[Happy Thanksgiving! We’re on holiday. Hope this is enough to chew on]:
I’m guessing you don’t need to be told what we’re up against. The spread offense liberated running games from under center, and with it came all the fun stuff like little athletes juking people in space, big ones running deep downfield in man coverage, and all sorts of defenders standing around wishing someone—anyone—would at least try to block him. Each early adopter added a wrinkle: tempo, bubble screens, wide splits, quick folds, receiver route trees, lazy verts, and run-pass-options. Urban Meyer’s innovation was to assimilate all of it into the Earl Bruce power offenses he grew up in.
At Ohio State Meyer found he could tap Big Ten resources and fall back on SEC attitudes to convince athletes from all over America to bring their biological distinctiveness to its least charming truck stop. There they are assigned mundane designations like “Corey Brown” or “James Clark” and adapted to serve wherever it’s most efficient—usually as a diversion from running up the gut.
They are the Borg; resistance is futile, unless it rains.
Personnel: A star-studded diagram:
click to lightbox it bigger, open in new window for even greater largosity
Everybody was a top 250 recruit except the kicker, a backup tight end, and the best interior lineman in the conference. They have a Heisman candidate, and it’s not the starting quarterback who was a Heisman candidate at the beginning of the year. We’ll talk about the backfield in dangermen and the OL in the overview.
If you’re new to Meyer offenses, one slot WR position is just called the “H” now that “Percy Harvin’s position” is a dated reference. It’s a running back/slot receiver hybrid that does whatever the latest guy is good at. Curtis Samuel is the current guy. Last year he stole half of Braxton Miller’s playing time. He’s kind of a big deal.
They have a stable of 4- and 5-star receivers who are worth discussing here. Noah Brown is the Darboh but they have to create Chesson in the aggregate. Parris Campbell is the nearest approximation and though he doesn’t “start” he’s getting the starter snaps since Secret Weapon™ Corey Smith has had his hand in a cast all year. Smith’s role and nominal starts go to Terry McLaurin, who’s a throwback to the Odoms/Gallon Rodriguez-era mountain goats, right down to a listed height of two inches greater than plausibility. Backup H Dontre Wilson is a Norfleet. Those five guys will be in for two-thirds of the snaps; the remainder is split evenly between the next four: slot receiver KJ Hill is a good route runner. James Clark is an athletic deep threat who wasn’t connecting. Other extant cardio-pulmonary systems who’d have 1500 yards in the MAC are Johnnie Dixon and Austin Mack. OSU will rotate them heavily and send them sprinting downfield until your cornerbacks’ lungs burst from their chests—actual throws come less than once per drive.
Spread, Pro-Style, or Hybrid: Spread, which for lack of blocking TEs and superb blocker Ezekiel Elliott is back to being an actual spread:
Basketball on Grass or MANBALL? A 60-40 mix in favor of manball. They use a lot of zone on their QB and zone read runs, but Inverted Veer/Power Read is still their base play.
Hurry it up or grind it out? Hurry up and wait. On third downs they usually will take their time getting set up and snap it with three to six seconds left. Otherwise the snap came with the clock between 16 and 25.
Quarterback Dilithium Level (Scale: 1 [Navarre] to 10 [Denard]): 8, effectively 9. We’ve always struggled to nail Barrett to a number on this scale because he’s a good runner but not Gardner-level. What he lacks for in whoop he makes up with vision, patience, and leaving all of his bad decisions for off the field. Against Michigan State I charted JT a perfect 19/19 on zone reads. That didn’t include the RPOs, which he also, on review, chose correctly every time. There’s a serious there, there, which is a big deal for an offense that has to stay ahead of the sticks.
[After the JUMP: inside the mind of the Collective]
Two favorites. There’s the shotgun 3-wide setup, with an inline tight end, from which they run their inverted veer game. The other is the pistol-H with an offset tight end, which base is inside zone with lots of RPO. They’ll also go empty 4-wide (above) with a tight end, since Barrett is his own running back. Ohio State also uses unbalanced formations to good effect.
Danger Man and the Dangermen: Slotback Curtis Samuel, quarterback J.T. Barrett, and running back Mike Weber (in that order) versus tackling will consistently get you 4-5 more yards per play than the blocking. Samuel has a Peppers-like ability to stumble forward for five years after he should have been down. Here’s an unfortunate preview of Samuel versus McCray and Stribling in space:
Weber is a magician at squeezing through small holes, and is built low with a great center of balance so anything less than perfect tackle form risks letting him escape.
Noah Brown is big, fast, athletic, and runs better routes than I’m used to seeing from Meyer wideouts. He did this against Oklahoma early this year; that threat established he will serve the Collective with with run-off-the-coverage fade routes and be fed exactly one target on a comeback per game until his NFL clock expires. The other receivers don’t get enough chances but they do get open downfield; as we saw last year if Barrett’s hitting them things get out of hand really fast.
Zook Factor: Didn’t play in this game but Urban has traditionally been kind of conservative with his fourth downs on the Ohio State side of the field. Once past the 50 he knows there’s no better offense in the country at getting 3 yards.
HenneChart: Low amplitude in the Ohio State game, and we all know Barrett’s got a wicked witch’s weak spot for getting wet, so I went over Northwestern as well.
Versus MSU Barrett was pretty inaccurate, with as many marginal-or-worse throws than otherwise—only his scrambling kept him above water. He was far more accurate against Northwestern, with some excellent downfield throws into coverage (one against a two-man rush).
They don’t ask him to sit in the pocket very long, since it doesn’t exist very long. Guys are open faster because his receivers are good and opponents are freaking out about the running game.
One of Barrett’s strengths is he throws a very catchable downfield ball. This was incomplete but falling backwards with a guy in his face he put it almost exactly where you’d want him to:
Barrett isn’t a great thrower, but Meyer makes sure the threat of his legs can cause all sorts of havoc on defenders who have to read before reacting. Here’s two Barrett throws in the same drive where he misread Cover 3 and threw a covered out route:
The second should have been an interception, yes, but the first could have been as well, but for safeties freezing at the JT Barrett run threat. If you remember your Cover 3 rules the curl-flat defender has to “check” the #2 receiver before going into his zone. That means get in the damn way so the quick seam won’t be open underneath your cornerback.
Barrett’s run step froze the strong safety (Montae Nicholson), allowing the Samuel to get wide open on his seam route, since there’s no way the cornerback or safety in deep thirds can get there in time.
But Barrett misread the coverage and threw the out-route that Nicholson should be all over. Except that safety is thinking about how he just let a Heisman candidate get behind him without a re-route, and freezes. You can throw this on the pile of MSU safeties are bad, but I thought this was a good example of how Ohio State’s system hides its players’ deficiencies and can totally short-circuit any defender tasked with reading and reacting. Contrast with when they ran it just four plays later: The nickel didn’t bite on the run step, and Barrett again misread the coverage, nearly giving up a pick six.
This offense is all about moving the chains and grinding you down with Barrett and Weber. When they get into long downs is where they get into trouble. Meyer avoids those with every kind of trick to keep your defenders the hell away from the Barrett/Weber inside run game. The RPOs are intended to keep your slot players outside. The constant jet motion keeps your OLBs wide. The receivers’ constant vertical routes get your secondary stepping back. Curtis Samuel is a big blinking “better watch me” sign to distract your safeties and overhang defenders.
The reason this year’s team needs more help in that department is they’ve got some holes getting masterfully papered. So umm…let’s talk about that offensive line. PFF calls them a top ten unit. Bill C gives them 3rd in the nation in adjusted line yards, and 2nd in both rushing and rushing success rate. And yet I put turquoise circles around 2/5 guys. What the hell, Seth? PFF:
9. Ohio State 83.0
Ohio State has worked hard to move up on the list, especially after their loss to Penn State, in which QB J.T. Barrett was pressured on 28 of his dropbacks. He’s only been pressured 28 times in the four games since as the line has improved greatly in pass protection. But where they separate themselves is in the run game where their 94.3 grade puts them at No. 2 in the nation. The three-headed rushing attack of Mike Weber, Curtis Samuel and Barrett have rushed for 2,819 yards on designed runs. Center Pat Elflein has rebounded for early struggles at a new position to rank 11th in the nation at 82.0 overall while guard Billy Price’s 78.4 grade ranks 36th at the position. Ohio State’s line is a bit one-sided, but their work in the run game has earned them the top 10 ranking.
Burly pivot Billy Price (+10.7) was moved to right guard to make sure Jordan and Prince each had an adult nearby. The agile and sometimes devastating Pat Elflein has a +14.7 run block but he’s been a far less effective pass blocker as a center than his right guard days. Most of the run game goes in their A gap.
The other holes are visible in the trees. Marcus Baugh was a historically very good pass-catching tight end who’s got a –11.5 to PFF for his blocking and doesn’t get a lot of targets these because he’s needed to help the troubled linemen. The prime beneficiary of said help is tackle Isaiah Prince, who has a good run blocking score—they often fold him inside Price to good effect—but a major pass rush minus, where he’s a little stiff and not very good at dealing with anything more complex than a speed rush.
The bigger problem is true freshman left guard Michael Jordan, who has a –12.1 on the season split between both run and pass. That checks out:
Twists and stunts are going to confuse young guys, but Jordan is just overwhelmed by everything right now.
Ohio State is mitigating this by running between Elflein and Price, and pulling whatever other material they need into that hole.
So how is this a Top 10 rushing offense? It’s that backfield talent and Urban Meyer’s offensive genius. Meyer mostly uses the threat of Samuel in space to create space for other runners. They use a ton of Jet motion, particularly on their unbalanced 3rd and short package.
Earlier in the year it was used to isolate Weber on a cornerback for big runs. Now this exists to get three yards when they absolutely need one.
Their favorite in this game was a SAM read with the H receiver running an out, with Barrett running up the gut if the SAM stays out of the box; the threat of Samuel in space usually ensures he does. On this one Chris Frey chases Samuel hard outside, giving Ohio State five blockers for the five guys left in the box and JT Barrett running it.
Here’s a less obvious run read:
Here’s a rare pass read:
MSU put a stop to this by putting the safety in man-to-man with Samuel.
Once you’re safely in man coverage Meyer will spread you out, run off your defensive backs, and shove inverted veers down your alley until you concede to keep reinforcements away from their preferred point of attack.
What did State do to keep them to 17 points?
This has always been a Michigan State thing, but they regularly went with their nose tackle in a 2i (inside guard’s shoulder) while leaving the center uncovered. Note the DTs in B gaps, linebackers leaning forward ready to attack the A’s.
That neutralized Elflein, OSU’s best blocker, by either wasting him on a double-team that his guard should already have won, or letting him release downfield for superfluous linebacker blocks. I already showed you this play to highlight Mike Jordan but it’s emblematic of Elflein’s day. Watch the center this time.
This got frustrating for him, to the point where he started helping Jordan when he wasn’t needed, leaving some very bad genes unguarded.
If you are wondering: no, “Self-Iso” is not a play.
Meyer attacked this by giving Weber a lead blocker. First by folding the RT:
And when MSU adjusted to that the TE would just roll in there and seal someone.
This run almost died because Jordan let his DT fighting back to A-gap. Bullough canceled that out by getting caught outside by the threat of Samuel, so Baugh’s block could help Jordan finish his. So it’s a gamble: you might dominate the non-Elflein line and stop them for no gain (which their backs will turn into a gain of 3), but if you don’t suddenly you’ve let a blue chip RB and his raging Elflein free in your secondary.
Other Little Things I Saw
I’m going to report this because I thought I picked up on it, but I’m totally braced for smarter people to say “that’s always true” or “you’re wrong”. Anyway I played a game with myself with Price’s stance and could guess what he’s doing 90% of the time with it. His right leg will be kicked way back when he’s pass protecting and his stance isn’t nearly as wide when’s he’s pulling.
Normal Pulling Pass Pro
Glasgow has probably already downloaded Price and Elflein’s breathing patterns so this probably won’t mean anything.
Weber is also not very good at hiding his intentions, doing that thing we complained about Rich Rod backs (not Vincent Smith) doing all the time where they line up just behind the quarterback when they’re going to run him north-south, and next to or a bit in front of him if they’re having him run outside (e.g. their inverted veer) or pass block.
Barrett appeared to talk to Weber about something after MSU came down particularly hard on a zone read, and it went away for a few plays.
Barring a random winter storm Michigan’s best hope will be to neutralize Samuel with Peppers, and Price and Elflein with equivalent talent so Wormley and Taco can go to work. Jeremy Clark will be missed.