Almost isn’t good enough, especially when it comes to the pass rush.
Much was made about Ohio State’s defensive line last season, and for good reason. The Buckeyes rotated four future NFL defensive ends, as well as four talented defensive tackles, giving them an eight-man rotation that most teams would kill for.
That front four was a large part of the reason why the Buckeyes finished in the Top 10 in both total defense and scoring defense. It wasn’t a Top 10 defense everywhere, however, especially when it comes to the number of times the defense managed to sack the opposing quarterback.
The Ohio State defense managed just 28 sacks last season, good for No. 54 in the nation (and No. 7 in the Big Ten). Part of the reason for that was simply the opposing offense scheming against the Buckeyes’ pass rush, but that’s not the only reason. If you look at the leaderboard from last season, you’ll see Alabama at the top of the list with 54 sacks, and you can’t help but wonder why the scheming wasn’t as effective against the Crimson Tide.
The lack of sacks for the Buckeyes last year was also concerning when you remember all of the attention that was given to their “Rushmen Package” of four defensive ends on passing downs. This was thought to especially harass the quarterback, which it did, but what defensive line coach Larry Johnson wants is more than just harassment.
“Yeah, we talked about that,” Johnson said. “We talked about the ability to get to the quarterback. I think that’s the most important thing. We deflected the ball, we got some knockdowns, we tipped balls, that’s all great, but at the end of the day we’ve got to get the quarterback on his back. So that’s been our goal going into spring ball. We’ve got to rev up our pass rush, especially from the inside out. Our three technique has got to really be a great pass rusher. That’s something we work with Dre’Mont (Jones) and try to change that. Once that happens, then all of a sudden the outside becomes really more effective.”
The OSU defensive line accounted for 21 of the team’s 28 sacks last year. The year before they accounted for 27. The defensive line’s high under Urban Meyer was 32 in 2013 when they had Joey Bosa, Noah Spence, and Michael Bennett all lining up together.
Last season’s 21 sacks were the fewest for the OSU defensive line since 2012, when they managed just 16, and that was with John Simon picking up nine just by himself.
So you can see the reason for the emphasis on getting to the quarterback this spring. How do they go about improving on it?
“The first thing we work on is acceleration from the line of scrimmage,” Johnson explained. “If you go back and we went back and watched video of each guy, met with them one-on-one, and talked about how can we improve our pass rush. What you saw in common was we weren’t taking that first step fast enough across the line of scrimmage. So our emphasis this spring has been to attack the line of scrimmage faster. And that’s what you’re seeing now. You’re seeing guys really jumping off the ball, and that’s how you get to the quarterback.”
The Buckeye pass rush was disruptive, but they also had the benefit of playing with the best secondary in the nation. Their successes go hand-in-hand, but this coming season that secondary is going through a major overhaul, which means the defensive line may have to carry a bit more of the load initially.
As such, improving the pass rush isn’t just a want, it is a need for a defense that may go through a few growing pains before October rolls around.
How teachable are the necessary changes?
“It’s very teachable because you’ve got your eyes on the ball,” Johnson said. “The first step is about inches. You’re moving to the line of scrimmage, if I take a short step, I take my first step, I don’t cross the line of scrimmage. If I can elongate my first step on the pass rush, I’m across the line and I gain a yard, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Gaining a yard may not seem like much, unless you think back to all of the times last year that the Buckeyes almost got to the quarterback. The yard they were missing was usually the distance between simply disrupting a quarterback and putting him on his back.
The goal in 2017 is to eliminate the almosts, and in so doing, eliminate the quarterback along the way.