The game of football is a constant pendulum. As defenses move to hybrid players to combat the spread attacks proliferating through all levels of football, offenses are turning to tight end sets and a more traditional run game (power and counter). An easy way for spread teams to create an extra gap and keep their spread principles is to add a tight end to their sets. More and more, if a team has access to a tight end, or “H-back” they are opting for a pro-style spread look, basing out of 2×2 (pro twin) and 3×1 (trey) tight end sets, even running pro style two-back sets. This can stress a 4-2-5 defense because the hybrid Sam, or a true nickel, can be exposed to a larger, stronger tight end. Offenses can even run sets that force the player into the box (formation into boundary), creating an advantage for power run teams.
Oregon has used TE sets with devastating effect, and even the typically receiver happy offenses of Baylor have opted to add more 11 personnel sets to their arsenal over the past few years. Take a look at how Bret Bielema, a constant critic of the spread, recruits running backs against spread teams across the country. He is not the only one in his corner.
Football, unlike any other sport, is a constant chess match. The fluidity of the game from tight sets to spread sets and back again puts stress on 4-2-5 defensive coaches. It is important to have a plan when facing teams with TEs or H-backs. In a perfect world, defenses could insert a traditional linebacker against tight sets, and substitute the traditional player for a hybrid/nickel against spread sets. With the advent of the spread, even the TE position is changing into a hybrid player, one that can flex out, play fullback, or line up and block in the box. As defensive coaches have found out, subbing against tempo teams can be impossible. It is also not realistic. In order to be great at something, a team must have consistency. Constantly subbing players in and out, while trying to teach box techniques and coverage skills can be a daunting task, and many times unrealistic. It is important for a defensive coach to have a set of rules and a plan against any formation. When an offense goes from a spread set to a pro-style set, the defense must react quickly and decisively with no hangover.
2×2 TE Sets — Pro Twin
When facing a TE set, 4-2-5 teams have a choice, cover down to the two-speed side, or hold a six man box. Each way has its set of issues, but it is up to the defensive coach how they want to attack pro spread sets. If an offense has a more traditional run game when using a TE, then the “Squeeze” alignment might be the best option. In this alignment, the Mike and Will align in their traditional gaps and protect the TE side. To the two-speed side, the Sam is in a run/pass conflict. If a team doesn’t use RPOs and attacks the TE in the run game, this scheme can have some advantages.
The Sam’s key is the offensive tackle. He is allowed to be super aggressive to the ball because the secondary is running a quarters scheme. At the snap of the ball, if the OT gives the Sam a low-hat, or run read, he begins to fold into the “B” gap. If the offense runs a zone read play, the end will take the dive and Sam will take the quarterback in a clean gap exchange. If the offense chooses to tag a “bubble” to the play call,the safety will attack the “bubble” with late support from the Sam. The theory behind this scheme is that an offense won’t run GT counter, guard-tackle pulling, with a 3 tech. to the pullers side. If power is called, the defense has a plus-1 advantage with the boundary safety. This scheme relies on what the opponent is trying to do. If an opponent runs a gap scheme offense with little to no RPO plays, this defense can have its advantages.
“Cheating” the RPO
Most spread teams don’t change too much just because they add a TE to the set. In most cases, offenses are still going to RPO and run WR screens, they may just run power/counter a little more often. The RPO forces the defense to create a cover down. The only way to do that in a 4-2-5, and keep your nickel/Sam, out of a run/pass conflict is to “cheat” the interior linebackers to the two-speed side. By doing this you vacate the “C” gap to the TE side. That could be problematic. Defenses that “cheat” the LBs have a trick up their sleeve. Most offensive coordinators do not count safeties in the box, by running a “cheat” look, defenses trick the offense into thinking it has an open gap to the TE side. It doesn’t. That gap is taken by the boundary safety. Take a look at the diagram below:
The boundary safety reads the departure of the TE and if run the safety fills the “C” gap. Everything is based on quarters coverage. In pass distribution, the safety would take anything underneath and naturally, reacts off the #2 receiver. To the naked eye or an offensive coach, it looks like the defense is leaving a gap open. This alignment to Pro Twin allows the defense to eliminate the RPO to the two-speed side, while keep gap integrity in the box.
Each alignment has its positives and negatives. It is ultimately up to the defensive coach and the opponent breakdown. If playing a team like Oregon, that RPOs off pro sets, then it might be in the best interest of the DC to run a “Cheat” alignment. When faced with a more 11 personnel single back-pro attack, the squeeze alignment should fit naturally into how the 4-3 defense was formulated. The “Cheat” scheme really adheres to 4-2-5 principles of cover downs and using safeties in the box, where the squeeze is more of a traditional fit.
Quarters vs. 3×1 — Trey
The trey (TE trips) set can be one of the hardest sets to defend in football. You have all the dangers of 3×1, but with an extra gap on the line. If the defense sets the front to the TE (Over), there is no one to carry the vertical of the TE. Many times teams revert to kick coverage or spin to single-high. With a tucked Mike it is hard to carry the vertical of #3. The true dilemma is how can a defense cover down to the two-speed located outside the TE. In order to get a plus-1, a defense has to run an under front. By running an under front the defense can allow the Sam to apex #2 and the TE. The field safety plays regular quarters coverage. The Sam, who is apexed, is reading the TE’s departure (high-hat/low-hat). If run, the Sam is in charge of the “O” gap, or outside, and in pass the Sam is matching #2. To the outside eye it looks like the Sam is in conflict, but by keeping him apexed it allows him to slow play the run while keeping his pass distribution intact. The field safety fits off of the Sam, making him “right”. This alignment allows the defense to gain an extra defender on the weak side. The diagram below shows the under front versus a trey set.
The true key in this scheme is the Mike, who is really the player in run/pass conflict. If the TE releases vertical the Mike has to carry underneath the route. This is where teams that run arc-read plays can take advantage. One way to combat this play is to run a “solo” scheme in the secondary. This allows the boundary safety to “eye” the departure of the TE and if vertical, attack the seam/post route. Mike in a “solo” scheme can hold his gap and react late if play action underneath the vertical TE. Teams that run wide splits with the two-speed put pressure on the defense to find a cover down against RPOs off trey sets. By running a split field look, and an under front, the defense can protect itself against anything the offense throws at it. Even against counter, this scheme is solid, using the boundary safety as the plus-1 to the boundary. Adding “solo” coverage can even add a double alley player to the mix, helping with front-side run fits.
Opponent scouting is key when choosing how to attack the trey set. If teams arc the TE or carry him on vertical routes, “solo” coverage would be a great option. When facing a more traditional team, that keeps the TE in for protection, a regular quarters approach should be the base call. Whatever the DC decides to run, the key is the Mike and is he athletic enough to carry the vertical of the TE while plugging the run when called upon.
Treating trey and pro twin sets like a spread 3×1 or 2×2 allows smooth transitions for a defenses players. A good base defense should be able to bounce from formation to formation with minimal checks. Building a great defensive scheme is founded on solid rules, non-negotiables. An offense can only give a defense so many different looks. How a defense lines up against 2×2 or 3×1 should stay the same regardless of the personnel. Creating base rules help defensive players line up correctly every time. Formationing a defense allows players to react off rules set by the defensive staff and creates fluidity from personnel grouping to another.