Thursday, November 5, 2009

Penn State Preview: Penn State's Defense vs. Ohio State's Offense

I stated in my preview post that Ohio State's Defense has a definitive advantage over Penn State's Offense. Now the situation is reversed. Penn State's Defense is not of the caliber as Ohio State's. But they have a very sound unit that will make it difficult for the Buckeyes to move the football. As most know, this will be a defensive struggle.


Chris Brown had an extensive post recently on Dr. Saturday describing Penn State's defensive approach in detail so I won't duplicate--everyone should check it out here. But I will say in short that, for years, Penn State has been a 4-3 over, cover 3 team. It it is what Penn State is known for. What does that mean? Here is a basic diagram of 4-3 over with cover 3 responsibiltities:

(H/T: Brophy). As one can see, cover 3 describes the deep defenders-they will play 3 across, each splitting the field into thirds. The 3 linebackers and strong safety well then split the underneath coverage in four. Penn State will sometimes vary 'who' the back three zone defenders are--for example running a 'cloud' coverage wher one cornerback has underneath and the strong safety a deep third--but they will generally stay with their basic cover 3 package. Penn State likes the 4-3 over look for two reasons. One, as opposed to the 4-3 under, for example, it allows their linebackers to play off the ball and flow to the play. Second, it brings the strong safety (or what they call the "hero") up into run support.

Penn State will also line up in what some call a "Miami 4-3." The main difference is that the linebackers will all shift over a gap towards the formation's strength (here the Tight End side) and essentially play between the Defensive Linemen. This provides some more in the box run support but still allows PSU to play cover-3 behind it:

Then, this year at least, Penn State has shown a desire to bring blitzes in passing situations. From what I have seen, they have not done a lot of zone blitzing--it is more generally bringing one or two linebackers with some type of man coverage behind it. I think this may be a function of the fact that this year they do not have dominant defensive ends (as discussed below).

As Chris Brown states, there is nothing flashy about what Penn State does on defense. Everyone knows they are going to play a 4-3 under cover 3. But the players and coaches know the system inside and out and they execute very well.


Like a good baseball team, Penn State's strength is up the middle. Their Defensive Tackles, particularly No. 91 Odrick, are very tough at the point of attack. He is their best defensive player. He basically took over the game against Northwestern in the Third Quarter.

Similarly their Linebackers play very downhill and attack running plays. They are very tough to run inside against. I have not seen a team have much success. Their Defensive Ends are solid but they don't play at the same caliber as Odrick and have not been huge pass rush factors. Both Michigan and Iowa had some success running the outside zone or stretch play. The Tight End and/or tackles were able to lock up Penn State's Defensive Ends and string them out, creating some running lanes:

This may also be why Penn State is showing a tendency to blitz in passing situations to create more of a pass rush.

Because their linebackers play downhill, they are vulnerable to getting sucked in on play action fakes. This has distored their underneath zones and opened some holes. As you can see here, Michigan doesn't even give much of a fake but is able to suck the linebackers up (this video also gives a pretty good example of them playing cover 3).

The secondary, as is typical of Penn State, has solid if unspectactular players. If a team has time and the QB to do it, a team can carve up their cover 3 zones (think USC last year). But mostly, they do what a cover 3 team is supposed to do, and give up the underneath routes in favor of preventing big plays (because, for example, as opposed to a cover 2, which has 2 deep defenders but 5 underneath guys, with a cover 3 you have 3 deep and 4 under so that you have more holes underneath. For the type of routes that succeed against cover-3, check out here). Northwestern was able to throw a lot of underneath all curl, hitch, and out routes, precisely the routes that work against a cover-3 team, as an offense has 5 receivers working underneath against 4 zone defenders. This is demonstrated by the diagram on the top left, courtesy of Chris Brown:

And here is Northwestern doing something similar:

Finally, and importantly for this game, Northwestern's QBs had some success scrambling on Third Down, particularly because, as noted, PSU likes to blitz and play man coverage in those situations. It will be interesting to see if Penn State continues to do so this week, which would open up scrambling opportunities for Pryor.


1. It is hard to see this matchup as anything but in Penn State's favor because of the Buckeye offense's inconsistency this year.

2. As usual for Ohio State, a lot of the offense's success will be determined by how well they play up front. The fortunate part for Ohio State is that Penn State's best linemen are defensive tackles who will be in turn matched up against Ohio State's best offensive linemen, Guards Justin Boren and Bryant Browning. Penn State does not have anyone like Maybin this year who could make life miserable for Ohio State at the tackle position, this offense's biggest weakness. It will be interesting to see if Penn State moves Odrick around to try to create matchups.

3. One key will be if Ohio State can establish a consistent running game. If they can, they will be able to control the clock and play the "Tressel-ball" they likely want to play. If not, they could start stringing together some three and outs. Look for them to try to mix in the outside zone, which is a staple of their offense, with an inside running game to see whether they can gain positive yardage. They will also likely look to get outside against Penn State's ends with the speed option, which has become their primary 'go-to' play.

One benefit of Penn State's 4-3 over is that it is better set up to be blocked on OSU's favorite play, Power, or, as Tressel calls it, 'Dave'. This is because it is an easier down block by the Center onto the backside Noseguard, (as opposed to blocking way back on a '3' technique in the top left hand corner picture) and it is easier for the pulling Guard to pull through the natural playside gap to block the linebacker in between the two defensive linemen, as can be seen below (compare the blocking angles on the defense in the lower right hand corner with those against a 4-3 under in the top left corner) (H/T: SmartFootball)

4. Ohio State needs to continue doing what they have done the past few weeks and rely extensively on their play action and bootleg game. If they can keep things mixed up enough and play action and bootleg on First and Second down they may be able to suck Penn State's linebackers up and make some plays behind them, as seen below:

If not they may find themselves in unmangeable third and long situations.

5. One benefit for Ohio State is that Penn State's cover 3 sets up well with what Ohio State likes to do in the passing game. The 'slant-shoot' routes, all-curl, and quick outs are some of their favorite patterns on a week to week basis. As noted above, these are the preferred patterns against cover-3 because it puts 5 underneath routes versus only 4 defenders and 2 receivers into 1 zone where the linebacker or safety cannot cover both. Look for Ohio State, as Michigan did, to do some quick play action fakes and then throw the out route. If PSU goes to man coverage on third down, then look for the 'switch' route and other two man games between Posey and Sanzenbacher that OSU has favored in recent weeks.

6. The X-factor in all this is how Terrelle Pryor will be used. He has taken a step forward these past two weeks in large part by being more assertive running the football. Because of this, Ohio State has been able to string together long drives as in the past two weeks where they were not able to in the past. If Pryor is able to play with the same sort of aggressiveness, OSU may be to string together some first downs. While it is not exciting to say, in some ways if Ohio State can average 2 first downs a possession that would be a victory, keeping their defense off the field and improving the field position game.


I am under no illusion that this will be anything but a low-scoring, defensively controlled game. As I said in the opening, these teams are in a lot of ways mirrors of each other. Ohio State has the more dominant defense, but the issue will be if Ohio State's offense can make enough plays to succeed. I do feel that if Pryor plays the way he has the past few weeks he can put enough positive plays together with his legs to move the football. While a cliche, in these kinds of games turnovers will be crucial. Penn State lost the turnover battle to Iowa and with it the game. Two more factors for OSU is whether they can overcome the loss of their placekicker and the Happy Valley Environment. This game may come down to these 'intangible ' factors.

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