Defense Sees Improvement On All Fronts

Ohio State fans everywhere wondered what the heck was going on with the Buckeye defense after the Indiana game. Even head coach Urban Meyer said he'd be putting in his input on that side of the ball, and the good news is the last two games have resulted in better performances for the much-maligned unit.

Those Ohio State fans who went to bed fairly early on Oct. 13, secure in their knowledge that Ohio State had a road win well in hand at Indiana going into the fourth quarter, probably spit coffee across their dining rooms when they got up to read the morning paper.

Thanks to a late Indiana comeback, the final score read 52-49, as the Buckeyes gave up their second-most points in a game in the modern era.

It was hard to tell what was worse – that the performance flew in the face of years of Silver Bullet domination, a tradition worked hard to establish and uphold, or that it came against traditional OSU punching bag Indiana.

"Yeah, that was very bad," cornerback Bradley Roby admitted afterward. "It was very embarrassing for everybody."

But this is football, and the answer to any problem if you ask any coach across the country is simple – go back to work.

By and large, that's what the Buckeyes have done, and the response has been solid. Ohio State gave up 22 points to Purdue – nine of them being ceded by the offense and special teams – and 23 to Penn State, with the last two Nittany Lions touchdowns coming with the team playing prevent defense to protect a multiple-score lead.

There's still work to be done – a pair of 20-point outings, back to back, isn't the kind of stuff legends are made of – but it's fair to say it's progress after roller-coaster performances vs. Nebraska and Indiana.

"I'd be careful saying the word great," head coach Urban Meyer said about the defense. "I have great respect for Silver Bullet defense, even when I was far away because I've always watched Ohio State. And I really feel like, fundamentally, I feel much better about where we're at defensively. And I think our coaches have done a really good job taking ten minutes, sometimes 15 minutes a day just working on fundamentals. This time of year that's almost unheard of, but you can see the improvements on the field."

The reasons for the improvements – which have raised OSU to the top half in the nation in both scoring and total defense – are numerous. When speaking about the team's issues after the Indiana game, Meyer identified three areas of weakness – a lack of playing to the whistle, allowing teams to extend plays; poor tackling, which has the same effect; and issues leveraging the ball, giving teams free space to turn modest gains into game-breaking scores.

It's easy to see where the Buckeyes have improved in those areas over the past two games. Both Purdue and Penn State were forced into five three-and-outs – something that was treated as gaining a turnover in past seasons – and the tackling busts have been largely eliminated. Team defense has reigned as the Buckeyes have swarmed to the ball better, especially on screen plays and short passes.

"We're much better tackling and leveraging the ball," Meyer said. "We blitzed more. We had more pressures. Our defensive staff will give you more numbers. But we played more man coverage and blitzed more than we did all year. So that's telling us something that we need to do more of that."

Meyer's quote also pointed to a bit of a schematic change the Buckeyes have made. The team seemed unsure how to deploy its secondary at the start of the year, especially as both Fickell and incoming co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers have backgrounds teaching zone coverages.

But with two strong cornerbacks in Roby and Travis Howard, the Buckeyes started toying with more man coverage as the season has gone on. The results have been pretty positive, as the Buckeyes played their most man coverage of the year on Saturday in combination with disguised blitzes that kept the Nittany Lions' offensive line off balance and quarterback Matt McGloin on the run.

Meyer said he was behind that decision, which has been given more of a push since the return of safety C.J. Barnett from injury.

"I've been pushing a little bit, and we'll continue to push," Meyer said. "I think it's having confidence. C.J. Barnett coming back at full speed, and I understand the injury issues. Once again, our two corners can play man. There are three other eligible players that have to be manned up as well, and that is where the issue comes, not with confidence."

The team's run defense has been given a boost as well. The Buckeyes gave up 223 rushing yards against Nebraska but that number has decreased in each game since then, as Indiana picked up 129, Purdue 117 and Penn State only 32 with zero carries of 10 or more yards.

There are a variety of reasons for that improvement, but some can at least be attributed to the move of fullback Zach Boren to middle linebacker. In that spot, the senior has been very good against the run, filling the right gaps and providing a physical presence while calming things down when they go haywire.

"He's brought a lot of leadership," Ryan Shazier said. "He calms things down a little bit and he also is really big about just keeping everything in place and having everybody knowing what they're doing."

Add it all up and the Buckeyes see improvement. The hope is that will continue through the final three games of the season.

"I think it's always a process when you have different pieces every week and it's what's best for this offense, what's best for that offense," defensive line coach Mike Vrabel said. "I think there's been a good mix of game planning and adding new things and then having some carryover. The last few weeks we've had some carryover, which has allowed our guys to play fast and recognize things and go play football."

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