Postgame musings: What to do about the Ohio State defense

Ohio State got most of what it wanted out of the 2020 season: Another Big Ten title, revenge on Clemson and a shot at Alabama.

The last part didn’t work out too well, but sometimes you have to tip your cap to a great team.

Here are some thoughts on one of the biggest talking points to come out of Ohio State’s 52-24 loss to the Crimson Tide:

  • Criticism of the Ohio State coaches is certainly valid after the Buckeyes were annihilated by Alabama on defense. The staff seemed to take the approach that they were better of doing what they knew as a unit rather than deviate from their overall plan put in place last year when head coach Ryan Day overhauled that side of the ball.
  • To understand that decision, you have to understand how coaches think. Most are extremely loyal to players who show up and do things the right way, which is often why fans want to see veterans replaced far quicker than they ever are. This is not a bad thing, but it does create friction sometimes because you never know when a better option is available. That’s another thing — coaches want to know what they know. They crave certainty. Young players present tantalizing potential for success to outsiders and terrifying possibility of failure to coaches. It has been that way as long as I have followed Ohio State through multiple coaching staffs and many coordinators on each side of the ball.
  • This is where the lack of games hurt Ohio State as far as maximizing its talent. This time a year ago it stood to reason Ohio State would need some time to try different players in the secondary and work on some updates to its coverages after the nickel defense struggled against Clemson in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl. Then the coronavirus hit, and time to do those things was severely curtailed.
  • The good news is there is no lack of knowledge in the room if they want to radically change what they are doing. Of course, they likely aren’t going to radically change what they’re doing, but they could put a lot on the table as far as coverage options. Defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs ran a variety of coverages as DBs coach with the Titans and had been part of multiple types of secondaries even at Ohio State, where they’ve had success both with single-high safety looks and quarters coverage.
  • Although he has the title coordinator, that mostly entitles Coombs to a big salary and the biggest share of the blame from fans, which I’m sure he’ll take. He is a recruiter and motivator first, and I would expect he’ll continue to thrive in those roles. Another consistent thing about my time covering Ohio State is that has always been a collaborative effort coaching defense. I doubt he is the dictator saying they have to do things and certain way, especially considering in many ways they continued to do things the way they did them last year.
  • The head coach is the one who has repeatedly said he wants to play this style of defense (four down linemen, single-high safety, bend-but-don’t break), so if anything the buck stops with Ryan Day as far as what they are doing overall, but there is no lack of knowledge in the room when it comes to schemes. Greg Mattison and Larry Johnson are veteran coaches (who are wedded to the even front) while Al Washington and Matt Barnes bring a younger perspective, so they should be able to come up with plenty of ideas if they decide to change what they’re doing.
  • Johnson, Coombs, Mattison and Washington are all proven recruiters, and I think that’s the top solution to fixing what was wrong with the defense. They need to do a better job developing the players on the roster now, but the pandemic created challenges in that regard this year so hopefully for all involved there will be better opportunities to teach hands-on in the coming year and beyond. The more talented the player, the better player he is likely to turn into, though.
  • That the 2020 defense would take a step back from 2019 was never much in question. The talent drain up front and in the secondary was immense. There are lots of talented players on the roster, but replacing multiple first-round picks is still a tall order and often involves some growing pains in the short term. In the end, there does not seem to be a Chase Young or a Jeff Okudah on the roster this year, at least not among those players who were healthy and ready to play.
  • This was another area the pandemic created a problem specific to Ohio State this year as missing almost half a season’s worth of games and not getting to play consistently every week once it did start really hurt. That prevented players from getting valuable experience and coaches from getting valuable evaluation opportunities, often the key to making personnel moves.
  • That brings us back to the linebackers. They had four veterans they no doubt love and wanted to get on the field in some way, and they also know what those guys can do much more than any of the new faces in the secondary. So they defaulted back to what they were doing last year and hoped for the best (with Werner and Browning flipping roles and Hilliard playing a lot more). That was likely the best of multiple not-great options, and that is how you end up with Alabama getting to spread the field and exploit them.

  • Based on my knowledge of the personnel, I would have probably done the same thing. Of course the players know the personnel much better than I do.
  • The Crimson Tide are creative on offense, but they didn’t really have to be because in many ways they had the perfect modern college offense. Alabama had the receivers and quarterback to win running the Air Raid and throwing every play, but they also had the offensive line and running back to run the ball 70 percent of the time and still probably succeed. Put those together with the modern melding of spread and power offense concepts, and the 2020 Alabama offense was truly unstoppable.
  • Nick Saban’s team will still be good next year despite having to fill some holes. How good will Ohio State be? Time will tell.

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