OSU's style on defense puts safeties on the spot

Tim May
Ohio State nickle back Shaun Wade tackles Rutgers' Shameen Jones during a game on Sept. 8. Wade has practicing at safety in recent weeks. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

It’s hard to forget that ridiculously long play the Ohio State defense gave up just when it appeared it had a grip on things.

The 93-yard reception by Penn State’s K.J. Hamler last week? The 93-yard run by TCU’s Darius Anderson two weeks earlier? The 80- and 78-yard runs by Oregon State’s Artavis Pierce, and the 49-yard catch by Trevon Bradford in the season opener?

OK, those, too.

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But it’s a 2015 game against Indiana — Ohio State's opponent Saturday — that puts in perspective the danger of playing an aggressive defense. Indiana backup quarterback Zander Diamont raced 79 yards down the sideline for a touchdown that kept the Hoosiers in that game in Bloomington. It took just one missed tackle by safety Tyvis Powell on the edge.

It’s the jeopardy faced on most plays by a defense such as Ohio State’s, which coach Urban Meyer ordered to become more aggressive in 2014 after watching a passive bend-but-don’t-break approach his first two seasons.

But that order came with a caveat.

“When a guy catches it or a guy breaks it, you’ve got to get him down,” Meyer repeated this week.

The next test comes against an Indiana offense that features some fast receivers and a shifty dual-threat quarterback in Peyton Ramsey. With the Buckeyes’ desire to play man coverage on the wideouts with a safety over the top so as to attack with what’s left of the personnel, that puts a premium on one-on-one tackling, and especially on that safety to stop big plays.

It’s the latter that has been lacking more than anything else this season. Jordan Fuller, the returning starter at one of the safety spots, is usually involved in coverage, which has left Isaiah Pryor or Jahsen Wint as the true safety, or "center fielder," to chase down inside-the-park home runs. Often their angles to the ball-carrier have been poor.

It would help if the breakaway player never got out of the gate. That was why nickel back Shaun Wade took responsibility for giving up the big play to Hamler last week, saying the intent was to smother-cover him but that he backed off after the snap, anticipating a different receiving route.

But that doesn’t excuse the next 80 yards of that play.

“We’ve just got to get them down,” Wade said. The key being “taking better angles on people that’s just running. Our angles are bad, so that’s what we’ve got to work on. … We’ve got a great defense. If we all come together … it will just be the best defense in the nation.”

Despite that play, Wade has been considered one of the improving contributors to the defense and has been working at safety in practice for weeks.

Pryor will have to sit out the first half Saturday after getting ejected from the Penn State game for targeting, so Wade might see time along with Wint at that safety spot against Indiana. Or defensive coordinator Greg Schiano and co-coordinator Alex Grinch might use Fuller more as the center fielder while rolling Wade up into the coverage.

“It’s up to the coaches … whatever they want,” Wade said.


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