College News & Analysis

Galina: Ohio State's lack of defensive creativity gave the team little chance to beat Alabama

Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver DeVonta Smith (6) scores a touchdown against Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Sevyn Banks (7) during the second quarter in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We spent the whole week asking nay, begging Ohio State to give help to its cornerbacks against Alabama’s receivers. If the Buckeyes could just spend a few practices reinforcing the two-high coverages they already have in their playbook, though rarely used, it would show the Crimson Tide different looks and confuse them even a little bit to at least not put up 52 points. Or, to counter the incredible speed and talent Alabama puts out at receiver, use your nickelback instead of your Sam linebacker to get better matchups. 

Ohio State, as we now know, stuck to its guns and surrendered 52 points. Alabama put on a clinic of attacking the specific ways the Buckeyes play one-high in their base personnel. Whether it was man or Cover 3, Ohio State had no shot. If Jeffrey Okudah and Damon Arnette are manning the outside for the Buckeyes in this game, then sure, let them be isolated and take on DeVonta Smith for the whole game. Unfortunately, those two players play in a different league now, and starting cornerbacks Shaun Wade and Sevyn Banks have not played up to their level as replacements. 

The Buckeyes got away with not giving help to their corners for the whole season because they just didn't play against enough passing attacks that could have threatened them. They survived Penn State, Indiana and Clemson even with their two cornerbacks getting beat time and time again, but they were never going to outlast the Crimson Tide like this. 

Alabama's whole game plan was to start outside in. Attack the corners, especially Wade, and slowly march down the field. Quarterback Mac Jones' average depth of target was only 6.9 yards, his third-lowest mark in a game this season. The Crimson Tide offense didn’t need to hit all of its big plays down the field, though it did a couple of times; the unit just worked the corners on bubble screens and RPOs for a whole game. 

If the corners played off, they threw a speed out like on this pass to Smith against Banks:

Once the corner sees the tight end is blocking, the only threat left for him to cover is Smith. The problem is that the Buckeyes are so afraid of Smith's speed and ability, they allow a ton of space underneath. Not only can he catch the ball unimpeded, but he can turn up field and gain more yards. 

If the corners pressed, Alabama went over the top:

There was this over-the-shoulder fade route and a back-shoulder one when they got press and had an RPO on. The offense is throwing these routes because Ohio State has no way to play two-high and double those outside receivers. They just kept doing it. 

When Alabama went in 12 personnel, it often gave Ohio State a heavy run side and a skillful passing side. If the Buckeyes kept their cornerback to the heavy side, the Crimson Tide would run that way. On one run, they left Wade alone, daring him to tackle running back Najee Harris on the outside. And he did very well coming up with a tackle for loss.

Still, the Buckeyes didn’t want to live in that world all day, so they eventually moved the cornerback over to the passing strength and put a safety on the backside. Well, Alabama threw to the passing strength. Because Ohio State was still in one-high, it became a two-on-two situation to the wide side of the field.

Alabama runs a screen, the first receiver blocks the low defender and then the pass-catcher just has to make one guy miss in space, which he does because it's Alabama. The Tide even have a progression off their RPO screen where they pump the screen and then throw a slant when both defenders try to jump down on the shorter pass. 

It just wasn’t fair to put those kids out on an island for the whole game after they had shown for a whole season they couldn’t do it. Alabama’s red-zone game plan made it even harder on the Buckeyes. The Tide knew that low in the red zone, the Ohio State corners were going to run and stick to their receivers pre-snap. They weren’t going to switch anything.

Soon-to-be Texas head coach Steve Sarkisian just toyed with them, putting guys in motion and then having them return to whence they came as the Ohio State cornerbacks tried to find them through the thick wall of trench bodies. 

Not fair.   

The final pièce de résistance was putting the Heisman winner in the slot inside of trips. Even though Alabama used him there on only five snaps, the lack of diversity and mobility in the Ohio State scheme was laid bare. Smith was thrown to every time he was in that position, save for a screen pass Alabama called. 

Because the Buckeyes play base the whole game — and in this game, they even played with four whole linebackers 40% of the time — they can only rotate in one direction. The field safety has to be the one who comes down while the weak safety spins to the deep middle of the field. With the Sam linebacker on the field, he can’t be pushed out to the No. 2 receiver in trips because that’s a long way out from the box where he’s comfortable. The field safety must come down outside the Sam linebacker.

In base, the Buckeyes can only play it that way. The Crimson Tide obviously know this, so by putting Smith as the No. 3 receiver inside, they recognize this rotation is coming and know it’s going to be Cover 3 and not Cover 1 because the Sam linebacker isn’t going to cover Smith one on one. 

Understanding that it’s Cover 3, the first thing Alabama did was run a sail concept to hit the void in underneath the cornerback and over top of the flat defender:

So easy.

Next — and this was the one that’s already shown up on viral memes everywhere — Alabama got Smith matched up versus the Mike linebacker down the field. In Cover 3 versus trips, the weakside hook defender must help the safety by looking to the strongside and picking up the No. 3 receiver up and down the field.

Most Cover 3 teams play like this. Ideally, you don’t want your actual Mike linebacker to pick the receiver up but, again, because of the strongside rotation that Ohio State must run due to the team playing base defense, that’s who will be picking up the receiver.

It’s always going to be the third player from the short side of the field counting in. The cornerback has the isolated receiver, the next player has the flat or running back out of the backfield and the third player has to look to the wide side of the field for that receiver. If Ohio State had decided it wanted to play nickel and could rotate its safeties weak, then the safety, from depth, becomes that weak hook player. That’s a nice way to defend it. The safety, sitting at about 15 yards, just turns his head and watches the receiver run into his zone. That's a lot easier than the Mike linebacker having to run with him down the field. 

This is the world Ohio State wanted to live in, and the team got burned. It’s the true story of the game. The Buckeyes needed anything that would have given Alabama some pause before just throwing strikes all game to open receivers.

Playing what you know and executing it is important, but being able to throw in some different looks once in a while is key to winning football games —especially when you are outmatched. Ohio State didn’t do that and got beat handily. 

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