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Oklahoma’s Defense Was The Difference Maker

The Sooner went into Ohio Stadium and pulled off the upset, thanks in large part to the defense.



Getty Images - Gregory Shamus

Defense can be hard to analyze in a written medium. It is different from offense in that defenders are given zones of responsibility and have to react to multiple keys and sequences in order to make correct plays. Defenders are play makers because they have to utilize their technique, process information very quickly and make a play against players who know where they are going.

Offensive lends itself to easier analysis because everyone moves upon a determined path. That path is intended to influence the defender’s reaction and create space for creative movement. But, that does not mean defense cannot be recognized and analyzed from an x and o perspective. The defensive coordinator can influence the offense success rate by alignment adjustment, disguised fronts and coverages, putting certain players in good matchups, frustrating favorite offensive movements or play designs, and a myriad other ways. In the end, the execution is up to the talent of the particular defenders and their adherence and use of their knowledge and skill.

We hear often about offensive players watching film. Less about defenders, yet it is defenders who should, and often do, study more film. Learning tendencies and tip offs for certain plays allows the defender to react more quickly on the field where a half a step delay can be the difference between a one yard gain and a ten yard gain.

That brings me to the Oklahoma defense. While the offense is and was stellar against Ohio State, it was the defense that drew my attention. Before the season we learned that Oklahoma intended to switch from a 3-4 base to a 4-3 base that was designed to put more pressure on the quarterback. I felt that this was the right call and would result in a greater utilization of the prodigious talent on that side of the ball. Where Oklahoma was in need of new play makers on offense, an improvement (hard to be worse) in their defensive production could easily propel them to playoff contention.

Against Ohio State, the defensive switch was evident and decisive. Oklahoma didn’t just play well and aggressively, that would not be enough against a team that is as talented or more talented than they are. OU played well and aggressively within an all-or-nothing scheme and the result was momentous.

Ohio State relies on pounding the ball with read option and power runs and then a vertical strike in the passing game. The OSU quarterback is comfortable throwing in to windows that appear in zone coverage. That means a receiver presenting a target in between two or three zone defenders. If OSU is allowed to move the ball on the ground, then influence the secondary to support the run, they have you beat with explosive passes over the top. OSU scores often on explosive plays and on drives where they hit a play for 20 or more yards (so do most teams, but they are better at getting free).

Oklahoma approached the game with a game plan designed to shrink and eliminate “window” throws and to pressure the run game, and the pass game for that matter, with disruptive penetration in the backfield. This forces Ohio State to make tight, lead throws against man coverage in the face of pressure, and to make early decisions on the run path that allows pursuit to target the back. The OSU quarterback is uncomfortable with those throws, and the Oklahoma defense is fast enough to pursue backs who present an early target point.

The first half ended in a 3-3 tie. Both teams threatened, but struggled to score. OU presented their game plan by playing primarily man-to-man defense on the edges and aligning in loose, multiple fronts with additional pressure from varying points and players. Number 31 was disruptive and Ohio State had few answers to keep him blocked. At the end of the half the OSU quarterback was 5/11 and 25 yards. The plan was working to perfection.

Then, the first two drives of the second half resulted in 10 points and a lead for Ohio State. The OU offense also came alive, but the defense was not matching the performance as they did in the first half. What happened?

OU played a different style on the first two drives of the second half. They aligned in a base 4-3 or a nickel (4-2-5) look and did not bring the same pressure packages that were successful in the first half. They played more two-deep zone. Another element to the game plan was to keep OSU in front of them and limit the big play. This was done, but OSU found a slice of rhythm and was able to score with a short field.

Oklahoma was still aggressively collapsing the second level with straight forward linebacker play. This meant that if OSU were able to penetrate the line with a running back, he was automatically to the third level. OSU popped several runs, but the over coverage and speed of the defenders was able to limit the damage. I believe Oklahoma went away from the initial plan because they anticipated an adjustment at halftime that the less aggressive scheme would account for. Ohio State did not adjust, but found window throws and yards in the ground game with their initial plan.

Now, the penultimate 11 minute stretch starting with Ohio State’s third possession in the second half. At this point, Ohio State leads 13-10. The game feels like a grind it out win for Ohio State behind their own stout defense. However, Oklahoma changes it up and goes back to the first half scheme.

Below, I have clips of each of the decisive plays in the next three Ohio State drives. Oklahoma holds Ohio State to 44 yards, two punts, and an interception in this stretch. Complimenting the effort, they score 3 subsequent touchdowns for 21 unanswered points and an insurmountable lead. You will notice that Oklahoma went back to their initial scheme, and along with outstanding individual play, forced Ohio State in to low percentage plays and a stagnant stretch of offense. The first two drives of the second accounted for 113 of their 350 total yards. Against the game planned defensive scheme, Ohio State achieved only 237 yards on 10 drives and three points.

First Key Drive – 1st down

Here we see a base 4-3 alignment for Oklahoma. 31 is in his hybrid, stand up position which is common for them. That is holdover from the 3-4 OLB spot and utilizes his talent to its maximum degree. The difference on this play is that the corner to the strong side blitzes in down the line. Pressure from an unexpected point.

It is a read option keying 87. But, the outstanding speed and angle taken by 31 with the corner blitzer collapse the play from the strong side. A middle run is stopped with a speedy outside pinch. There is a crease for the back if the corner and 31 play base, but their aggressive attack closes it down.

First Key Drive – 2nd down

OSU reacted to the first play by calling another read option with an outside sweep path for the runner. This is intended to punish the pinching approach shown on the first play. However, OU counters with aggressive penetration to the play side by 87 and 19. 87 makes an outstanding individual play here.

He forces the give by stepping to the inside shoulder of the quarterback, but gains ground forcing a retreat step from the running back and then bends and takes a cut-off angle to chase down the back. The back is forced to the cut-off point by the penetration of 19 who attacks the lead blocker to contain the play. Aggressively penetrating in disciplined lanes created a tackling angle that allowed the play to be stopped for a short gain.

First Key Drive – 3rd Down

Third and long and Ohio State is in a tough spot. They spread it out to pass. OU switches to the 3 man front and gives a blitz look from the inside. On the first two drives of the second half this look indicated dropping 8 in to zone coverage, which OSU can handle. This time, it results in zero (man) coverage and the inside linebackers blitzing.

Number 19 loop blitzes to contain, he over pursues, but flushes the QB and causes him to drop and arc which creates a better pursuit angle. The pressure, along with tight coverage, causes a qb run that is not enough. Three and out and OU scores a touchdown to take the lead.

Second Key Drive – 1st down

This isn’t the first, first down of the drive. OSU popped a couple of runs to gain two first downs. Then came this series.

Ohio State’s chosen pass play involved this roll out action. Oklahoma attacked it the same way each time. With no crossing threat to the TE side, the TE side OLB locks on to the TE. Oklahoma then plays 4 on 3 zone coverage against the trip receivers allowing them to cover the space high and low. Now, there are six defenders to five blockers and the middle and outside linebacker penetrate to the quarterback. The middle backer takes an inside angle for cut back and reverse support and the outside backer takes a contain angle and attacks the QB at the edge forcing a decision.

The pressure forces a tight throw in to a small, covered space which OSU cannot execute. It is clear that Oklahoma had practiced this action extensively and reacted immediately to the action with discipline and speed.

Second Key Drive – 2nd down

OSU is back to the outside read option. OU is in a base 4-2-5 with man-under coverage. Notice the two deep safeties and corners create an umbrella in order to keep the play in front of them. Notice the boundary LB (14) who is man up on the quarterback and attacks the option action from the outside in. Now, on the edge, OU has a three on two advantage. The wide side LB (9) has the RB man up. He scrapes and penetrates inside out to force a decision by the back.

Most curious here is the play of number 19. He is man up on the inside receiver, but as soon as he recognizes the run block, he attacks with leverage to contain with penetration. Oklahoma attacked this play in this manner the entire game. The back is forced to turn back in to the scraping LB and the free read player (57). Aggressive penetration in disciplined lanes with man-to-man responsibility and umbrella insurance over the top. That was the game plan and this shows it executed to perfection.

Second Series – 3rd down

Third and long again and OSU has to pass. Oklahoma again brings an edge blitz from the inside slot defender. This creates a “hot” read for the QB and receiver and forces the throw short of the first down. Oklahoma rolls the over coverage to the trips side and is man to man underneath. This allows the deep responsibility to move forward and stop the runner from achieving the necessary knowledge. Again, man under with umbrella coverage and an extra rusher to provide pressure and eliminate an additional receiver.

Second Key Drive – 4th down

Huge play here. OSU chooses to go with the roll out pass again. This time they have a backside receiver to pull the extra defender away from the playside. However, they are still a man short as the two receivers are covered by three defenders.

Oklahoma accounts for the backside throwback with the defensive end who jumps out to wall off the outside receiver. On the play side, the play it like they have all night, extending down the line with the LB running to contain then attacking the QB to force the throw. OSU has to throw to a covered receiver with no chance for a drive sustaining completion. Pressure the quarterback at the decision point, account for the targets on a man basis, and roll the support defenders with the play action.

The drive ends and OU scores another touchdown extending the lead and putting pressure on OSU to open up their offense.

Third Key Drive – 1st down

OSU now has to pass to open it up and play catch up. This play is designed for a quick look to the TE running a flag and then a check to the RB in the flat with space. Oklahoma aligns in a 4-2-5 defense again with a man-under concept. Pressure comes from a different attack point. Instead of the edge, this time it comes from the inside.

The play is altered initially because the defensive end (31) picks up the RB man-to-man. The LB and safety play combo zone on the TE. The off LB now comes on a delayed blitz and forces a decision. There is only one option, the hook. But, OU reads the throw and baits it. A tremendous break on the ball results in a pick. Pressure to a decision point on man-to-man accountability leaves one option and an opportunistic play.

OU scores again with the short field and the game is out of reach.

Sum it Up

Oklahoma is now utilizing multiple fronts with multiple pressure attacks supported by man coverage and two deep protection from big plays. The presence of outstanding players in the secondary and across the front present a difficult task for their opponents.

There is a calculated risk involved in this scheme. A quarterback comfortable with making throws against man coverage can gain ground. In addition, if the compressed levels are penetrated by a back, then there is space to move the ball in to the third level. However, it is difficult to maintain drives against shifting fronts and shifting pressure. If they become adept at limiting big plays (OSU’s longest play was 31 yards), then the defense will provide many opportunities for the offense to make progress.

The scheme seen here is becoming the norm in the Big 12. We are seeing a shift from the coverage heavy drop schemes utilized to slow the proliferation of air raid offensive concepts. Instead, we are seeing the counter punch develop in to a higher risk pressure package that has the effect of forcing uncomfortable and precise throws and collapsing slow developing running plays.

Hot routes and RPO’s counter this approach effectively, but not all offenses are equipped to do so — yet. Oklahoma proved its playoff mettle on Saturday night and the biggest statement was made by their modified and stout defense.