I've been meaning to talk about this for some time, particularly since I do not discuss enough defense here.
One of the more innovative schemes we saw from Ohio State this year was their use of a '3-4' scheme. What was so interesting about it was not the fact OSU was playing a 3-4, but rather the numerous wrinkles Ohio State put into this scheme. Indeed, it may be a misnomer to even call it a 3-4, as this gives images of the typical giant NoseGuard playing "two-gaps" in the middle. Ohio State was doing was not this. Instead, as USC's Offensive Line Coach Pat Ruel's observed:
"Half their line was playing a Bear front and half was playing an Under front and they were stopping our outside zone running plays."
In fact, this is just the beginning of what OSU was doing. Here are three looks at the Ohio State 3-4 front (H/T Trojan Analysis):
As you can see, Ohio State's 3-4 was in fact playing a half 4-3 under, half 'Eagle' defense. Unlike a typical 3-4, Ohio State is playing a '1-gap' defense here. Specifically, from the defense on the offense's weakside of the formation (away from the most number of receivers, generally the TE) to the front side noseguard, Ohio State is playing an "under." The gap assignments are as follows:
- Backside OLB: 5 technique
- Backside tackle: 3 technique
- NG: 1 technique (playside)
- Weak Inside (Will) LB: Backside A-Gap.
Then, to the offense's strong-side, Ohio State would play an eagle defense:
- Frontside tackle: 3 technique
- Frontside OLB: 7 technique
- Frontside Inside (Mike) LB: Stack on 3 technique.
The other wrinkle Ohio State would add to this look was a personnel one--they flipped their linebackers. That is, generally Spitler is the SAM, Rolle, the Mike, Homan, the Will, and Gibson, the weak end. But, as you can see in the pictures above, here they are flipped: Homan and Gibson are playing to the strength, Rolle and Spitler to the weakside.
The question then becomes what did Ohio State gain from this formation. In essence, it increased Ohio State's ability to play in space on the edge against 'spread' formations, while still maintaining a sufficient inside presence against the run.
- Other teams have gone to a 4-linebacker look to combat spread-type offenses. This is also true for Ohio State, and particularly in their use of Thaddeus Gibson. By standing him up and putting him in space, Ohio State opens up numerous opportunities for Gibson. Often, they will drop him into the flat against 'trips' looks, or let him attack the zone read and react with his athleticism.
- In fact, by having both outside linebackers on the edge in space, Ohio State is giving themselves many of the same advantages that teams that have gone to the 3-3-5 or 4-2-5 have in terms of mixing coverages and blitzes and having athletes on the edge to combat the zone read.
- By the same token, this defense, unlike the 3-3-5, allows OSU to maintain two-high safeties if desired and does not limit their coverage flexibility. In otherwords, it is not a defense explicitly dedicateed to playing an 8-man front, but instead can mix and match looks.
- At the same time, by playing the 'half under, half eagle' look, OSU maintains sufficient interior strength to stop inside runs. Similar to the eagle, OSU has basicaly covered up both the Center and Guards in their 3-4. This prevents teams from getting interior double teams. It also locks up linemen, freeing linebackers to flow to the ball. This further helps OSU shut down outside run plays.
- Finally, OSU's 3-4 is very similar to their oft-used nickel look (see below). In nickel, Hines comes in for Spitler to play the outside edge, while everyone else's responsibility remains the same. This makes the learning for the defense easier, while nonetheless giving OSU multiple ways to attack a defense and allowing for the easy cycling of nickel and base against spread teams.
In sum, Ohio State has designed an innovative way to attack modern offenses that easily cycle between base and spread looks. OSU's 3-4 puts their athletes on the edge to make plays, while at the same time maintaining their traditional 4-3's emphasis on stopping the run and having fundamentally sound zone coverage behind it.