Film Room: Ohio State must get vertical to knock off Oklahoma

This is the kind of game Kevin Wilson was brought to Columbus to help Ohio State win.

Of course, the Buckeyes were comfortable victors against Oklahoma a year ago. But the showdown of top-5 teams Saturday in Columbus represents Wilson’s first challenge against a playoff caliber opponent. His task this week, as it has been throughout the Buckeyes’ preseason, and will remain throughout this campaign, is to add a vertical passing game to a perennially impressive rushing attack.

Ohio State’s passing game was a fatal flaw at the back end of last season. Too much of the offense revolved around quarterback runs and quick-strike passes that allowed safeties to sit at the sticks and clamp down on everything underneath, without a fear of being burned over the top.

Wilson, one of the best offensive coordinators of the modern era, is the man tasked with changing that.

The Buckeyes will need that vertical element on Saturday against a feisty Sooners defense that will present unique problems.

Oklahoma is shifting its defense under new coach Lincoln Riley and defensive coordinator Mike Stoops — the brother of former coach Bob Stoops. They’re reverting back to the 4-3 after running the 3-4 in recent years. Although it’s four rushers, the scheme includes a hybrid “joker,” rather than four down linemen.

The interesting wrinkle, though, is the relationship between the interior lineman and linebackers. Rather than setting the three technique (the defensive tackle over the outside shoulder of a guard) to the strength of the offensive formation, they are, for the most part, setting it in relation to the boundary and hash mark – with the three technique and Sam linebacker lining up to the field side. You can see this illustrated in last week’s game vs. Texas-El Paso.

The idea is to make things clearer for each linebacker, freeing them up to concentrate on their space.  The free linebacker – usually the Sam – is given the responsibility of doubling a slot receiver with a free release, or buzzing around and containing any run or quick pass underneath to the field side. The opposite linebacker works hash mark to boundary, a much smaller space, while noting the release of any running back out of the backfield.

It will be key for Ohio State to put those linebackers in a bind. Part of the design of the new Sooners system is to help their linebackers cope against the Big 12’s slew of read-pass options and option looks. RPOs, read plays and motions will task them regardless, executed correctly and they can be no-win situations for a defense. But the key to get those linebackers frazzled is to get receivers vertical.

The linebackers must be conflicted between thundering downhill – either for a run or pass – or turning and running in space. If everything is in front of them, they’ll gobble it up.

Sending receivers in behind them, while buzzing a tight end or running back into the flat will muddy the picture, and force them into making a decision, rather than reading and reacting to what’s in front of them.

Targeting the boundary linebacker against a split-safety look will reap rewards.

Add in a motion man or a potential option and you put the linebackers in a three-way dilemma. Rather than zooming around in attack mode, they’re forced to take extra beats while plays develop. That’s never a good spot to be in as a defense, particularly if you’re not getting steady pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush.

There’s no doubt Wilson is the man to design such a game plan. But it’s fair to wonder if his quarterback and receivers can execute it.

J.T. Barrett has faced a ton of criticism for his play within the pocket, particularly on throws downfield. The question is not Barrett’s arm, it’s his willingness to let it fly, and his accuracy once he does.

It’s not all on the quarterback, though. The receivers deserve a portion of the blame. Urban Meyer has articulated as much. “The accuracy of a quarterback has to do with the timing and relationship he has with the receivers,” Meyer said this week in his press conference. “If he’s expecting a receiver to come back and the receiver goes there, it may look like the quarterback’s fault. That’s what happened the last couple [of games].”

The failure of Ohio State’s receivers to separate from press coverage is a problem. The staff needs to do a better job of attacking through play design, rather than relying on their athletes to beat the coverage on isolation routes.

Wilson tried against Indiana. The Buckeyes ran a mesh concept that looks like it will be a staple of this year’s plan: A pair of receivers crisscrossing over the middle of the field in order to create a natural rub, hopefully springing one of them into space.

They found success on the game’s opening drive. But as the first half progressed, the play bogged down.

Without a consistent deep threat, the Hoosiers were able to rotate a “robber” or “hole” defender into the middle of the field. That defender sits in a zone and reads the release of the receivers. As they crisscross the field, the corner hands the receiver off to the free defender, rather than having to run across the face of the other cornerback heading his way.

Plenty of throws were left short of the sticks or were snuffed out by extra defenders clouding the middle of the field.

Wilson foresaw the defensive strategy and built in a creative solution to exploit a mismatch on the outside: the forever undefeated wheel route. It was a smart tactic. With the robber dropping down, the remaining safety was left deep in the middle of the field. Get the running back on a linebacker in space and the safety shouldn’t have had the time to recover.

The plan was excellent. The play just missed. Indiana’s safety read it, fired and closed the gap before Barrett could hit the back along the sideline.

Ohio State finally busted the coverage deep down the field early in the third quarter. But they failed to cash in.

On the Parris Campbell drop above, the Buckeyes got their H-Back matched up with Hoosiers free safety Chase Dutra. It was an athletic mismatch. Campbell zipped by Dutra on a straight isolation route. The safety was already in a poor position – a half turn – which left him flat-footed when Campbell, a far superior athlete, ran through his gears.

The key, however, was Dutra’s help inside. Linebacker Tegray Scales was in a hole, sitting on any in-breaking route, and ready to assume coverage of whoever was handed to him.

Instead, Campbell planted and fired, leaving the safety in wake. Hit that, and not only are there six points on the board, but the Hoosiers could no longer squeeze down on everything underneath – given it should have been a score, it likely had the same effect.

There’s a significant bonus tagged on to that. It’s tough enough to stop the Buckeyes’ rushing attack with a safety down in the box. It’s damn near impossible with two safeties deep.

(Quick Aside: The other downside to the Sooners’ new system is it can expose its linebackers against the run. The offense can essentially pick and choose which linebacker they want to attack. That might spell another monster night for freshman J.K. Dobbins.)

The down in down out slog in the trenches will rack up yardage and likely points on Saturday. Making that possible, though, will fall on Barrett and his receivers hitting 4-5 crucial shots downfield. The earlier the better. Linebackers must be put into a bind over whether to sit and fire, or turn and run. And Stoops must spend the night worrying about whether he needs one or two deep safeties.

Wilson was brought in to help make that happen. Oklahoma represents the first big test to see if he can put his guys in a position to get the job done.

The post Film Room: Ohio State must get vertical to knock off Oklahoma appeared first on Land of 10.

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