Fulton Analysis: Knowles’ Defense

After two years of Ohio State often being held back by an overly simplistic defensive scheme that was repeatedly exploited—a situation that Ryan Day and Matt Barnes could only partly address in-season following the Buckeyes’ week two loss to Oregon—Day made perhaps the most important hire of his young tenure by bringing in Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State as the Buckeyes’ new defensive coordinator.

As Day has emphasized since Knowles’ hire, part of his interest in Knowles—who is fresh off leading a less talented but more experienced Cowboys’ defense to the number 3 F+ advanced computer ranking—is the continuity in scheme that Knowles brings from what Day and Barnes sought to implement.

From a broad perspective, as Ohio State did in 2021, Knowles principally operates a 4-2-5 defense.  As Day stated on signing day this month, the Ohio State coaching staff will continue to look for four down linemen, two inside linebackers, a mix of using a nickel and larger safety hybrid at the field overhang position, and four defensive backs (two corners, a boundary safety, and a field safety).

Up front, as Ohio State did this year post-Oregon, Knowles principally bases out of an under front (defensive line shifted away from the call, with the 1-technique nose tackle to the call and the 3-techinque defensive tackle away).

Knowles’ coverage schemes likewise provide some continuity. As Ohio State did under Barnes this year, Knowles frequently uses cover 4 quarters schemes that heavily rely on man coverage; in particular generally putting the outside corners in man coverage on the number 1 wide receiver. For Knowles, this often comes in the form of Brackets to the field and Meg or Mix to the boundary (one of cover 4 strengths is playing different variations to each side of the field—see this Cameron Soran article for a further breakdown of cover 4 schemes.).

And Knowles also routinely uses cover 3 concepts that bring an extra safety into the box.

This includes variety of sim or creeper pressures—meaning that the defense will still rush four and drop seven, but one of the rushers will come from a back seven defender, with a defensive linemen dropping in coverage.

Knowles will also routinely use fire zones, where he rushes five in front of a 3 deep, 3 under.

And, like Ohio State this year under Barnes, on passing downs, Knowles will also mix in cover 1 five-man pressures.

Likewise, he will also routinely play cover 2.

But HOW Knowles gets to these concepts is where the important differences lie from Ohio State’s defensive scheme in 2021. Knowles applies significantly more volume, disguise, and versatility in getting to these core concepts, playing, as Knowles calls it, “offense on defense,” by seeking to confuse blocking assignments and force the quarterback to read post-snap.

What has perhaps most been noted about Knowles’ is his use of a weakside stand-up defensive end (what Knowles terms a Leo). Although the most common alignment remains a 4-2-5 under with the Leo as the backside end, Knowles will also align the Leo in two different spots.

First, he will set him behind a 0-technique nose guard (head up on the center) in a 3-3 stack, providing the Leo a simple key to play an A-gap opposite the nose.

Second, Knowles will “Mug” the Leo, putting him in a flex 3-technique between the guard or tackle.

When mugged, Knowles wants the Leo to read the guard, fighting hard over the top against pulls or down blocks, providing a plus-one to the run side while picking off blocks to keep linebackers free.

These different alignments both change the picture for the offensive line and fit within Knowles’ larger goal in the run game—which is to control blocks up front to spill the football outside to linebackers or safeties.

In fact, Knowles will often align his inside linebackers outside the offensive tackles in the C-gap, allowing them to leverage the football from outside-in. This allows Knowles to present a light box, such as Coach Cody Alexander illustrates in this cover 3 buzz look below.

To accomplish this, Knowles will use heavy techniques up front to control blocks and/or pinch his defensive line, forcing the football outside.

Knowles will utilize the same concept with his linebackers, having one mug and insert as a blitzer up front to eliminate a bubble and allow the backside linebacker to mirror the running back.

Likewise, Knowles’ cover 4 looks are more varied than Ohio State’s belated attempt to implement the pattern matching concept this year. As noted, Knowles often likes playing “Brackets” to the field and “Mix” to the boundary.

While Ohio State frequently played cover 4 “Meg” under Barnes, in Brackets, the corner will play man on the outside receiver, while the field overhang and safety will combination coverage the number 2 (inside receiver), with the overhang maintaining outside leverage and the safety inside.

Mix is similar to Meg, except that the overhang to that side can provide immediate inside help while still immediately triggering on the run, effectively resulting in pure man coverage to that side with run action.

Knowles will use a similar Brackets concept on number 2 against trips, with Meg or Cone to the boundary (Cone is a similar inside-outside bracket concept to a single receiver side).

Again, these cover 4 concepts are more man-oriented than traditional quarters. As such, they allow Knowles to present a light box while still getting a plus one against the run. For example, Brackets allows the defense to trade off intermediate routes, dissuade reliefs with outside leverage, and sit in RPO in-breaking passing lanes; all while freeing up the safeties to trigger against the run.

Mix similarly maintains a quarters concept while having the overhang immediately play the run action. Likewise, by mixing Cone or other concepts to the single receiver side away from trips, Knowles avoids the problem that Ohio State faced against Michigan—where the Wolverines predictably knew that Ohio State in cover 4 would “poach” the boundary safety against the number 3 inside receiver (meaning that the boundary safety is responsible for the opposite inside receiver vertically)—allowing Michigan to align in trips to the field and then run to the boundary to slow down the boundary safety’s run support.

In fact, Knowles more aggressively uses all of his defensive backs (including his corners) in run support than the Buckeyes have done under Day. For instance, against Oklahoma, Knowles regularly played cover 3 Cloud (cover 3 with a corner as one of the underneath curl-flat defenders).

The ability of the defensive backs to play the run allows defenders to take on different responsibilities based on the offensive action.

This allows Knowles to leverage the football outside-in while maintaining depth against the pass in zone and man-match concepts while the front spills the football.

And this fits with another significant difference with Knowles’ Oklahoma State defenses from Ohio State in 2021—the use of 3-high safety schemes (meaning that the defense will align with three-deep safeties).

Although not a base 3-high safety coach, Knowles used the 3-high safeties to counter certain offensive concepts, such as formation into boundary.

For example, Knowles ran a relatively heavy amount of 3-high safeties against Oklahoma to limit crossing routes, RPOs, and to force the football to the sideline, compared to more 4-2-5 against Baylor to combat the wide zone and QB run game.

But although the 3-high presents a different look, it still fits within Knowles’ basic run defense concept of leveraging and spilling the football.

And Knowles can still run his core coverage concepts from a 3-high shell.

Yet it also provides the offense another look to prepare for and fits within Knowles’ philosophy of disguise and making the post-snap picture different than the one pre-snap. This desire for disguise also extends to Knowles’ myriad of pressure schemes.

For instance, Knowles always wants to include some type of cover zero package (6 man rush with five defenders and man and no deep safety), so that the offense knows that it must be prepared for the defense to bring more rushers than the offense can block.

Conversely, Knowles will mix in some 8 man drops, such as this “double roll” 3-cloud.

Given the nature of the run offenses that Ohio State faces in the Big Ten, the Buckeyes’ personnel, and the time needed to acclimate to Knowles’ system, the use of 3-down or 3-high concepts may be gradual. In other words, look for Ohio State to principally base out of Knowles’ 4-2-5 look, with Knowles adding in these additional concepts piecemeal.

But as much any scheme concept, Knowles’ addition should result in better fundamental defense, with the Buckeyes better equipped to control the line of scrimmage and get sufficient run defenders to the point of attack.