Film Study: What Ohio State Can Expect from Jim Leonhard’s NFL-Inspired 3-4 Defense

To many, Jim Leonhard is more synonymous with Wisconsin than his own boss.

While Paul Crist was once a member of the Badgers football team, he failed to make the same impact on the field as his current defensive coordinator. Leonhard, of course, went from walk-on to an All-American three times during his playing days at Madison, tying this school’s career record with 21 interceptions and a Big Ten for punt return yardages to boot. Record set.

But while many older OSU fans may remember him as the football version of Aaron Kraft, it was his time in the NFL that helped define who he is today as a coach. Time spent with the Ravens and Jets allowed him to work closely with Rex Ryan, one of the foremost defensive minds of his era and a man whose fingerprints can be seen on the Badger defense today. .

Of course, Ryan implemented an aggressive 3-4 plan that relied heavily on blitzing linebackers, wreaking havoc on blocking plans not used to withstand such pressure. But what set Ryan’s defense apart was the way he borrowed concepts 46 The defense that made his father Buddy famous.

The ’85 Bears built one of the most famous defenses in this history of the game, plugging the middle of the melee line with large bodies with straight center and both guards, which helped middle linebacker Mike Singletary and strong defenses ( and ex) allowed Bucky) Doug Plank – who wore #46 – to run unblocked and tackle tackle after tackle. Ryan’s defense did not quite emulate that system in terms of alignment and personnel, but attempted to imitate the broader philosophy.

Leonhard looked closer to his free safety position when playing this approach, but hung up his cleats and returned home to Madison after the 2014 season. There, the Badgers defense was being led by a young and upcoming coach named Dave Aranda (now head coach at Baylor), who helped Leonhard develop the finer points of his own philosophy.

The younger Tony, a Wisconsin native, officially joined the UW staff in 2016 and will take over as defensive coordinator the following season, despite being only 34 at the time. Christ’s decision to promote such a relatively inexperienced coach proved correct, however, since Leonhard’s promotion the Badger’s defense has been one of the nation’s best, in total yards allowed (284.8 yards per game). Ranked first, efficiency in first pass defense (110.5), first in opponents third down conversion (30.5%), third in running defense (103.4 ypg), and third in scoring defense (17.3 points per game) from 2017 to 2021 .

While Leonhard is 0-3 against Ohio State during this time, his contemporaries are well aware of his success.

“You’re always paying attention to who’s doing well on defense, and they’ve been pretty consistent,” OSU defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said ahead of this weekend’s match between the Buckeyes and the Badgers. “They have a system and they run it and they know what they’re doing. All the things I think you want to be as a defensive coordinator, I think they’re showing it — There’s a system you can rely on and get answers.”

Today, Leonhard’s approach is still very similar to Ryan’s, while also borrowing from some of the best minds in the game (like Nick Saban). In fact, badgers act surprisingly just like Crimson Tide on early fall.

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The Badgers like to bring the safety down in the box for run support on the wide side of the field, giving them 8 defenders near the line of scrimmage. With three large-bodied defensive linemen ditching the inner blockers and providing protection to one of the holes, an inside linebacker is often left free to run and make tackles.

Against passes, the system can often look like a straight, man-coverage with a free safety in the middle of the field (known as cover 1) but in reality, it is a cover 3 Zones with pattern-matching principles, meaning defenders play tightly to receivers once in their zone.

With seven defenders behind the defense employing traditional coverage, this means that one of the linebackers can join the crowd near them to the three down linemen. On almost every single snap, one in four ‘backers will be sent on a blitz, but the offense is forced to guess which is which.

When Leonhard began studying college sports with Aranda in 2015, however, it quickly became clear that this precise approach did not directly translate to preventing offenses prevalent at that level. As such, Leonhardt included the fake pressure packages for which Aranda is known. Within the coaching circle, however, it is Ryan who is often credited with his development,

With opponents often working in packages of 11 (1 RB, 1 TE) at the college level, the Badgers respond by replacing one of their down linemen in place of the fifth defensive back, leaving two outside linebackers acting as Four-man front builds up. Stand-up ends. With two inside ‘backers’, the defense has six possible pass-rushers near the line on any snap.

Despite showing a blitz from all six of these players, the defense rarely sends only four rushers, leaving two linebackers back in coverage. This allows the back end to maintain its integrity downfield while confusing the offensive line and the quarterback.

This adaptability on the linebacker spot — both for passers or a drop in coverage — was extended against Washington State two weeks earlier. The visiting Cougars put out 10 personnel (1 RB, 0 TE) for most of the day, with Leonhard matching it by removing two down linemen in place of two defensive backs and lining up 1–4–6. Ryan used to do most of the damage. Powerful third-down look while Leonhard was with the Jets a decade ago.

But despite the Badger defense bringing pressure from all angles, it still only ran a four.

Behind the four-man pressure, Leonhard mixed up his coverage, especially in passing situations. the badgers played Tampa-2 On multiple passing downs against WASU, but after initially lining up in a single-deep look before the snap.

That doesn’t mean Leonhard is only using NFL concepts from a decade ago, though. They have also included the modern, complex match coverage found in quarters The family, especially when dealing with the more advanced passing offenses employed by Ryan Day and the Buckeyes.

,[They’re] In terms of different fronts, what we’re looking at, different coverage that you get.” Day said this week what he’s seen from the Badgers in preparation for Saturday night’s showdown at ‘Shoe. Because they are very intelligent, they can handle a high level of information, and they are a good team.”

Ohio State won’t be the first rivals to take the Badgers seriously this season, as the Cougars won an upset by attacking Leonhard’s system instincts during a recent trip to Camp Randall. In an effort to match the momentum put on the field by the Cougars’ 4-receiver base offense, the Badgers found themselves defending the goal-line with only one down lineman, allowing the Cougars to easily make their way into the end zone. . field.

The Cougars found themselves in the red zone due to their attempts to put the defender into conflict with an extra run via RPO. By packaging the WR screen inward, Washington state forces the area’s defenses to be in two locations at once, without awkwardly lunging to deal in space after being caught in man’s land. .

Despite finishing above the nation in total defense last season, Leonhard and his team struggled in their late-season matchups with Scott Frost and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, averaging about 6.5 yards per game in an unexpected shootout. Frost and his staff clearly knew to expect cover 3-match The concept preferred by Leonhard on the early downs and dialed up a variety of play-calls to attack it.

At first, the Huskers used 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE), knowing that the Badgers would respond with their base 3-4, which ensured that only four defensive backs were on the field at a time. From there, however, Frost often splits one of his tight ends wide enough to more simulate a diffusion formation, both connected by the wide receiver range.

Second, Huskers assumed that the defense would only play with a deep defense and called concepts like double-posts that took the free defense away from helping the outside corner.

While the Badgers’ coverage philosophy is to balance both sides of the field with a free safety sitting in the middle, the Huskers continually overload one side with the receiver to make an open man downfield.

Given that Day and the Buckeyes have covered more than 400 yards in their last three encounters with Leonhard’s defense, one can expect them to attack these same weak points in their system. Despite this, Day doesn’t expect the Badgers to deviate too much from their earlier ones.

“They have an identity, for sure. … They’re not going to deviate from their plan. And they’ve been very successful, so why would they?”

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