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

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

Film Studies

Although Paul Chryst was also once a member of the Badger football team, he has not been able to exert the same influence 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, equaled that school’s career record with 21 interceptions, and also set a Big Ten record for punt return yardage.

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 today. The time he spent with the Ravens and Jets allowed him to work closely with Rex Ryan, one of the leading defensemen of his day and a man whose fingerprints can be seen on the Badger defense today.

Ryan naturally implemented an aggressive 3-4 scheme that relied heavily on linebacker blitzing and wreaked havoc on blocking schemes unaccustomed to facing such pressure. But what distinguished Ryan’s defense was the way he borrowed concepts from the 46 defense that made his father Buddy famous.

The ’85 Bears produced one of the most legendary defenses in the history of the sport Clogging the center of the line of scrimmage with large bodies directly opposite center and both guards, which allowed middle linebacker Mike Singletary and strong safety (and former Buckeye) Doug Plank – who happened to be wearing the number 46 – to run unblocked and make tackle after tackle. Ryan’s defense didn’t quite emulate this system in terms of alignment and staffing, but attempted to duplicate the overarching philosophy.

Leonhard saw this approach firsthand during the game from his spare safety position, but hung up his cleats after the 2014 season and returned home to Madison. There, the Badger defense was spearheaded by a young and aspiring coach named Dave Aranda (now Baylor’s head coach), who helped Leonhard develop the intricacies of his own philosophy.

A native of Tiny Tony, Wisconsin, he officially joined the UW team in 2016 and took on the role of defensive coordinator the following season, despite being only 34 at the time. Chryst’s decision to promote such a relatively inexperienced coach proved correct, however, as the Badger defense has ranked among the best in the nation since Leonhard’s promotion, ranking first in total yards allowed (284.8 yards per game ), first in passing efficiency defense (110.5), first in opponents’ third down conversions (30.5%), third in rushing 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 know about his success.

“They’re always looking to see who’s doing well on defense, and they’ve been very good consistently,” OSU defense coordinator Jim Knowles said ahead of this weekend’s matchup between the Buckeyes and Badgers. “They have a system, run it and know what they are doing. All the things I think you want to be as a defensive coordinator, I think they’ve demonstrated — having a system you can rely on and having answers.

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

Base 3 Strong Auto

The Badgers like to pit a safety for running support on the wide side of the field, giving them 8 defenders near the line of scrimmage. With three powerful defenders eating up inside blockers and a safety plug plugging one of the holes, an inside linebacker is often left free to run and make tackles.

Against the pass, the system can often look like straight man marking with a free center field safety (known as a cover 1). But in reality it is a cover 3 Zone using pattern-matching principles, meaning defenders tighten receivers once in their zone.

Since the defense back uses traditional coverage with seven defenders falling behind, it means one of the linebackers can join the three down linemen in their pass rush. Almost every single snap sees one of the four supports sent on a blitz, but the offense has to guess which one.

However, when Leonhard began studying the college game with Aranda in 2015, it quickly became clear that precisely this approach did not directly lead to stopping the common crimes that were so prevalent at this level. As such, Leonhard incorporated the simulated print packages that Aranda has become known for. But that’s how it is in coaching circles Ryan, who is often credited with developing them.

Because collegiate-level opponents often operate in 11 (1 RB, 1 TE) packages, the Badgers respond by removing one of their downlinemen in place of a fifth defender, creating a four-man front with the two outside linebackers standing-up ends. Along with the two central defenders, the defense then has six potential pass rushers that sneak near the line with every snap.

Although all six of these players showed blitz, the defense rarely sends only four rushers, dropping two linebackers back into cover. This allows the backend to maintain integrity in the downfield while also confusing the offensive line and quarterback.

That adaptability at the linebacker spot — to both rush the passer and lower cover — was boosted against Washington State two weeks ago. With the visiting Cougars fielding 10 staffers (1 RB, 0 TE) for most of the day, Leonhard fitted in by removing two downlinemen instead of two defensive backs and forming in a 1-4-6 reminiscent of Ryan’s must strong third-down looks when Leonhard was with the Jets a decade ago.

But even though the Badger defense was pressing from all sides, it was still only a four-man charge.

Behind the pressure of four, Leonhard mixed up his guards, especially in overtaking situations. The Badgers played Tampa-2 on multiple passing downs against WASU, but only after initially queuing in a single deep look before the snap.

However, that doesn’t mean Leonhard only uses NFL concepts from a decade ago. It also includes modern complex game coverage found in the Quarter familyespecially with more advanced passing offsets like Ryan Day and the Buckeyes.

“[They’re] several in advance, in terms of the different fronts that we see, the different coverages that you get, you have to be prepared 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 this season to take the Badgers seriously, as the Cougars walked away with an upset win during their recent visit to Camp Randall by attacking the tendencies of Leonhard’s system. In an effort to keep up with the speed the Cougars were bringing to the field with their 4-receiver-base offense, the Badgers defended the goal line with just one downlineman, allowing the Cougars to easily push their way into the end zone on the ground.

The Cougars found themselves in the red zone thanks to their efforts to clash the extra run defender over RPOs. By packaging WR screens with an inner barrel, Washington State forced field security to be in two places at once and awkwardly lunged to make a space duel after being trapped in no man’s land.

Despite topping the nation in total defense last season, Leonhard and his team struggled late in the season with Scott Frost and the Nebraska Cornhuskers averaging nearly 6.5 yards per game in an unexpected shootout. Clearly, Frost and his staff knew to expect it Cover 3 match Leonhard favored the concept on early downs and chose a variety of play calls to attack it.

First, the Huskers fielded 12 staffers (1 RB, 2 TE) knowing the Badgers would respond with their 3-4 base, which ensured only four defenders were on the field at any one time. From there, however, Frost would often split one of its tight ends wide to emulate a more splayed formation, with both wide receivers aligned on the border.

Second, the Huskers assumed the defense would play with only a deep safety, citing concepts like double posts that kept the free safety from helping the corner to the outside.

While the Badgers’ coverage philosophy aims to balance both sides of the field with a free center safety, the Huskers constantly overload one side with receivers to create an open man downfield.

Given that Day and the Buckeyes have rushed for over 400 yards in their three previous encounters with Leonhard’s defense, expect them to be targeting the same weak points in his system. Still, Day doesn’t expect the Badgers to deviate much from what they were.

“You certainly have an identity. … They will not deviate from their plan. And they were very successful, so why should they?”

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