Heading into 2015, TCU was facing a tall order trying to match expectations for the season after their brilliant 2014 run. They were losing 3/5 of the secondary and the top three linebackers from a defensive backfield that produced 47.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, 23 interceptions, and seven forced fumbles en route to finishing with S&P's 13th ranked defense.
On top of that, the Frogs then lost the only returning starter at corner, the first replacements at both linebacker positions, and the first replacement at weak safety early in the season. There was no recovering from those losses and TCU is currently ranked 72nd in S&P, no doubt the starting defensive backfield only picking off five passes has been a factor in that performance.
However, Patterson's charges were able to hold the line well enough to allow TCU to start the year 8-0 and be in position to compete for the Big 12 title until Trevone Boykin and Josh Doctson went down to injury and the party was over. Even then they had enough fight left to nearly spoil Oklahoma's season last weekend.
There have been two constants in the midst of this that have allowed the Frog defense to make this run possible. The first is the TCU DL, a deep and high quality unit that doesn't have gaudy stats but consistently make it possible for their tiny LBs and nickel defense to reach the football without getting plowed by blockers. The second is free safety Derrick Kindred, the only remaining returning starter from 2014 and the team's leader in tackles.
The biggest challenge for TCU this year on defense has been the fact that their two best linebackers, Montrel Wilson and Travin Howard, are 6'3" 208 and 6'1" 190 respectively. The entirety of the TCU defensive strategy is built around filling interior gaps and stringing plays out to the run support coming from the three safeties in the secondary. When the players trying to blow up blocks and fill gaps are smaller than 210 pounds this becomes difficult.
That has meant that despite not having as good a CB tandem as they hoped to have before Ranthony Texada went down, stopping the run has required that the Frogs bring extra numbers into the box. Otherwise the inevitable creases formed from opposing OL and lead blockers crashing into the inexperienced and undersized Frog front would mean a quick death.
TCU has not had experienced, versatile DBs to build around this season due to injury, so much of their schematic versatility comes from what Kindred can do. Fortunately for Patterson, Kindred can do quite a bit.
The strength of the TCU defense comes on passing downs when they have a variety of good coverage options thanks to their super-quick linebacker corps. They can play basic two-deep/man-under coverage with Kindred and weak safety Ridwan Issahaku deep or a wide variety of different blitz schemes that are made viable by the fact that virtually everyone in their defense backfield is at least credible in man coverage.
However, they can't get to the point where they can use these schemes unless they first stop the run. Their best way to do this is to sneak strong safety Denzel Johnson into the box late before the snap and trust Derrick Kindred to play effective off-man coverage over the top of the slot receiver.
Of course this leaves Kindred to cover Sterling Shepard in a great deal of open grass, but he's been mostly up to the job and the result is that strong safety Denzel Johnson has freed up as a playmaker.
They can either drop him in the box like this to outnumber the run or else to blitz the edge while Kindred handles coverage responsibilities. Johnson has ten tackles for loss on the year and two sacks as a weapon in this role and has been able to mostly avoid the kinds of deep coverage assignments where he's less adept.
The blitzes have been a saving grace for the TCU defense, which often can't beat opponents on standard downs straight up and need to inflict negative plays to end drives.
Despite playing a lot of deep coverage and staying wide on slot receivers, Kindred still leads the team in tackles, primarily because he's simply a good open field tackler as evidenced by this takedown on a Baker Mayfield scramble:
While Kindred is solid in coverage, he's probably at his best when he can be a run-support player either playing in the box or reading plays flat-footed before flying downhill.
You get a clear sense of his tackling range and stick ability on this play, even though he's making the tackle after the 1st down marker:
That's how a player who is asked to spend a lot of his time covering things up so that his younger and less experienced teammates can have simpler assignments can still lead the team in tackles.
TCU blew out Texas in Fort Worth for a whole host of reasons, but the route was on early in the game when Kindred did this:
This play could have illustrated how difficult Kindred's assignment is within the Big 12. Texas is running a power/bubble RPO where the QB is reading the strong safety after the snap to see if TCU is up to their normal trick of using that player to stop the run while leaving Kindred in wide open spaces.
Of course the Frogs are doing exactly that, so Texas looks to punish this call with a quick bubble screen to Daje Johnson, one of the most explosive athletes in the entire conference. Kindred flies downhill and knocks the ball out of Daje's hands and the consciousness from Daje's head. Game over.
Kindred's overall impact in creating turnovers has been diminished as a result of playing with a weaker supporting cast. You can typically tell how tight a team plays coverage and how well they pressure the QB by how many interceptions the deep safeties have that year. Last year Kindred finished with four while weak safety Chris Hackett had seven, this year Kindred has two and counting.
That said, he's still been able to have a big impact on games with his ferocious tackling and ability to erase potentially scoring plays and of course the stability he brings on the back end frees up players like Denzel Johnson to attack opponents.
Of course there's one final challenge in this TCU season, looking to spoil Baylor's season and chances at a third consecutive Big 12 title in their season finale in Fort Worth on Friday.
You can be sure that Patterson's strategy for handling Baylor is going to revolve around stopping the run and confusing third string QB Chris Johnson in the hopes of getting turnovers that can set up his wounded offense for success. Their base defense will probably look something like this:
TCU typically plays teams like Baylor with this set up and weak safety Ridwan Issahaku has the range to stay deep until he's sure it's a run and then come downhill to force the edge, so the Frogs will be in decent shape covering the boundary-side outside receivers. The big problem will be handling Cannon in the slot, running vertical routes on Kindred in wide open spaces.
Kindred held up well in similar settings against Oklahoma State's David Glidden, although his partners in the secondary were all toasted. K.D. Cannon will be the ultimate test. If Kindred can hold up in that match-up while his teammates work together to try and keep Corey Coleman under wraps, TCU might turn Oklahoma State vs Oklahoma on Saturday into the de-facto Big 12 Championship game.
With all the injuries they've endured this year, TCU fans could still be thankful for that outcome.