First, TCU doesn’t utilize a lot of varying alignments. They are a primary 4-2-5 far more than West Virginia is in a 3-3-5, which WVU coordinator Tony Gibson doesn’t even recognize as his defense, instead calling it a multiple front. Gary Patterson insists that his defense is the 4-2-5, and the head coach typically starts a snap in a cover two look, meaning two of the five defensive backs are safeties responsible for protecting their respective half of the field.
The other three, a usually a pair of corners and a hybrid position, are typically in man on the outside, or will sit in zone or play run first at times pending down, distance and situation. The Horned Frogs also like to take a page from Virginia Tech’s robber position, and what WVU calls its spur, with the ability to move one of the safeties, called the weak, around in varying places on the field to counter what an offensive presents in terms of strength and receivers to each side. That player, as well as the safeties, must be able to cover reasonably, and also hold up in run responsibilities. It’s a defensive answer to players like Wendell Smallwood, who can line up as a back or wideout to cause mismatch problems. If a defender can handle such a player regardless of positioning or what he’s asked to do on a given snap, the defense doesn’t need to concern itself with the non-existent match-up issue.
It goes to the core of Patterson’s recruiting, which isn’t to find the maulers like Oklahoma. Instead, TCU wants athletes able to operate in space against other skill players. Open field tackling and ability to change direction with quality coverage skills is paramount. Along the front, as WVU offensive line coach Ron Crook noted, TCU wants to move laterally well and utilize slants and stunts to create gaps and “get across our face.” The Horned Frogs also love backside play pursuit, and will fly down and end to try and drag the back down before a seam can be opened. Lighter, faster players are the value, and it’s what has carried TCU in the same way the 3-3-5 did with West Virginia when the Mountaineers couldn’t recruit stud defensive lineman.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Patterson’s approach is the play calling. TCU divides most defensive calls up into three segments, the first being the front six (the 4-2 segment). They’ll get a call noting what gap responsibility and if there are any slants or stunts on the play. The second call will go to one corner and weak safety and the other to another corner and pair of safeties (strong and free, typically in four of five wide sets or an offense’s 10 personnel look).
That does two things. First, it makes the play calls short for each position, which is key against fast moving offenses. Second, it makes the defense appear complicated to an opposing offense while keeping it very simple for TCU. Since the front six are operating independently, and the DBs are also divided up into a pair and trio which are also acting independently, the calls can create man coverage to one side, while using zone to another. Offense’s typically try and figure this out by sending a player in motion, thinking that is the player is trailed by a defender it means man. But first, TCU won’t always follow that player. And second even if he is trailed by a defender, that doesn’t mean that the setup is man across the board. There is still the very real threat of man on one side and zone on another.
TCU will also trot out the typical cover five, meaning it plays man across the board against an empty back set. It’s the most dangerous set-up Patterson allows in what many assume to be a bit of a gambling defense, but one that is actually quite conservative in nature. TCU’s safeties protect deep, and won’t fly up to the run without clear play recognition. The players, who usually operate well in space, are taught that maintaining leverage against the deep ball is more imperative than slowing down the run. It’s almost a bend-don’t-break idea, with the caveat that the four linemen often give the Frogs better up front rush, albeit from far fewer angles and variances than the 3-3-5.
TCU is at its best when it has run stuffing tackles and ends that can collapse the pocket while forcing the ball back up into the center-guard area. TCU focuses on not overrunning the rush, which creates seams for the quarterback to step up and throw, or escape for decent gains. There is obviously more stress placed upon a defense with a mobile quarterback, and that’s one aspect TCU need not worry about against Clint Trickett and West Virginia. Look for a lot of slants to try and get into the gaps in WVU’s line, then the upfield push for pressure.
That containment style is also apparent within the run defense, which will look to try and move the ball to the outside rather than allow seams up the middle, where there are fewer players against a spread set. If one looks at the line, check the positioning of the ends, which will be spread wide in an effort to try and force the runner to move farther horizontally so that support can get there after minimal vertical gains.
The linebackers are also playing run first, while being aware of the crossing patterns through the face of the defense. TCU doesn’t blitz often, preferring instead to keep the two in the middle off the field and have them attack the b gaps (between guard and tackle). The Horned Frogs have to be very gap sound, but can change the way they attack it through the play calls. The same is true on the backside where, much like the odd stack, Patterson can gain favorable match-ups out of a cover two, or zero, or simply moving the robber – TCU call it the weak safety and usually aligns it to the shorter side of the field – around to various areas pending offensive strength and back location.
Obviously any defense is better with experience and personnel, and right now TCU has very solid players along its front four with a pair of solid safeties on the back end. The linebacker play has been stout but not spectacular so far, and the corners have gotten torched at times, especially late in the game against Baylor. TCU could put a safety over Kevin White when the Mountaineers are only in three wide. But anything more, in a four wide or empty set, it’s likely that White will garner one-on-one match-ups, which means WVU can try and strike with more vertical passing than it did against Oklahoma State. Remember, players till have to make plays, and White is capable of beating most single coverages.
If West Virginia gets on a passing role, check to see if TCU decides to try and get a sixth defensive back on the field by sliding a strong safety up to linebacker and then bringing in another safety. That maximizes speed, but could be problematic if Dana Holgorsen decides to start run gashing. It’s a careful balance, and the team most likely to emerge the victor is the one that best utilizes space— either playing in it or denying it – and the one that can block/get off blocks and tackle/create missed tackles.