When you look at the statistics, the Buckeyes don’t have a lot to complain about on defense this year. Especially when you compare those stats to the previous two years. But times have changed — and because of those previous stats, so has most of the Ohio State defensive coaching staff.
This season, the Buckeyes are 15th nationally in scoring defense (15.7 points per game) and seventh nationally in total defense (253.5 yards per game). A year ago after six games, the Ohio State defense was allowing 20.5 points per game and giving up 387.3 yards per game.
Significant improvement has been made, and both head coach Ryan Day and defensive coordinator Jim Knowles are happy with how things are going, but there is one glaring issue that has plagued the Buckeyes to this point.
“We’ve got to be better with those 50/50 balls,” Knowles said this week. “I mean, that’s just the reality of playing defense — you can play great all game and they can just toss a couple up in the air and if you don’t win them, you give up a couple of touchdowns. That’s the game we play, but we want to get better in that area.”
Just about every cornerback on the team has fallen victim to a 50/50 toss from an opposing quarterback. Very often, the Buckeyes have a man right with the receiver, but the defender hasn’t been able to locate the ball and stop the completion. Even last week, a 50/50 ball was completed on Cameron Brown while Brown had his hand on the football.
It’s no way for an offense to survive, but it can allow them to cling to life a little bit longer. And for the healthier offenses, it can actually start to inflict damage on a defense if it isn’t addressed.
With this week being an open week for the Buckeyes, it meant that it would be a good time to get those corners some work on finding the football.
“I think that these three days are great days to get better, and then take a couple days to catch their breath,” Day said this week. “But the best way to coach is to put players in game situations. So how do we create those exact situations that have happened in the first six games and then allow them the opportunity to find the ball? Simple as that. It’s not really complicated. But without doing it so much that we blow their doors off. We’ve got to make sure that we’re keeping them healthy. But that’s it. We just have to try to find a way to simulate the game and make practice harder than the game so that when they get there, they’re ready to make that play.”
Day and Knowles have stressed the need to finish on those plays. When a quarterback throws a ball up for grabs between a receiver and a cornerback, the odds shouldn’t be 50/50. The odds should be much higher in the defense’s favor of at least creating an incompletion.
And according to Knowles, evening those odds starts way before the ball is ever even thrown.
“We talk a lot about winning at the line of scrimmage. I think when you go back to some of the plays that haven’t gone in our favor, you have to look back to the start of the play and if we’re in press coverage to make sure that we’re throwing our best punch at the line of scrimmage because that helps the route down the road,” he explained.
“And then, yeah, it’s all about where are you at on the field? Inside, outside, close to the sideline, close to the hash mark. There are all kinds of coaching points that you can give. And it comes down to fitting what the player does best with the techniques. There are a lot of techniques, and our coaches are on top of all of them. But you have to kind of melt what’s best for the player combined with the technique.”
The reasons can also go well beyond the throw and the technique. It may also involve the scheme, which Knowles is keenly aware of and watching closely.
“You can talk about not making the play on the 50/50 ball, but I have to say, ‘Why is this guy incurring so many shots,'” Knowles said. “How do I need to disguise things better, change things up differently so that doesn’t happen? So offenses don’t feel that they can do that? I have to look back at myself. So it’s not just that split second at the top of the route. It’s football, there’s a lot that goes into it and practicing and winning at the beginning of the play, throwing punches and then the play call. And what’s the quarterback seeing? What’s the offensive coordinator seeing? Am I creating the best situation for that guy to be successful?”
It can almost feel there are 50 answers for a 50/50 problem, but for Knowles it’s never going to be just the cornerbacks who will be under the microscope.
“If we’re taking shots at that position, I have to look at myself too and say, ‘Well, are we showing our hand too much? Am I giving those guys every chance to be successful through disguise and coverage variation?’ So that’s my responsibility and something we’ll look at hard over the bye week.”