No. 12 LSU will open its season against No. 20 TCU on Saturday (9:00 p.m., ESPN), one of just two Week 1 games between two ranked teams.
Question marks shroud the entire matchup between TCU's offense and LSU's defense. The Tigers are breaking in six new front-seven starters, and the Frogs haven't even named a starting quarterback, so it's hard to discern what will happen on that side of the ball.
The marquee matchup is LSU's should-be-improved offense against TCU's always-incredible defense. The Tigers return eight offensive starters and brought in Cam Cameron to run the offense. His vertical pro-style concepts are supposed to work wonders for senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger, whose highs and lows both helped and hurt LSU in 2012.
But TCU's defense is held in such high regard for a reason. It will not be afraid against the big, bad SEC opponent—and if it does a couple of things right, it might shut Mettenberger down completely.
Press Man Coverage
The best way to stop Mettenberger is to prevent him from throwing completions. That sounds painfully obvious, but it's not. I mean, it is. But it's more complicated that it sounds.
Mettenberger is a rhythm quarterback; he relies on seeing the ball go into his receivers' hands. Once he makes a few successful throws, he settles into a groove and believes in his ability to replicate. But when he sees the ball hit the turf, on more than one occasion, he compounds his mistakes and plays timidly.
During the 2012 regular season, only three teams held Mettenberger under 160 passing yards. Those teams—Florida, South Carolina and Texas A&M—all also held him under a QB efficiency of 90—the only three times he didn't finish above 108. That's a pretty huge difference.
Here is Mettenberger's completion percentage in those games, compared with the rest of his season:
If the best way to stop Mettenberger is to force him into incompletions, it makes sense to play press-man coverage over off-man or zone. That moves the onus of completions away from schematics—where Les Miles and Cameron might be able to outmaneuver the defense—and into the hands of the players.
TCU would be putting faith in its cornerbacks to handle LSU's receivers off the line. For most teams, against Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, that might be a fool's chore. But for TCU, it's actually funneling toward a position of strength.
The Horned Frogs have Jason Verrett, an All-American cornerback, to man-up against Odell Beckham, and he excels in man coverage. Across from him is Kevin White, a junior who started 12 games last season and earned rave reviews.
Cameron's offense is pro-style—not spread—so those are the two predominant matchups. If Verrett can play physical with Beckham, and White can get dirty with Landry, Mettenberger will struggle to complete short passes. There won't be any holes in a zone for him to exploit, just wide receivers struggling to release off the line.
When Beckham and Landry do create first- and second-level separation, which they occasionally will, there won't be much of it. That will force Mettenberger to make precise short or medium throws, something he struggled to do, in spots, last season.
And if Beckham and Landry try to beat press coverage by going deep—a common ploy against that technique—it forces Mettenberger (again) out of high-percentage throws. He has a good deep arm, so it's risky, but when he misses, his performance goes down. And deep throws are always more likely to miss.
The name of the game against Mettenberger is rattling him. It's hard because he's got an NFL arm and throws surprisingly few interceptions (just seven in 352 attempts). The best way to rattle him is to make him watch the ball hit the ground.
And the best way to do that is to get up in the receivers' faces.
Sell Out Against the 3rd-and-Short Run
It's hard to say what Cameron will and won't change about LSU's play-calling. If his NFL experience is any indication, he'll run a lot of vertical isolation routes. But that doesn't speak to how he'll influence Miles' 3rd-and-short dichotomy.
The Tigers have, historically, favored the run over the pass in those situations. That's not earth-shattering news—a lot of teams run on 3rd-and-short—but the discrepancy is pretty large.
Last season, they rushed 50 times on 3rd-and-short (defined as three or less yards to go) and threw just 12 passes. And while they converted 28 of those rushes to six of those passes (pretty even ratios), the latter number doesn't reflect sacks.
The run plays appeared more effective.
Digging even deeper, though, that may not have been the whole case. Four of Mettenberger's 12 3rd-and-short passes came in his three bad games—the ones where he was forced out of his rhythm with a low completion rate. Here's how he fared on those passes compared to his other eight:
So really, this principle runs in conjunction with the first. If and when TCU presses the LSU receivers and forces Mettenberger off his game, which it has the personnel to do, it would be well-served to sell out against 3rd-and-short runs.
Allowing Mettenberger to beat a good pass defense with his arm, in those situations, is not the worst thing in the world. And LSU doesn't ever look deep on 3rd-and-short, playing it safe and keeping everything underneath. On last year's 12 attempts, none went for over 20 yards.
Even if Mettenberger zips in a good 3rd-and-short pass, it's not likely to kill TCU's defense. It would allow a (statistically less likely) first down, but it wouldn't get killed over the top. And in return, it would drastically help the odds of stopping the 3rd-and-short run.
Check out this 3rd-and-3 play against Florida last season (3:03 in the video):
LSU decides to pass, but nobody runs a downfield pattern. Nobody even runs an intermediate pattern. It's a broken screen play that Mettenberger is (wisely) too timid to throw.
But these are the types of things LSU does when it passes on 3rd-and-short, and ducking into an easy sack is the type of thing Mettenberger does when his first read isn't there. Unlike many other SEC quarterbacks, he's stone-footed and useless when the play breaks down.
TCU wouldn't even have to contain its run blitz with a spy or contain around the tackle. It could just sell out against the running back, keep a couple backs on each receiver and trust that the QB isn't going anywhere.
LSU converted on 40.2 percent of its third downs last season. Against Florida, South Carolina and Texas A&M, it converted just 29 percent, and those numbers are skewed by a (surprisingly) great third-down performance against the Gamecocks.
Against Florida and Texas A&M, the Tigers converted just three of 29 third downs, another litmus test for games where Mettenberger struggled. If TCU can get him off the field on third down, it's just one more thing that impedes his all-important rhythm.
And to get him off the field on third down, the Frogs should concede some passing lanes and sell out to stop the run.