'A pressure is only that': Can Ohio State football turn quarterback pressure into sacks in 2021?
Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of stories looking at the 10 most pressing questions facing Ohio State football as it prepares for the 2021 season. For previous parts of the series, click here.
Today, Part 6: Can Ohio State raise its sack totals?
There was reason to anticipate Ohio State’s sack totals were going to dip last season.
Its defensive line no longer featured Chase Young, the imposing pass rusher who finished with a school-record 16.5 sacks in 2019.
Young was in the NFL, selected by the Washington Football Team with the second pick in the draft.
Left without their star defensive end, the Buckeyes totaled 21 sacks over eight games last fall, an average of 2.6 sacks per game. The previous year, they combined for 54 sacks, an average of 3.9 per game.
It might be too high of a bar to reach again. The 54 sacks in 2019 are the most by any Buckeyes team, though others have been as efficient. The 2000 and 1998 teams each totaled 47 sacks over their 12-game seasons for an average of 3.9 per game, and the 2017 team, which was anchored by another standout pass rusher in Nick Bosa, had 45 sacks for an average of 3.2 per game.
But there were indications last fall that the Buckeyes were not far from being as prolific as they were in 2019.
Most notably, their defense still got pressure on quarterbacks.
According to data from Pro Football Focus, Ohio State finished with 192 pressures (24 per game) in 2020, more than in the previous season. In 2019, they totaled 243 pressures, an average of 17 per game.
“We were close so many times for making a big play,” defensive coach Larry Johnson said in April, “but we didn't get there.”
Can they this fall?
While Young is no longer on the roster as a game-wrecking force, there is a luxury of talent across the defensive line.
Defensive ends Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith return and have long held the potential for breakout seasons with a full slate of games.
Harrison is a former five-star recruit from Lewis Center who has been praised by coaches for his work ethic throughout the offseason. Listed at 6 feet 6 and 268 pounds, he has the size of a prototypical star Ohio State pass rusher.
On the opposite end of the line, Smith appears fully healthy after some nagging injuries in previous seasons.
They were among the Buckeyes' most effective pass rushers last season as far as getting into the backfield. Smith was tied with Jonathon Cooper for a team-high 33 total pressures, while Harrison had 22, the fourth most on the team. But rarely did those correlate with bringing down a quarterback. Smith had only one sack, and Harrison finished with two.
Freshmen Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau could also factor into the rotation.
Pressures can bother quarterbacks. In spring practice, Johnson pointed out it could prompt a passer into hurrying a pass or making a poor decision. Nonetheless, he has encouraged the linemen to convert some of their pressures into sacks, which prompt a loss of yards and potential fumbles, adding havoc in the backfield.
At Big Ten media days last week in Indianapolis, Harrison noted it has been an ongoing emphasis.
“A pressure is only that,” Harrison said. “On a pressure, the quarterback gets the ball out whereas a sack ends drives. It can end a quarter, a half or a game. That's something that we've definitely worked on.”
As part of the preparation, they’ve worked on the final steps of a rush.
“Coach (Johnson) is a genius when it comes to that stuff,” Harrison said. “So he's got drills cooked up for us to figure out how to get that last little bend or trying to find out ways where we can get that extra step, or reduce extra movement, things like that.”
Next: Where could OSU find answers in the LB room?