Michigan State and Clemson did Urban Meyer and Buckeye nation a big favor in ruining the 24-0 undefeated streak that initiated the Urban regime. Their wins over Ohio State in last season's Big Ten Championship and Orange Bowl made clear the need for changes on the Buckeye defense in order to take the Playoff era by storm.
After taking over for exiled Jim Tressel (Youngstown State University's new president), Meyer built an excellent offense, but struggled to fully maximize the potential of the program. Finishing 42nd in defensive S&P simply wouldn't do for a program with a tradition of smashmouth offense backed by dominant defense.
While Meyer's known for his spread-out formations, his game is all about option football. Ohio State pummeled opponents in 2013 with a power running game built around a massive and veteran offensive line and the running abilities of Carlos Hyde and quarterback Braxton Miller. Urban's genius translated immediately to what the Buckeyes had in the cupboard on offense.
However, his genius doesn't necessarily translate to the other side of the ball. His 2006 and 2008 Florida national championship teams were keyed in no small part by Charlie Strong defenses, which ranked third in defensive S&P both years.
After seeing the Ohio State defense struggle against Big Ten offenses, a damning indicator that change was needed to replicate the Gator formula for acquiring rings, Meyer brought Chris Ash from Arkansas to join co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell in fixing it.
Chris Ash and modern defense
Ash had been making a steady rise up the coaching ranks for the last half-decade before Urban Meyer called him up to Columbus.
The main selling point of the over front is that it's designed to feature speed, and defenses already need to get speed on the field in order to handle the amount of space that spread offenses are putting them in. The defensive ends are protected from double teams by alignment, and the outside linebackers can be speedy or hybrid players who live on the edge.
Next, the quarters coverage that defines Ash's defense satisfies the first question all defensive coverages have to ask in today's world: "is it sound against four verticals?" Defenses that can't put their players in position to defend verticals-based passing attacks have fallen by the wayside, as they fail to protect the end zone from easy access.
The other selling point of the 4-3 over/quarters is its variations. Ash has a few checks and versions to his quarters coverage that provide his system with flexibility. This is his vehicle for completing the quest all defensive coaches are on: how to be simple and sound against so many different offenses.
Because of the rise of tempo and spread option tactics like packaged plays, it's becoming increasingly difficult to play sound defense against everything your opponent can throw at you. As Ash notes on this primer on cover 2 fire zones, the more you install in your defense, the more your players have to be aware of the potentially disastrous mistakes that can arise.
Ash's main response to that is to build his base defense around the over front and quarters coverages, then rely on playing solid on first and second down. That affords opportunities for blitzing on third down, when the offense slows down to take a breath and reach for the right play.
Ultimately, it's an approach designed around spilling the ball to the perimeter and then beating plays with pursuit and hard-filling safeties:
When the defensive backfield plays with proper leverage and response to plays and the safeties can cover ground and tackle, it's a defense that becomes very difficult to drive the length of the field against.
The challenge is engraining those responses and points on leverage to the team. Even with a pared-down playbook and a base structure designed to adapt and respond to any offense, quick tempo and diverse opponents mean that players are responsible for a considerable amount of on-field adjustments and communication. Other teams that utilize this style of defense will prioritize veteran leadership over other considerations, in order to keep their players in sound position.
The 2013 Buckeye defense, led by Fickell and Everett Withers (now JMU's head coach), was mostly designed around the playmaking abilities of two players: corner Bradley Roby and linebacker Ryan Shazier. The tremendous speed of Shazier allowed him to perform a role that the safeties could not: the team's eraser. Many of his 144 tackles came while chasing down plays that had already pushed offensive players past the initial line of defense.
Both Roby and Shazier were positioned on the boundary/weakside of the defense in a 4-3 under front designed to take away the edge, then use Shazier's speed to chase down the ball when it went to the wide side of the field.
The team had problems here, centered partly around assignment busts and partly around structural flaws. One was that opponents were frequently able to beat zone coverages:
In this instance, there's no need for Shazier to leave the tight end alone like that. By fixing his eyes on the quarterback, he allows himself to be manipulated and Sparty to get a chunk of yardage throwing between the two best Buckeye defenders.
Their safeties were also victimized in deep coverage. They didn't demonstrate great recognition of passing patterns or appropriate leverage:
The way the safety here attempts to undercut the pass is an example of horrendous fundamentals in quarters coverage.
In general, run support and proper leverage from the safeties were lacking. That set the Buckeyes up for failure again and again:
There is no force defender here to keep the ball in the middle, where the Buckeye D is packed, so Jeremy Langford is allowed to take the edge.
Despite losing Roby and Shazier, Meyer already has a great deal of talent accumulated in Columbus, with more on the way. He's looking for Ash to channel it into an effective defense that doesn't gift yardage to the opponent with bad fundamentals and assignment confusion.
He's also expressed an intention to take away easy yardage allowed by playing weak zone coverages. He instead wants to challenge more routes on the tree.
Ohio State's new defense demands a lot of linebackers like Joshua Perry. Jamie Sabau, Getty
The 2014 Buckeye D
So Ash is building this aggressive, challenge-everything defense within the confines of his own risk-averse philosophy.
The Buckeye plan involves playing quarters, with the corners playing shadow technique, which is basically press coverage. It's the style that Pat Narduzzi's Spartans employ. In addition to the corners pressing the outside receivers, the Buckeye linebackers play close to the line of scrimmage and quickly bump and match the inside receivers:
They match and trade-off routes quickly and turn inside passing lanes into quickly constricted lanes. They'll be doing it out of true 4-3 personnel, with hybrid players like Darron Lee or Chris Worley playing the sam linebacker position. Against four- or five-receiver sets, the sam player replaces the middle linebacker and a nickelback comes in to play the sam:
Nothing else changes. The Buckeyes will mix things up from time to time with cover 1, to maintain the aggressive approach to defending the quick passing game. They'll probably also employ some looser coverage for occasions when their DBs can't handle an opponent's matchups.
The interesting trait to Ash's Buckeye defense is in how it differs from that of Narduzzi's Spartans. At Michigan State, the safeties play close to the line of scrimmage and have freedom to pick up vertical routes more quickly in relief of the linebackers and get them involved more quickly in the run game.
Ash is less eager to involve his safeties as primary run-force players, but he still chooses to attempt to spill plays to linebacker pursuit with his defensive ends. The result is a lot of stress on the linebacking corp:
Initially, the linebackers are taking steps to defend potential pass routes by the receivers before adjusting after the snap to the fact that it's a running play. The sam linebacker has to force the ball inside, but he's quickly trapped inside of a big receiver, who's in position to keep him from taking the edge away from the offense.