Last season, it was a common occurrence to witness an Ohio State defense allowing big plays time after time from opponent after opponent. It frustrated fans, players, and coaches alike.
Just how bad was it?
The Buckeyes were last in the Big Ten in allowing plays of 30 yards or more in 2018 (39), and ranked 118th in that category in the country. Only two teams in the nation — East Carolina and Virginia Tech — allowed more plays of 70 yards or more than the Buckeyes’ seven, and nobody allowed more plays of 80 yards (4) or 90 yards (2) than Ohio State.
To say there was room from improvement in the offseason would be an understatement. It was no surprise, then, that limiting those plays was a major emphasis of head coach Ryan Day’s new defensive staff.
Six games into this 2019 season, and that emphasis has paid off. The Buckeyes have given up just four plays of 30 yards or more this season, which is tied for the best mark in the nation.
Co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jeff Hafley attributes the success in limiting big plays this season to a number of changes in the offseason.
For one, the Buckeyes are playing more zone defense, which keeps the defense’s eyes forward and on the football. There is still plenty of press man coverage, but the overwhelming focus of this defense is on limiting big plays and making opposing offenses earn things for a change.
“I think schematically the number one thing we talk about when we put in new calls, when we talk about anything, and we say it over and over again, we want to limit explosives,” Hafley said. “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. If we feel like there’s a really really good coverage that say we want to run on third and 4-6 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. So everything we think about, we think about explosives.”
‘Bend-but-don’t-break’ is a defensive descriptor that is sometimes frowned upon, but if there isn’t much bending, what’s to complain about?
“Our whole philosophy is we want to make you drive the length of the field,” Hafley said. “If you can drive on us the length of the field, then put it in the end zone against us in the red zone… nice job. Then we gotta figure out why and adjust some things, but we can’t just give up because we got cute or we got sloppy.”
Alongside the changes in the defensive scheme, Ohio State has placed a huge emphasis on tackling and has preached the importance of guys flying to the ball.
According to Hafley, the focus on tackling and pursuit also allows for fewer one-on-one matchups. Try as offenses might to get their best players alone in space, there are rarely situations when a defender is on an island by himself.
That difference is felt by senior safety Jordan Fuller, who has not missed a tackle on a pass play yet this season.
“I think it’s that our tackling has gotten better, and our pursuit to the ball,” Fuller said. “You don’t feel like you’re making a one-on-one tackle as much. When you have other guys surrounding the ball you feel like you can really take your shot. I think that’s really helped us, having more eyes on the ball.”