Performance of Young Defensive Line a Pleasant Surprise
By Patrick Muprhy
With today’s athletes and the spread attacks that have become popular, football is almost unrecognizable to those who grew up with three yards and a cloud of dust.
The rules have also changed in favor of a more offensively open game. Defenders are limited in what they can do to a receiver until he catches the ball, making it more difficult to cover than ever before.
As a result, the importance of the defensive line, and the pressure applied by it, has risen significantly. If a team can get to the quarterback, they can affect the pass from its origin.
Urban Meyer has the philosophy that championships are won on the defensive line, and he has good company in that line of thought.
In last year’s NFL Draft, nine defensive linemen were taken in the first round; eight more than quarterbacks and nine more than running backs.
In 2012, there were seven defensive linemen taken in the opening round and in 2011 ten were selected.
Meyer and his staff have worked hard to bring that to Ohio State, making recruiting the best defensive linemen a priority in each class.
After losing all of their front four from last year’s team, there was pressure on the young players to perform as the Buckeyes look to extend the nation’s longest winning streak.
The line is still a work in progress, but defensive line coach Mike Vrabel is happy with the improvement his players have made.
“It really started [in the spring] focusing in on what we would need to do, have to do and treating every weekend like a game,” he said earlier this year.
“Now, I think we have gotten off to a good start.”
In the first big test of the year against Wisconsin, Ohio State only managed two sacks for 14 yards and was punished to the tune of 295 passing yards against.
The following week, the Buckeyes sacked Northwestern five times.
The secondary has come under scrutiny this season for allowing 240 passing yards per game, but the unit as a whole is responsible.
“We all work together,” co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “The reality is that with a young front seven we put a lot of heat on our back end. Maybe that comes with some of the territory and the situations and that's why some of the yards are up where they are.”
What the defense has done well this year is stop the run and much of the credit for that has to go to the defensive line.
The Buckeyes rank seventh nationally in rush defense, allowing just over 86 yards per game. Against the Badgers, they held the nation’s leading rusher to 74 yards and limited one of the best running teams in the country to just 104 yards on the night.
Similar numbers are expected of Ohio State’s pass defense as well and that is where there is still room for improvement.
“I think technique is always important,” Vrabel said.
“I think you look at pass rush technique as things that we are always going to continue to work on.”
OSU ranks in the top 10 in stopping their opponent on third down – allowing a conversion just 25% of the time – and Fickell believes the defensive line deserves credit there.
“The best thing we're doing right now is third down if you look at it” he said.
“There's a lot of different things [that go into it], but the ability of our guys up front to pin their ears back and get the pass rush, we've got a multitude of guys that can mix in there and do a good job of it.”
Sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were two of the guys expected to be feature on the defensive line this season.
Spence has wreaked havoc on opponents’ backfield. He is currently fourth in the Big Ten in sacks per game and sixth in tackles for a loss.
Washington has been in and out of the Buckeye lineup due to injuries.
“He was dinged up and missed a couple of games with his groin,” Fickell said of Washington.
“Then he got a little bit of an ankle this past week so he's had a little bit of a tough go at it right now injury-wise, but he's battling and he's grinding and he's still a 19 year old kid. We should have him for the Iowa game.”
“He's continued to come on. He's still just a true sophomore guy that we put in high esteem and have high expectations for.”
Steve Miller and Michael Bennett have contributed in his absence, as they join Spence in the top-10 in the conference for sacks per game.
Freshman Joey Bosa has emerged this year, impressing his coaches and earning substantial playing time.
“He's an impact player and I've never really had a freshman D-Lineman [make such and impact],” Meyer said of Bosa.
“His future is kind of silly around here if he keeps going. He's just so strong. He torques people.”
Meyer stated that Bosa has earned the right to be a starter at Ohio State and that’s something he does not know if he has had before.
The youth of the line was a concern coming into the season, but they are shaping up to be a quickly maturing bunch.
With Tommy Schutt expected to make his season debut next week and Washington’s return to full healthy, there will be more bodies added to the group.
This depth and talent will help improve the passing defense as well as they put pressure on the quarterback.
This helped to create a big play against the Wildcats on cornerback Doran Grant’s interception that helped turn the game around.
“At halftime, the defensive line committed themselves to us and we did the same to them,” Grant said. “They got the pressure and I just had to make the play for the team.”
This is will be the expectation as the Buckeyes head into the second half of the season.