Gary Patterson likes to say he “came the low road” on the way to becoming TCU’s head coach. Patterson didn’t get an early break with an NFL team or a major college program before joining the Horned Frogs, instead working his way up with gigs at places like Tennessee Tech, UC Davis, and Pittsburg State. “I am not saying anything bad about UC Davis,” Patterson has said. “But in South Carolina, they do not know where UC Davis is.” For Patterson, “the low road” represents more than the past; it represents his outlook on life: “I didn’t come the high road, I came the low road; I don’t care if I ever get on the freeway,” Patterson said during a heated press conference following a narrow loss to Baylor in 2013. “I didn’t build this program backing down to anybody. … Not in anything we do, not in recruiting, not in anything.”
That underdog mentality has fueled the occasionally prickly Patterson for much of his career, but TCU isn’t the underdog at the moment: On the heels of a 12-1 season, the Frogs are ranked no. 2 in the preseason AP poll, signaling their return to prominence after a bumpy beginning to their Big 12 tenure.
While last season’s resurgence was triggered in large part by the offense’s transformation into an Air Raid–infused powerhouse following Doug Meacham’s and Sonny Cumbie’s appointments as co–offensive coordinators and Trevone Boykin’s emergence at quarterback, the constant throughout Patterson’s 14-year head-coaching tenure has been his defense. The Frogs have led the nation in total defense four times under Patterson, and his defense was again championship-caliber in 2014, when TCU gave up the fewest rushing yards per play and tied for the most interceptions nationally. The Frogs also led the Big 12 in nearly every meaningful defensive category last year, including scoring defense, total defense, and pass efficiency defense.
TCU embarks on the 2015 campaign with a real shot at making the College Football Playoff and competing for the national title, but NFL and college coaches alike have their eyes on the Frogs for more fundamental reasons: Patterson’s masterwork is a morphing, multifarious 4-2-5 defense featuring five defensive backs and only two linebackers, and it’s uniquely designed to slow, and ideally stop, the offenses that have been bombarding defenses with a combination of spread formations, option (and run/pass option) football, and a frenzied no-huddle pace.
“I don’t think there’s any question about the fact that it’s more difficult to play defense,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said at SEC media days. “I think that’s why you see more points being scored, and I don’t think that trend’s going to change any time soon.” While other great coaches have been overhauling their defenses, however, Patterson has continued to rely on the 4-2-5 he developed precisely to combat the kinds of wide-open attacks now dominating football. Before one can understand why Patterson’s design might be the antidote to the problems posed by modern offenses, though, one first has to understand how his defense is built.
The no-huddle has proliferated across the NFL and college football primarily because it limits what defenses can do. At media days, Saban explained the challenges these offenses present: “Being an old NFL guy, the way you play defense in the NFL is you play a lot of specialty defense because everything is based on situations. What pace of play has done to the college game does not allow you to do that. So you have to basically play the same players in every situation because, if you do play situation defense and you’re allowed to sub in that particular situation, you can’t get the players out of the game. And you have to be able to match up in all circumstances and situations with teams that actually play that way, which is more difficult.”1
This is increasingly the case in the NFL, too.
Patterson’s 4-2-5, however, was designed with those challenges in mind. By playing five defensive backs, Patterson almost never needs to substitute to match up with the offense. But the system’s genius runs even deeper: Patterson has cleaved the very structure of his defense into pieces, simultaneously making everything simpler for his players and more complicated for opponents.
“We divide our defense into attack groups,” Patterson explained at a coaching clinic in 2011. Those attack groups are: (1) the four defensive linemen and two linebackers, referred to as the front, (2) one cornerback, the free safety, and the strong safety, and (3) the weak safety and other corner. For most teams, the calls for the front and secondary only work if appropriately paired, but that’s not the case for TCU. “Our fronts and coverages have nothing to do with each other,” Patterson said at the clinic. “The coverage part is separate from the front.”
Patterson isn’t the only coach who divorces his fronts from his coverage calls — Bill Belichick is another — but Patterson takes the principle as far as I’ve seen by having different coaches call TCU’s fronts and coverages, in many cases independent of each other. “The best system is to have one guy thinking about how to stop the best run play and the best pass rush, and another guy thinking about the best coverage,” Patterson said in 2006. “That’s the ultimate.”
In addition to divorcing the fronts from the coverages, Patterson goes even further by splitting his secondary down the middle. “The coverage is what we call a double-quarterback system,” said Patterson at the 2011 clinic. “We play with three safeties on the field. We have a strong, weak, and a free safety. The free and weak safeties are going to control the halves of the field. They are the quarterbacks and they make all the calls.” In short, TCU typically calls three different defenses on every play: a front call for the linebackers and defensive linemen and different coverages for each side of the backfield.
While this confuses opposing offenses, it also provides Patterson with multiple tools to call upon to combat specific strategies. The surprising bonus is that it also makes learning the defense simpler for his players: Instead of each defender needing to interpret and apply each defensive call, Patterson essentially tells each player what to do on each play. “Our key is the limited amount of teaching you have to do with each position,” said Patterson at the 2011 clinic. “We build sentences to tell the defense what to do.”
Just because Patterson breaks his defense into bite-size morsels doesn’t mean it’s unsophisticated, however. Far from it, particularly when it comes to Patterson’s unique pass coverages, which mutate from man to zone and back again, sometimes on the same play.
TCU plays mostly zone coverage, but not a zone where defenders drop to a spot on the field and wait for the quarterback to throw the ball. TCU instead plays pattern-matching zone coverage, which begins like a traditional zone as defenders read the offense, but quickly evolves into what amounts to man-to-man coverage. “It can deceive you,” West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen has said of Patterson’s pass coverages. “Sometimes I get confused if it’s man or zone because there’s a lot of matching [of] routes that goes on that looks like man.”
The Horned Frogs use three zone coverages in the secondary, as Patterson explained at the 2011 clinic: a Robber coverage they call Cover 2; a traditional two-deep zone they call Cover 5; and a Quarters coverage they call Blue. The idea behind each is for the cornerback, free safety, and strong safety or outside linebacker to read the receivers to determine each defender’s assignment.2
On each play, TCU’s secondary declares a “Read Side” and an “Away Side,” with the Read Side being the side of the offense’s passing strength.
In Cover 2 coverage, known to most coaches as Robber, the safety and corner read the second receiver (counting from the outside in), typically a slot receiver or tight end. If he runs any route more than eight or so yards downfield, the safety picks him up in man-to-man coverage while the corner locks on to the no. 1 receiver; it’s essentially pure man coverage. But if the no. 2 receiver breaks his route off short to the inside or outside, the safety is freed up and becomes a “Robber” defender, reading the quarterback’s eyes to break up or intercept any inside curl or post route.3
Specific rules for Cover 2 “Robber” coverage: (1) Cornerback: Play man coverage on the no. 1 receiver on anything vertical. (2) Free safety: If the no. 2 receiver is vertical, play him man-to-man. If the no. 2 runs short inside or outside, rob curl-to-post. (3) Strong safety: Wall off the no. 2 receiver on his release; if he runs to the flat, pick him up.
Blue coverage, known as 2-Read or Palms in the NFL, looks essentially identical to Robber coverage if the no. 1 and 2 receivers run vertical; again, it’s man coverage. But if the no. 2 breaks his route short, the coverage morphs into something very different. Specifically, if the no. 2 runs to the flat, Blue transforms into something akin to traditional Cover 2 coverage, with the cornerback coming off the outside receiver and becoming responsible for the receiver underneath in the flat, with the safety rotating to defend any downfield route by the outside receiver.4
Specific rules for Blue (2-Read/Palms): (1) Cornerback: If the no. 2 receiver is vertical or inside, play man coverage on the no. 1. If the no. 2 runs to the flat, pass the no. 1 off to the free safety. (2) Free safety: If the no. 2 is vertical, play him in man coverage. If the no. 2 runs to the flat, get over the top of the no. 1 receiver. (3) Near linebacker/safety: Wall off any quick in-breaking routes by the no. 1 or 2 receivers; drop to the curl.
In recent years, Patterson has also added a hybrid man/zone concept called Bronco, in which the corner plays man on the no. 1 receiver and the safety plays man on the no. 2 on any vertical or outside-breaking route, but if the no. 2 receiver runs inside on a slant or short crossing route, the safety lets him go and becomes a Robber. Bronco allows TCU to keep its linebackers in the box to stop the run even if the offense is in a spread formation. Finally, Patterson also features an extensive man-to-man blitz package that allows him to call essentially any blitz or stunt at any time.
Just because Patterson’s defenders are reading the offense doesn’t mean they’re passive, though. “Where we are different from other teams is our rule for our safeties: ‘Don’t go till you know,’” Patterson said at a 2015 clinic. “Other teams have their safeties backpedal, but we sit there and flat-foot shuffle. We want you to try to throw vertical. I was a front coach for many years before I became a secondary coach. There is nothing worse than a secondary coach who is always worried about getting beat deep. We want to take away the short game, we want to take away combination routes, and we want to stop the run.” TCU’s defense does all three.
For example, in TCU’s 42-3 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl win over an Ole Miss team that, while somewhat injury depleted, had spent most of the year ranked in the top five nationally, the Horned Frogs baited Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace into an interception on the first series. TCU was in Blue coverage to the two-receiver side, and safety Chris Hackett used Patterson’s rules and his own savvy to jump the route. “We were in a two-deep shell,” Patterson said at the clinic this spring. “When the no. 2 receiver went to the outside, the free safety knew the pattern, played the curl, and made the interception. The reaction came off route recognition and an understanding of tendencies.”
Great defense isn’t a function of base calls; it’s a function of how those calls are applied to specific situations. Patterson’s true gift is his ability to stop his opponents by thinking like them. “On defense, we must think like the offense,” Patterson said at this spring’s clinic. “Offenses have gotten so good, we must teach our team what the offense is trying to do to our defense. You have to think outside the box.”
Most teams play base defense against up-tempo offenses as they just want to be sure to get lined up correctly, making them predictable and, in turn, allowing offenses to pile up easy yards, first downs, and points. That approach does not appeal to Patterson: “The first thing you must do is make a good first-down call,” he explained at the clinic this spring. “On first down, we can run a ‘Bullets’ B-gap blitz, which brings both linebackers into the B gaps [the space between the offense’s guards and tackles]. If the offense runs a zone running play, they are in second-and-12. If that happens enough, it will slow the offense down.”
“Instead of lining up and going fast, the offense will slow down to see how we align before they call their play,” he added at the clinic. “Their advantage of going fast and controlling the tempo is now our advantage. You cannot do this and play just base defense. You must make a better call than they do.”
To make that superior call, Patterson isn’t guessing or randomly blitzing. Each call is carefully calibrated based on his opponents’ tendencies. For example, Patterson identified a number of tells in Ole Miss’s offense before the Peach Bowl that resulted in his team holding the Rebels to a measly three points and 129 yards, including a mere 9 yards rushing. “Against Ole Miss, we worked our defense against the tight end,” Patterson explained at the coaching clinic. “If the back aligned away from the tight end, and the tight end was outside the tackle on the line of scrimmage, we slanted everyone to the tight end. Ninety-eight percent of the time, that’s where they were running. If the tight end aligned behind and inside the tackle, we slanted the other way.”
And Patterson’s scouting goes beyond spotting general tendencies; he wants to shut down specific plays. “We teach our players to play the play,” said Patterson at the clinic this spring. “If they know what is coming, they will stop it for a loss.” For example, “In six games [in 2014], Ole Miss motioned down to the inside with a receiver, and every time they ran the same play, a sweep,” added Patterson. “When they ran [the motion], our linebackers knew it was going to be the sweep play toward the motion.”
This deep scouting extended beyond general offense: Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze has a reputation for calling trick plays at opportune times, but Patterson discovered another tell. “Before the bowl game against Ole Miss, we told the defense that if a receiver or back lined up wide and deeper than five yards, be on alert. They were going to run a trick play of some type: a reverse, counter, screen, double pass — something crazy was about to happen.” Patterson was right — and his defense would not be fooled.
Trick plays don’t always work, but it’s rare to see them blown up as dramatically as this one was. As Patterson drily said at the 2015 clinic, “everyone came free.”
These results aren’t flukes. Patterson pushes his team, but he also pushes himself as a playcaller. Each week, the Horned Frogs run a drill in which their defense must deal with two scout team offenses running off plays as fast as possible, which, in turn, means Patterson has to call his defenses roughly every six seconds. It’s draining. “I have walked off the field on Thursday feeling as if I have called a terrible game, and I do not feel ready to call a game on Saturday,” he said at the 2015 clinic. “I go back and watch more film, so that when Saturday rolls around, I am ready to call a defense every six seconds.”
Patterson’s defenses have made short work of essentially every offense they’ve faced over the past decade or so, with one glaring exception: in-state rival Baylor, now a conference foe. Baylor has torched TCU’s defense a few times in the past few years, including Robert Griffin III’s 359-yard, five-touchdown coming-out party in the 2011 season opener, and last season’s come-from-behind 61-58 Baylor victory, in which the Bears racked up 782 yards of offense in overcoming a 21-point fourth-quarter deficit. Baylor’s offense certainly presents TCU with a number of challenges, particularly given how effectively the Bears get their ultra-speedy slot receivers matched against TCU’s safeties on deep shots, which in turn opens up the Bears’ inside runs. If Patterson’s philosophy is to force his opponents to throw deep, Art Briles’s Bears have been only too happy to oblige.
But I don’t think Baylor’s success exposes a fundamental flaw in Patterson’s defenses — and neither does Patterson. “Except for the Baylor game this year, we did well,” Patterson said at this spring’s clinic. “In the last five years, Baylor has won three and we have won two. They beat us twice by three points and once by two points. We blew them out twice. In [last] year’s game, I did a poor job in the last 12 minutes of the ballgame. We lost the game and did not get into the playoffs. We ran out of gas, and the only person I can blame is me.”
Baylor has boasted arguably the best offense in the country over the past four or five years, averaging 600 yards of offense per game over the past two years in particular. Yet if you study the games in which the Bears have been limited, TCU shows up on the opposing sideline more than any other team. In 2013, TCU held Baylor to roughly half its season average in yards per play, and in 2012 the Horned Frogs snagged four interceptions en route to a 49-21 win. That’s not a knock on Baylor’s modus operandi, but a reminder that the evidence is mixed — and that the November 27 matchup between TCU and Baylor, which ranks no. 4 in the preseason AP poll, looms large.
“I do not believe the 4-2-5 defense is the best defense ever made,” Patterson said at the coaching clinic in 2011. “The bottom line is this: Does your defense fit your personnel, and can you fix that defense? When you are in a game and the offense causes you a problem, do you have the answer so you can correct the problem?”
Since Patterson arrived at TCU, he’s found an awful lot of answers to an awful lot of offenses, causing coaches at every level to look to TCU to see how Patterson is trying to solve the riddles posed by today’s schemes. Time will tell whether his defense will continue to stay ahead of offenses, but right now, Patterson’s distilled defense, fluid pass coverages, and uncanny game planning and play calling are as good as any coach’s in football. Not bad for a coach who took the low road.