In case you haven’t heard, Ohio State is much better (so far) on defense this season than last.
The overall numbers are obvious, but there is an underlying stat that tells a crucial part of story.
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Beyond shrinking their points allowed from 25.5 per game to 8.8 and yards from 403.4 per game to 234, the Buckeyes have allowed just four scrimmage plays of more than 30 yards so far in 2019.
That is tied with six other teams for best in the nation and a far cry from a season ago when they Buckeyes gave up 39 of those to rank tied for 118th.
(Similarly, they are tied for fifth in 20-yard gains allowed after ranking 95th last season, 10th in 40-plus yard gains after ranking 119th last season and 11th in 50-plus-yard gains after ranking 113th last season.)
What is the secret?
Co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley cited three overall philosophy, better tackling and some schematic changes.
To begin with, the coaching staff has eliminated risky defensive calls.
“We'll say over and over again, we want to eliminate explosive (plays), so if we think a blitz is really, really good, but there's potential for it to give up an explosive, we're not going to put it in,” Hafley said. “If we feel like there's a really, really good coverage that say, we want to run on third-and-4-to-6 and we really like it against what they're doing but there's a chance to give up an explosive, we're not going to do it.”
Beyond that, he credited players for tackling better.
“Because a lot of times if you don't get the guy down it could go for an explosive, and I think we work really hard on tackling, so credit to the players and staff on that,” Hafley said.
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While emphasizing fundamentals has likely contributed to improved tackling, Hafley added that overall the staff has strived to avoid, at least as much as possible, allowing players to be isolated in space despite that being the No. 1 goal of most modern college offenses.
“I think our scheme allows multiple guys to get to the football at the same time,” he said. “You don't want one on one. It's scary if you miss one tackle and it goes for 50. That's hard, so we also want to look at how can we have coverages, pressure, scheme so that in space we're going to have multiple people around the ball. “
He also suggested that approach allows players to trust each other better and play with more confidence overall. That in itself breeds more consistent execution and performance, something senior safety Jordan Fuller confirmed.
“You don't feel like you're making a one-on-one tackle as much I feel like, so when you have other guys surrounding the ball, you feel like you can really just take your shot,” Fuller said. “I think that's that's really helped us, just having more eyes on the ball and just getting to the ball carrier.”
Add it all up and Ohio State has successfully transitioned from a high-pressure defense that was plagued by breakdowns in 2018 to a bend-but-don’t break unit that is putting up impressive numbers so far in 2019.
“Our whole philosophy is we want to make you drive the length of the field, and if you can drive on us the length of the field, and then put it in the end zone against us in the red zone, nice job,” Hafley said. “Then we got to figure out why, and then we have to adjust some things, but we can't just give up (big plays) because we got cute or we got sloppy.”
Of course, making successful defensive calls is easier when a coaching staff has players such as Chase Young to rely on.
The junior end is second in the nation with 8.5 sacks, and he can affect an offensive game plan even before the opening kickoff.
“On film there’s a lot of deeper developing routes that happen down the field that you sit there and you watch early in the week, and you say, 'If they can run that one, then that's going to be really tough,’ ” Hafley said. "And then you look at another one and you say, ‘Wow, if they can run that one that's going to be really tough,' and then you start to realize when the D-line gets after people, those deeper developing routes, they don't exist. They have to go to shorter routes and quicker concepts, which you guys have seen.”
Young is already halfway to the school’s single-season sack record (14 by Vernon Gholston in 2007).
“Players like that up front help out a lot because you don't have to defend all those deeper things that happen down the field that are harder to defend, which is why I say that your secondary is always good as the guys up front, because they take a lot of stuff away,” Hafley said.
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