Gary Patterson is a nut when it comes to scouting opponents, I’ve heard from multiple offensive coaches at B12 media days that game planning for Gary Patterson’s defense is one of the toughest challenges in the league. Naturally, his defense is designed to be flexible within the constraints of playing four-down, base personnel.
Here’s the challenge that exists even for his once decried, 4-2-5 scheme that was designed to get speed and versatility on the field. As I outlined in a Football Study Hall piece earlier this summer, if you face a typical college-style RPO spread offense, you can’t outnumber everything:
Six guys in the box, two to the field, one to the boundary. If you want to outnumber the run blocking scheme you need seven in the box. If you want to outnumber the passing threat to the boundary you need two defenders, if you want to outnumber the passing threat to the field you need three defenders.
The RPO spread exists because quarters concepts like Gary Patterson helped popularize allow multiple defenders to split their attention. So you have maybe your nickel serving as a +1 in coverage or the run based on whether the offense is running or throwing, ditto the free safety. Well, that’s negated by RPOs which read those defenders and make them commit one way or the other.
Gary Patterson is as vulnerable to good RPO spread practices as anyone, but at least he has some methods and evolving tactics for handling all of this, some of which he shared during Big 12 media days.
Coach, offensive coordinators consistently mention TCU as one of the toughest teams to gameplan against. They say TCU is always ready for everything they have, swarming to the ball…what is it about the way you practice and install your defense that allows TCU to be as good as you’ve been over the years in facing these spread offenses?
Narrator pause: Gary Patterson is tough to transcribe as a quote. He often moves on from one sentence and thought to the next before finishing the first.
Well good players, there’s a lot of speed in Texas. And you know we try to coach defense like offense, I kinda take it as a deal that offenses thinks they can say I-pro left, Z post, Y drag, X dig but we gotta call cover 3.
Narrator pause: That offensive play call is the classic shallow cross play.
And so I’ve never believed that that works that way. And so we, we work at being able to, especially in this league as dangerous as offenses are you can’t just sit in a couple of fronts and a couple of coverages, and expect..coaches are too good, players are too good, skill level and quarterbacks, and so. You have to be able to change things up so they don’t always get…I’ve always said if you have a 60 play game, 50% of the time I want to have a better call than you do. So 30 plays. If I can limit a game down to 30 plays….
Narrator pause: Boom, there it is. The main thrust of the TCU defensive philosophy in one hypothetical.
And so for us, playing defense is about 3’n’outs, 3rd downs and red zone defense. You’re going to not sleep all year if it’s all about how they move the ball between the 20s. But if you can, if they have 14 series and you can come close to seven of those times being three and out? And then you can be where we’ve been most of the years down around in the low 30s in third down conversions. And then down in the red zone I think in 14 we made people kick, I dunno, 20 field goals, 22 or 23, and only allowed eight red zone touchdowns. You’re going to win a lot of ball games in the Big 12 if you can play in those three categories. And for us when it comes to pass defense, it’s just don’t let the ball get thrown over your head. If you’re giving up big plays then you’re going to get in a lot of trouble.
Narrator pause: Granted this doesn’t touch on my point about number allocation but it gets at how Patterson is aiming to flip the script on the offense.
If he can inflict negative plays without giving up big plays and create some three’n’outs then that’s going to make the most of the “four chances at a first down” format that was the bane of offense before the spread flipped the script by making it easier for offenses to score on any given play.
In the same sense that a defense has 11 defenders to commit while trying to figure out which offensive players and concepts to outnumber, the defense has to keep an eye towards defending the point of attack, defending the first down marker, and defending the goal line. Patterson wants to emphasize the point of attack and the goal line. If you get some first downs, no big deal, so long as TCU can protect the goal line and stop short some of your possessions before they can get going.
I know you’re not at other teams’ practices, cause, obviously, but do you know what it is that you guys do differently that allows you to be as multiple, consistent, and disciplined as you are?
Well I don’t know about, I mean we’re not undefeated. I’m not undefeated in the Big 12 in seven years and so, we’re not perfect. I think we spend a lot of time working at it, and to be honest with you that’s why I still coach. I think it’s just another set of eyes, we have basically three secondary coaches. The corners coach, the safeties coach, and the head coach.
Narrator pause: Patterson mentions this as an advantage quite often. The fact that he’s heavily involved with the defense gives TCU a boost from having more help here and there in terms of quality control. Gary isn’t much of a delegator, more of a high capacity and type A sort of person who can actually get involved in multiple aspects of the program and do it effectively. Not to say he doesn’t or won’t delegate, if that were true TCU would never be any good, but he clearly stays very busy with many different dimensions of the program.
For instance, he chose grass to install in TCU’s stadium that would be faster and stay in good shape longer into the season in order to allow the team to play as fast as they do on opposing teams’ turf.
So it’s, and whoever else is not doing what I think, or not playing at the level, then they they get the head coach so it’s, one of those,
Narrator pause: If you don’t do a good job of coaching defense, it won’t escape Patterson’s notice and he won’t allow it to submarine his team.
but you know we’ve been together and we understand…one of the things that I think hurt us early last years was just I moved three coaches around. And it’s turned out to be a magnificent move, because when we develop, we felt like…Chad (Glasgow), doing things needed to move to linebackers, because for two years before that I’d been helping coach em because we hadn’t at the 10th coach. And I got two younger guys, corner coach coach Gonzalez moved to safeties, one of the rising stars in this game, and coach Modkins at TCU, turned him into a corner coach. So now we didn’t have any change over, so every time that happens then you can develop kids a lot faster. So this will be the first year in a couple of years that we didn’t have some guys change around and do some things. And that always makes a big difference, that carry over with coaches and players.
Here he’s praising his staff and continuity in terms of building an effective defense over time. Obviously it helps the Frogs that they’ve been recruiting to their system for like a decade and have guys that know how to teach the system and tweak it so the Frogs can build upon pre-existing complexity.
Let’s talk a little about that complexity and how Patterson can achieve that money quote about beating the offensive play call on 50% of their calls with his own goal.
Part of the good news for 4-2-5 teams is that you CAN outnumber two out of three ares of the field regardless of RPOs, which was the point of my football study hall piece. Patterson’s genius was always in constructing his defense to be able to function in broken off sections that make this remarkably easy to structure. The weak safety communicates with the corner to his side (usually both are on the boundary) and the free safety coordinates the strong safety (TCU’s nickel position) and the other corner. The four DL and two LBs operate as a still distinct unit in the box.
The split field coverages are nice, but divorcing the front from the back end in every call has had major benefits for TCU in trying to best opposing offensive play calls. The guiding assumption on a given TCU play call is that the front six defenders will handle the front six gaps, so how exactly they choose to do that isn’t particularly consequential to the secondary units. That’s helpful for Patterson in dialing up games and stunts from the front six to thwart opposing teams’ favorite run plays.
Here’s an example that went awry, the Frogs often lined up in their double 2i front against Texas to discourage the inside zone game before bumping the DTs late into an Over front:
The struggle they had here was that the TE played off the ball enough to insert into wherever the bubble ended up. They could move it from the B-gap to the A-gap and that was fine.
Here’s a play though where Texas’ off ball TE was in more of a winger alignment and you see how that front could be effective against the tight zone running scheme:
The center is basically wasted, he can’t reach speedy Garrett Wallow who’s playing through the B-gap. So TCU won that exchange pretty handily and their team speed was such that they weren’t burned too badly on the other ones either. Of course they lost this game, but primarily because Texas beat them up in the passing game, with their dread-wing formation for Ehlinger, by turning over the Frogs a million times, and by finishing drives in the red zone.
Patterson has a ton of different front alignments, techniques, and then post-snap movements involving his front six to give the Frogs the best chance of stopping what’s coming without having to consistently over commit to stopping the run or getting caught for having smaller personnel. Similarly, their pass-rush includes a lot of tackle-end and nose-end twists that often have the effect of giving their speedy DEs free runs inside at the QB as though they were off-ball linebackers executing insert blitzes.
As we covered the other day, Patterson is exhaustive in his scouting and gameplanning even well beyond simply charting tendencies out of different formations and in different situations. His defense is also designed to help him be flexible in thwarting opponents so that the Frogs can ruin your play calls as often as not and refuse to give up touchdowns in either event.
If teams aren’t going to flood the backfield with eight athletes like Iowa State does with their inverted Tampa-2 then they’d better be pretty good at running complex play calls like TCU does.