Buckeyes see benefits of switching up pass defense

Bill Rabinowitz
Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade breaks up a pass intended for Indiana's Whop Philyor during a game on Sept. 14. More experience and more zone coverage has helped the Buckeyes' pass defense improve this season. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

In football, there is no shame in stealing.

If a team has success with a concept, its competition will study it and often implement it. The NFL, in particular, is notorious for its copycat ways. You can’t exactly file for a federal patent for a scheme.

Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter

For Ohio State, Michigan State is a program from which it “borrowed.” The 25th-ranked Spartans (4-1, 2-0 Big Ten), who hope to upset the No. 4 Buckeyes (5-0, 2-0) on Saturday night, take pride in their press man-to-man scheme.

The idea is that if cornerbacks can be relied to cover opponents’ receivers, safeties and linebackers can load the box against the run or be used creatively in blitzes. Urban Meyer admired that approach, and his Buckeyes adopted that same philosophy, only rarely playing zone coverage.

It mostly served them well. Ohio State had a parade of cornerbacks who became high NFL draft picks after being showcased in that scheme.

But last year, Buckeyes cornerbacks didn’t play at that elite level, and that was one of the deficiencies that opponents exploited. When Ryan Day succeeded Meyer as coach, he hired a mostly new defensive staff that installed a scheme featuring more zone.

The results have been impressive. Ohio State ranks sixth nationally in yards allowed per pass attempt (5.1) and fifth in yards per completion (9.25). In 2018, those numbers were 7.0 and 12.6.

Some of the improvement stems from the fact that the secondary is more experienced. Cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette and safety Jordan Fuller are multi-year starters. Versatile Shaun Wade has also blossomed with more playing time.

But the scheme has much to do with it.

“Just changing up the flow,” Wade said. “Everybody knows we play man; we're a man-to-man defense. But when you're in man and you switched to zone, it psyches the quarterback out. You don't know what to do.”

It helps, he said, to have Chase Young, Jonathon Cooper and Jashon Cornell, among others, providing consistent pressure on the quarterback.

Co-coordinator Jeff Hafley has been the driving force in implementing the varied coverage. Hafley came from the NFL, where zone coverage is more common than man-to-man. Zone coverage allows defensive backs to react more easily to what they see from the quarterback and receivers and break on the ball for either a tackle, pass breakup or interception.

“I just think you have to be able to play both,” Hafley said, “because I think now when the quarterback drops back, he sees four guys across (in coverage) and these (are) big, long guys. And here comes No. 2 (Young) off this edge. And here comes somebody else from this edge.

“I mean, it's hard. It's really hard. It's hard for NFL quarterbacks. So I think it makes it difficult (on offenses) to change things up and drop into different zones.”

It also has the benefit of reducing fatigue on the cornerbacks.

“If I told you to go out and cover a guy every single play, I think eventually you get tired,” Hafley said. “I think it's allowed our corners to play more plays. And it's given some of our corners a chance to make more plays with vision.”

Okudah and Arnette each made nice open-field tackles against Nebraska last week after quickly diagnosing plays and exploding into the ball-carrier. Two of the three interceptions against the Cornhuskers came when the Buckeyes were in zone, Hafley said.

Ohio State has seven interceptions this season. It had only 11 in 14 games last year.

The Buckeyes still pride themselves on their man-to-man coverage.

“That's like the No. 1 thing we're going to take pride in, and that's what you come to Ohio State for,” Wade said.

For that, Ohio State can largely thank Michigan State. But these Buckeyes have added another element that has proved invaluable.


Listen to the BuckeyeXtra Football podcast: