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: Are the Silver Bullets a top-five defense?
The short answer is yes, yes the Buckeyes are a top-five defense. The long answer is, yes but they were also a top-rated defense last season and we saw how that ended. This is not last season, after four games I believe that what we’ve seen from the Silver Bullets is sustainable. At this point in year two of the Knowles system the Buckeyes are number two in scoring defense allowing only 8.5 points per game. They only allow 149 passing yards per game and 255 yards total which ranks fifth and sixth nationally. They also rank fifth in stop rate forcing punts, turnovers, or turnovers on downs on 85.3% of drives. They also rank first in opponent-adjusted pressure rate at +89% if you believe in that statistic which tries to determine how much pressure is generated relative to the opponent’s average pressure rate allowed.
The most important thing about this defense is they are not allowing the big play. Last season, despite finishing tenth in stop rate getting stops on 74.3% of drives they were susceptible to the big play at almost any point in the game. In their final two games, they were kicking Michigan and Georgia in the teeth for a half and then the defense just gave up big play after big play ultimately losing both games.
This year’s defense is a lot more sound, it has more talented athletes and Knowles is just allowing his guys to play. This defense won the Notre Dame game, they played better than the Notre Dame offense besides two drives - albeit brutal drives. The difference is this team bowed up when they needed to and got a stop when most everyone assumed Notre Dame would just run the ball until the defense submitted. Some people may need to see more but they have passed the test, this is a top-five defense and this is a defense that can win a national championship. Hiring Jim Knowles is proving to be the best decision of the Ryan Day tenure so far.
Cover 2: Who has been the MVP of the defense so far?
Who is your MVP of the season so far? For me, it’s between two people, Tyleik Williams and Denzel Burke. Both players broke out in 2021 as freshmen but did not live up to the hype during their sophomore campaign in 2022. Tyleik Williams has been a stud on the inside, he is finally healthy and looks to be in the best shape of his career. While no one said it outright there have been some whispers about Tyleik’s work ethic and his not being in shape throughout his career.
Whether that was true or not, he has dispelled any of that this season. He has been Ohio State’s most productive defensive lineman and is playing at a level where you don’t want to take him off the field, and they didn’t against Notre Dame where he played 86% of the defense’s snaps. So far Tyliek has an 83.8 PFF grade which ranks 12th amongst all interior defensive linemen. He is third on the team with 21 tackles, first in tackles for loss with three, and tied for first with one sack. He has a great case for being the best player on the defense so far this season.
Burke has been a lockdown corner so far in 2023, the evidence of that was in the Notre Dame game where he was only targeted one time. It’s easy to call a defense when you know you don’t have to worry about one of your corners. Burke has allowed six catches on eighteen targets for 72 yards. Burke has almost as many passes defended, five, as he does receptions allowed. Burke has also shown a willingness to tackle which is always a concern for corners but willing tacklers are a prerequisite at the position for Ohio State.
The Big Ten is not littered with stud receivers as it has been in previous years but I have faith that Denzel will win future battles with Keandre Lambert-Smith of Penn State and Roman Wilson of Michigan.
Regardless of who you think is the MVP, Burke and Williams are proving to be anchors for this Ohio State defense. They are also working their way up the NFL draft boards. With these two players playing at this level and the Buckeyes having the best linebacker duo in the country this defense is going to be a problem for a lot of teams for the rest of this season.
Cover 3: You can’t handle the truth!
It’s time to talk about the defensive line. If you scour Buckeye’s Twitter for more than 30 seconds you will find someone talking negatively about the defensive line. In my opinion, the negativity is warranted but overrated. Football is a very detailed sport and many fans only care about the splash plays.
A majority of splash plays happen on offense so defense is overlooked. When talking about what makes a good defense, specifically a good defensive line everyone will point to sacks. If you’re judging this defensive line based solely on sack production then they’re awful. The problem is that sacks are not the only important job for a defensive line. At Ohio State the expectation is sacks, so I’m not here to tell you not to be critical but I am here to say the sky is not falling.
The biggest issue with the defensive line is simply that Larry Johnson is in an open feud with defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and his system. This makes the defensive line look disjointed at times.
On top of that, this isn’t the defensive line of old. Previously Ohio State’s defensive lines were consisting of quick twitch and bendy athletes on the edge and they largely ignored the interior defensive line. This is not to say there were not good players but much of the focus was on the edge rushers. In this defense, the best players on the line may be on the interior with Mike Hall and Tyliek Williams. Also, JT is an amazing athlete but he is not a quick twitch and bendy athlete like Chase Young.
JT and Jack are never going to be the dangerous pass rushers of old. This does not mean they are bad players or the defensive line is underperforming. Knowles has stated publicly that he is just letting players play and has toned down his aggressiveness. This defensive line has not gotten home but they have affected the quarterback by getting pressure and getting hits on the quarterback. They are also consistently resetting the line of scrimmage and freeing the linebackers to make plays on running backs.
It’s not the pretty splashy part of defensive football but they are doing what’s asked of them. This defense would not be in the place they are without the defensive line. Of course, it would be great if they got more sacks. I think Johnson needs to mix up his rotation and play some of the young guys more on passing downs to get more sacks. Despite that, this is a very good defensive line that consists of four players who could go in the top 50 picks of the 2024 NFL Draft.
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