Stopping the RPO: How TCU Reshaped Their Defense to Defend Run-Pass Options

by Ian Wharton

As coaches look for schematic advantages to overcome the talent chasm that exists between recruiting powerhouses and the rest of the field, the college football landscape is ever-evolving at a rapid pace. Few, if any, coaches have fared better than TCU head coach Gary Patterson at continually tinkering his scheme and talent base since he took over in 2000. His once-innovative 4-2-5 alignment is still a staple of his defenses, and the principles that he’s instilled have thus far fared well against the emergence of the run-play option (RPO).

The actual frequency of called RPOs have been overblown in the few last years by announcers, but they are devastatingly effective if properly executed. When you factor in a significant talent gap between the offense and defense, there’s not much a defense can do except to continue to hedge against the biggest strength of the offensive attack.

Related: Peeking into the Playbook: Counter Read, in Oklahoma and Alabama's Offense

Patterson’s 4-2-5 was originally crafted to slow down the early decade Mountain West and Big 12 spread passing game, but offenses have figured out a more variated attack to isolated athletically-limited linebackers and safeties. Defenses have become smaller and faster to combat this. In response to the defensive response, offenses are now controlling defenses with RPOs and the “smashmouth spread” with size on the interior and speed on the perimeter.

Patterson’s defense began to look tired and outdated in 2015 and 2016 after owning the Big 12 over his first three years. His defenses allowed an average of 324 yards and 22 points per game from 2012 through 2014, but 2015 and 2016 saw those numbers drop to an average of 394 yards and 28 points per game.

Despite the conference boasting extremely high-powered offenses at Oklahoma (and playing the Sooners twice in 2017), Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and West Virginia, TCU returned to elite status this past season. Due to their paltry 312 yards and 19 points per game allowed, I went to the tape to see how Patterson managed to pull this off, as these offenses flummoxed others.

Controlled Attacks

What first stood out when comparing Oklahoma and Texas Tech’s accounting for TCU’s scheme is that they ran considerably fewer RPOs than normal. Even though the Sooners hung 38 and 41 on the Horned Frogs, they did so by running just a handful of RPOs. What I saw when these two did try to test TCU was a group of linebackers that put other opponents to shame in comparison, especially Ohio State.

I rarely saw that type of over-aggression from TCU’s potential read players. First-level defenders are responsible for knowing their gap responsibility in the run game, but also their drop responsibility in case it’s a pass. This puts them in conflict. The vast majority of “keep side” concepts on RPOs go to the running back’s side, so the discipline to not overcommit one’s body in any direction is massive.

Patterson’s primary box defenders in 2017 were Travin Howard (#32) and Ridwan Issahaku (#31), a former cornerback turned strong safety, with a third defensive back working in a rotation. On the play below, it’s Arico Evans (#7) and Sammy Douglas (#35) as the linebackers, with Howard as the money backer who crashes for the initial hit.

Each follows the edict of “Don’t go until you know.” Howard waits as long as he can, taking just two full steps inward until the ball is in the back’s belly, so he is not in a compromised position to recover if he is wrong. Evans and Douglas are even more patient, with Douglas snaking into the A-gap to force the ball-carrier into Howard’s gap. The timing is impeccable and the defense avoided a one-on-one situation if the ball went to the receiver in the flat.

The Oklahoma State Cowboys attempted more RPOs than anyone I saw in 2017 and found almost unstoppable success against everyone except TCU (and Texas, but quarterback Mason Rudolph was injured.) TCU’s direct involvement of their two-deep safeties in the run-game showed how they prioritized stopping the run, but they indeed wanted to trick the offense into handing the ball off.

Despite a momentary crease for big play potential, a few things happened to prevent this from being a chunk play. The key here is the strong-side end, Ben Banogu (#15), manipulating his blocker to appear controlled. This prompts Rudolph to hand the ball off because he sees a numbers advantage with a controlled edge. The pulling center could have taken care of weak-side safety Nick Orr if all went according to plan, but Banogu quickly shed his blocker and confronted the pulling center. Immediately, Banogu claimed outside leverage, allowing Orr to maintain deep support before he started attacking his gap. Most importantly, linebacker Montrel Wilson (#19) was left unblocked and money-backer Howard was quickly in a position to finish the play.

Again, the second-level defenders barely moved until the running back clearly had the ball. If Rudolph pulled the ball, Howard would have assumed his zone drop for the crosser while the nickel corner carried the slot into the free safety. This pattern-match risks leaving the boundary corner one-on-one with weak-side safety support, but the early look can intimidate even great offenses out of that decision.

The consistency that Patterson generates from a rotation of players is why he’s an elite defensive coach. Compare this to Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, who have often relied on Cover 1 principles to combat RPOs. All three have been tremendously successful, but Patterson’s done it with a more limited and specific player type. He has his second-level more disciplined and willing to wait for the offense to force their hand.

The Personnel Shrunk

A well-known problem with pattern-matching, outside of potential communication errors, is the fear of having undersized defenders against tight ends when isolated across from trips formations. Patterson’s shown little concern that offenses can consistently profit off picking on smaller defenders. Looking at the corner depth charts he’s built via recruiting, he’s had just one six-foot cornerback on the roster since 2014. Three of the five currently listed stand at just 5’10”. It’s an extreme market inefficiency, as he desires fast corners who can turn and run with his safeties assisting in the run game.

But as his corners have shrunk, his safeties and linebackers have become nearly interchangeable. 2017 starters Niko Small and Nick Orr were both 5’10”, but the rest of the safeties on the depth chart were at least average sized, so there’s not a clear size preference. This makes sense since the strong-side safety is essentially functioning as another linebacker on run plays, while the deep safeties must be balanced.

With the exception of nose tackle, most of his front seven has shrunk in size with the exception of nose tackle. This is where he’s had to be creative, relative to teams which are able to land four- and five-star recruits on demand. His 2015 defense had all four starters at defensive end listed at 250 pounds or above, with two above 275. In 2017, he had one of five ends listed at 255 pounds, with that one rarely seeing playing time.

Banogu and Mat Boesen were incredibly impactful for Patterson, as they were much more athletic in open space than prior iterations of the position. Their ability to chase down ball-carriers as unblocked defenders, or even win one-on-one island matchups, was key for the group to reach its upside.

Beefing up in the middle to protect all of these smaller athletes was also a change. The average weight of the defensive tackle position jumped from 275 pounds to 298. Their newfound ability to control gaps and zone blitz with speedier options only increased their unpredictability as they deterred RPOs.

Having the athletes who can move in space, close passing windows, and still finish plays is a special formula that few collegiate programs can recruit and coach up. RPOs stress both the mental and physical ability of individuals within a team’s defense and TCU’s been up to the challenge as they’ve shrunk at cornerback, defensive end, and linebacker while increasing mass at their interior tackle and safety positions. Patterson should again have success in 2018, as the majority of his starters from 2017 are back for another year. In the future, these deep rotations will payoff with plug-and-play defenders readying for playing time after departures. For the foreseeable future, Patterson’s carefully crafted defense is built to contend in the Big 12.