The TCU Offense: Packaged Screens and Pistol Play-Action

It has been nearly eight months since the last NCAA FBS game was played – the Championship matchup between the Oregon Ducks and Ohio State Buckeyes. But football is back, baby. Mark Schofield dissects the TCU offense, focusing on two schemes from their high octane offense: Pistol Play-action and the Packed Screen concept.

On Thursday night, quarterback Trevone Boykin and the TCU Horned Frogs take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the season opener for both teams. This game is a rematch from an early season tilt in 2014 won by TCU 30-7. If head coach Gary Patterson and his squad want to secure a berth in the College Football Playoff this season, they will need to open with a victory. Their offensive system is a fast, up-tempo spread style that puts pressure on the defense both vertically and horizontally, and two concepts from that scheme were on display last fall.

Pistol Play-action

Many spread teams utilize a play-action concept with the quarterback and running back simulating a zone run, and TCU’s offense is no exception. The Horned Frogs use this design to attack a defense both horizontally, and vertically. TCU has 20 personnel in the game, with Boykin in the pistol with an offset i-formation in the backfield, and a 2X1 alignment on the outside and slot formation to the left. Minnesota has its base 4-3 defense in the game, showing Cover 4, with the outside linebacker to the wide side of the field splitting the difference between the #2 receiver and the left tackle:


Here is the offensive play-art on this play. After the snap Boykin fakes the outside zone to his tailback, and both running backs stay in the backfield for pass protection. This becomes a three receiver route, with the single receiver to the short-side of the field running a skinny post route:TCUPlay1Still2

Boykin takes the snap and carries out the run-fake, and a poor one at that with neither running back carrying out the simulated run, but no matter:

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What is interesting here is despite the poor run-fake – and the fact that TCU threw the ball 46 times that Saturday against only 27 runs – the run simulation still holds the two play-side linebackers near the line of scrimmage, expanding the throwing window for Boykin to find his receiver on the post pattern:TCUPlay1Still3

Minnesota’s linebackers will be tested again by this scheme Saturday. How they respond to the pressures created by the TCU offensive design will go a long way to determining the outcome.

The Packaged Screen Game

Another concept that teams in the NFL and the NCAA are using on offense is the packaged scheme design. This gives a quarterback and his offense a number of different options on a given play, including runs, inside seam routes, deeper vertical routes and built-in screens. TCU ran a number of these plays against Minnesota last season. On this first play Boykin is alone in the backfield with 10 personnel in the game in a 2X3 alignment, trips to the right. Minnesota has its 4-2-5 nickel defense on the field showing Cover 4 in the secondary:


This play has two elements built in, one to the weak-side and one to the strong, or read-side. On the weak-side, the two receivers will run matching hitch patterns, while on the read-side, the three trips receivers set up the tunnel screen. This includes the center and right guard delaying for a bit before pulling in front of the potential screen play:


Depending on pre-snap reads and coverage cues, Boykin can either throw to one of the hitch routes on the weak-side, or let the tunnel screen develop and throw the ball to the receiver on the read-side of the play. That is what happens here:

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As designed, the two weak-side receivers run hitch routes, while the C and RG delay for a bit. This allows for the timing to develop on both sides of the play. If the linemen leave too early, any throw to the weak-side comes with a penalty for an ineligible receiver downfield. But here, Boykin checks his weak-side reads and comes back to the other side, to throw the screen. The play goes for eight yards, setting the Horned Frogs up with a very manageable 3rd and 2.

This offensive style can attack a defense vertically as well. On this play, TCU faces a 3rd and 3 and empties the backfield in a 3X2 alignment. Minnesota responds with its 4-2-5 defense showing Cover 1, with all 11 defenders at or near the line of scrimmage:


The Horned Frogs again run a tunnel screen to the read-side of the play, toward the trips formation. But on the weak-side they run a switch-vertical route, with the outside receiver coming across the middle on a slant while the slot receiver runs the wheel route:


At the snap, the Golden Gophers blitz both linebackers and play Cover 0 in the secondary. Boykin quickly checks the tunnel side of the field but comes quickly to the weak-side to try and exploit the man coverage on the vertical wheel route:

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Unfortunately for Boykin, the other team is playing defense as well. That is cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun who plays this route well and pulls down the interception. He and the rest of Minnesota’s secondary will need to play well and challenge the TCU passing attack, including talented receiver Josh Doctson.

TCU does a number of creative things offensively that are designed to stretch a defense vertically and horizontally, pull defenders out of position and create favorable matchups at all levels of the field. The concepts identified here are just a few of the ways that the Horned Frogs try and achieve those goals. How the Minnesota defense responds to these challenges is a key component of this early-season tilt.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

All Footage Courtesy of Fox Sports and the Big 12 Conference

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