be quicker than that

Jack Sawyer entered Ohio State with HUGE expectations. He was a local five-star product from Pickerington who many thought was going to be the next Nick or Joey Bosa-level talent on the defensive line. Sawyer has not lived up to that hype, and it’s not clear why.

Depending on who you ask, some may blame strength and conditioning coordinator Mick Marotti for putting too much weight on Sawyer. Others will say it’s defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ fault for asking him to play the Jack position and stunting his development. His own position coach has all but said that publicly. Regardless of the reason, Sawyer has not lived up to the hype, and Saturday against Youngstown State showed that over and over again.

While re-watching the game, I couldn’t help but notice one thing — Sawyer is super slow off the ball. There are multiple occasions when Sawyer has barely left his stance while the rest of the defensive line is already engaged. Sawyer needs to play better, and it would help if he got involved in the action on time.

Cover 5: The Importance of Simulated Pressures

Earlier we discussed how Knowles has decided to tone down his aggressiveness and let his players play. When you have the talent that Ohio State does, it makes sense to let your talented players make plays, but that doesn’t mean you let them just sit there and cover blades of grass.

One way to confuse offenses without putting yourself into bad positions is to run simulated pressures. Simulated pressures are plays where the defense threatens with blitzes, but still only sends four pass rushers. A well-run simulated pressure confuses the offense because players who expect to rush the passer end up dropping into coverage, and other players engage in pass rushing from various spots on the field. This allows you to still keep seven players to defend the pass, but also get free rushers.

In this play below, Ohio State runs a great simulated pressure. They line up with six players at the line of scrimmage, showing blitz, At the snap they blitz both linebackers Steele Chambers and Tommy Eichenberg up the middle. Instead of blitzing straight up, they cross the linebackers, which messes with the interior offensive line blocking rules. Defensive ends Jack and JT both fake a pass rush and ultimately drop into coverage, while the defensive tackles slant outside to keep the quarterback in the pocket.

This pressure confuses the offensive line, and the announcers claim Ohio State sent more than four rushers, which is the purpose of this call. Eichenberg and Chambers immediately get into the quarterback’s face, forcing him to bail out of the pocket. Ohio State ran these types of pressure multiple times this game, including on Burke’s interception.

Cover 6: Knowles, No More Safeties in the Slot

Ohio State allowed one touchdown against Western Kentucky. This touchdown was scored after safety Cam Martinez got beat deep on a slot fade for 36 yards that gave Youngstown State the ball on the Ohio State 20-yard line. Six plays later, quarterback Mitch Davidson ran into the end zone for the Penguins’ first and only touchdown.

Throughout the game, Knowles mixed up who played in the slot between more traditional safeties and cornerback Jordan Hancock. Martinez has given up big plays in two of the last three games he’s played and is a liability in man coverage. Ohio State believes that they have three starting-level corners in Burke, Davison Igbinosun, and Hancock. If you’re only going to play two corners at a time, Hancock should be playing in the slot instead of Martinez, Ja’Had Carter, or any of the other Ohio State safeties not named Sonny Styles.

Western Kentucky is going to spread out Ohio State and pass the ball. Hancock needs to get all of those snaps if the Buckeyes want to continue limiting big plays in the passing game.

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