Thursday, November 12, 2009

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

I wanted to focus first and foremost on what I see as the key matchup in this game:  Ohio State's offense versus Iowa's defense.  If Ohio State is able to control the ball and play mistake free like they did against Penn State, they will put their defense in a position to dominate the undermanned Iowa offense.


Iowa very much epitomizes a 4-3, cover 2, bend but don't break defense.

FRONT:  Up front, the Hawkeyes mix between a 4-3 under and 4-3 over defense.  On 'run downs,' such as 1st and 10 and 3d and short, or against base personnel,' such as the I formation.   The 4-3 under is shown below:

Here is Iowa playing the under against Penn State (and defending the rollout playaction that is a staple for the Buckeyes).

This is the primary look they gave Wisconsin on First and Second down against the Badgers' tailback based attack.  Assuming that Ohio State continues to feature mostly I and One-back under center formations I expect we will see quite a bit of this defense from Iowa.

As soon as Iowa gets to a passing down (Second or Third and long) they like to move to the 4-3 over formation:

They do so because it a) takes a linebacker out of the box and puts him in space, and b) allows them to keep two-high safeties.  The latter is key for their cover-2 defense, as discussed below.  But for now it suffices to say that Iowa is so concerned with keeping 2 high safeties that they will walk the Will linebacker all the way to head up on a third slot receiver, rather than having him play in the alley

Penn State was able to take advantage of this fact by having their slot receiver fake a bubble screen while running inside.   You will see a) how wide the Will linebacker is, and b) how he gets pulled out of the play.

Considering that Ohio State did similar actions to Penn State that is something to look for this weekend.

COVERAGE:  Iowa's primary goal is to keep their "two-high" safeties, as this best sets up their base coverage--"Cover 2."  Unlike, Penn State, who is a cover-3 team, Iowa wants to have their 2 deep safeties play half the field, and then have their corners and linebackers press and play 5 under.

And here is a fairly good view of Iowa playing this defense:

As noted, Iowa is so dedicated to keeping their safeties back and playing cover-2 that they will simply widen their linebackers to cover multiple receiver packages.

Iowa will jump around to different coverages from this, however. They will play cover-2 man under.  They also like to (blatantly) show a cover 2 pre-snap read and then at the last minute stem to some type of  "1-High" defense, like cover 3 or cover 1-robber (1 high meaning only 1 deep safety), as below:

They do this in an attempt to confuse a Quarterback's pre-snap and post-snap reads and cause turnovers.  What Iowa hardly ever does is blitz.  They are primarily a zone-coverage team and would prefer to try to get pressure with their front four and maintain zone coverage. 


Iowa's success this year has started up front.  Their Defensive Ends, particularly Clayburn, have been able to get a fairly consistent pass rush, which has allowed them to play zone coverage behind.  Here are their defensive ends versus Penn State:

Iowa's back seven are solid, if unspectacular.  Their linebackers play well downhill (though teams have been able to run with some success).  Their secondary does not contain anyone that immediately scares you, but they play smart and as a unit.  Here Iowa covers all Penn State's receivers through their cover 2 zones, leaving Clark with no where to go.  

They also flow well into run support--a benefit of being a zone team.

Finally, the biggest thing that this Iowa defense does is create turnovers.  Their secondary has proven particularly adept at forcing Quarterbacks to throw interceptions.  To some extent, this is a reflection of the style Iowa's defense plays.  They are very sound in their zone coverage, so they are able to stem, make tight trade offs between zones, and bait Quarterbacks into bad decisions.  It is also a reflection of the bend but don't break style they play.  Quarterbacks get frustrated and try to force plays.  Regardless of the reason though, the defense creating turnovers were the primary reason Iowa was undefeated.  They forced 4 turnovers by Penn State, 3 interceptions versus Wisconsin, and 5 turnovers by Michigan.  Not until Northwestern did Iowa lose the turnover battle and with it, the game. 


The match-up between Ohio State's offense versus Iowa's defense will be interesting in multiple ways, but I think it will come down to several issues.   

1.  Will the Hawkeyes be able stop the Buckeye running game with their base, 2-high safety defense?  The Hawkeyes run support can be deceptive because their corners are rolled up and get involved in the run game.  Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if they can stop an Ohio State run game that has gotten more on-tracked each week.  Michigan State and Wisconsin had a fair amount of success running on Iowa.  It is unlikely that Iowa wants to allow Ohio State to run the ball and control the clock, so if they cannot stop their run game out of their base defense they will have to bring defenders into the box, taking them out of their element.  If Ohio State controls the ball with their inside run game, Iowa has little chance for success.  

One other thing to watch is how often OSU runs out of the spread.   Teams have had success running the speed option against Iowa on passing downs because the Hawkeyes would rather spread out then bring safeties up.

As this was the Buckeyes favorite run play for much of the season, it will be interesting to see whether the Buckeyes will return to this and other similar plays if Pryor's ankle holds up and see how Iowa reacts with their personnel.

2.  The second issue for Iowa is whether they can get pressure with their front four.  While Ohio State was fortunate last week to be able to match Penn State's strength-their Defensive Tackles-with their own strength-their interior line--this week the pressure will be on OSU's tackles to perform versus Iowa's strong Defensive Ends.  Ohio State's tackles performed well against Penn State, and Ohio State has to hope that continues.

Iowa's ability to get a pass rush with their front four is particularly important for the following reason.  Teams are finding that they are playing with fire by blitzing and playing man against the Buckeyes because Terrelle Pryor is able to scramble for large gains while the secondary is focused on the receiver they are covering.  

By the same token, Pryor has played better (as all QBs do) when he has time and is not pressured.  Therefore, Iowa faces a condundrum if they cannot get defensive line pressure-do they sit in their zones and let Pryor sit back unmolested, or do they blitz and gamble on Pryor not running?   Iowa would assuredly not want to have to face this option.  That is why the matchup of the Ohio State offensive tackles versus the Iowa defensive ends will be so crucial. 

3.  Related to this issue is how Pryor will handle the Iowa cover 2 and other zones.  This will be a change from the last few weeks for Ohio State from playing against a "one-high" zone team to a "two-high" one, leadingto different pass plays and reads then the Buckeyes have run the past few weeks.  To take a step back, the goal against any zone defense is to flood the zone in such a way that gets you 3 receivers versus 2 zone defenders, or 2 versus 1, so that the zone defenders at issue cannot hope to cover everyone.  A team had to run different patterns to accomplish this against different zones.  If you look again at the Penn State-Iowa clip you will see how Penn State successfully attacks Iowa's cover-2 by "hi-loing" the cornerback and making him cover either the deep or underneath route.

Another good example of how to attack cover-2 is the 3-verticals play.  There, the goal is to get 3 deep receivers versus the 2 deep safeties, so that the safeties are wrong no matter what they do.  Ohio State used this very concept for Posey's big touchdown against Penn State.

In line with this, Ohio State is benefitted by the fact that many of their preferred patterns are best against cover-2 (such as smash, levels, and fade/outs).  One more example is the double slants, which Ohio State runs quite a bit and attacks the no. 2 inside cover-2 defender (generally a linebacker) and makes him choose what slant he is going to defend. 

Iowa plays a very discplined style and wants to frustrate Quarterbacks and bait them into mistakes.  Therefore the key for Pryor, more so then the particular pass play, will be playing within himself and correctly reading his progressions.  If Ohio State does not turn the ball over then they will have a very good chance to succeed.


Iowa's goal will be to force Ohio State to string drives together and play mistake free.  This is their style and they no doubt want to embrace it this game.  They do not want to give up big plays to Ohio State like Penn State did and instead make the sometime-inconsistent Buckeye unit put together mistake-free drives.  Ohio State has shown an improved ability to do so the last few weeks and it will be incumbent on them to do so again.  If they are able to, it is unlikely that Iowa's offense will be able to match-up and do the same against the Buckeye defense. 


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