Lining Up to Ace

What to do with those two extra gaps.


Lining up to an Ace set can be one of the most difficult formations for any defensive coordinator. The two extra gaps created by the TE’s force the defense to account for them in the run fits. If the offense decides to line both receivers up on the same side (Trey), it creates a three-receiver formation, with the added pressure of an extra gap to the strong side. Away from the Trey side, there is a “nub” TE (TE with no WR) and another gap created that the defense has to account for and subsequently defend (versus a traditional 11 personnel set, the defense can easily address the newly created gap). The concern in 11 personnel shifts to how a defense addresses the cover down to the two-speed side.

When offenses run Ace Trey, the defense has to account for two extra gaps as well as the cover down on the two-speed side. If the offense runs its sets from the pistol, they literally have two strong points of attack. The Ace grouping of formations is very similar to the Diamond in the fact the offense can max protect and run with extra blockers from an even set, essentially gaining a two-way-go and the ability to  attack the side the offense feels it has the most advantage. Unlike the Diamond formation (inverted Bone), where the extra gaps can be created by the backfield post-snap, the Ace formations establish the gaps before the snap of the ball. This immediate addressing of the gaps forces the defense to show its cards.

Utilizing the Under Front


Why an Under Front?

The Under Front can be a great scheme against teams that run the Ace formation. In a 4-2-5 the Sam linebacker is primarily in a cover down alignment to the field and not involved in the box fits. Since the #2 WR in Ace is the TE on the line, the Sam aligns in a “solid” technique and is responsible for setting the edge and getting his hands on the TE (these are the exact responsibilities he would have if 10 personnel). The Under Front allows the Mike to play a 40 technique. Mike’s alignment is critical against the speed option, and why defenses use an Under front to line up against Ace (versus 11 pers. the Mike would align in a 50 – more of a passing set).

One offense that has utilized Ace formations well is Oklahoma State. Mike Gundy does a great job of mixing pistol and gun to keep the defense honest. Out of pistol the offense has a two-way go if it wants to run stretch, and a three-man surface with a lead blocker if the offense wants to run QB stretch (all part of the Gundy offense). The Under Front combats the outside plays by allowing the Mike to align towards the field where he can quickly run with the flow of outside zone. Even if the offense arcs the TE in speed option, the Sam should take the pitch, and the DE the QB, all with the CS running the alley as the plus-one. Any stretch play to the field will be met with enough manpower to force a cutback or create a tackle near the line of scrimmage, if not behind. Versus arc  read (zone read), the DE is allowed to take the dive and the Sam and Mike take either side of the arcing TE. This creates another plus-one alignment to the field (and don’t forget the alley running CS). Essentially, the Under Front forces the offense to run into the boundary.

To the boundary is where the Under Front is the weakest. To counteract the Will’s “tucked” position (he is responsible for the “A” gap), the Will aligns in a 20 technique. This allows him time to reach the outside on full-flow to him. The boundary DE aligns in a 6i (inside shade of the TE) and attacks the outside hip of the tackle. The 6i technique allows the DE to react to a stretch/outside zone block by the tackle, setting the edge, and in theory, forcing a cutback. The DS is responsible for the “O” gap and carries the TE vertically with late support by the Will. To the boundary, the coverage is essentially man-to-man, with the DS running the alley and fit support outside. The 6i and the 3 tech. set a barrier for the run game to the boundary. The Will and DS work together to fit the gaps. Most teams use Ace to run inside or outside zone schemes. Even if teams utilize a power run game, the defense should fit the same as if it were 11/20/21 personnel.

If a defense is afraid of the stretch to the boundary or is getting pinned by the arcing TE, a defense can always switch to an Under Wide front. The hot word “wide” tells the boundary DE to align in a 7 technique or outside shade of the TE. This “wide” alignment creates a gap exchange between the DS and the boundary DE. Instead of being fit support to the boundary (slow play to the gap), the DS now has primary support and must address the “C” gap if there is run action. The boundary DE is responsible for addressing the TE (hands on) and holding the edge. The DS in primary support should align at 8 yards in order to attack the gap quicker. Eyes should be focused on the TE and boundary tackle. If the TE runs a vertical route, the DS will collision and carry, playing underneath just like he would in Sky (4 Read) coverage. The diagram below illustrates the run fits in Under Wide:


The Coverage Piece

Each corner is essentially in man-to-man coverage because the safeties are needed in the box. The width of the WRs forces the defense into one-on-one matchups outside. With both TE’s attached to the box, the offense can easily max protect and attack the defense with outside vertical routes. The safeties, who are involved in the box fits (especially the DS), can only be late underneath support in the pass game. The threat of vertical isolation is why most defenses will play loose man to both WRs. The threat of max protection should hinder the blitzing opportunities by the defense, and why so many defenses just “line up and play” Ace sets.

Playing Single-High

If a defensive coordinator feels more comfortable rolling a safety down in the box, he may decide to go with a Cover 1 look. This look can be achieved by dropping the DS over the boundary TE. The Sam to the field will play a “latch” technique and hold the outside shoulder of the field TE, funneling him to the centerfield safety. The coverage for the CB’s does not change, as they stay in loose man and are basically on an island. In the box, the Mike and Will will “Banjo” or exchange the flow of the RB and attack their respective gaps.


Ace Trey — 12 Personnel’s 3×1 set

Even more difficult to defend than Ace is its three WR counterpart, Ace Trey. Not only does the defense have to account for two extra gaps, but three receiving threats to one side. There are two main issues with Ace Trey: 1) How does the defense cover down to the #2 WR; and 2) Should the defense spin to the three WR side? First, because of the extra gap created by the TE, the Sam LB must apex the alignment of the #2 WR and the TE. Ace and Ace Trey are running formations. The Sam must honor the extra gap, and be able to attack upfield in the “O” gap to set the edge. The cover down comes from the play of the CS. His responsibility is to make the Sam right. His eyes must be focused on the #2 WR and attack any RPO (bubble/switch route). The CS will have late support from the inside, but essentially he is on an island, which is why offenses love Ace Trey. The Mike, who is always responsible for the #3 WR in quarters coverage, has the most challenging job because he must carry the vertical of the TE while attacking the “B” gap.


Helping the Mike

In the base alignment shown above, the Mike is responsible for the vertical of the TE without the help of the CS who is covered down to the #2 WR. The CS’ cover down allows the Sam to tighten to the line of scrimmage and attack the offense with outside leverage, building a wall against outside zone. In this alignment, the Mike is in conflict, and can easily be taken advantage of in the pass game, especially if the offense RPOs. By aligning in an Under Front the defense actually helps the Mike out by using the tendencies of the offense.

In Ace Trey, most offenses will use an arc read scheme if running the zone read. In the alignment illustrated above, the field DE has the Nose to his side and is the “dive” player. This allows the Mike to slow play zone away and attack the inside shoulder of the TE if he goes vertical (or arc blocks). This slow play technique, and the knowledge that the DE has the “B” gap (dive) with zone away, decreases the conflict on Mike’s assignment. The diagram above shows the Mike in a 40 alignment, but if the TE is a real threat in the passing game he can align in a 50. This alignment will also help against teams that run speed option. This slight adjustment can easily be made during a game or can become the base alignment.

Setting the defensive front in an Under alignment is one way to help the Mike versus Ace Trey, other ways include kicking the DS or playing “solo” coverage, or even “vicing” the Sam. If the TE to the Trey side is a passing threat, the defense can always “kick” the DS over to the TE. The best way to do this without sacrificing the leverage to the boundary is to run solo” coverage with the DS. In “solo” the DS takes the vertical of #3. If the TE stays in and blocks, the DS turns back to the boundary and becomes fit support. This coverage allows the Mike to address his gap first without worrying about the vertical of the TE “right now.” The other option, “vicing” tells the Sam to work to the outside shoulder of the TE if he arcs. In the coverage demonstrated above, the CS is already in pseudo-man coverage because of Sam’s alignment (apex). Vicing tells the CS he has all of #2 and the Sam will support him late underneath if the TE doesn’t go vertical (a defense can also run Sky Press to the Trey side to eliminate even more route combinations). In the case of a vertical route, the Sam will attack the outside shoulder of the TE (which would be his run fit anyway) and the Mike would help from the inside (like a vice).

Single-High Dilemma

The answer to the question, “Should the defense spin to the Trey side?” is twofold. First, spinning may challenge the offenses ability to RPO, but it leaves the defense over rotated and vulnerable to the “nub” side. Better to stay two-high. The added value of the DS to the boundary allows the defense a plus-one in the run game, and the defense doesn’t “waste” the Sam. Furthermore, in a single-high look, the Sam attaches to the line and essentially becomes a D-lineman. Even if the Sam latches on to the TE, the offense can take advantage of the single-high look by running right at the boundary CB with no fit support behind him, or just run the Sam off and gain a soft edge. As stated, the best alignment is to stay two-high and work with the tendencies given by the offense.

Under Wide vs. Ace Trey

The Under Wide front versus Ace Trey helps the defense if the CB to the boundary is not the greatest at run support. The 7 tech. holds the edge and the CB folds into the “C” gap. The main objective for the DE is to build a wall and allow the scraping Will, the folding CB, and the DS to fit on the cutback. All coverages are still in play with Under Wide too. Under Wide versus Ace Trey is diagramed below:



The Under Front gives the defense an advantage to the field in the run game. Modern football is all about the QB, especially the QB run game. Ace formations, with the extra gaps, and arc-blocking TE’s challenges a defense to align correctly and attack the extra gaps. Ace Trey creates complications for the Mike (no different than 10 pers. Trips), and forces the defense to decide how it covers down to the three receiver side. The best plan of action for a defense is to run an Under Front and stay even in the back end. The added value of a safety to the boundary cannot be overlooked. If a defense is going to spin, running a Cover 1 in the backend and spinning weak allows for the best fits.

Ace allows the offense to max protect and challenge the defense vertically, essentially creating one-on-one matchups with the CBs. Like Ace’s sister formation, Diamond, it is better for the defense to line up and play, fitting the gaps, and keeping the WRs in front of the secondary. If a defense were to blitz, simple plug blitzes and line movements are enough to disrupt the blocking schemes. Most offenses want to run some kind of zone scheme out of Ace sets. The angles are there, and the extra gaps challenge the defense to be right every time. In Pistol, the offense has a two-way go and forces the defense to defend every point of attack and stay even. Bottomline, the defense must attack the tendencies and align the front in a way to force the offense to play left-handed. In the QB-centric offenses of modern football, the best way to defend against reads and options is to align in an Under Front, attack the gaps, and keep it simple.

**For more on run down stop calls click HERE.**

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