OSU Pass Defense Not Crippling

By Jeff Rapp, October 16th, 2013

Ohio State fans, of course, are thrilled to see the honeymoon continue in the Urban Meyer era and have lots of which to be proud halfway through the 2013 regular season.

At this writing, the Buckeyes are still undefeated (6-0, 2-0 in the Big Ten), have remained in the top-five of the rankings (currently No. 4 in The Associated Press top 25, No. 3 in the coaches poll), and appear to be as healthy as they’ve been all season heading into the second half of the campaign.

That’s all good. So are the following statistics: Through six games, the Buckeyes are averaging 492.8 yards (19th among FBS schools), 280.7 a contest on the ground (11th), and 46.8 points per game (sixth). And defensively there are more strong numbers, most notably the allowance of just 86.2 yards rushing per game (sixth) and an opponents’ third-down conversion percentage of 25.3 (fourth).

However, there is a glaring problem as far as most followers are concerned, one that not only has been a conversation piece at the company water cooler but also that has given pause to the OSU coaching staff – the Buckeyes’ inability to reel in opposing passing games.

In the first six games, Ohio State’s defense allowed 371 yards passing at Cal, 295 vs. a Wisconsin team not known for its aerial attack, and 343 at Northwestern. Take away the obliteration of FCS opponent Florida A&M – which managed to throw for just 30 yards is a dismal performance and 76-0 loss at the Horseshoe – and OSU is allowing 282.0 yards in the air per game.

That’s too many by Ohio State standards. It also has caused concern to see foes have been able to complete 61.4 percent of their throws and that the defense has allowed pass plays of more than 60 yards in three different games.

Heading into the season, OSU’s secondary was supposed to be the strength of the defense. Linebacker Ryan Shazier was the only returning starter in the front seven but safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett are seniors and longtime starters and cornerback Bradley Roby was considered an All-America and Thorpe Award candidate at the outset of his redshirt junior season. Also, the opposite corner, Doran Grant, had a decent amount of experience and nickel back Tyvis Powell was earning rave reviews for his work and potential during the offseason.

So what happened? Why is this group earning midterm grades of D and F from most pundits? And how are the Buckeyes going to actually contend for a national championship with a sieve at the back of their defense?

Well, hang on there, Sparky. It’s time to come down off the ledge and look at this situation with a little levity.

First, let’s start with a disclaimer. I am not going to argue that the Buckeyes have played great pass defense. They haven’t. And the missed assignments, confusion and missed tackles in the secondary are concerning.

However, look around – Ohio State is not the only team struggling to stop the pass. Take a gander at the other teams in the top 25 and even many of those in the top 10 that analysts love and hail as national championship material.

Clemson began its season in a shootout with Georgia and allowed Aaron Murray to complete 20 of 29 pass attempts for 323 yards. Alabama allowed the most yards in program history – a whopping 628 – in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M earlier this season. That total included 562 by Johnny Manziel, 464 of them in the air.

Incidentally, A&M, now the nation’s No. 7 team according to The Associated Press poll, is one of the worst teams in the country statistically when it comes to passes defense, allowing 252.8 yards per game to rank 105th of 123 FBS schools.

Ohio State is well down the list at 240.0 (77th), but that’s still better than the likes of Notre Dame, Auburn, Stanford, Georgia and Missouri. It’s also not much worse than that of Michigan (229.7, 65th).

No, I am not suggesting that the Buckeyes have faced a pro prospect like Murray or had to chase around anyone as good as Johnny Football. However, OSU did already deal with one of the most lethal passing attacks in the country in Cal and one of the most disciplined in Northwestern. Plus, it’s hard to imagine the Buckeyes would have fared any worse.

Teams are piling up points and yards at a record rate this season, and good teams are not immune. Even many middling programs now have sophisticated passing offenses and the current rules make it even tougher to slow down such attacks.

And the reality is the defensive backfield has been in a state of flux.

Roby was suspended for the first game and Armani Reeves struggled in his place. Barnett, a top tackler last year, also missed the Buffalo game with a bum ankle.

Bryant was hurt late in the narrow win over Wisconsin and Corey “Pitt” Brown did not fare well is his first attempt to start in Bryant’s safety spot. The coaches believe Powell is the future there but like him at nickel for the moment. Meanwhile, they’ll continue to try to prepare Brown and possibly see what Vonn Bell, a true freshman, can do.

With some uncertainty in the secondary heading into the Northwestern game, the coaches tried to stay in a zone look, but found out Wildcat QBs Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian were very comfortable and accurate against that type of defense. Live and learn.

Also, it needs to be pointed out that the Buckeyes have gotten off to blazing starts. Buffalo didn’t want to throw 32 passes, San Diego State didn’t want to throw 41 and Wisconsin sure as heck didn’t plan to unload 34 but all of those teams had to try to crawl out of holes and get back in games with the pass play.

While the Buckeyes have bent often and broken some – opponents have thrown for 10 touchdowns – for the most part OSU has played well enough with a lead and gotten stops when necessary.

The Buckeyes have grabbed seven interceptions, broken up 24 other passes and totaled 16 sacks. They also have allowed a thrird-down conversion percentage of just 25.3, which ranks fourth nationally. So while big plays and occasional breakdowns have been a problem, teams haven’t been all that successful at putting together sustained drives, especially at key moments of games.

Plus, much of the statistical shortcoming directly relates to Ohio State fashioning its defense to stop the run first, especially against San Diego State and Wisconsin.

“We’ve made a conscious decision to stop the run, and as a result sometimes you leave people on islands and you don’t have the same focus on the back end,” Meyer said recently. “That’s who we are, we’ve won a lot of games doing that, and now we have to improve on the other end of it. And we’re working as a staff very hard at it.”

Added defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, “The reality is that’s it’s a team, and it doesn’t matter if the front seven plays good or the back seven plays good. It all comes down to what we all do, and we can’t lose sight of that. It doesn’t matter who coaches them or whatever. The reality is with our young front seven we put a lot of heat on our back end. Maybe that comes with territory and puts us in some situations, and maybe that’s why the yards are where they are.”

That leads to another point: The Buckeyes have the personnel and coaches to figure this out. Kerry Coombs knows how to challenge his cornerbacks and Everett Withers, OSU’s safeties coach, is one of the best in the business.

Those mentors and Fickell realize they have to mix up the defensive looks and employ whatever approach is necessary to win the game.

They also will go forward with the belief that Roby, is indeed, a special talent and difference-maker in the secondary.

“We like to play press coverage a lot,” Grant said. “We also like to play off coverage, too. We can play both. I learned how to play really good off-man from watching Roby. His off-man is just incredible.”

Roby hasn’t lived up to billing yet, which has led to high levels and criticism and speculation. Meyer addressed some of it recently by suggesting Roby was perhaps caught up in his NFL future and not supremely focused on the task at hand.

There’s still time to turn that around, though. And there’s reason to believe Roby will have a much better second half of the season, especially considering most of his trouble has been fundamental.

“He’s just like how the whole team is, really,” Grant said. “We’re just trying to refine our skills this week and doing what we have to do to get better.”

Lastly, while the pass defense has been problematic, it certainly hasn’t cost Ohio State a game yet. Former coach John Cooper used to say “it doesn’t bite ya until it bites ya.” So true.

If the Buckeyes continue to work on the issue and believe they can make winning plays on each side of the ball when they need to, where they rank nationally or otherwise in pass defense isn’t going to wear on them.

“I know everybody looks at stats at all those things but to me the No. 1, most important stat is that win column,” Fickell said. “You go into a game with your game plan and you stick with your game plan, and if you have to change it, you change it. The fortunate thing we have is we haven’t been behind in a game until last week. We’ve got to make sure we don’t just scrap what we do so the kids lose confidence in what we do as a defense.”