The Ohio State defense played effectively against Clemson by making critical adjustments within their defensive philosophy to slow the Tigers in the Buckeyes’ 49-28 Sugar Bowl win.
Except on third downs and late in the fourth quarter, the Ohio State defensive staff did not play nickel against Clemson’s spread sets. Instead, the Buckeyes remained true to their base 4-3, single high, cover 3 scheme. But the Buckeyes made several key adjustments to that scheme that limited the Tigers’ offense after Clemson was able to exploit the flats and outside edge on their opening touchdown.
For defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs’ game plan, everything began with the premise that Ohio State’s interior defensive line led by Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togai could control Clemson’s inside run game.
Because of this, Coombs then designed adjustments within the Buckeyes’ 4-3, cover 3 framework to minimize the threat where Clemson is most dangerous—running outside and throwing run-pass-options. Rather than pre-set in a one-high look pre-snap, Ohio State aligned in split safeties, with Josh Proctor to the field and Marcus Williamson to the boundary.
The safety to the slot receiver side—frequently Proctor—would then rotate down at the snap, with the other (often Williamson) rotating to the deep middle. In effect, Ohio State went from playing a cover 3 rotated weak, to a cover 3 rotated to the offense’s formation strength. This prevented Trevor Lawrence from knowing pre-snap where the safety curl/flat zone defender would be, allowed the Buckeye secondary to more easily respond to slot receiver motion and fly sweep action, and enabled Ohio State to more easily mix up their cover 3 looks. For example, Ohio State mixed in both cover 3 buzz (safety drops into the middle to take away in-breaking routes while the linebacker takes the flat), and cover 3 cloud (corner plays the flat with a safety taking the deep third) from their base defense.
When a defense aligns with two deep safeties, it provides one less defender to align over an offense’s slot receiver (because you have only two defensive backs for three receivers), forcing the outside linebacker to the slot receiver side to widen and set between the offensive tackle and slot. But for the Buckeyes against Clemson, this was a feature, not a bug. Coombs generally aligned Sam linebacker Justin Hilliard outside the offensive tackle. And if Will linebacker Pete Werner had a tight end and/or Travis Etienne to his side he too would widen to an overhang position.
Widening the outside linebackers helped defend against wide runs and screens. A weakness with single high safety (cover 1 and cover 3) concepts is that when an offense runs speed option to the weak side of the defense (away from the safety rolled down into the box) the offense lacks force support outside the tackle. But by putting the linebackers in the alley, the linebacker could fill that role.
Although Ohio State was left somewhat vulnerable to bubble screens by not covering up the slot receiver, they minimized any damage by tackling in space. And this linebacker alignment—in addition to limiting edge runs and throws to Etienne—helped take away Clemson’s run pass options by having linebackers sitting in the throwing lanes.
The Buckeyes further minimized edge runs and RPOs by using techniques that ensured that Lawrence would receive an inside run read. Ohio State did so by having their defensive ends use a “boxing” technique, where the end sits outside with his shoulders’ square and takes on a block with his inside shoulder.
On read plays, when a quarterback sees the defensive end sitting with his shoulders square the read is to run inside. But Ohio State’s inside defenders who were supposed to be blocked consistently won up front, taking away the inside run. The outside linebacker could then fill the alley, taking away outside runs or making the tackle on the ball carrier if spilled outside.
This play—where Clemson faked a fly sweep to run a toss power read—encapsulates the Ohio State defense’s strategy for the Tigers.
Williamson rotated down with the slot receiver coming to his side, with Werner staying wide to play the sweep. Defensive end Tyreke Smith boxed the pulling center, with Hilliard accounting for Etienne, giving Lawrence a keep read. Togai then made the tackle for loss by aggressively attacking the pulling action.
Again, this strategy would not have been possible without Garrett and Togai’s controlling the line of scrimmage in the middle.
Ohio State rendered Clemson one-dimensional by taking away any chance for the Tigers to run inside and limiting Lawrence as a runner, often forcing him to bounce outside where he is less effective running horizontally.
The Buckeyes’ performance against Clemson encapsulates Ryan Day’s overall defensive strategy. True to its philosophy, Ohio State remained focused on stopping the run first by primarily playing with three linebackers. But Coombs smartly adapted that strategy to the opponent, spreading out to handle the edge run and RPO game while relying upon the defensive line inside. This was made possible by the play of Hilliard, who exemplified the benefit of having a linebacker as the overhang defender if he can handle that role athletically, in that he can physically set the edge and shed blocks.
The Buckeyes then successfully executed the other aspect of Day’s defensive philosophy, which is preventing big pass plays through the three deep zone defenders. This out route throw below from the far hash mark in front of cover 3 corner Shaun Wade is the type of route that Ohio State is generally willing to cede.
But although Lawrence threw for 400 yards, they were a quiet 400 yards, as the Buckeyes made Clemson play offense in a way it did not want to—sustaining drives with the mid-range passing game. Ohio State has still not allowed a touchdown drive this year when they do not surrender a play of over 20 yards.
And when the Buckeyes did use their nickel package featuring Lathan Ransom as the nickel, they mixed several schemes to keep the Clemson pass game off-balance. In addition to playing cover 3, Ohio State increased its use of cover 1 in such situations, using Proctor as a spy for Lawrence and/or the defender assigned to play man on Etienne out of the backfield.
The Buckeyes also utilized its 3-3-5 alignment, which allowed it to use more simulated pressures (rushing and playing cover 3 behind with one of the rushers being a linebacker)—specifically blitzing Baron Browning outside or Werner inside.
Ohio State generally featured more pressure packages than they have used this season. And the Buckeyes’ pass rush from its front four started to have a significant impact once Clemson was forced to pass, showing the effectiveness of Ohio State’s front four when an opponent is put behind schedule.