It goes without saying that many of the problems Ohio State is facing seem to be the intangible kind. For whatever reason, the offense seems to be out of rhythm, and tweaking the X’s and O’s will only improve things so much.
That said, the X’s and O’s are a whole lot more fun to talk about. So while Urban Meyer and his staff prepare for the team for their fourth opponent of the season, let’s take a look at the actual process a coaching staff goes through when preparing for an unfamiliar opponent like Western Michigan.
It Starts With Us
As a coach, before you start preparing for your next opponent, you spend the first half of Sunday watching the game tape from the day before. The Buckeyes have played three games, so by this point they should already have at least some idea of what they do well and what opposing defenses like to do to try to stop them.
The question every staff has to ask itself each week is this: Based on what you’ve already seen so far this season, what have you done well, and what have opponents been doing that gives you trouble?
What should stick out more than anything from a schematic point of view is the amount of odd fronts they’ve been seeing so far.
Whether it was the aggressive "Bear" front from Virginia Tech or the slightly more conventional 3-4 defenses from Hawaii and NIU, no doubt there has been a theme this season.
Even if you’re playing a team that specializes in a four-man front, it’s very easy for the defense to stand up one of their defensive ends and bump over the rest of the defensive line to resemble an odd front, even if all they’re going to do is slant everyone back into the same gaps they’d be playing from a four man front anyway.
What this means is that the Buckeyes should be expecting a regular dose of odd front defenses from here on out, or at least until they prove they have answers for it.
Let’s look at some of the basic steps a coaching staff goes through when preparing for a new team.
One of the first things you do as a coach is take a look at cutups of your next opponent broken down by formation.
For example, this week the Ohio State coaches will tell the computer they want to see all the clips of the Western Michigan defense against a certain formation. This data will have already been entered into the computer by the graduate assistant coaches by the time the rest of the staff starts watching film.
It’s true that Ohio State runs a lot of spread formations and unconventional sets, but there’s still plenty they can glean from most opponent’s film in this regard. So how do you get a good idea of how Western Michigan will line up against your formations? You watch and see how they lined up to those same formations against all their other opponents.
Let’s take the I-formation from Michigan State for example. Western Michigan played the Spartans the first week of the season, and since they are the only team the Broncos have faced with top FBS talent, it’s likely that the Buckeye coaching staff will spend the most time watching this game. They want to get a feel for how the Bronco defense will play against a top team, and since WMU’s other two games so far were played against Murray State and Georgia Southern, watching the Michigan State tape gives them a good barometer to judge just how tough the Broncos actually are.
So why would Ohio State care how WMU defends the I-formation, since this offense runs almost exclusively out of the gun? Because for all intents and purposes, formations with two backs in the backfield and a tight end attached to the offensive line are going to be defended pretty much the same, at least from an alignment standpoint.
What this means is that even if the offense lines up in the gun with one back on each side of the quarterback and a tight end attached to the offensive line, the look should be pretty similar.
So in other words, this formation:
Should get the same look from the defense as this formation:
So how exactly are the Broncos lined up here?
As you can see, the defense is overloaded to the strong side, with the outside linebacker sitting on the tight end’s outside shoulder, and likewise for the right guard and tackle. Clearly the defense is intent on shutting down any runs to the strong side.
How a defense lines up against two-back personnel on first down is a good indicator of how they’ll line up in an effort to stop the run.
There are two quick things to comment on here.
First of all, as we talked about earlier, Ohio State has been having trouble with three-man fronts, so it’s logical that they should expect to see more of them in the future from the rest of their opponents, even if they specialize in more four-man fronts. The “Will” linebacker in this situation is actually an in-between player, able to play outside linebacker or put his hand in the ground and play defensive end if need be.
Second, the aggressive look to the strong side obviously opens up a lot of room to the weak side, which is great when you’ve got such a diverse run game from the gun as Ohio State does. This is especially true for all their option runs, which should give them a numbers advantage right away to that side.
Will Western Michigan line up that way every time? Of course not. This is just a small segment of the game planning process, but hopefully it gives you a good idea of what coaches are looking for.
How Do They Adjust To Shifting And Motions?
Coaching staffs take a similar approach when trying to figure out how defenses react to the offense moving people around in motion.
Let’s take another example from later on in the drive, and at the same time, we’ll also get a good look at Western Michigan’s third-and-long defense.
Michigan State lines up in a two-back gun formation with two receivers flexed to the wide side of the field, drawn up in the diagram below.
As for the defense, since this is third-and-long, they’ve got their speedy personnel package on the field, specifically designed for the pass-rush. Two down linemen, four linebackers, and five defensive backs. This allows them to play the nickel defense, put more speed on the field, while still attacking a lot of the same gaps up front as a normal four man front.
The two down linemen are playing at the 3-technique position, on the outside shoulder of the guards, and the four linebackers make up the rest of the tackle box.
Before the snap, Michigan State sends a man in motion out of the backfield and lines him up as a wide receiver.
Specific motions like this one are of interest to Ohio State, considering how often they use it in the game plan.
You may not have been able to tell from these pictures, but the Mike linebacker ends up following the back, and stays with him in man coverage, even as he goes all the way outside. There are lots of reasons for sending the back in motion out of the backfield, and this is one of them: It makes it easy to figure out whether the defense is playing man or zone. In this case, the defense is manned up all across the board, and the picture becomes a whole lot clearer for Michigan State QB Connor Cook.
Here’s the diagram view of the action so far.
Then, at the snap, Western Michigan sends six men after the quarterback on the blitz, and puts the secondary in man coverage across the board with a free safety behind them playing zone.
Here’s another view of the action.
The actual offensive play call and the result is irrelevant for our purposes. What’s important here is that Ohio State gets a good look at the kind of personnel packages, blitzes and coverages to expect from this formation, as well as on third-and-long in general.
This should give them an idea of what to expect when they line up in that same formation this Saturday against the Broncos.
This is an extremely simplified version of the process an offensive staff goes through to break down an opposing defense.
There is always a little bit of guesswork involved because you can never be completely sure how the defense will be playing you until you get the teams out on the field and start playing, but a good amount of film study as well as understanding how teams have tried to attack you in the past should give you a great starting point to put together the game plan.
As a coach, you can’t control what calls the opposing defensive coordinator makes and what wrinkles he decides to put in, but you can control your preparation and how fundamentally sound your team is, which is why Urban Meyer spends so much time stressing this to the team.