After a porous showing against the pass for much of last season, the Ohio State Spring Game demonstrated that the Buckeyes do not plan to make significant changes to their base coverage schemes. But they did make one significant personnel change within that scheme—forgoing playing an outside Sam linebacker in favor of a hybrid linebacker/safety “Bullet—which should provide them coverage flexibility and adaptability against the pass in 2021.
Traditionally, as the name suggests, the modern 4-3 has three linebackers. The middle “Mike” linebacker and weak inside “Will” linebacker both play inside. The third linebacker, the strongside “Sam” linebacker, generally aligns to the tight end/formation strength and is responsible for the outside gap in run support.
But many modern defenses frequently eschew playing a Sam linebacker in favor of a defensive back, given that most college offenses now base out of 11 personnel (3 wide receivers, 1 tight end, 1 running back).
Since Ryan Day’s ascension to head coach, Ohio State has based out of a single, middle of the field covered safety look, with corners over the outside wide receivers, a cover safety over the slot wide receiver to the passing strength, and the Sam over the tight end to run either cover 1 man (man coverage with a free safety) or cover 3 (three deep zone, four underneath defenders).
But there have been significant variations in who played Sam linebacker in 2019 and 2020. In Day’s first year, Pete Werner held the position. While a linebacker, Werner was adaptable enough to cover tight ends in man, rotate back to the deep middle so that the Buckeyes could rotate their cover 3 in the opposite direction, or even align as a split safety.
In 2020, Ohio State played Baron Browning, a more traditional Sam linebacker, at that spot. That limited the Buckeyes’ flexibility to do the things that they did with Werner in 2019. For example, if Ohio State wanted to play a split safety coverage in 2020, they pushed the cover safety back to a deep safety position—tipping their hand, forcing the linebackers to correspondingly adjust their positions out of the box towards the passing strength, and altering run fits.
The Spring Game demonstrated that the Buckeye defensive coaching staff has recognized how this hamstrung the Ohio State pass defense last year; replacing the Sam linebacker position entirely with a hybrid linebacker/safety “Bullet” who practices with the safeties. Rather than align as a linebacker, the Bullet is set more like a walked down safety at about 7-8 yards.
Although playing a safety hybrid at this spot should put a better pass defender on the field than a traditional Sam linebacker, utilizing the Bullet does not really alter the base defense. The Bullet still aligns over the tight end, while the cover safety goes to the slot receiver. When Ohio State runs cover 1 the Bullet is responsible for the tight end in man coverage.
And when the Buckeyes play cover 3, the Bullet generally covers the curl/flat buzz zone; remaining responsible for the D gap outside the tight end in the run game.
But the Bullet does provide the Buckeyes more flexibility in operating their scheme. For example, when the tight end is in a Y-off sniffer position (meaning he is aligned right behind the offensive tackle’s backside) that is a run-heavy spread formation, the Bullet comes up to linebacker depth.
But when the tight end splits out, the Bullet gets deeper.
The increased depth not only helps the Bullet play cover 1 and cover 3. It provides Ohio State more flexibility off their base coverages. For instance, the Bullet is well positioned to play cover 3 “buzz,” where a safety drops into the hook/curl zone and a linebacker takes the buzz zone.
This is a good antidote to the in-breaking RPOs that have caused the Buckeyes’ cover 3 difficulty, as the buzz defender is sitting in the passing lane.
Similarly, it becomes easier to rotate cover 3 in the opposite direction—or mix in a split safety coverage with the Bullet becoming the second deep safety—without changing the defense’s structure by dropping the cover safety deep and altering run-gap responsibilities. This both gives away less to the opponent pre-snap and lessens the adjustments for the defense. At its best, the Buckeyes are essentially operating a pre-rotated Nick Saban nickel weakside cover 3, with the cover safety as the nickel and the Bullet as the in-the-box linebacker.
It is also notable that the Buckeyes are featuring two different body types at the position—Craig Young is more of a smaller linebacker while Ronnie Hickman is a bigger safety—suggesting that Ohio State may rotate who is at the position based upon formation, down, and distance. While the Buckeyes’ pass coverage game success will largely still come down to whether Ohio State can play man coverage more proficiently than they did in 2020, utilizing a Bullet provides the Ohio State staff more tools in defending the pass.