How do you play Trips? Pt. 2

The top 3×1 coverages explained.

The trips set creates a dilemma for any defensive coordinator and starts in the box. The problem with any 3-by-1 (3×1) set is how you defend the #3 receiver. If a defense runs an under front, removes the Mike, and covers him down on the #3 WR, you lose a man in the box and make the Mike a fold player. A fold player is susceptible to the spread’s deadly weapon, the RPO (run-pass option). The run-pass conflict created by Mike’s width and assignment can cause him to hesitate. Play a team like Baylor, who spreads their trips past the hash, and the Mike will struggle to get the #3, and fold into the box. In theory, the Mike is always wrong. That’s pretty depressing news for a DC.

If a coordinator wants to keep a 6 man box and put the 3 technique (DT) to the Trips it creates a problem for the Mike, who has to plug the strong-side “A” while reaching #3 in pass. That’s not easy. The answer for most coaches is to kick the coverage (bring the backside safety across), or spin to Cover 3. In order to make it hard on the offense, a DC must change-up the coverage or move the gaps. It is important to have a base coverage. One that protects you from the most harm. In order to stay ahead of the offense, a defense must be multiple in its looks, adding pressures, blitzes, and a change-up in coverage if need be. Part 2 of “How do you play Trips?” will explain the coverage piece to 3×1.

Kicking the Coverage

Basic Kick Coverage – In “kick” coverage the field is divided into 3 zones; quarters, bracket, and man. The  number 1 and 2 WRs are covered by the field corner, Sam, and cover safety who play either cover 2 or 4. The Mike and “kick” safety bracket the #3 WR on a vertical, and the Will and boundary corner play man. If the back flares to the 3 WR side, the Will pushes and plays zone. This coverage is used when teams cluster and run hi-low schemes with their number 1 and 2 receivers. In order to allow the Mike to be a fold player, the “kick” safety hurries over to top any vertical route by #3. If a defensive coordinator feels the boundary CB can win a 1-on-1 match up with the X receiver this can be a great coverage. Offenses that see the boundary safety kick can take advantage of this with a good X, or stretch to the boundary. Ask any good offensive coordinator and they will say, “I love it when a team goes single-high.” It can be advantages on run downs, but a defense that kicks all the time is susceptible to weakside runs and a good X receiver.

.01 KICK

Narduzzi/Dantonio “Solo” Coverage – This coverage takes the dilemma of a kicking safety and tries to solve it by reading the departure path of the #3 WR, while getting the best of both worlds.  The coverage piece is the same as basic “kick” coverage except for how the Down Safety interacts with the near slot. In “solo” the DS will shuffle to the #3 receiver. If the slot runs anything other than a vertical the safety will square up and attack the alley, or assist with the boundary CB. The theory here is, why waste the “kick” safety if you have to? Knowing offenses can easily run stretch or speed option to the boundary, this allows the DC to “steal” a man on the trips side, as well as to the boundary. It’s single-high with training wheels.

.03 SOLO

Versus Oregon’s bunch set, Michigan St. used a “solo” coverage. Watch the backside safety eye the #3 WR and attack the screen when thrown.

True Cover 3 – The golden standard for coaches trying to gain a true 6 man box (and the go-to for zone blitzing). Depending on the coach, the front can be set to or away from the 3 receivers, or off the location of the back. The diagram below shows an Over Front. This allows coaches concerned about the run to gain an extra man. The issue with Cover 3 will always be 4 verticals, and basically man coverage to the X receiver. If a DC trusts his boundary CB in 1-on-1 situations this can be a valuable change up. In the run game, this defense is susceptible to the stretch, especially if running and Under Front with the Will tucked in the weakside “A”. Any kind of wheel route by the #2 WR can be problematic if the Sam is not a runner. If a defense knows what they are going to get on a 1st down this coverage can be useful, just understand it has flaws, especially if a team RPOs the backside X.

.05 COV 3

In the clip above Kansas brings edge pressure to the 3 WR side. The spinning safety makes a great play on the WR screen. Most teams run a Cover 3 scheme behind a blitz.

Split the Field

Special Coverage. The theory behind this coverage aligns with how the offense attacks the slot receivers. The averages suggest that an offense does not throw to the #1 receiver, so lock him up and eliminate him completely? In “special” the corner to the field mans up on the #1 WR allowing the Sam, Mike, and field safety to play a read 2 concept over 2 and 3. To switch up the coverage, a DC can run a match quarter scheme, especially on 3rd in long (vertical push routes). In “special” the field is split to allow the defense to gain a run fit player to the boundary while protecting the boundary CB from a 1-on-1 situation. By reducing the field, the defense can gain a plus-1 where it needs to, against the biggest pass threats (the slot WRs), and in the run game to the boundary. An alternate to this coverage would be to switch responsibilities of the Sam and field CB. In many 4-3 hybrid schemes, the Sam is a glorified safety. This would allow him to slide outside and cover the #1 WR, who probably isn’t involved on the route combination. An opponent breakdown is a key to this coverage. A DC has to find out how many times the #1 WR is attacked in 3×1 sets, if not many, this can be a great coverage. To the boundary a defense can play with the different types of coverage, playing a 2 man, regular quarters, or press with the safety over the top.


This clip is a great example of special coverage, which OSU runs quite a bit. The Sam aligns himself outside the #2 WR. Even though this is 11 personell, it’s still a good look at how to run special versus a 3×1 set. The X WR is covered by the boundary CB and safety, and the #1 WR to the field is manned-up by the CB.

Stress Coverage.  This coverage makes the offense change, it challenges it to throw the width of the field. In this “stress”, a defense is playing for the route combo that will give it the most stress, 4 verts, hence the name “stress”. Where “solo” was single-high with training wheels, “stress” is the counterpart to split field disciples. Like “special”, “stress” assumes the offense is not going to throw to the #1 WR to the trips side, or at least wants to bait that throw. Where “special” locked up the #1 receiver to trips, “stress” asks the question, “If the offense won’t throw to #1, why even cover him with a man?” The most difficult pass in football is the outside comeback/fade from opposite hash to the far boundary. By playing a Cover 3 technique, the field corner can cover the seam and outside fade. The key in this coverage is the Sam. If the Sam can collision and carry the vertical of the #2 WR, it alleviates pressure off the field CB and allows him to relate back to the vertical of #1. If #2 runs a seam and #1 runs a comeback, the Sam will slide off of #2 and cut underneath the route of #1. The field safety sits inside #3 and covers him vertical. The weakness in this coverage are routes that challenge the Sam to carry #2 vertically. If the Sam can’t carry or eliminate, the vertical of #2 this coverage can have some leaks.


Bill Snyder’s version of stress coverage deepens the Sam and puts him in an outside shade (protect the vertical). By making the field CB responsible for the #1 and #2 WRs, the field safety and Mike can be aggressive to the run, as seen in this clip.

Each coverage has its place in a defense’s repertoire. If a defense plays just one type of coverage an offense will pick up quickly and exploit its weaknesses. It’s important for a defense to be multiple, but not to the point that the players do not know their assignments. An opponent breakdown is key, find where the ball is going, and attack the offense on their tendencies.

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