[Author: sorry. Previously: Ohio State Offense]
You can’t take the sky from me.
Ohio State is everything wrong with America. While most hardworking football teams have to struggle day-in and day-out to make ends meet opposing quarterbacks, the Buckeyes have so much wealth they can leave most of it cooling on the sideline, chatting with the next wave of 5-stars and Bosas. They won’t even let any of it trickle out to the NFL or, like, Cincinnati. Three out of the seven hellbeasts they rotate through on the defensive line turned down this year’s NFL draft, and a fourth would be a top-five pick next April except he’s still too young to go.
With national economy-breaking riches up front, they can afford to play a ton of Cover 1 and Man 2 low—coverages that jam the middle of the field with fast players and take advantage of their natural athletic advantages over everyone they play on the outside. You can’t run on them or pass deep because of that line. You can’t spread ‘em out and throw short because they’re up in your grill and expecting it, and anyway you’re only getting to one read before a DE has turned the corner and your pocket’s bulged inward from a snap-jumpin’ Leviathan.
So how the hell did Iowa’s offense drop 38 points on these guys? For one they got to go a half and a drive with Bosa out for targeting. They also got a friendly flag. And their quarterback had an uncanny ability to shrug off tackles, going so far as to set up and throw a form TD pass with Sam Hubbard hanging on his leg the whole time. And most of all their offensive line held up in pass pro long enough for him to hit drags and comeback routes. None of this is relevant to Michigan starting John O’Korn and a right side of the line that couldn’t pass pro against Minnesota.
What is relevant is the week after Iowa, the Buckeyes held Brian Lewerke to an 11.5 QBR and 3 yards per dropback by accidentally fixing their one glaring defensive issue (they had a spacebacker playing middle linebacker). I watched both games, and while I’d love to tell you we’re too pretty to die on Saturday, the main takeaway here is Ohio State’s defense has it so Alabama-good these days they don’t even recognize how Alabama-despicable they’ve become.
Personnel: My diagram gets bigger with a click, and requires explanation:
Last year at this time I told you Ohio State’s defense this year was going to be a lot like Michigan’s defense last year. Had they not lost some guys early to the NFL that would be true. It’s still mostly true, especially up front; their second team front seven would probably be a Top 10 national front seven.
Part of that is they’re not starting their best front seven. DE Nick Bosa isn’t a “starter” in only the most technical sense—see: Mo Hurst last year—despite being their best player to PFF and the eye test. Backup NT Robert Landers, a scrappy-ass, undersized muck-a-muck, is again behind a more ballyhooed space-eater—this year it’s Godin-like Tracy Sprinkle instead of Michael Hill (who’s all but disappeared), but any crucial down will see Landers (#67) in, and for good reason. The other backup DE Jalyn Holmes came back for a fifth year despite plenty of NFL interest, and has barely any drop-off from last year’s B1G DL of the Year Tyquan Lewis.
The main weakness all season was they moved extraneous spacebacker Chris Worley to MLB, and he’s not one. With their two starting OLBs (Booker and Baker) missing time in the last few weeks, Ohio State moved Worley back to WLB and played MLB Tuf Borland, a 2016 high four-star who played for friend of the blog Todd Howard in high school. Worley is listed first in the “OR” and I imagine they’ll play him at WLB in their 4-4 look; Borland is the better fit.
Against MSU and Illinois they also played a freak athlete, true sophomore Malik Harrison, as their TE-destructor SAM spot. Harrison is now listed as a co-starter on OSU’s official depth chart, and I didn’t even have room for him on my diagram. The starters at OLB are Dante Booker and Jerome Baker. Both are Viper types; Booker would have been the starter last year but for an early season injury. Baker who’s about 20 pounds lighter, was a PFF fave-rave last year as a sophomore. Neither have any trouble keeping up with backs—Baker can “get skinny in the hole” as the coaches say, but he had some trouble with fullbacks in his first go-round.
The safeties are the weakest point. SS Damon Webb is a quasi-nickelback who’s solid at run fits but remains a liability in coverage. FS Jordan Fuller is not the superior athlete Malik Hooker was. They’ll sometimes replace him with Erick Smith, who’s more of a run-stopper. I imagine if Michigan’s going heavy Ohio State will prefer to remove one of these guys to get Booker, Baker, Worley, and Borland all on the field at once. CB Denzel Ward is one of the fastest players in OSU history—he got bodied by Simmie Cobbs in the opener and has been lights out since. The other corner spot rotates between Damon Arnette and JUCO transfer Kendall Sheffield, both of whom rely on elite athleticism, which for Big Ten passing games is plenty.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown. Or don’t and go be with your family.]
Base Set? Even mix of 4-3s. Iowa was flipping the strength of their formations before the snap and OSU just had the DL shift down a gap, which created more under looks than they probably planned. Call it 48/48 under/over with some MSU-like even thrown in.
Note the 3-tech will line up in a four-point stance (both hands on the ground, feet even) while the other guys are usually in a three—they want to get that DT into his gap ASAP—jumping the snap count is a regular feature.
Man or zone coverage? Mostly man. They went to a Cover 1 last year because of the disparate talents of their safeties—Webb is a cornerbackish m2m guy and Hooker was super rangy. They’re slowly readopting Quarters but playing man all day outside, which turns it into more of a Man-2:
The guy at the bottom of the screen in the above clip is the SAM, Dante Booker, who' manned up against the RB. The slot receiver on the top of the formation is against the WLB, Baker. That left the MLB, Worley, on the tight end (Worley got flagged for this by the way).
The defender on the bottom hash is Ward. You might be thinking he’s giving up a drag route here, but Ward breaks on the ball so quickly a pass to that slot receiver is probably not as open as it looks. That’s the soft spot, though.
Because they don’t run it so much, when they do go to zones you can get them confused. On this one Baker (#17 at the bottom of the screen) passed off his TE to the safety, who’s not there.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? With such a reliable four-man pass rush they don’t feel the need to bring pressure that often, but when they do they bring a lot. Against Iowa I had them at 4.46 rushers per play, not counting goal line, etc. But that’s misleading because their blitzes bring six as often as five.
2017 OSU vs Iowa & MSU
Four is plenty, especially on passing downs, when they remove the DTs and play all four crazy-good DEs—Hubbard, Bosa, Lewis, and Holmes—in a package they call the “Rushmen”:
The new thing this year is if you’re going max pro like that, they’ll add blitzers to the Rushmen.
Don’t make me recount everything from last year. To recap, Bosas gonna Bosa:
The other edge is patrolled by Tyquan Lewis, and therefore not even worth running toward (#59 DE at the top):
Sam Hubbard, whom you may remember as the guy who flagged down Peppers in space last year, is athletic enough that they’ll trust him in coverage for a zone blitz (#6 DE on the top).
That’s quite effective since Hubbard is also usually the guy coming through on the rushmen package. Some lucky 3-4 NFL team is going to make him an outside linebacker who doesn’t need to shift out with motion because he also holds up to double teams. Like Lewis, you can’t put a TE on him ever.
When those guys need a breather, Jalyn Holmes is gonna Holmes (#11 DE top of the screen).
Even if they come off the field for pass-rushing, I liked every DT. At nose Tracy Sprinkle is kind of Godin(that’s not a bad thing)’ing it on the first line with a tiny version of Hurst coming off the bench. Robert Landers ain’t big, but when he’s on the field he’ll bite the kneecaps off your running game:
And I gave a shield to 3-tech and future draft pick DT Dre’Mont Jones, who in addition to that NFL 1st round body and ability has become the best snap-jumper we’ve seen since Jerel Worthy.
Let’s grab a random snap—I’m srsly, I’m fast-forwarding to a random spot in this video and grabbing whatever play I find to screencap this because it happens that often. Aaand freeze:
See the black line? That’s the line of scrimmage. See the quarterback’s hands? He just got the ball. See the guy in white who has already shot half of his body into the backfield?
Jones has an uncanny sense of timing the snap and can get out of his stance so fast he might as well be starting next to a guard. Once in awhile he will be a little early, and less often the refs will notice.
Usually however he’s just getting off so quickly, and so hard to dislodge once he gets there, that you can’t use the guy lined up across from him to block anyone else (see the Holmes clip above).
Somebody please hard count this thing.
Did I leave anyone off? Oh right, I shielded a cornerback:
Denzel Ward got a mental downgrade from us after Indiana beat him up with Simmie Cobbs and forced OSU to give him some safety help finally. Since then Ward’s been Charles Woodson’ing it, which allows Ohio State to get away with nominal Cover 1 that’s functionally using the high safety to bracket the other cornerback’s side while Ward makes sure the one thing that looks like a pre-snap good idea isn’t. If you scroll up you’ll see a bunch of clips where the quarterback’s protection is breaking down and the quarterback has no choice but to chuck it at Ward’s guy. You’ll also note they’re never completed. FWIW Illinois’s Malik Turner, the Cobbs-like article on Ohio State’s schedule, didn’t play last week. MSU’s Felton Davis had zero catches on six targets.
Ward was also the inspiration for this Gus Johnson all-timer:
Ward got a targeting call for that which I don’t agree with.
Two things about this defense have given the Ohio State fans who absolutely must find something to complain about some reason to. The first is the safety play. OSU leaves at least one and often two deep. Webb tends to get lost if you put him in zone coverage (safety #7 at the bottom of your screen):
And weirdly for the five-star studded defense they don’t have a free safety with enough speed to come down against the run and still cover a fleet-footed…tight end:
Neither guy is bad enough to cyan unless you’re just cherry-picking a play or two per game to justify calling a relative weakness an actual weakness.
The other (relative) weakness on this defense—at least on paper—is they’ve had Chris Worley playing middle linebacker. Worley was a good WLB or “Star” for them last year, because that job is a lot of spacebackerin’. When Worley’s spacebackerin’ he’s great:
When he’s middle linebackin’ he’s too focused on assignment football and not doing the heady stuff a guy’s gotta do when there’s bodies flying all about you and the offense is flinging fullbacks or pullers around to create new gaps (#35 the MLB):
He’s not a physical player, but he’s also not THAT athletic enough that he can match a guy in space footwork for footwork:
And not at all big enough to stand up to a lineman:
The next game, with the two regular OLBs out with injuries, Worley got to play his more natural spot with simpler assignments while Tuf Borland took over at MLB. The last two weeks, without coincidence, have seen the best linebacker play that Ohio State’s had all year.
Here’s a FB counter power run where the playside DT, Sprinkle, got blown out by a double-team. That usually spells doom for a defense against power. Did it?
This is definitely an FFFF first: clipping a play of a guy who didn’t even make the (extended) diagram. But watch the SAM, #39 (Malik Harrison), stop the momentum of that pulling guard and control his gap. Meanwhile the MLB #42 (Borland) smartly ignored the fullback (yes ReadYourGuard he #readhisguard), and ably picked his way past the Jones mess to show in the hole and stop L.J. Scott cold. Contrast that with the Worley play above where he saw a double disaster and shot to the backside of it. Ohio State listed Worley as the starter this week but I bet you Meyer plans to use Borland against Michigan’s heavy sets.
(Also Lewis (#59), as usual, had his edge set and discarded his RT, but I used this to show the backups who earned “OR” designations with their respective starters aren’t just getting those for show.)
Maybe Michigan can chuck bombs to DPJ and Gentry against the safeties and get super-lucky, but have you noticed anything particular about our luck these past few weeks? Any kind of pattern? You depend on luck you end up on the drift—no fuel, no prospects—beggin’ for Alliance make-work and towed out to the scrap belt. That ain’t us. Not ever. Patience has got the money to pay, and she will, one way or another. There’s obstacles in our path, and we’re gonna deal with them. One by one. We’ll get through this. We will.
You read all of that you deserve a Moment of Zen: