So you've decided to install a Cover 4 defense. Congratulations! You have a new scheme that is versatile and can be quite useful, particularly against spread offenses.
It has its pitfalls, though, as the choices every player in the secondary makes can have far-reaching positive or negative consequences. If everyone reads the same thing, the effect is not unlike having more than 11 defenders on the field as multiple players handle dual roles. A misread, however, can expose the defense to giving up a big play. While the latter is not unique to this coverage, the former somewhat is. And in a day and age when offenses have learned how to give themselves extra gaps to attack with various forms of the veer and the option, the reward has become worth the risk. It could even be viewed as a decision that must be made for maximum flexibility when it comes to defending the ever-evolving offenses of college football today.
That's why Mark Dantonio's current team doesn't run the same things it ran when he was the defensive coordinator at Ohio State a decade ago.
"When I was defensive coordinator at Ohio State, things were moving in this direction," Dantonio said, noting teams such as Northwestern had installed the hurry-up spread offensive principles that now pervade the game. The Wildcats were an aberration, however, especially as a team that spread to run the ball as opposed to pass-happy spreads the Buckeyes saw in 2002 from Texas Tech and Washington State, not to mention Purdue. "A lot of people were more typical, but the trend has been the no-huddle offense that you see Ohio State run (now). So you've got to evolve, you've got to tweak things, so even though we were a big 4-3 defense in Columbus, a big zone-pressure team when I was there, we're still a big zone-pressure team and still a 4-3 team but it's different."
Indeed, while Dantonio's Michigan State teams have become known for their use of press-man coverage, a look at a copy of the 2002 defensive playbook reveals the No. 1 item under Philosophy of the Ohio State Defense as, "Stop the run while playing good zone pass defense." That does not mean that's all the Buckeyes did, of course, but it is a sign things have evolved over the years, such as when Dantonio hired Pat Narduzzi to be his defensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati in 2004.
"Everybody played Cover 4. We played Cover 4 (at Ohio State), but the Cover 4 being the base is more from him," Dantonio said. "Cover 4 is a very -- I always joke with him that's the mother of all coverages. Because it is Cover 4, it's quarters, but there are a lot of tweaks within it relative to what's going on offensively. There are a lot of different ways you can tweak it and play it, and we do all of those. So it's Cover 4, but there may be 10 different variations off of it."
Some or all of those made their way to Ohio State during this past offseason as Chris Ash was hired to revamp a pass defense that gave up more total yards through the air last season than any before it in Columbus.
"We want to be a defense that challenges the offense and doesn't allow easy things to develop, run or pass," Ash explained in August. "We're gonna challenge the receivers on the outside and we're going to be able to get our safeties in the box to stop the run when needed. We're gonna play extremely hard and play with good fundamentals."
And what does it take to execute the scheme? Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond explained at the Big Ten media days in Chicago in July it is a matter of learning to read keys and trusting the other 10 guys have done the same.
"That's the thing about our defense -- everybody trusts each other," Drummond said. "I'm not looking over my shoulder to see if the corner is covering his guy or the safety is doing what he's supposed to be doing because I know they are. I'm using that thought to think about what the offense might do. I'm not wasting time wondering if our guys are doing what they're supposed to do. That helps everyone."
Communication problems have been described as a major factor in the struggles of the Ohio State defense last season, so it might seem counterproductive to install a scheme that relies even more on just that function, but a strong belief has been expressed by players and coaches that this year will be different.
"The stuff the coaches teach is very key, but I feel like right now every safety is handling it very well," said Tyvis Powell, who played nickel back for Ohio State last season but has moved to one of the starting safety spots. "They do a good job of switching things up to keep the offense guessing. It is a lot of stress on the safeties, but with the players that we have I feel like we're confident in it."
Powell came to Ohio State as a cornerback, though he's built more like a safety. That's perfect as far as Ash is concerned.
"If they can't run and cover, they can't play in this system and they can't do the things we need to do to stop spread offenses," Ash said.
"You've got to have safeties that can play more man to man. The old days of having big downhill, in-the-box safeties doesn't exist. We basically need to have four corners on the field that can run, play coverage and tackle because they're going to have to come downhill and tackle too."
Aware of previous communication problems, Ash intends to fix those as well with a unified message.
"I think it's important that all the DBs need to be on the same page," Ash said. "Here in the past they've been really split with corners and safeties, they really haven't worked a lot together, and I think that was one of the first things we established is we're going to work together. It's not two separate units, it's one unit, and we need to be on the same page. There's no finger pointing, no miscommunication. Everybody knows the big picture and how we need to work together."
How it will work together remains to be seen, but early returns have been positive. The look was certainly different throughout the spring and during sparse viewing windows in preseason practice. The first challenge comes from run-happy Navy, whose triple-option offense forces defenses to play assignment football, something Ohio State struggled with regardless of the type of offense the Buckeyes were facing last season. More passing challenges will come later, but for now eye discipline might be the No. 1 issue both overall and for this week.
"It's all about just reading your keys," Drummond said. "Everybody on the field has a key to read and as long as you read your key and understand your own play you have a chance to be successful."
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