Monday, July 27, 2015

TCU's Baylor problem

Most Big 12 pundits seem to be picking TCU to win the conference in 2015. On the surface, their reasoning is straightforward and sound and usually goes something like:

1. Baylor and TCU were close last year, oh so close, and TCU returns their QB while Baylor does not.
2. Sure, they'll both be good on offense and yes Baylor returns more on defense, but Patterson always just reloads on defense and will be fine while the returning players for the Bears D aren't all necessarily that good.

But there are a few problems with both lines of argument. For instance, the idea that TCU and Baylor were very close last year is something of a misnomer. Baylor had 780 yards of offense in that game to TCU's 485, they outrushed the Frogs at 5.0 ypc to 3.4, and out passed them with 9.3 ypa to 7.2

TCU built their lead, which was doomed to collapse, thanks to Baylor's three turnovers. In fact, this is the same way the Frogs had overcome the Bears in Waco in 2012, they picked off Bear QB Nick Florence four times while also recovering two fumbles. The 2012 Frogs weren't much better at stopping the Bear offense than they were in 2014 as Florence still threw for 14.2 yards per attempt although they did at least slow the run game down.

The Gary Patterson Frog defense of the last several years has really only been able to handle the Baylor offense by generating turnovers that prevent the Baylor offense from having enough possessions to bury them. Save for the 2013 contest, they've not really come close to figuring out how to stop the Bears from marching up and down the field and their overall offensive output compared to Baylor's in 2014 wasn't terribly close.

Winning by generating turnovers is great in theory, but can they rely on a similar extra possessions boost from their defense with five out of seven graduating from the defensive backfield?

The next problem with these lines of argument is that they give a lot more benefit of the doubt to Patterson's ability to consistently produce great defenses than to Briles' ability to consistently field a great quarterback.

Every quarterback Art has recruited to Baylor has either thrown for 4k yards in a season or is still in the program, waiting for their turn behind a QB who has thrown for 4k yards. Patterson consistently builds strong defenses, but Briles' own track record with QBs is arguably greater. Who's going to win the mental battle between Seth Russell and the TCU DBs?

Worried about Baylor losing their OC to Tulsa? Well Patterson loses one of his DCs to retirement. You can't assume TCU will reload and still have a great defense without also assuming that Seth Russell could very well produce 4500 yards of offense this year.

Finally, the game will take place in Ft Worth this year rather than in Waco. I'm not sure how much better the Frogs play in the Fort but it's definitely true that the Bears are a different team in Waco.

When this fierce young rivalry's history is examined it's clear that TCU has a Baylor problem, and the Frogs aren't going to surpass Baylor unless they find a better solution for stopping the Bears than hoping a very inexperienced defensive backfield can confuse and pick off the Baylor quarterback enough times to allow their own offense to win a shootout.

You can be sure Patterson has some solutions in mind, but whether they'll be ready to be employed in 2015 remains to be seen.

The problem

Teams that rely on quarters coverage as their main approach have a fundamental challenge when they play spread teams that are balanced with the run and the pass. Quarters is the ideal base defense for a team that wants to have the flexibility to vacillate between max coverage, heavy blitzing, or outnumbering the run and easily move their defensive backfield around to squelch whatever the offense is trying to do.

Their nickel structure allows them to blitz and play man coverage, play aggressive quarters coverage with active run-support safeties, or play two-deep/man-under coverage that eliminates passing windows.

However in everything but the 2-deep/man under calls, the TCU defense is designed to account for the vertical passing game by covering the vertical routes by the opposing receivers with the corners and two safeties playing what basically becomes off-man coverage.

Where quarters teams get into trouble is against opponents that will attack them with both the running game AND the deep passing game, especially a team like Baylor that runs RPOs that do both on the same play call. Against teams that have TEs on the field this is less of an issue as it's easier for the safeties to read run or pass before an in-line TE can get down the field. Against a team that has a slot receiver out wide? Different story.

Another problem for quarters defenses is that they prefer to play safeties that can help against the run as that's where the system draws strength, by being able to quickly involve them in the running game as 7th, 8th, or even 9th defenders in the box. On a normal passing play they are protected and supported underneath by the linebackers and down safety matching routes and funneling receivers into zones of the field they have leverage to defend. However, on a RPO or play-action play the linebackers and down safety are filling hard to stop the run and leave the safeties on islands.

As Manny Diaz says, "quarters becomes cover zero in a hurry against play-action."

Run-stuffing safeties like 5'10" 210 pound Derrick Kindred or 6'2" 194 (4.8 40) Chris Hackett aren't always great at picking up slot receivers in open spaces and playing them in man coverage. In fact very few DBs are excellent at that assignment, but quarters routinely asks them to perform in this role against balanced offenses.

Baylor is a very balanced offense and they love to put the TCU corners and safeties in difficult predicaments with vertical routes. So what's the solution?

Possible answers for the Frogs

1. Adhere to the rule of three by using a free safety that can play man coverage against slot receivers.

I typically call this position the "cover safety." This isn't really a viable 2015 solution for the Frogs unless they re-locate Derrick Kindred to strong or weak safety. He simply can't flip his hips and run with great slot receivers on deep routes:

Now granted that Sterling Shephard is the class of the league, but there are lots of guys that can abuse you from the slot in the Big 12 if try to cover routes like this with big run-support guys like Kindred. KD Cannon, Corey Coleman, Dede Westbrook, David Glidden, Jakeem Grant, Shelton Gibson, and Marcus Johnson all spring to mind and there are likely more waiting to emerge in 2015.

The other safeties battling for a chance to start in 2015 are:

-Kenny Iloka, another run-support specialist
-Ridwan Issahaku, a potential cover safety supposedly battling Iloka for the weak safety job
-Denzel Johnson, the heir apparent to Sam Carter at strong safety
-Nick Orr, a 5'10" 166 pound sophomore who can run who's listed as Kindred's back-up at free safety as well as a back-up at corner.

If Issahaku proves to be the next best safety after Kindred you wonder if he could play the free safety position and allow Kindred to slide over to weak safety where he'd no longer be asked to run with slot receivers in open grass.

There's also the problem of the corner position opposite Ranthony Texada where TCU needs another player to emerge to offer more coverage versatility. The weak safety won't be able to play aggressively against the run if the boundary corner is yet another DB who can't be trusted to stay on top of deep routes against good vertical threat receivers.

2. Adhere to the rule of 3 in a particular anti-Baylor strategy

Generally the Frogs have preferred to handle Baylor by playing to stop the run and trusting their safeties to keep the ball in front of them and generate some turnovers. I think I'v demonstrated above that asking Kindred or Iloka, or even the corners, to be able to stay on top of players like KD Cannon or Corey Coleman without giving up scores simply isn't realistic.

They could go the other way, and try a dime package out against Baylor that would employ Kindred or Iloka as a linebacker while playing a cover safety like Orr or Issahaku at free safety.

They might get pummeled by the Bear run game but this could be a strategy worth investigating if the young safeties on the roster could handle it.

3. Scheme pressure to hide warts

This was the TCU strategy for covering up David Glidden and stopping him from running option routes in the seam against Kindred:

Glidden still had five catches for 59 yards and was probably more open against this look than Daxx Garman realized, but the Frog pressure hurried the Cowboys' throws and forced Glidden to waste valuable time finding open grass.

The key for this was that Sam Carter bring effective pressure, the strongside linebacker be capable of covering out wide like a strong safety, and Kindred still had to be able to play over the top of a vertical although this protected him from the receiver running a two-way go that would force him to flip his hips and accelerate.

The Frogs are going to want to find some blitzers in their defensive backfield in 2015 to help dial up pressure to move the QB's eyes away from weak spots and hurry his reads. If they find a really good one that might be enough to protect them from failing to observe the rule of three, although Baylor's WR spacing make this much tricker than does the rest of the league.

4. Dial back the aggressiveness

You might call this the "Kansas State option" and then you might be immediately suspicious of embracing a strategy utilized by a team that is often beaten senseless by Baylor.

Basically the K-State option is to have your linebackers and safeties play the pass first on RPOs and play-action and then try to close ground and stop the run after ensuring that the Bear WRs don't get to run vertical stem routes without getting bumped or re-directed into the safeties first.

TCU might have a better chance of pulling this off than K-State because they actually disguise their looks and they might have a faster defensive backfield than do the Wildcats in 2015, although that wasn't necessarily the case last year.

The long-term strategy for Patterson seems to be, and should be, to get faster in his defensive backfield so that he continue to ask his safeties to play man coverage at times without worrying that this will result in Baylor scoring 21 points in seven minutes.

A player like Mike Freeze might have been groomed as a safety in previous years but now he's going to be playing in the box as a linebacker for Patterson. A glance at TCU's 2015 or 2016 recruiting classes suggest that grabbing more speedy little athletes who can turn and run is going to be a point of increased focus for the Frogs in the coming years. If your defensive strategy is geared around putting as much speed on the field as possible, what happens when you're getting burned? You have to double down with more speed.

Gary Patterson has a Baylor problem, and it's not at all clear that he'll be able to solve it in 2015. His defense once had the perfect blend of speed and physicality, but the emergence of smashmouth spread systems in the region like Baylor's is going to result in teams continuing to probe the soft spots in the vaunted TCU defense. These issues aren't going away, and if TCU wants to have staying power they'll have to do more than hold onto their hot new Air Raid offensive staff.

They'll need to solve the smashmouth spread and get the right kinds of athletes in their secondary to make their system work in 2015 and beyond. Until that happens, this pundit is picking Baylor to win the Big 12.


  1. Great Stuff Ian! Any chance you'll do a Baylor side of things, I'd love to see that too.

    1. Baylor doesn't seem to necessarily have a TCU problem, or really a problem scoring on anyone.

      I did do a piece on Baylor's 2015 defense here:

  2. Great read! Look forward to more posts!! Sic em

  3. Great article, but may I refer you to the following box scores:

    This "Baylor Problem" happened last year. TCU had average offense at best in 2012 and 2013, yet out-gained Baylor in both games. I expect it to be a close one with less scoring and yardage than last season from either side. Let's hope there is plenty on the line for both teams late in the season, the Big 12 needs these programs.

    1. He addressed both of those box scores at the beginning of the article.

  4. Problem with the premise is that was basically two different games - the first 49 minutes and the last 11. Over the first 49, YPC was 3.8 to 3.4 Baylor and YPA was 8.6 each. The game was pretty even except for special teams and turnovers, especially when you consider it was in Waco. I don't know how to explain the last 11 minutes, maybe fatigue, maybe momentum, maybe cockiness, but to act like the whole game was one sided is bogus.

  5. Will there be a story about the Baylor Bowl Game problem?

    1. If there's a schematic issue involved there will be.

      I've written on their need for a system to run out the clock at the end of games:

      That's partly what burned them against Michigan State. UCF just plain beat them, that was a good team.

    2. "That's partly what burned them against Michigan State. UCF just plain beat them, that was a good team."

      Baylor missed two FG's and had two TD's called back. I feel for those fans, that has to be a terrible way to lose the cotton bowl.