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Greg Schiano’s aggressive Ohio State defense keeps getting lit up for huge plays

Who’s next on the Buckeyes list of opponents to take advantage?

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Penn State James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

A 96-yard scoring drive against Penn State erased what would have been a deep stain on Ohio State’s resume. For the third time in five weeks, the Buckeye defense gave up more than 200 non-sack rushing yards to a spread offense, for the second time almost losing a game because of big plays.

TCU looked like world-beaters against Ohio State in Week 3, putting up 511 yards and falling short largely because of two turnovers that handed the Buckeyes 14 points. The Frogs would then play Texas and Iowa State defenses that held them to 372 and 299 yards.

Even 1-4 Oregon State got explosive plays against the Buckeyes, including an 80-yard run and 49-yard catch.

Ohio State’s given up 15 30-yard plays, with only 11 FBS teams allowing more. Three opponent rushes of 70 yards or more: worst in the country. The Buckeyes rank No. 127 in IsoPPP, Bill Connelly’s explosiveness stat, and No. 130 in marginal explosiveness on passing downs (second-and-medium, third/fourth-and-long).

It’s looking as though Ohio State has some major problems on defense, and whether or not a team like Michigan or Indiana can exploit them, potential Playoff opponents certainly can.

When Schiano came to Ohio State, his big adjustment was to move away from the press-quarters scheme like Michigan State’s and toward a man-free system.

Ostensibly this was going to help them continue to be an NFL DB factory by rotating in fresh blue-chip corners and focusing on man coverage, rather than having to teach everyone the pattern-matching zone coverages that make quarters work.

They’ve been successful in remaining a DB pipeline, but the costs of playing individual-oriented defense are starting to add up.

Trace McSorley put 461 yards of total offense on Ohio State, 155 of them on 12 runs. Six draws yielded 73 yards at 12.2 per carry, while six scrambles produced another 82 at 13.6.

In each instance, the Buckeyes were gashed because they were playing man coverage that yielded interior lanes. Here was one of the earlier and more effective lead draws:

The Buckeyes are bringing a blitz this time, firing MLB Baron Browning (No. 5) off the edge and playing with two linebackers underneath. They get into major trouble because it’s a man-coverage blitz scheme that they tend to use, assigning a defender for every skill player and then dropping a safety deep. So WLB Malik Harrison (No. 39) can be seen chasing a slot receiver into the left flat while SLB Pete Werner (No. 20) is keying the RB and easily screened off by the center. McSorley cuts back for a 23-yard gain.

What was nearly the game-winning drive for Penn State included a third-and-10 conversion (passing down!) on another draw:

Again they catch the Buckeyes in a man-free blitz. SLB Werner is trying to scrape over and pick up the RB, who’s a threat to release as a checkdown to the other side of the field, and becomes fodder for the LG. Everybody else has their backs turned in man coverage, are blitzing, or are dropping deep.

Ohio State not blitzing didn’t fare much better against the draws. Penn State would block four DL with four OL, pick off one LB with a releasing guard or center, and pick off another with the RB. The third LB would have his back turned while covering a slot or TE.

When you’re in man coverage, the linebackers have to be precise against the run.

TCU burned the Buckeyes on some zone-read plays that worked much like Penn State’s draw plays, isolating six on six and then feasting if/when the LBs let something slip. Here’s the longest run in TCU history:

Schiano’s anti-option schemes are heavy on gap exchanges and slanting up front. Against both TCU and Penn State’s zone-reads, the Buckeyes would slant the DL away from the RB’s direction and crash the unblocked end (No. 97 Nick Bosa here), usually leading to the QB keeping the ball. Then they’d bring the read-side LB around the edge to tackle the QB while the backside LB moved back behind the slanting DL.

They executed it pretty well against Penn State. They had mixed results on Penn State’s power-read and QB bash runs, though, occasionally getting caught with the LBs flowing away from the ball.

Here against TCU, they get caught. The nose tackle doesn’t get over into the A-gap, and backside LB (Malik Harrison) is still scraping back to the read-side, leading to a gaping hole.

Again, everyone else for Ohio State is either on the other end of the field with their backs turned or dropping deep.

Much like the man coverage Schiano prefers, his slanting and gap exchanges up front make the most of a quick LB corps and disruptive DL, but they also raise the ante. If you only have six guys near the run game and they’re all attacking aggressively, you’d better not miss anywhere.

That was also true in the passing game, particularly on this 93-yard strike:

It’s the same deal as before. The Buckeyes blitz a linebacker, play man coverage with another, and drop the third shallow to watch the RB while McSorley hits a hot route over the middle, where there’s no help.

To watch Ohio State is to see No. 12 continually trying to arrive from the deep middle and chasing the play from behind.

Against spread sets, the Buckeyes tend to drop their field safety (the safety on the wider side of the field) into man coverage so that the strongside linebacker can help outnumber the run game. That means their boundary safety is regularly dropping into the deep middle at the snap.

  • In year one of this scheme, the Buckeyes had Malik Hooker in that role. He was third on the team in tackles, adding seven interceptions. He cashed in and went in the first round of the next NFL draft.
  • Last year, they slid Jordan Fuller in, and he finished second in tackles.
  • For 2018, they’ve tried to slide Fuller over to the more man coverage-oriented field safety position and inserted sophomore Isaiah Pryor into the eraser position on the back end.

Fuller is now leading the team in tackles, but typically nowhere to be found when teams remove him from the action with spread sets.

There’s no easy answer here. The Buckeyes could move Fuller back to the deep spot full time and find a cover safety somewhere else on their roster, but you’re only talking about solving a porous spread-run defense by changing the guy who tries to make the TD-saving tackle 20 yards downfield.

Ohio State’s insistence on being a man-free team has cost them time and time again against spread offenses, which enjoy how the Buckeyes allow individual players to be isolated.

Indiana WR Simmie Cobbs Jr.’s 11-for-149 day in 2017 or Baker Mayfield’s success throwing pop passes fit alongside 2018’s early struggles as instances in which opponents turned the Buckeyes’ aggression against them for explosive plays.

Urban Meyer has recruited nationally to build a roster loaded with NFL prospects and he’s giving them all a chance to shine individually in an aggressive, matchup oriented defense. However when the individuals lose, the team hasn’t been there to clean things up.

Ohio State is on a good trajectory to make the playoff, but their issues with boom-and-bust cycles playing aggressive man coverage could limit their ceiling below championship level.