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TCU and positionless defense

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While the Horned Frogs’ 4-2-5 defense is often considered a standard for flexible base defense, they’ve also been experimenting with hybrid packages.

Texas Tech v TCU Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Gary Patterson’s 4-2-5 has been one of college football’s hardest working schemes for a long time now. Originally it was designed as a way to counter power running teams, the structure allowed Patterson to split the front from the coverages (and the coverages to either side of the field) and move his front six DL and LBs to spill the ball to the perimeter where the Frogs had extra speed on the field. The great irony of the Frogs’ Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin was that while everyone asked if the smaller TCU D could hold up against a power run game, the Badgers were running exactly the sort of scheme that TCU’s D was originally designed to stop.

Eventually the 4-2-5 had evolved and given Patterson a good starting point for defending spread offenses when opponents began to phase out the power rushing attacks. Overall the 4-2-5’s story is very similar to that of the Miami 4-3 Over defenses and it’s really a close cousin to that scheme and philosophy. The Hurricanes’ defense allowed them to crush option teams but it turned out that the emphasis on attacking up front and spilling the ball to a backfield that emphasized speed translated nicely to defending a wide array of opposing offensive styles.

The obvious update that Patterson brought to the 4-3 Over quarters defense was to replace the sam linebacker with an additional safety but the more important one was the structure and how it allowed for specialization. The front six were multiple in how they’d account for the six primary gaps up front but stayed within that realm. The secondary had similar simplicity, they were given the fiefdom of matching WR routes and handling run support fits from the perimeter and were multiple within that sphere but stayed in that lane.

Patterson’s 4-2-5 vs the modern spread

The trouble Patterson has had in the spread era has been the way that spread offenses broke out of the confines he had them in. Especially when offenses would use RPOs or four receiver sets and trips formations that force a LB to match slot receivers in coverage to maintain the two-high structure that Patterson prefers.

One of TCU’s adjustments over the years has been to steal the LBs back into the box with late shifts and new coverages designed to split the difference between their preferred two-high coverages and something more akin to man-free:

The weakside linebacker starts the play outside of the box but then the weak safety drops down late to pick up the slot so the linebacker can get back into the box to give the Frogs their six-man front.

Another new dimension to the TCU approach is that they have increasingly used players with smaller builds and hybrid skill sets in their front six. In the clip above they have DE L.J. Collier, a 6-2/280 pounder, crashing into an interior gap while the opposite DE (Ben Banogu, a 6-3/250 pounder) is dropping back and reading the gaps like a linebacker. The weakside linebacker is Arico Evans, a 6-1/210 pounder who was listed as either a WR or a DB when he was 190 pounds coming out of high school. Transforming DBs into LBs is a pastime for Patterson at Fort Worth.

But you can see two cracks in the TCU defensive structure in these various tactics. One is that they are no longer leaning on “division of labor.” They are regularly using converted safeties at linebacker because those players now have to occasionally run with slot receivers on the perimeter in addition to performing their normal roles plugging interior gaps. The other crack is that it’s getting hard to maintain their two-high structure without giving away easy yardage to offenses, so they end up with some compromise coverages.

Things are working out pretty well for TCU with their tweaked approach to building Patterson’s original 4-2 structures. However, they’ve also been mixing in what is proving to be the next step for anti-spread defenses.

TCU’s three-down, hybrid sub-package

For obvious passing downs or even entire drives, the 2018 Frog defense regularly mixed in this look on defense:

Essentially what the Frogs did in this set was replace a defensive tackle with hybrid linebacker Garret Wallow, a 6-2/210 pound converted safety. Wallow would line up as a weak outside linebacker, an alignment from which he could shift into a variety of roles after the snap. In this clip he’s becoming a de-facto weakside end while the actual defensive end (Collier again) shifts inside to play instead as a defensive tackle.

That gave them a ton of flexibility in how they wanted to create their main four-down fronts and keep the offense guessing about who’d be where. Later in that drive they brought sam ILB/part-time DE Ty Summers (6-1/241 pound converted HS QB) off the edge like a DE but were thwarted by Kyler Murray’s speed around the edge on a zone-read:

Here’s a look at the static 3-down set before everyone moves into their final destinations:

Either the weakside LB (Wallow) or the strong side LB (Summers) could credibly be hitting an interior or exterior gap while the other became a traditional LB next to MLB Jawaun Johnson. As a result the Frogs could get into their normal defenses and stunts but with an extra dynamic of confusion for the offense who were more used to attacking TCU’s normal 4-2-5 alignment. They also got extra speed on the field, which could minimize the damage from explosive plays when a spread team did successfully figure out how to get the ball into space.

The Frogs would also use this package to get into a true three-safety look, aligning SS Ridwan Issahaku back in the middle of the field so he could play as a middle of the field robber or deep 12 safety.

The weakside LB stunted into the B-gap this time, becoming a de-facto 3-technique DT in a 4-2 Under front while the DE slanted outside. The sam LB played as the strong safety, the middle LB played his normal role, and then the weak safety and strong safety were both quarters safeties that could trigger downhill on a run read.

It’s the same sort of defense that TCU always plays but they’re getting into it with different personnel starting in different alignments and hybrids galore.

The trouble with this style is that it asks a lot of the players on the field to keep track of their changing responsibilities from snap to snap. Oklahoma ended up blistering the Frogs and not because the Sooners had a good grasp of what TCU was doing from play to play in the three-down package, they did not. Oklahoma burned them though because TCU didn’t always a good grasp of what TCU was doing from play to play, particularly after injuries robbed them of their starting free safety and weak safety.

On this play the Sooners used motion to force a change of strength call from the Frogs and you end up seeing the TE run free, the first slot running a slant draw three defenders, and then Ceedee Lamb running a slant one-on-one for the actual conversion.

One of the advantages that Patterson has always had at TCU is being able to drill his defenders extensively on opposing offenses. His base defense has tended to allow his players to play fast and to play fast in the direction of opposing tendencies, which they’ve scouted to perfection. Playing a hybrid, positionless scheme ups the ante for everyone, not just the hybrids. Everyone has to understand how to play fast against opposing tendencies from multiple positions within the base schemes.

So far though, the Frogs have been able to gradually increase their utilization of this particular sub-package and get closer to transforming their 4-2-5 into something that’s more of a hybrid system in which they play the same defenses in a large variety of different ways. If Patterson can figure out how to continue to churn out tendency-jumping units from hybrid defenses then TCU will be at no risk of losing their status as a beacon for innovative and effective defense amidst the chaotic Big 12.