A short-handed Ohio State ran into a buzz saw in its 52-24 national championship loss to Alabama. The Buckeyes’ defensive scheme was a poor matchup—schematically and personnel-wise—for the Crimson Tide’s RPO-heavy offense.
As previously discussed, Ryan Day utilizes a variant of Pete Carroll’s NFL scheme. The defense generally plays a coverage where the safety is in the middle of the field—either cover 1 man (man with a free safety) or spot-drop (meaning the defender plays zone in an area rather than playing man within that area) cover 3.
This system works best if the defense can mix and match cover 1 and cover 3—so that the offense does not know what is coming even while showing a middle of the field safety. In particular, the appropriate response in this defensive system to RPOs is to play cover 1; eliminating the run/pass conflict by having a defender responsible for each eligible receiver, while still being plus one against the run.
Yet the issue for Ohio State this season was that the Buckeyes generally did not have the personnel to play cover 1 well; leaving Ohio State heavily reliant upon cover 3. And, as Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian discussed in his coaching clinic last summer, because the corners must get depth and there is too much underneath zone space in front of linebackers that must respect the run action, cover 3 is a poor matchup for RPOs.
As Alabama running back Najee Harris described postgame, the Buckeye staff’s response to that situation seemed to be to control what they could, which was to limit the Crimson Tide run game.
But, as Sarkisian predicted, this left Ohio State vulnerable to RPOs.
If the cover 3 corner played with depth, Alabama threw a quick out RPO (here against the Buckeyes’ cover 3 weak rotation, also known as cover 6).
If the corner kept outside leverage, the Tide threw an RPO glance route.
Alabama also repeatedly exploited Ohio State’s base alignment (three linebackers), leveraging the Sam linebacker playing inside the interior (number 2 or number 3) receiver to open up quick screens.
Ohio State’s change-ups worked little better. For example, below the Buckeyes run 3 buzz (underneath safety drops into the hooks zone instead of the flat) to limit middle of the field throws. But the Tide used a sail concept for a 2 on 1 in the deep corner’s zone.
When Ohio State played cover 2 with split safeties, Alabama successfully ran the football—reflecting the fact that the Buckeyes do not have experience fitting the run from two-high.
Cover 2 also did make a significant difference against the Alabama pass game.
Ohio State did blitz their linebackers (particularly Mike Tuf Borland) regularly; including creating a turnover with Sam Baron Browning off the edge. But when the Buckeyes returned to that blitz, Alabama called a throwback to Harris that led to an easy score after corner Sevyn Banks was improperly pulled out of his cover 3 zone by orbit motion.
As the game progressed Ohio State did play more cover 1; also with limited success. For instance, the Buckeyes generally played man coverage in third down nickel, which Alabama repeatedly targeted with mesh and other shallow cross concepts.
The Tide also hurt Ohio State’s tendency to play cover 1 near the goal line by using motion to free their receivers—below sending Devonta Smith in fake orbit motion for the touchdown.
And Alabama repeatedly targeted Shaun Wade in press coverage, taking advantage of his inability to get his hands on the receiver and hips turned.
In particular, Alabama exploited the Buckeyes’ insistence on playing a 4-4 against the Tide’s heavy 12 personnel (2 tight ends with one of those tight ends essentially being an additional offensive lineman). Ohio State’s use of four linebackers results from the Buckeye staff’s conception that the two overhang defender slots can be filled by defensive backs or linebackers to match like personnel.
If the offense uses two tight ends, the defense can thus play two outside linebackers. But the four linebacker personnel leaves Ohio State vulnerable in coverage because they can only play base cover 1 or cover 3 from those looks.
The Buckeyes went with the former against Alabama. So Sarkisian lined up Smith away from this two tight tight ends—leaving him matched up in single coverage on Wade to the outside without help.
But perhaps no play is more emblematic of the Buckeyes’ coverage issues—both with scheme and personnel—than Smith’s touchdown behind Borland.
On the play, Ohio State is aligned in its base, strong side cover 3 rotation against Alabama’s four wide, trips alignment.
This means that the corners and safety Marcus Williamson take the deep thirds, safety Josh Proctor and Will Pete Werner play the flats, Sam Browning plays the strong hook, and Borland is the weak hook.
Against trips, playing cover 3 strong meant that Borland, as the cover 3 weak hook player, must carry the inside trips receiver Smith vertically.
There are several ways the Buckeyes could have dealt with this mismatch. Deep safety (Marcus Williamson) should have provided help over the top but was pulled out of position.
But more practically, Ohio State could have checked to a different coverage with Smith as the inside trips receiver. Last year, using their matchup theory, they likely would have gone cover 1 over to get a corner on Smith with the Sam outside over a tight end.
But even without the ability to play cover 1 well, the Buckeyes could have switched to a different zone scheme that still fits within their system. They could have checked to a weakside cover 3 (cover 6), meaning that the safeties would have rotated away from the trips, leaving Williamson as the weak hook player carrying Smith vertically.
What makes it more difficult for Ohio State to make that check is that the Buckeyes were in their base defense—requiring the Sam to widen out over the number 2 receiver—an easier task for a nickel defender. Or the Buckeyes, with a more diversified coverage playbook, could check to a Carroll changeup concept such as quarter-quarter-half, which would have kept the same safety rotation but provided help over the top (Proctor would have dropped with he and Banks each playing a deep fourth to the field, Williamson a deep half to the field, and the boundary corner Wade in cover 2).
In sum, Ohio State did limit the Alabama run game and force the Tide to drive the length of the field. It was just that Alabama was able to repeatedly do so against the Buckeyes’ basic coverage system from its base defense.
Assuming that Day wants to continue playing this Caroll-based scheme, Ohio State needs both scheme and personnel adjustments to operate a more competitive pass defense against top-end passing offenses. First, the Buckeyes need two corners and a slot defender that can consistently press and play man coverage—allowing Ohio State to play cover 1 against three receiver alignments. Although playing more nickel against Alabama would have provided the Buckeyes more variation in its zone coverages, it is difficult regardless to base out of middle of the field safety coverage unless you have good corner play (it also helps to have a strong pass rush and middle of the field safety).
Second, Ohio State needs to make adjustments to their scheme. Principally, the Buckeyes need to play more of a hybrid safety/linebacker at Sam linebacker and/or use a nickel more frequently. By alignment, the Sam is an overhang, in the box safety. Last season, using Werner at Sam allowed Ohio State to at least passably have a defender who could play man on tight ends or rotate deep.
But this season, Ohio State used a more traditional Sam, further limiting their coverage scheme. The Buckeyes would ideally have more of a hybrid than even Werner who could play man, align wide in the flats over receivers, or rotate deep to allow Ohio State to effectively mix different cover 3 concepts like 3 weak or 3 buzz. The Buckeyes benefitted against Clemson by aligning in split safeties to allow cover 3 rotation in either direction. A third safety-type at Sam provides further flexibility.
Alternatively Ohio State needs to play more nickel. The Buckeyes have been hurt in the playoffs the last two years by the paucity of their nickel package. Given the relative experience of its linebacking corps relative to its defensive backs this season, it is not unreasonable that the Buckeye staff chose to rely upon base.
But, as the Smith touchdown above shows, it significantly limits Ohio State’s coverage flexibility. For instance, below, Ohio State aligns in base cover 1 on third and 2 against Alabama’s 12 personnel—when one is Jaheel Billingsley. He broke inside—matching him up on Borland—leading to an easy completion.
As with having a hybrid Sam, playing more nickel would allow the Buckeyes to more effectively play man coverage, defend in space, and rotate coverage concepts. The Carroll coaching tree regularly uses nickel looks. Conversely, Ohio State needs to abandon the 4-4 concepts, as even poor passing teams are able to exploit it.
Third, Ohio State needs a split safety change up that it can use on standard downs. Quarter-quarter-half would be one relatively inexpensive coverage to install, as it still provides three deep defenders. Although the Buckeyes showed some split safety quarters concepts early this year, they largely abandoned those concepts in an attempt to simplify. They need to settle on at least one such concept.
Carroll’s single high scheme can work against an RPO-heavy attack if the defense can successfully play man and has zone change ups. But going forward, the Buckeyes must not be so single-mindedly devoted to stopping the run at the expense of having answers in the passing game.