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 even his own boss.

Although Paul Chryst was also once a member of the Badger 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 three-time All-American during his playing days at Madison, tying this school’s career record with 21 interceptions, and setting a Big Ten record for stair returns to boot.

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

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Ryan, of course, implemented an aggressive 3-4 scheme that relied heavily on blazing fast linebackers, destroying blocking schemes unaccustomed to dealing with such pressure. But what set Ryan’s defense apart was the way he borrowed concepts from the… 46 defense that made his father, Buddy, famous.

The ’85 Bears produced one of the most storied defenses in this sport’s history by closing out the center of the line of scrimmage with large bodies directly opposite the center and both guards, leaving center linebacker Mike Singletary and strong safety (and former Buckeye) behind. Doug Plank – who happened to be wearing #46 – to run unblocked and make tackle after tackle. Ryan’s defense didn’t quite imitate that system in terms of tuning and staffing, but did try to duplicate the overarching philosophy.

Leonhard saw this approach up close from his free safety position during play, but hung up his cleats after the 2014 season and returned home to Madison. There, the Badger defense was led by a young and up-and-coming coach named Dave Aranda (now the head coach at Baylor), who helped Leonhard develop the finer points of his own philosophy.

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The native of tiny Tony, Wisconsin, officially joined the UW staff in 2016 and would take over as the defensive coordinator the following season, despite being only 34 at the time. Chryst’s decision to promote such a relatively inexperienced coach turned out to be the right one, however, as Badger’s defense ranks among the best in the country since Leonhard’s promotion, first in total yards allowed (284.8 yards per game). ), first in pass efficiency defense (110.5), first in opponent’s third down conversion (30.5%), third in hasty defense (103.4 ypg), and third in scoring defense (17 .3 points per game) from 2017 to 2021.

Although Leonhard is 0-3 against Ohio state in this period, his contemporaries are well aware of the success he has had.

“You always pay attention to who does well in defense, and they’ve always been really good,” said OSU defense coordinator Jim Knowles ahead of the Buckeyes-Badgers matchup this weekend. “They have a system and they run it and they know what they are doing. All the things I think you want to be as a defensive coordinator, I think they’ve shown – having a system you can count on and have answers. ”

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Today, Leonhard’s approach is still very similar to Ryan’s, while also borrowing from some of the game’s best minds (like Nick Saban). In fact, the Badgers remarkably operate like the Crimson Tide on early downs.

Basic 3 Strong automatic

The Badgers like to put a safety down in the box for run support at the wide end of the pitch, leaving them with 8 defenders near the line of scrimmage. With three big defensive linemen eating up internal blockers and a safety closing one of the holes, an inside linebacker is often released to run and make tackles.

Against the pass, the system can often look like a straight, man-cover with a clear safety in the middle of the field (known as Coverage 1). But in reality it is a Lid 3 zone with pattern matching principles meaning the defenders play the receivers tight once in their zone.

Because the back of the defense uses traditional covers with seven defenders falling back, this means that one of the linebackers can join the three down linemen in their pass rush. On almost every snap, one of the four backers is sent on a blitz, but the offense is forced to guess which one.

However, when Leonhard began studying the college game with Aranda in 2015, it quickly became apparent that this exact approach didn’t translate directly to stopping the proliferation offenses that had become so common at that level. As such, Leonhard has used the simulated pressure packs for which Aranda has become known. However, within coaching circles it is Ryan who is often credited for their development.

With opponents often operating in 11 (1 RB, 1 TE) college-level packs, the Badgers respond by removing one of their Downline Linebackers instead of a fifth defensive back, creating a four-man front with the two outer linebackers acting as stand up ends. Along with the two insiders, the defense has six potential pass rushers who crawled to the line on a random snap.

Despite all six of these players showing blitz, the defense rarely sends just four rushers, forcing two linebackers back into cover. This allows the back end to maintain its integrity on the field while still confusing the offensive line and quarterback.

This adaptability at the linebacker’s spot — to both rush the passerby and reduce coverage — was bolstered against Washington State two weeks ago. With the visiting Cougars trotting with 10 men (1 RB, 0 TE) for most of the day, Leonhard equalized it by removing two down linemen instead of two defensive backs and drafting in a 1-4-6 going back to Ryan’s most powerful third-down looks while Leonhard was with the Jets a decade ago.

But despite the Badger defense pushing from all angles, it still only fired four.

Behind the pressure of four men, Leonhard mixed up his covers, especially in passing situations. Played The Badgers Tampa-2 on multiple passing downs against WASU, but only after initially taking a single deep look for the snap.

However, this does not mean that Leonhard only uses NFL drafts from ten years ago. It also includes modern, complex match reports that can be found in the quarters family, especially when faced with more sophisticated transient offenses like those of Ryan Day and the Buckeyes.

“[They’re] several up front, in terms of the different fronts we see, the different coverages you get.” Day said this week what he saw of the Badgers preparing for Saturday night’s showdown in the ‘Shoe’. “We’ve had to prepare because they are very intelligent, they can handle a lot of information and they are a good team.”

Ohio State won’t be the first opponent to take the Badgers seriously this season, as the Cougars took an upset victory on their recent visit to Camp Randall by attacking the leanings of Leonhard’s system. In an effort to match the speed put on the field by the Cougars’ 4-receiver base attack, the Badgers found themselves defending the goal line with only one down lineman, allowing the Cougars to easily make their way to the end zone on the ground. .

The Cougars got into the red zone thanks to their efforts to conflict the extra run defender via RPOs. By packing WR screens with an inner loop, Washington State forced field security to be in two places at once, fidgeting to take a tackle in space after being entangled in no man’s land.

Despite finishing top of the nation in total defense last season, Leonhard and his team struggled in their end-of-season matchup with Scott Frost and the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who averaged nearly 6.5 yards per game. caught up in what turned out to be an unexpected shootout. Frost and his staff clearly knew they were the… Cover 3 match concept favored by Leonhard on early downs and called a variety of play calls to attack it.

First, the Huskers used 12 men (1 RB, 2 TE), knowing that the Badgers would respond with their base 3-4 which left only four defensive backs on the field at a time. From there, however, Frost often split one of its tight ends wide to mimic more of a staggered formation, with both wide receivers aligned on the boundary.

Second, the Huskers assumed that the defense would play with only one deep safety and cited concepts such as double posts that took away the free safety from helping the corner out.

While the Badgers’ coverage philosophy is to provide balance on both sides of the field with a free safety in the middle, the Huskers are constantly overloading one side with receivers to create an open man downfield.

Given that Day and the Buckeyes have racked up over 400 yards in their three previous encounters with Leonhard’s defense, they can be expected to attack the same weaknesses in his system. Despite this, Day doesn’t expect the Badgers to be much different from who they’ve been.

“They definitely have an identity. … They will not deviate from their plan. And they’ve been very successful, so why should they?’

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