College football season is nearly upon us, and Mark Schofield is hard at work breaking down film for upcoming contests. The re-rematch between Ohio State and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia looks to be a key game in Week 1, and our NCAA Film Preview rolls on with this look at how the Buckeyes can attack the Hokies in the passing game.
Part 1 of this series highlighted how Virginia Tech relied on man coverage concepts, particularly Cover 1 and Cover 0, to slow down Ohio State’s option running attack. This is a fairly common method employed by defenses facing that scheme. By giving each defender a man responsibility, you simplify their reads and make their job a little easier.
But, this becomes an issue for the defense in the passing game. When running Cover 1 or Cover 0, the defensive coaches are placing a tremendous amount of pressure on their corners and safeties, asking them to all win their one-on-one matchups. Sometimes they do, and sometimes, they don’t. When they don’t, the lack of backup means the result can be catastrophic.
It certainly helps when a defense can trot out a defender the likes of Kendall Fuller. The junior cornerback is the latest member of the Fuller family to star for the Hokies. His brothers Vincent Fuller, Corey Fuller and Kyle Fuller were all standouts in Blacksburg before going on to NFL careers. Kendall was named the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, when he started 12 games and recorded six interceptions. As a sophomore he was named to the first-team All-ACC squad.
In Virginia Tech’s tilt against Ohio State, Fuller was often put on an island in the Hokies’ man schemes, matching up against talented Buckeye receivers. On this play the Buckeyes face 1st and 10 on their own 22-yard line, with quarterback J.T. Barrett in the shotgun and 11 personnel on the field.
The offense has slot formation to the right (the outside receiver is not visible) with wide receiver Devin Smith split to the left. Tight end Jeff Heuerman is lined up as an H-Back, in the B-gap to the right. The Hokies have their 3-3-5 nickel defense in the game with each outside linebacker walked up to the line of scrimmage. Every defender is within four yards of the football, and the defense uses Cover 0:
Fuller is at the top of the screen, heads-up on Smith in press alignment.
The Buckeyes run a simple three-step passing play here, with Smith executing a go route. Off the snap the WR takes two hard steps to the inside to set up his route before angling to the outside on his vertical release. Fuller uses press-bail technique here, forgoing a jam on the receiver in favor of trying to run with him. But as the speedy WR crosses back to the outside, the DB cannot establish contact, and as a result Smith gains a step and separation as he streaks downfield. Barrett tries to hit the receiver on the deep route, but the pass hangs long enough for Fuller to recover:
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A better throw here and Ohio State likely puts six points on the board.
Passing Off The Read Option
Urban Meyer’s offense also attacked the Hokies through the air off the read-option, using play-action. This design also exploited the man coverage that left defensive backs isolated on the outside. With the offense facing a 1st and 10 on their own 19-yard line the Buckeyes put Barrett in the shotgun with 11 personnel on the field, using a trey formation to the right and Michael Thomas (#3) split to the left. Once more Virginia Tech lines up with a 3-3-5 nickel showing Cover 0, with all defenders within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Fuller is matched up with Thomas to the top of the screen:
Eziekel Elliott is in the backfield next to Barrett, and at the snap the two players show read-option, with the running back cutting in front of the quarterback, who is aiming his run at the right side of the line. Take a look at how this movement enthralls the Virginia Tech defense:
The run fake creates a great deal of real estate for Thomas, and the receiver runs a pivot route to exploit the vacant space. He shows Fuller a slant route, taking a vertical release and then breaking on the diagonal for a hard two steps. The receiver then hits the brakes and cuts back to the outside. Fuller’s momentum takes him a few extra steps to the middle of the field, giving Thomas a great deal of separation. Barrett rolls to his left before hitting Thomas in stride, and the receiver cuts along the sideline and gains a first down before Fuller recovers to force him out of bounds:
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Here, the play-action forces the interior defenders to attack forward in anticipation of the run, creating a bigger throwing window. Combine this with a defensive back in single coverage protecting the vertical route, and you have a recipe for an easy pitch-and-catch.
Attack The Slot
A third method that the Buckeyes used to attack man coverage was to attack the slot defender. On this play, Ohio State has 21 personnel in the game, with running back Dontre Wilson (#2) in the slot to the left. Again, the Hokies have their 3-3-5 personnel on the field with cornerback Chuck Clark (#19) in the slot against Wilson. Clark is listed at 6’0”, while Wilson is a smaller, shiftier player listed at 5’10” 195:
Wilson runs a straight go route down the seam, setting up the route with a quick hesitation-lean move to the inside to sell the defender on the slant route. Clark uses press-bail technique, and when the RB takes off down the field the defensive back does a decent job of maintaining a coverage on the receiver. Again, the pass is underthrown, but Wilson adjusts to the ball and attacks it in-flight before Clark gets his head sround, and the RB makes the catch:
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Again, Ohio State is able to make a play in the passing game based on attacking the man coverage. Clark is on an island without any help deep, and even though he plays this route very well, he cannot prevent the completion.
What I’m Watching
The slot position is one spot I’ll be focusing on, not only to see if the Buckeyes try and attack the nickel defender in the passing game, but also to see if the Buckeyes use Braxton Miller in this role. The former quarterback made the much-publicized move to wide receiver this offseason, and his size (6’2” 215), game intelligence and athletic ability could make him a very dangerous weapon in the slot for Ohio State. The Buckeyes could get him the ball quickly on bubble screens in this alignment ‒ taking advantage of Miller’s ability in the open field ‒ or they can use him as a vertical threat, as they did with Wilson on that last play.
And of course, I’m curious to see who is taking the snaps for the Buckeyes. As is everyone.
Virginia Tech slowed down Ohio State’s offense, and their running game, just enough to eke out the victory in 2014. As illustrated in the first part of this preview, their defensive man concepts worked to closed down on running lanes and keep the option game in check. But this comes with a risk in the passing game, as it leaves secondary players isolated and alone in single coverage. Whether it is Cardale Jones or Barrett under center, the Buckeyes might be able to successfully attack through the air during the rematch, should the Hokies stick with this defensive scheme.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.
Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.
All video and images courtesy CFB Film Study.