Because TCU had an eventual first-round pick (Seattle’s LJ Collier) and second-round pick (Indianapolis’ Ben Banogu) going into the draft, loads of NFL scouts filtered through Fort Worth this spring. And it quickly became clear that one after another, they came with more than one purpose.
It didn’t take long for Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson to catch on, either. Film sessions that’d normally go for about an hour were lasting three and four hours at a time, and with good reason—or reasons.
“They met with them extraordinarily long,” Patterson said, earlier this week. “And that’s for two reasons. Number one, they wanted to find out how much they knew. But also the little bit I talked to them, and I tried to stay out of their business, they were also trying to find out what our mindset was, why we were doing certain things.”
Specifically, the NFL wanted the goods on how Patterson—now in his 22nd year at TCU, 19th as head coach, and eighth in the Big 12—has dealt with the type of offense the pros are seeing more and more on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis.
“Like all of us, they’re looking for information,” Patterson said. “The new age up there is the RPOs, the read-option when it came up, they hadn’t seen a lot of that. All of us, there’s good coaches everywhere, we do the same thing—Well, what’s your answer?”
Over the last few years, the NFL has seen an explosion of a trend that started with the Wildcat over a decade ago—offensive concepts from college football are trickling up to the pros, and it’s now morphed into a tsunami. Ideas once derided by the pro-football types as gimmicks and gadgets have become staples on Sunday, as they’ve long been on Saturday.
So at some point, there have to be counterpoints.
Patterson’s example shows that the search for effective solutions is underway, while also serving as proof that said search is moving slowly. It took a year or two before the NFL’s offensive coaches were lighting up Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley’s phone. Likewise, it looks defensive coaches are dipping their toe in the pool before they jump in.
“I think we’re a year away from that,” one college defensive coordinator with NFL experience said, when I asked if he’d fielded phone calls. “There are more and more RPOs, the NFL is getting more creative with it and they still have a lot of room to grow. And the defensive guys are starting to work on catching up.”
I’m on the road for training camps already, and ready to get to your questions in this week’s Game Plan. Among those I’ll be answering questions on …
• The Lions’ potential to challenge in the NFC North.
• Who I see as the NFL’s breakout guy on offense in 2019.
• The potential of a revamped Packers defense.
• Madden ratings.
• Which London game I’d buy a ticket to.
And more! But we’re starting with an overarching topic that I’ve been kicking around the last few weeks—and one I know will be relevant once all these teams starting practice this week are actually playing games.
NFL teams have had college coaches in to talk ball, as they always do, and handling certain things on offense or defense are, always, a major part of that.
On top of that, some pro coaches have worked with college coaches on professional development on their own. Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine spent time studying with LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda in Baton Rouge and ex-Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano in Columbus during his year out of coaching in 2016. Dennis Allen and the Saints defensive staff have visited both Nick Saban at Alabama and Aranda just down the road.
Some coaches have even taken the step of hiring guys from that level. Belichick tabbed Schiano to run his defense, before Schiano decided to walk away in March. The Chiefs worked feverishly to hire Kentucky defensive coordinator Matt House as their linebackers coach under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. New Orleans has been able to mine ideas from d-line coach Ryan Neilsen, who they poached from NC State in 2017.
Both college coaches who studied the NFL and NFL coaches who work in it, say that defenses were, in fact, starting to catch up with all the offensive schematics towards the end of the year. Numbers bear that out.
My buddy Warren Sharp (be sure to check out his book) compiled a nice study for us to illustrate that. Average scoring per team exceeded 23 points in 11 of the first 12 weeks of last year, and average yardage per team topped 340 yards in all 12 of those weeks. Conversely, average scoring per team dipped below 23 points and in each of the final five weeks of the year, and average yards per team was under 340 in four of those five weeks.
As we discussed this, Patterson wanted to make sure he didn’t come off like he was carrying some sort of magic elixir, or is the holder of all answers—“I’m humbled that people are watching our film,” he said. But very clearly, he has something to offer. And he took me through why he does, and what that is.
The defense was developed through having to handle a lot. One thing that interested me on Patterson’s history is that, coaching in the Big 12 and in Texas, he has been a prominent defensive mind in the heart of the offensive evolution. But when I raised that to him, he rolled the clock back further, before the Frogs joined the Big 12 in 2012.
“What helped was playing in the Mountain West Conference,” he said. “There you played against Air Force, and it was triple-option, all the way to these teams that ran 10 personnel (one back, zero tight ends), San Diego State, which had great athletes. And so that’s one thing that I think helps us in the development of the schemes we want to get in.”
Defense is, by nature, reactive. But facing that level of variety, his goal became to flip that whole idea on its head.
In essence, he wanted his defense to play like an offense. And putting that into practice meant making sure the offense had something it had to react to, consistently and deep into the play clock or after the snap—“What we say at our place is we want to play defense like offense. We want to be able to audible. And the only way you can audible is to have versatility, and you have versatility because of speed, from my viewpoint.”
Patterson actually had an example of this at work last year in the NFL, one that slammed the brakes on one of the league’s most prolific offense on the biggest stage imaginable.
“I loved what New England did against the Rams,” Patterson said. “They called two defenses. The thing that they did that I thought was interesting, what we’ll see a little bit is, they’d call it, knowing they were gonna look to the sideline, they were always gonna check. As soon as they checked, they went into the defense they actually wanted to be in. …
“That’s the thing that’s phenomenal about what New England’s done. They still make people in ballgames play their game. They weren’t a fast football team. But they still made those other teams play their game, on both sides of the ball.”
The two-call idea, which we detailed in February, prevented the Rams offense from finding the matchups it wanted as quickly as it had to. And like Patterson said earlier, it takes a certain type of versatile player—who’s either smart or freakish enough to play multiple spots—to pull that kind of thing off.
And that’s why Patterson puts a premium on finding hybrids. I raised Derwin James’ name as we discussed this, and Patterson actually didn’t know much about him. So I described the Chargers star as an outsized safety who rushes and covers at all three levels of the defense.
“Yes,” Patterson said. “That’s exactly what you want. That’s exactly what we want in our guys, yes sir.”
He then countered with Daryl Washington, who was a middle linebacker at TCU who could run a 4.42 40-yard dash, and became a second-team All-Pro with the Cardinals before off-field problems derailed his NFL career. “We could walk him out on a wideout and he could play man coverage from a linebacker position,” Patterson said. “When you can do that, you can do anything you want to.”
As for putting the versatile pieces (rather than strict prototypes) together, that puzzle is assembled counterintuitively too.
It starts on the back end, rather than the front. Forever now, TCU’s base defense has been a 4-2-5 look with three safeties on the field. And those three safeties are really the chess pieces that Patterson and his staff play with most—so instead of calls being built front to back, in Fort Worth, they’re built from back to front.
“Our coverage is what dictates how we’re going to get into bigger fronts,” Patterson said. “And most people, it’s the opposite—they call their fronts then their coverages. We dictate, because in this day and age, you’ve got to be a lot better than somebody if you think you can just line up in a couple coverages. One of the things that’s happened with the RPOs, I’ve gone and watched some NFL practices, they’re where we are. They run so many plays, so they’re playing plays, not just defenses.
“On defense, you gotta play plays within your defenses, meaning—how are we gonna match up? When you play the triple option, somebody has to have dive, somebody has to have quarterback, somebody has to have pitch. Well, now you need to do that in the pass game—when they run this route, this is how we’re all gonna match up to it in this coverage and then that coverage.”
That means having a lot of guys out there who can cover in different ways. And …
It also has to translate into the run game. Which is where those safety hybrids come into challenge another norm.
“A lot of people go big to small in their substitutions, and we’re actually the opposite, we have a five defensive-back system, we go the other way,” Patterson continued. “We’re smaller and we slide people in the box. Our rule is instead of beating people because you just outman them, it’s always have one more guy in the box, whether you do it by blitzing or by playing man somewhere, because you have to have a one-on-one somewhere, even if you’re playing zone everywhere else, so you can get one more guy in the box, and still handle play-action and everything else they’re doing.
“That’s been our philosophy forever. I think the speed factor with the five defensive backs, if you play a ‘50’ defense, our outside safeties are outside linebackers. You can play a 50 defense, they line up in the same places, and you can slide into a 4-3.”
It makes sense too. So much of the read-option and RPO game is about changing the math by incorporating the quarterback as a runner. Playing with the numbers in the box is, in essence, how TCU punches back against that offensive calculus.
Again, Patterson isn’t pretending that the NFL’s defensive problems can solved with TCU’s tape. He also emphasized that being a head coach that calls the defense gives him a distinct advantage over others—“I can try some things. And if I don’t have someone to get mad at me, I can get mad at myself.”
The overarching key, as he sees it, and as he learned all those years ago in the Mountain West, is finding a way to be flexible enough to handle what’s happening now, and what’ll happen later. His prediction on what’s next? NFL teams will go get bigger to attack smaller defenses. It actually already happened with the Patriots last year, and Patterson said it’s happening in his conference too, with the tight end position coming back from the dead.
And by the time that happens, it’s fair bet that Patterson’s phone, and the phones of a bunch of his college football rivals, will be ringing.
From Bud Friesel (@bud_friesel): What must Detroit do to win their division this season?
Having the Bears, Packers and Vikings to contend with certainly doesn’t help. That said, GM Bob Quinn has quietly fortified the team through free agency and the draft on both sides of the line, so I’d start with becoming dominant in those areas, since that’s where the investment is. Between Taylor Decker, Ricky Wagner and Frank Ragnow on offense, and Trey Flowers, Damon Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson on defense, a ton of capital is tied up in the bigs.
Elsewhere, Kenny Golladay, Kerryon Johnson and T.J. Hockenson give Matthew Stafford a nice complement of weapons. Darius Slay is a top-shelf corner, and Jarrad Davis is brimming with potential at linebacker. Bottom line, this is a pretty good roster, and Matt Patricia has a high ceiling as a coach. It should be interesting to see where they land.
From Fantasy Football Factory (@FFBFactory): How thin of ice do you feel Jameis Winston is on in 2019?
This is the first year we’ve seen a first-round quarterback play out his fifth-year option (those went into play in the 2011 CBA), and now we’ve got two—Winston and Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota. Both players have a lot on the line this season. The Buccaneers surrounded Winston with good talent—he’s throwing to Mike Evans, O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin—and with a good offensive coach that fits him, in Bruce Arians, we should get at least get answers on who Winston is this year.
So is he on thin ice? Yeah, his future is on the line, but looking at the Bucs’ depth chart, and knowing that Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin are behind him, it’s fair to assume that Winston will be given time to work out the kinks if he struggles early. There just isn’t a real reason to play a journeyman over him that you don’t think you can contend with.
From Noah Niznick (@nniznick): Who you got as most improved offensive player?
I’m going to go off the board a little here and choose Arizona receiver Christian Kirk. I heard he was clearly the best at his position in Kliff Kingsbury’s first spring with the team, and projects as a really good fit in an Air Raid offense. He had 43 catches for 590 yards and three touchdowns last year, and it’s not crazy to think he could double those numbers.
Another guy to watch is Washington RB Derrius Guice. We heard really, really good things about him last summer, and some off-field red flags caused him to fall further than he should’ve in the 2018 draft. Plus, the Redskins are going to run the ball plenty. But I have to get some reviews on him after he puts the pads on, coming off the torn ACL, before going all-in on him.
From Darren Johnson (@DarrenJohnson95): If the Packers have a top-10 defense this year, how far do you think they can go?
The offense is gonna have a chance to be really, really good—Marquez Valdes-Scantling had an outstanding spring as a complement to Davante Adams, and Jimmy Graham looked like he has plenty of gas left in the tank. So if the defense is that much better? The Packers will be in good shape. And there’s a chance you see that sort of leap.
I wrote a couple of months ago that I wouldn’t be surprised if Jaire Alexander becomes a top-five corner this year, and I’ll stand by that. With the haul of pass rushers coming in—big-ticket free agents Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, along with rookie Rashan Gary—I think it’s fair to feel optimistic that Pettine will be able to get plenty creative with what he’s doing up front.
From Pete Rose’s Bookie (@bookie_pete): How in the world did Leighton Vander Esch from Dallas get an 86 rating in Madden, while Darius Leonard got an 84? Both rookie linebackers, yet Leonard won Defensive Rookie of the Year, Vander Esch wasn’t even top three. Leonard was first-team All-Pro, and led NFL in tackles by almost 20, despite missing one game. Yet got an 84 to his 86??
Uh … I can’t answer this other than to say … Maybe the athletic freakishness of Leighton Vander Esch tipped the math in his favor? That’d be the best answer I can give you.
And while we’re here, I initially thought it was kind of stupid that players were getting so upset over these ratings, and then we talked about it on the radio. My buddy Fred Toucher said he understood it—how would you like to be ranked poorly in a video game based on your life’s work?—and our Conor Orr said players should go ahead and complain, because Madden is the first window into the NFL world for many young fans. That’s pretty fair. I think I’d be especially offended if my awareness grade was low. (Because I can be a space cadet, and the truth hurts.)
From Sam Marcangelo (@SamMarcangelo): Which is going to be the best London game this year??
If I had to buy a ticket, I’d want to see the new Tottenham stadium. It’s actually designed for American football, unlike most other stadiums the NFL has played in abroad, and I think the experience would be intimate and cool. That eliminates the Wembley games (Bengals/Rams, Texans/Jaguars).
And it leaves Bears/Raiders and Panthers/Bucs, and I’m going with the former, despite the attraction of getting to see Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey play. My belief is the Bears will be good again—the roster’s stacked, and I think Matt Nagy’s offense is going to take another step. As for the Raiders, there may not be a more interesting team in the NFL. So put me down for Oct. 6.
From Slangin Pizzas in the 260-357 (@BreadBiteH8R): Is Devin Funchess going to have a breakthrough season with the Colts?
Indianapolis liked that Funchess is still just 24 years old, that he was very productive two years ago (63 catches, 840 yards, eight touchdowns), and that he has physical upside. His deal being for one year illustrates the experimental nature of the signing, and part of that is bridging the roster to what should be a really good 2020 draft class at his position, but Funchess is going into a really, really good situation. He’ll have Andrew Luck throwing to him, and T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron taking the heat off of him.
My feeling, overall? It’s a worthy, if pricey, flyer for a rising team to take.
From Ayyyyyo (@doc_tankles): If you had to pick one big time player to be traded who would it be? Clowney? Jalen Ramsay? Melvin Gordon? A.J. Green?
I think it’d be hard for the Texans or Chargers to get fair value for Clowney or Gordon. Both are impending free agents. Clowney has health (he’s had microfracture surgery) working against him, and Gordon has the makeup of his position working against him. Fact is, it’d be hard to find a team that’d be willing to fork over a big deal, and enough draft capital to make it worth the seller’s while.
I’ll take Ramsey over Green, just because of his personality versus Green’s. If things go wrong in both places, it’s just easier to see the situation with Ramsey going South. And because you have this year, and a fifth-year option on him, and he’s one of the most talented guys at a premium position, he actually would have the kind of value to another team to spur a nice trade offer.
From Danny (@DAck_34): Broncos ceiling o/u 8.5 wins?
I think they could wind up on the right side of .500, and a lot of it is going to boil down to the performance of the last two draft classes. Last year’s group, headlined by Bradley Chubb, Courtland Sutton, Phillip Lindsay and Josey Jewell, got off to a great start in 2018, and has to take another step. And the 2019 class, which should get immediate contributions from, at least, Noah Fant and Dalton Risner, needs to chip in, too.
Part of what’s killed Denver the last couple years has been a prolonged draft slump. John Elway and Co. have shown good signs of breaking out of it with these two groups. Now, they need to deliver.
From Louie (@Louie_Rock): What are the Jets trying to accomplish with their stance to defer a large sum of money on the Quinnen Williams contract into year two?
Louie, usually these sorts of situations relate to precedent—it’s hard to give a rookie a contractual break, then refuse to do it for a veteran. So my guess would be they’ve deferred bonus payments in the past, and want to maintain the practice (which relates to cashflow) going forward. You can argue whether there’s any value in doing that for yourself.
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