Ohio State turned in another stellar performance in its 66-17 victory over Maryland. Offensively, the Buckeye run game was slowed early by the Terrapins’ strategy to combine a condensed, odd front with a nose guard head up on the center with a soft cover 2 or quarters coverage to protect against big pass plays.
In the run game, Ohio State seemed to have early identification issues against the odd front. For example, below, the Buckeyes run mid-zone insert. Center Luke Wypler seemingly expects right guard Paris Johnson to combination block the nose guard, and leaves his block to climb to the second level. But Johnson does not try to overtake the nose, leaving the defensive lineman unblocked.
But the Maryland soft coverage shell left ample intermediate passing game opportunities utilizing Ryan Day’s staple pass concepts—for example this early first down conversion on all curls.
Similarly, hitches or outs to the wide field—here to Chris Olave off of Day’s shallow cross concept that resembles all-curl—continue to be a featured component of the Buckeye offense against soft corner coverage.
Maryland’s combination of run-focused linebackers and soft cover 4 also left TreVeyon Henderson repeatedly open on wheel routes. Henderson’s first explosive catch came off the wheel route in mesh, while his second below was a throwback route to the boundary.
Ryan Day then began targeting Maryland’s cover 4 safeties vertically. The Buckeyes repeatedly hit slot Jaxon Smith-Njigba on four verticals “divider” routes, where Smith-Njigba bends his route between the split safeties.
Below, Ohio State runs four verticals from a trips bunch set. This put the Terrapins’ cover 4 safety in a bind, as he is faced with two vertical routes (Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s and Jeremy Ruckert’s) within his zone, requiring the Maryland linebacker to carry Smith-Njigba as the number 3 receiver to his side.
CJ Stroud similarly hit Olave out of his break on a post route where the backside cover 4 safety was held by first a jet sweep and then a play action fake.
In the second half, Maryland tried to play more cover 1 man to limit intermediate and in-breaking routes. But Ohio State demonstrated the limitations to doing so, as both Olave and Garrett Wilson beat their man vertically for touchdowns.
Stroud again threw with anticipation. As Day said following the game, perhaps Stroud’s best quality is seeing the whole field. If anything, he is perhaps too quick to throw or check down—but this is preferable to a young quarterback holding the football.
And Ohio State belatedly established the run game once Day and his staff diagnosed how to target Maryland’s odd front. Specifically, the Buckeyes spread their wide receivers out to remove Maryland’s overhang defenders before running to the tight end side, targeting the sizeable c-gap bubble outside the Terrapins’ three down linemen.
Once the Buckeye offensive line could identify their blocks and establish angles, the Ohio State run game quickly improved. In particular, Ohio State had repeated success with wide zone to the tight end side.
The Buckeyes also targeted the edge with duo.
Both concepts provided Henderson the opportunity to bounce outside, which seems to most fit his running style.
The Ohio State defense again demonstrated its significant change (and improvement) under Matt Barnes to a multiple zone defense. This was underscored by the Buckeyes’ most frequent use yet of what appears to be cover 4 “Meg” (man everywhere he goes), otherwise known as 4 Man.
4-Man Pass Assignments vs. 2×2
- Strong Corner – Press alignment. MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) on #1.
- Strong Apex – Take the first man to the flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc. If #2 begins to go vertical, reroute him before breaking to cover the first man to the flat.
- Strong Safety – Take all of #2 vertical. If #2 is not vertical, then bracket #1.
- Hook – Take any #3 (RB) strong or weak that will not be picked by the CB, Apex, or Safety. If none, defend the Hook deep to short.
- Weak Safety – Take all of #2 vertical. If #2 is not vertical, then bracket #1.
- Weak Apex – Take the first man to the flat. E.g., #1 if he runs a 5 yard hitch, #2 if runs out or bubble, #3 if the RB swings to the flat, etc. If #2 begins to go vertical, reroute him before breaking to cover the first man to the flat.
- Weak Corner – Press alignment. MEG (Man Everywhere he Goes) on #1.
Broadly speaking, cover 4 means there are four deep and three underneath zone defenders. But there are numerous variations within cover 4, all of which feature zone defenders “pattern matching” by playing man coverage on a receiver that comes within their assignment—essentially match-up zone for football.
As the name implies, Cover 4 Meg involves both corners playing man on the outside receivers. The safety and “apex” (the linebacker or cover safety) then essentially play matchup zone on the inside wide receivers—with the apex taking routes to the flat and the safety handling vertical throws.
Ohio State’s use of cover 4 Meg fits within Barnes and Ohio State being a multiple coverage defense. The Buckeyes are not principally a cover 4 pattern matching team.
Instead, they are also using cover 1, cover 2, and cover 3 variations. Cover 4 Meg is a relatively straightforward pattern-matching concept, taking advantage of the Buckeyes’ corner play while also simplifying the back seven’s reads. This allows the Ohio State linebackers to be more run-focused compared to other cover 4 variations (which is important, as in the Buckeyes’ split safety look the cover safety effectively serves as the third linebacker).
And it allows boundary safety Ronnie Hickman to trigger more aggressively against the run then he can from cover 2.
It also ensures that Ohio State has two principal single high coverages (cover 1 and cover 3) and two split safety coverages (cover 2 and 4-Meg)—meaning that, even post-snap, the quarterback cannot be sure when Ohio State is in a split safety look whether the corner will squat in the flat (as in cover 2) or carry the receiver (as in 4-Meg).
Barnes tended to use 4-Meg more on standard downs. On passing downs, he was more apt to call cover 2 or cover 3 buzz. Below, Ohio State runs Tampa 2 (with the Mike getting deeper depth to the post), featuring a simulated pressure ((meaning that the defense still rushes four but one of the rushers is a back seven player with a defensive linemen dropping into coverage) with the backside defensive end dropping in exchange for the linebacker blitz.
Also note below how Ohio State also broke its normal tendency to set the 3-technique to the tight end by placing the one-technique in an under front to the tight end instead.
On cover 3 buzz, the boundary safety Hickman comes down from his split safety spot as an underneath curl defender. Below, the Buckeyes use another simulated pressure, dropping both ends in coverage.
Barnes is still more apt to use cover 1, by contrast, on third and short or near the goal line.
But even there, Ohio State continues to do a better job keeping offenses off-balance. For instance, below, Ohio State aligns in cover 1 over but then drops to cover 3.
And as the above examples show, Barnes continues to mix in simulated and zone pressures (5 man pressures protected by a 3 deep, 3 under zone). Two run zone pressures that Ohio State regularly uses are a cover safety blitz from the field, or boundary corner blitz.
As noted, when playing a split safety scheme, the Buckeyes are using a light box, featuring their cover safety responsible for the field D gap. Maryland tested the cover safety in this role early. But Ohio State started Marcus Williamson at the position, who is bigger and seems more well suited to aggressively setting the field edge.
Maryland did have some success using swing and bubble screens—taking advantage of the fact that, in 4-Meg, Ohio State is often apexing its cover safety inside the slot receiver.
In response, Barnes mixed in more single high coverage in the second half (below cover 3) to get a full cover down (the cover safety aligned head up on the slot), allowing the cover safety to more easily set the edge—underscoring the benefits of mixing coverage schemes.
But even in their single high alignment, the above example shows how Ohio State has generally altered their scheme. Whereas before the bullet would follow the tight end and the cover safety the slot receiver, now the Bullet (Hickman) stays to the boundary with the cover safety (Williamson) to the field—making it easier for Ohio State to adjust to motion and switch between one and two high and implement Barnes’ multiple zone, multiple pressure scheme.