How TCU's defense works, and how it stops up-tempo offenses

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

At least one team in the Big 12 actually plays top-notch defense. Here's how the Frogs consistently shut down high-octane attacks as well as anybody else in the country.

For two games during the NBA Western Conference Finals, it appeared that the Oklahoma City Thunder had the solution to the San Antonio Spurs' phenomenal offense.

With Serge Ibaka back in the lineup and somewhat close to form, the Thunder's defense managed to close the lane on San Antonio while also opening up easy opportunities for buckets.

Their strategy? OKC tends to sag off of shooters and keep the paint packed, so as to prevent penetration. That keeps the offense from moving the ball back out for easy shots on the perimeter. At the center of it all is the uber-athletic Ibaka, who blocked nearly three shots per game in 2014 and altered countless others.

If teams try to whip the ball around on the perimeter, the Thunder rely on their team length and athleticism to recover and contest jumpers. Ultimately they failed against the indomitable Spurs machine, but for a stretch it appeared that they had brought the Spurs to their knees.

Gary Patterson's TCU Horned Frogs follow a similar strategy. However, instead of having a rangy shot-blocker on the back end to clean up mistakes, the Frogs rely on a blend of three base coverages, each of which features a two-deep safety alignment to keep the ball out of the end zone.

They also have a roster-building strategy and organizational structures in place to keep hurry-up, no-huddle teams in check and avoid the match-up problems these teams love to present. They have to, being in the Big 12.

The result of their total system is a flexible defense that can handle most HUNH schemes and potential match-up challenges from the same base, 4-2-5 personnel group (four linemen, two linebackers, five defensive backs). Find a way to defend it all from the same defensive package and you have a recipe for handling the stress of tempo.

The Frogs' conservative aggression

Patterson's TCU defense is mostly grouped up in blitzes or the three base coverages: cover 2 robber, cover blue, and cover 5. The Frogs start every snap with two deep safeties, then have endless ways in which they can adjust which players are responsible for maintaining leverage on which parts of the field.

In most of these coverages, the safeties have an active role in run support, which means that they need to be rangy and good tacklers. The cornerbacks need to be able to hold along the sideline without help. However, the safeties rely on reads of the receivers, not linemen, before flying down to stop the run, which makes them less vulnerable to play-action than you might suppose and maintains a conservative defensive shell.

Overall, the Frogs are always looking for ways to be aggressive from a safe position. Much like Thunder guard Russell Westbrook gambling for steals while backed by a packed paint or MMA great Anderson Silva looking to draw the opponent forward before countering with a flying kick.

They'd all prefer that you make the first step. Then they can respond aggressively to any show of weakness by virtue of their speed and safe defensive positioning.

Early on, the safeties are lurking around the line of scrimmage -- TCU has a collection of safety blitzes to mix things up -- before dropping into their normal two-deep alignment. They check the receivers and then get to the line of scrimmage with leverage as quickly as they can (which is pretty quick). Since the front is looking to spill the ball, this affords them extra time to arrive.

That makes the play of the front fairly crucial to the process of drawing opponents within range of the leg kick. The Frogs get there in interesting ways, with a lot of stunting and with surprisingly wide alignments by the defensive ends, especially for a team looking to spill plays:

Tcu_wide_dl_medium

The TCU 4-2-5 defense is descended from Jimmy Johnson's 4-3 over defense. It carries many of the same principles, including the positioning of the ends. Out wide, the ends are safe to attack upfield and are not confronted with the possibility of being pinned between a tight end-offensive tackle double team. If the ball gets wide of them, it's going to take the runner going horizontal for such a long time that the secondary will have time to arrive.

The area between the offensive tackles belongs to the defensive tackles, who also tend to align fairly wide. Unless there's a stunt called, after the snap the interior gaps will be the responsibility of the DTs and linebackers. They're looking to either make a tackle or spill the ball outside.

In this instance, the penetration is too quick. The runner can't bounce outside, so the run-support defensive backs converge in on the ball with leverage, in case the first wave misses the tackles.

Since these six players in the defensive front are always responsible for the six interior gaps, they can play it straightforward, as they do in the clip above. Or they can move around and switch up which of the six is responsible for each gap.

All this allows the Frogs to be instinctive and aggressive in how they respond to different formations, personnel groupings, or schemes from the offense. No matter what, the same defensive players will be performing more or less the same roles, attacking the offense from the same angles, dealing with similar offensive strategies.

The Frogs have found that the same 4-2-5 personnel from two-deep schemes is more or less capable of providing a sound response to any concept. So they focus on getting as efficient as possible within those schemes, while relying on the threat of the blitz or stunt to prevent an offense from keying in on weaknesses.

Structuring on-field leadership

Besides having flexible and sound schemes, the Frogs organize their defense in a way that sets them up for success in the HUNH era of football.

The main reason that the front six players of the defense can consistently expect to defend the interior six gaps is because the front six and the five defensive backs are independent of each other.

What's more, the coverages are split as well. The front gets one call, which could be a stunt or a base call, and the defensive backs don't even need to know what it is. The free safety (FS) makes a coverage call for the trio of himself, the strong safety ($), and the field cornerback (CB). The weak safety (WS, typically aligned to the boundary) makes a call for himself and the boundary cornerback (CB).

Tcu_split_d_medium

In this instance, the WS might make a blue-sky call, meaning that he and the corner will take the receiver and TE on vertical routes. This also means the role of playing the edge against the run will go to the safety (cloud would mean the corner has that job; buzz would mean the linebacker has that job).

The FS makes a robber call, which means that the strong safety defends the flat, the corner plays deep on the sideline, and the free safety's role will depend on how the play develops.

When you consider that the defense might be combining to play a wide variety of coverage variations together without that impacting what the front is doing that really complicates things for the offense. But for the defense, it's all too simple. They have very precise roles and get a large number of reps executing them.

The coverages are all based on pattern-matching principles, like a sort of matchup-zone defense.

TCU is able to get younger players involved sooner than later due to the fractured nature of the system. It can teach them individual roles before eventually graduating them to oversight positions or teaching them multiple positions on the team.

When a HUNH offense is racing down the field and switching up formations, TCU isn't terribly troubled. Its players can make the calls on the field while maintaining the appearance of complexity. While other defenses rely on coaching direction to get all the different players even lined up in a sound defense, TCU's multiple on-field leaders can do the same and bring greater variety and disguise.

The level of execution from the defense benefits from these tactics. The coverages are all based on pattern-matching principles, like a sort of matchup-zone defense, so the defenders leverage themselves against the offense based on route distribution. Their expertise working in their groupings to erase throwing windows and take away an offense's more dangerous routes can be impressive to watch:

There's nowhere for Oklahoma to go with the ball, despite having five receivers spread across the field. With this system of making calls and organizing coverage, TCU plays some of the tightest pattern-matching in the nation. This is despite having schemes that are largely the same as other teams.

Creative recruiting

While the true genius of the TCU system is in the fragmented approach to play calls and organization, the way they find the players to make it work is fascinating as well.

In true Miami 4-3 defense fashion, the Frogs are looking to put as much speed on the field as possible. They adhere to a "shrink the field" philosophy of finding personnel. They recruit with the main purpose of locating speedy athletes with potential, rather than finished products with years of experience at a particular position.

At defensive tackle, they prize players with the lateral quickness. They want a big guy who can stunt and work his way across an offensive lineman's face in order to control that space from end to end.

The other positions often feature players spun down from other roles. Players like two-time All-America defensive end Jerry Hughes was a two-star running back before the Frogs bulked him up, taught him how to play on the line, and got him drafted in the first round by the Indianapolis Colts. And a player like Jonathan Anderson, rated as a three-star safety out of high school, was a natural candidate to become a linebacker for the Frogs.

The way they find players for their strong safety position is perhaps their most clever tactic. Their current star player in this role is Sam Carter, a three-star, dual-threat quarterback in high school who now plays a position akin to the nickel in a 4-3 defense. This spot is what makes the defense particularly flexible, as this player is ideally one who can play the edge against big formations, play in space against spread concepts, and match up with all manner of inside receivers without giving up an advantage.

Carter excels in each of these roles. He has unique size and speed as a 6'1, 215-pound athlete who will probably run a 4.6 at the combine and test well overall. He's also got great experience in his spot, which allows him to anticipate and set traps for the offense:

In this clip he's widening out with the No. 2 receiver when the quarterback looks his way. But he anticipates the QB's read and attempt to fire the stick route in to the TE. Carter excels at showing the QB one look before darting to where he knew the ball was going. Carter had four interceptions in 2012 and another five in 2013 with these tricks.

There are occasions in which the Frogs feel that their 4-2-5 defense doesn't actually give them the best matchups. When an opponent plays four or five wide receivers in an effective spread passing attack, the Frogs will sometimes match the substitution and remove Carter from the SS position ... so he can play linebacker.

Here's what a dime defense can look like for TCU:

Tcu_dime_medium

TCU can fit in a sixth defensive back into that nickel position and then play Carter at whichever linebacker position has the tougher coverage assignment, all while leaving the remaining linebacker to cover the running back or spy the QB or do whatever else needs doing. Here, they have the weakside corner minding the edge in case of a run with the weak safety playing over the top. On the strongside, the linebacker needs to be able to hang with that innermost slot receiver because the linebackers are responsible for the third receiver from the sideline. He needs to carry him up to the safety, who's playing over the top of both slot receivers. The corner has the sideline to himself against the outside receiver.

Carter is quite effective in the middle as well. He can move out to deny in-breaking routes to that No. 3 receiver, and he can get from there into the box against a running play much quicker than most linebackers. He can even blitz from here or his normal slot; he has had seven sacks in the last two seasons.

"Well," you might begin, "so TCU found a great athlete once for that spot from their three-star database of Texas players. Lightning won't strike twice." It already has.

Meet Denzel Johnson, a 2012 two-star athlete by Rivals' estimation who was, like Carter, a dual-threat QB while in high school. Despite a 6'2, 205-pound frame that could move pretty darn quickly either laterally or in a straight line, Johnson's best offer up until two days before national signing day was to go to the University of Texas ... at San Antonio.

TCU discovered him, offered him, and stole him away from the Roadrunners at the last second. Now he's Carter's backup and successor and a favorite of the Frog staff. Until he was signed, few knew about him, and many still don't and won't until Carter leaves. But the Frogs shockingly have another big athlete waiting in the wings.

This is a system that is perfect for finding and then fully maximizing diamonds in the rough, of which there are scores every year in Texas, due to the system's overall simplicity and how it lends itself to teaching and developing players.

Defenses that want to learn how to play basketball on grass would be wise to learn from the TCU Horned Frogs in how they prioritize sound defensive structures, organize their team in a way that empowers players to organize themselves in the midst of the fog of war that the HUNH creates, and how they find and feature great athletes on their roster.

The alternative is to get run off the floor.

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