This has been an inevitable development in the Big 12 over the last several years and one that TCU in particular has been more or less driving even as they’ve struggled to find success on defense over the last few seasons.
The spread offense keeps spreading opponents out with increasingly intense strategies and it hasn’t really reached its final point yet, which is either QB-driven run games or flex RBs that only receive hand-offs if the other team first accounts for him as a receiver. The better offenses in the Big 12 right now are still in the balancing mode of the smashmouth spread, combining two-back run game concepts with vertical passing from tall, strong-armed QBs ala Oklahoma State and West Virginia, or Oklahoma who dabbles in a variety of different tactics.
Against those styles of offense, built off the RPO and play-action spread attack, the dime package defense is proving ascendant as the best counter.
A look at the best and worst defenses in the Big 12 reveals the truth
The top defenses in the Big 12 by S&P+ are TCU (8th), Iowa State (22nd), Texas (32nd), and Oklahoma State (33rd). The next highest rated defense is Kansas State at 75th and the rest of the league is wallowing in the 100s. Last season the highest ranking defense was West Virginia at 37th nationally. While the offseason story was about all of the returning quarterbacks around the league that were going to be lighting defenses up, it’s been the defenses that have been the real story for the league in 2017. At least it has for those four teams, the other squads are getting taken apart in a fashion like you might have expected given the talent on offense around the league.
Here are the respective starting lineups of those top three teams as they’ve been in league play...
#1 The TCU Horned Frogs
#2 The Iowa State Cyclones
#3 The Texas Longhorns
#4 The Oklahoma State Cowboys
If you went solely off results Big 12 play you’d probably see Texas catapult to #1 as it’s been their play in the dime package that’s illustrated here in which they’ve really taken off to new heights. They took their big OLB Naashon Hughes off the field for this package to get another safety (John Bonney) on the field and they also started playing two DEs regularly whereas in their nickel package they tended to play another big DT on the field in one of those DE spots. That allowed them to get Breckyn Hager on the field, who’s had three sacks in two games since becoming a de-facto starter.
Iowa State and TCU are both playing nominally nickel packages but TCU’s DL is undersized at every spot save for nose tackle and their Sam LB Travin Howard is basically a full-time box safety. For all intents and purposes, TCU plays a 4-1-6 dime defense and the DEs are almost linebackers themselves so it’s close to a 2-3-6. Iowa State is only playing one true DT up front and BOTH of their outside linebackers are essentially down safeties, what’s more they regularly drop eight into coverage and play what amounts to a base dime defense when they’re in this three-down front. They’re as close to being a 3-1-7 as a 3-3-5.
Oklahoma State is the only team of this bunch still playing a normal, base 4-2 nickel most of the time and the Cowboys actually had their own sort of dime package where Calvin Bundage replaced a DT and Kenneth Edison-MacGruder, a 6-0, 215 pound LB/S hybrid played as the star linebacker. Then Edison-MacGruder was injured and Bundage replaced him as the starting star linebacker while their dime-like sub-package was diminished in favor of this 4-2-5 set.
The average size and weight of the DL and defensive backfields for these four defenses is:
TCU: 6-4, 249 along the DL and 6-0, 197 in the defensive backfield.
ISU: 6-3, 273 along the DL and 6-0, 201 in the defensive backfield.
Texas: 6-3, 277 along the DL and 6-1, 210 in the defensive backfield.
OSU: 6-3, 279 along the DL and 6-1, 205 in the defensive backfield.
Texas is amusingly the biggest team in the defensive backfield despite playing a true dime package rather than a nickel like TCU or ISU. That’s the privilege of being able to recruit the big DBs, essentially, and they are probably also the fastest defense of this group. Texas also averages out as being one of the bigger defensive fronts but Hager is perhaps even smaller than listed and Charles Omenihu sways the average. It has to be noted of course that TCU and OSU play four men up front while ISU and Texas play three.
Another important detail to these defenses is that they are all comprised of veterans, particularly in the defensive backfield. Texas and Oklahoma State are the only two teams of the four who play underclassmen in their defensive backfields and each of these teams have returning starters all over the secondaries and players in at least their third-year in nearly every spot.
Playing Big 12 offenses with leverage and discipline is difficult when facing tempo and ultra-fast skill players in spread formations. Without multi-year players across the backfield most teams don’t perform that task terribly well.
The design of these units is also pretty typical across the board. Each of them tend to have a nose-tackle who can eat some double teams and then a single big, plugging LB to guarantee that they don’t just get run over between the tackles. Everyone else on the field is an athlete that can run and cover ground. As it happens, the inside plugger for each of these teams is often a pretty athletic and brilliant LB. TCU’s Ty Summers is versatile, Iowa State’s Joel Lanning is obviously a good athlete, Texas’ Malik Jefferson is a freak that will probably run a 4.6 or better in the upcoming combine, and Oklahoma State’s Chad Whitener plays fast for a such a stout player in part because he’s a highly experienced and well coached veteran.
Without these nose tackles and strong inside linebackers, it’d be harder for each of these teams to get away with putting so many other skilled athletes on the field around them.
Taking a look at the worst defenses in the league you see a different story. West Virginia just wasn’t able to pull off another turnover of their defensive roster, particularly up front where all three DL in their 3-3-5 graduated. They’ve struggled to play well enough up front to set up their now less experienced athletes on the back end.
Oklahoma has struggled throughout the year due to a desire to play a base 3-4/4-3 hybrid defense that leaves traditional personnel on the field which has been regularly eviscerated by the Big 12’s spread offenses. They actually have too many big, powerful players to try and get on the field and not enough versatile DBs to bring the needed variety and speed to their defense. The adjustment they made against Texas Tech to shut them down after a hot start by the Red Raiders was to compromise with a 4-2-5 nickel package that took a former five-star LB off the field.
Texas Tech and Kansas are normally terrible at defense while Baylor is rebuilding their entire program right now and lack developed talent in the new system (or at all, in some spots). However the Bears have a head coach who’s shown a great willingness and creativity in building dime packages at previous stops.
Kansas State has struggled on defense due to lack of pass rush in their 4-2-5 now that Jordan Willis (star DE from 2016) is in the NFL. They’ve tried to stick with the 4-2-5 nickel as a catch-all and it just doesn’t offer enough speed and versatility anymore to counter modern B12 spread offenses without some particularly speedy and versatile talent on hand to make it work.
What makes these dime packages so effective?
Modern spread offenses are built off similar principles as the spread pick’n’roll offenses that have taken over the NBA. When a team has a ball-handler that can shoot 3s or drive to the basket paired with a screener that can shoot 3s it puts a defense in a real bind. You always used to want a rim protecting big man that can stay on the block and contest layups, but if the ball handler is just going to pull up and shoot from distance? Now what? You’re going to ask your big man to lumber out to the perimeter to guard him? Better double him to be safe, except now he’s passing to an open shooter.
Many defenses are taking from the Golden State ethos and looking to put multiple athletes on the floor that can switch screens, even at the cost of having a traditional rim protector on the floor. Better to contest everything and refuse to give up open jump shots than to have the paint on lockdown but surrender easy shots that are worth more than layups.
The dime defense is a football equivalent to the strategy of switching screens. The benefits of the package are numerous, particularly against spread concepts, largely because you have so many athletes on the field that can reasonably be asked to do different things.
You want to bring overload blitzes from either side of the formation with disguise? Well good luck doing that in base or nickel defense against a four-receiver set unless you are willing to either be obvious about who’s covering who or willing to drop a lumbering LB or DL into space on a slot receiver. But in a dime package? You might have five or six defenders hanging out in the middle of the field who all could end up being blitzes or coverage defenders after the snap and the offense can’t be sure.
Many people would say that the answer to a dime defense is just to call a run and plow them over, but that can be difficult if you aren’t sure until the last moment who you are supposed to block and all of the targets are moving extra fast.
The speed also has major advantages in how a defense wants to present to an offense. Worried that they’ll run the ball down your throats? Load the box and dare them to run the ball into unblocked defenders and then rely on your speedy defenders to bail back into coverage if the offense drops back to pass. Worried about the deep pass? Drop everyone deep and then rely on your team speed to close on the ball before the offense can get much in the way of yardage. It’s easier to take away what an offense does best from this package than from a traditional set where everyone is typecast into specific roles.
The best thing about dime packages is that they make the long scoring plays that spread offenses rely on much more difficult to come by. You have that many more speedy defenders on the field that can run plays down before the ballcarrier reaches the end zone. Our top four defenses in the Big 12 are all averse to giving up explosive plays. TCU ranks 12th in IsoPPP, Iowa State 15th, Texas 19th, and Oklahoma State 8th, all of them are relying on team speed on the back end to force long drives by opponents that end with the offense managing to punch the ball into the end zone from the limited confines of the red zone.
Once you arrive in the red zone you can’t just spread an opponent out and crease them, you have to out execute people and either push them around up front or force the ball into narrower windows. It’s hard for all offenses but it can be particularly difficult for spread offenses that are designed to light up the scoreboard with long TDs achieved by putting speed in space.
Defense is seeing a sort of breakthrough season in the Big 12. Part of that is all of the good, new coaching staffs around the league at Iowa State and Texas. Part of that is that these four schools all have tons of older veterans on defense that have been around the league for a while and know how to execute lots of different tactics in response. A major part of it is that these schools are starting to lean on the dime package to provide answers for the stresses that spread systems bring to bear on the field. In the future, expect to see more Big 12 teams recruiting and deploying their teams in hopes of getting their best 11 defenders on the field in a dime package.
You can expect to see it in other leagues as well as the spread continues to proliferate around the country.