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Oklahoma football: Examining Ohio State's 'basic' defense

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Fingertip catch

Redshirt sophomore running back Joe Mixon catches a pass at NRG Stadium Sept. 3. Mixon finished the game with 77 total yards receiving on 5 catches.

Oklahoma backup quarterback Austin Kendall made headlines Thursday when a video surfaced of Kendall trash-talking Ohio State ahead of the Sooners' matchup with the Buckeyes on Saturday. 

"I think they have a really basic defense," he said. "I think we can go out there and, I mean, [Oklahoma starting quarterback] Baker [Mayfield], he'll light them up. I'm really looking forward to it. If my number's called, I think I can do the same." – Austin Kendall, Oklahoma backup QB, on Ohio State’s defensive scheme

Lost in all the furor caused by Kendall’s comment on the Buckeyes’ defense, which drew multiple comments from current and former OSU players on Twitter and other social media sites, is the simple fact: Ohio State’s defense is basic.

Of course, this does not mean Ohio State’s defense is bad or easy to score against — the opposite is true. It also does not mean it is a scheme that is easy to play in or execute in.

It should be no insult to the OSU defenders to say that their defense is basic, because it is a version of a scheme that countless other college football teams run — a variation of the Michigan State Cover-4 zone defense. The defensive scheme is effective against both the run and the pass, and requires a high level of talent to work properly. 

In a nutshell, OSU’s Cover-4 (or Quarters) defense is run out of a 4-3 formation, with four defensive linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs. Each defensive back is responsible for covering 1/4 of the deep part of the field, and each linebacker has an underneath zone.

What makes Cover-4 so effective is that both safeties line up closer to the line of scrimmage (no more than 10 yards away), aligned vertically over the slot receiver if one is present. This allows the defense to put 9 defenders in the box on most plays, theoretically making it very difficult to run against.

In the diagram below, the pass coverage responsibilities are visible. At the bottom of the screen, the right cornerback is essentially isolated in man coverage with the single receiver, while at the top of the screen, both the safety and the cornerback are one-on-one with their respective receivers if they go deep, but have a linebacker providing help with underneath, shorter passes.

Ohio State Cover-4

Although Ohio State has the athletes to stifle most opposing offenses, the very fact that their scheme is predictable means that it can be exploited. Some of the weaknesses of this scheme include: safeties isolated on slot receivers going deep, easy short completions to the outside receivers on the side with a slot receiver and an inability to provide safety help over the top to the isolated corner (marked in red, above).

Ohio State does not run Cover-4 on every play, but when they do, there are ways to take advantage of it. Here are three plays that OU can use to do just that.

Power Read Option

A key to beating Cover-4 is to be successful in the run game, which will cause the safeties to be more responsive to the run and therefore be a step slower to react to the pass. One of OU’s staple run plays, "power" with a read option wrinkle thrown in, can achieve this goal, and was used with great effect on Joe Mixon’s early touchdown against Houston. Power can be run out of any formation, and is shown below with OU in its spread 4-wide set.

Power Read Option

A Power run play involves linemen pulling, or taking steps backward and then to the side, and blocking at the point of attack. The rest of the linemen, who are not pulling, block down the line of scrimmage and push the defensive linemen away from the point of attack.

On this play, the right guard and right tackle are the designated pullers, with the right guard blocking the defensive end to open up a hole for the running back, and the right tackle leading up through the hole to take on a linebacker. However, due to the nature of the play, the backside defensive end is unblocked — which is where the read option wrinkle comes in.

If the backside defensive end chases the running back, then Mayfield has the option to keep the ball and run into the space the defensive end vacated. If the defensive end stays where he is to prevent Mayfield running the ball, then Mayfield can hand it off without fear of the running back being tackled from behind. 

If each lineman wins his block, the running back will be sprung into space with a full head of steam, forcing the safety to come up and make a difficult tackle. This sets up the next play, which is a play action pass that takes advantage of the safety in one on one coverage.

Play Action Power Slot Vertical

As mentioned earlier, one of the weaknesses of the Cover 4 defense is the safety matched up on the slot receiver when he goes vertical. Compounding this issue for the defense is the fact that the safety also has a responsibility in the run game, which can put him in a compromising position on play action passes.

Play action power slot vertical

On this play action pass play, OU will be in a 3-wide formation with a tight end on the line of scrimmage instead of another slot receiver. The only effect this will have on the defense is to shift the backside linebacker a little tighter to the formation.

At first, the play will develop just like a normal power run play. The left side of the offensive line will block the defensive line down to the right, and the right tackle will pull around to block the defensive end. The running back will also move across the formation, acting like he’s taking the handoff. Additionally, the slot receiver will run towards the safety, briefly acting as though he will block. To the linebackers and safeties, this looks like a run play, and they will react accordingly, taking false steps towards the line of scrimmage.

However, this is where the similarities end. Instead of continuing across the formation with the ball, the running back will shuffle back to help the tight end block the backside defensive end. The linebackers and safeties will realize it’s a pass play, and will attempt to backpedal and get back into their proper positions. The slot receiver will break vertically, and should be able to run past the safety and easily get open deep for a long touchdown.

HB Seam

Another way to exploit OSU’s defense through the air is to use Joe Mixon’s superior athleticism to get him open against the Ohio State linebackers. If both slot receivers run vertical routes, then the only defender who will match up with Mixon if he also runs a vertical route will be the middle linebacker. This play is identical to his 60-yard catch against Houston, although it too can be run out of various formations.

If the OSU linebackers attempt to play deeper off the line of scrimmage to protect against this play, then Mixon will be able to get open easily on shorter routes. However, in order to maintain the integrity of the zone defense, the linebackers will not be able to cheat back and will most likely have to try to run with him down the field.

HB Seam

The slot receivers running the fade routes will clear the safeties out of the middle of the field, and Mixon will be matched up with OSU’s middle linebacker running a vertical route. OU should like those odds.

Oklahoma and Ohio State will kick off at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday. 

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