Defending the Spread From a 3-4

Running an Okie Front to defend the modern spread attack.

Defensive linemen are at a premium. For many teams, it is hard to field a deep roster that can lend itself to a four-man front. Running parallel to the defensive dilemma of lineman depth is the popularity of the spread. A natural conclusion for many defensive coordinators around the country has been a shift away from a four-down front and into a 3-4 scheme. The flexibility of the 3-4 and the added athlete on the field makes the scheme spread friendly. The multiplicity within the scheme allows DCs to attack the offense from multiple directions without sacrificing pass distributions. Running a two-high scheme behind a three-man front meshes well with teams that have a history of running a 4-2-5 or 4-3.

The Okie Front, in particular, can be of service when defensive coaches are looking to defend the spread from a three down front. With a 5 technique, a shaded Nose, and a 3 tech. (or 4i) to the weak side, the Okie’s anchor points fit the spread much like its four down sister, the Under Front. To the weak side, the Jack linebacker (boundary OLB) is technically a wide “9” in the run fits and controls the edge of the box to the boundary. The Jack LB, in particular, is useful when defending offenses that like to attack the boundary through the air. Even though the Jack is technically a conflicted player (he is responsible for the “C” gap), his alignment allows him to read the offensive tackle and slow play the run. In most four down fronts, the boundary OLB (Will) is the “fold” player and is considered conflicted because his gap is in the box. The Okie Front eliminates the fold and replaces it with a loose overhang (much like a natural Will/DE exchange in a four down front).

Setting the Front

How a team sets the front will directly correlate to how the offense chooses to attack it. The Okie Front lends itself to single-gap fits and the illusion of a three-man front. It is an illusion because Okie fits the run much like an Under Front. The only difference is the weak side anchor point. As stated earlier, the Jack LB in Okie is technically an anchor point on the line, except in a 3-4 he is a loose overhang. This flexibility allows the 3-4 to be multiple in the way it attacks an offense. Even though the 3-4 allows a DC to be flexible in his attack, there are certain rules that must be followed when attacking today’s modern spread attack.

10p – 2×2

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Many three down front teams will set the front (or 5 tech.) to the back. This allows the defense to cover down their OLB and combats RPOs. The problem with setting the front this way is when offenses go formation into the boundary (FIB). When teams set the back into the boundary and the defense follows suit, creating a soft edge to the field. The Sam linebacker is in conflict as well because he is now the edge setter to the field. Teams that use wide splits can flip the read from the side of the back to the Sam and take advantage of his run responsibilities. The space created by the spread forces the Sam to work back to the box against any run read (low-hat). This fold gives the offense an advantage and a one-on-one match up with the slot and the WR.

In the image below, the offense is attacking the soft edge to the field with a stretch play. Another great option for the offense is to run a Power Read to the field. The soft edge allows the play side offensive lineman to pin the defense. All the QB has to do is read the Sam. If he crashes give the ball to the RB, if he stays outside pull for a big gain. The best way to defend against a 10 personnel 2×2 set is to set the front to the field. This gives the defense an anchor point on the wide side of the formation and puts the conflicted player to the boundary. The goal in any defense should be to eliminate as many threats as it can by its pre-snap alignment. The base rule out of Okie should be to align the front to the field. Another advantage is the Sam LB’s cover down. Setting the 5 tech. to the field allows him to cover down on the slot WR giving the defense a plus-one advantage in the pass without losing any box integrity.


10p – 3×1

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In order to get the proper cover downs and to create a “hard” edge to the field, the front must be set to the three receiver side. As stated earlier, the tendency to set the front to the back in a three-down front can leave a defense exposed to stretch and RPOs. Versus a 3×1 set, the best front to be aligned in is an Under Front. Okie aligns as a natural Under Front with the added value of a boundary dropper in the Jack. Against the pass, the corner essentially has help underneath. The overhang to the boundary also helps with quick hitches and slant RPOs to the boundary. Setting the 5 tech. to the Trips side allows the Mike to cover down to the #3 WR. Even with Mike as a conflicted player, the loose Jack allows a defense to be multiple in how it attacks Trips with coverage (will cover later in the piece).

Empty – 3×2

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There are two ways to attack Empty from an Okie Front, the first is illustrated in the diagram above (attached Jack). For most three-down teams, the Jack LB is a great pass rusher and utilized when offenses are prone to pass. It makes sense that if an offense is going to attack out of an Empty set to rush the passer and force a quick throw. The beauty in the Okie Front is that it is already aligned in a pseudo-Under, all the Jack has to do is attach and rush. The second is drop eight and run a Buck Front (505). The DEs in a Buck Front contain the QB while the Nose tries to push the QB one way or another. Dropping eight forces the QB to read the entire defense because the back eight is now in coverage.


20p – 2×1

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Anytime the offense adds a blocker to the box, the defense should follow suit. Unless a defense has double-gapping, athletic defensive lineman, it is easier to attach the Jack LB to create an Under Front to 20 personnel. The added “D-lineman” creates a “hard” box and removes the Jack from conflict. The DS (boundary safety) when playing a Four-Read scheme (Sky) can act as a robber to the boundary. The rule for setting the front should match the philosophy of protecting the defense against RPOs. In the case of 20 pers. the front should be set to the two-speed side. This allows the Sam to cover down and discourage the offense from running field screens.

It is possible to leave the Jack unattached. By doing so, you create a soft edge to the boundary, but the extra support from the safety can negate the gap created. It is important to note, that if a DC chooses to leave the Jack unattached, the DS (boundary) must fit off of him and make him correct. His aggression can be taken advantage of by 3rd-Level RPOs. Versus a play like Split Zone, the Jack should set the edge and the DS should insert on the inside of the blocking H-back.


Pro Spread (11p)

Unlike 20 pers., 11 pers. creates a static extra gap on the line. Spread teams like to attack a three-down front from 11 pers. because of the odd number of defensive lineman. There is no natural adjuster in an odd front. Even in Okie, which acts like an Under Front, a defense can’t set the front dependant on the back. There must be rules and in order to keep gap integrity, the Jack must attach versus an 11 pers. 2×2 look. See below:


If the front were set to the TE there would be a soft edge to the field. Staying with the rule of setting the front to the two-speed side to combat RPOs, versus 11p 2×2 (Pro Twin), the defense would essentially align in an Over Front and attach the Jack. The defense would align in a “Cheat” alignment (combats RPOs with Sam’s cover down) and the DS becomes the primary support in the “C” gap. If the offense is not an RPO team (pro spread), it is possible to shift the ILBs towards the TE and have the Sam fold into the open “B” gap (“Squeeze” alignment). It is best to treat 20 pers. and 11 pers. 2×2 (Pro Twin) as the same when installing a three-down front defense. This keeps the “two-speed” rule and the attached Jack fluid between formations.

Versus Trey, the defense can play the formation much like it does against 10 pers. Trips Open. The main rule when setting the Okie Front to 3×1 is to set the strength towards the three receiver side. The main difference between Trips and Trey is the alignment of the Sam. Since 11 pers. creates an extra gap in the box, the Sam will apex the slot and the TE. This allows him to set the edge quickly versus the run and combats Sprint Option. The Mike matches the vertical of the TE (in Quarters he is responsible for matching #3). If a DC wanted to create a hard edge to the boundary and keep 11 pers. rules the same he could attach the Jack to create a true Under Front.


Base Spread Coverages

10p – 2×2 (Sky/Cloud)

Sky coverage is a great base coverage because it allows the LBs to be aggressive to the box (can also be run as Sky Press). The Jack in Sky will push flat against the pass, working through #2 to under #1. The Will can either work to the low hole or work to underneath #2 (by giving a “cut” call, Jack cuts to underneath #1 and the Will underneath #2). Mike, as usual, works to match #3.


Cloud can be a great change up when teams start to RPO Jack’s aggression versus the run. In Cloud, the Jack has the curl and can be patient (late push) to the flat because the CB will take all of #2’s out. The Will can either be used as a “pole runner” (Tampa 2) or can look for any crossers and build a wall underneath.


10p – 3×1

To keep the Mike close to the box and to help with the run/pass conflict, one of the best coverages to run against Trips is Special. The late push created by playing a two-read scheme to the #2 and #3 WRs allows the Mike to “hang” in his alignment and be patient with the read. The Sam becomes the CB and the safety fast bails and holds the inside of #3. This coverage is great against teams that don’t throw to the #1 WR and use switch/high-low route combinations with the slots. To the boundary, the Jack can either be inserted in the pass rush or holds the underneath of #1 (discouraging the X-hitch RPO).


Kick Coverage (3×1)

The luxury of having an extra coverage man on the field allows defenses to “kick” the coverage to the three receiver side. In Kick, the CB and Jack high-low bracket the “X” and the DS “kicks” over top of #3 (brackets with the Mike). This allows the front side to play Sky or Cloud depending on the down and distance or the offense’s tendencies.


Pressures (Single-Dogs)

Many DCs like a three down front because of the flexibility it allows with pressures and coverages. It is safe to say a majority of 3-4 DCs send a fourth man a majority of the time. Sending a fourth man from anywhere keeps the offense on its heels. Adjusting the pass distribution behind a single-dog (one LB) pressure is easy because the defense becomes a 4-2-5/4-3.


The Jack pressure is a simple and basic pressure. The Will in this pressure assumes Jack’s responsibility in coverage. This is a great pressure versus 20 pers. or any 3×1 set. Versus a 10 pers. 2×2 set, the boundary secondary players are essentially in man coverage and can “banjo” switch routes. The Will will be late support but still is responsible for the “A” gap. One adjustment to this blitz is to pinch the 3 tech. and widen the Will.


Mike Check

The Mike pressure is a check because versus any 3×1 the Jack will automatically go. This keeps the Will in a Zero and allows the defense to stay in a two-high shell. If a DC wanted to keep this pressure on he would have to spin. As stated earlier, the luxury of the 3-4 allows the flexibility to spin to single-high versus a 3×1 set because the Jack can work with the CB to bracket the single-receiver side.



Walk is probably the easiest way to get to a four-down front versus a 2×2 set. The pass distribution stays the same, but as with the Jack pressure, the “A” gap is left exposed. In order to keep integrity, the DC can easily pinch the 3 tech. into the “A” gap and fold the Jack.


Film Study

MatchQuarters’ Okie QuarCoverageverge Tape:


The Okie Font allows the flexibility and adaptiveness that is required to defend the spread. Using a pseudo-Under Front can be a key asset when looking for ways to keep a hard edge to the field and a cover down to combat RPOs. Many four-down teams have a three-down package that reflects an Okie Font. If a defense is lacking line depth it can easily turn to an Okie Front and keep its single-gap fits and pass distribution rules. Okie is just a base, but there are several other fronts that can be used to attack the modern spread. The 3-4 can give a defense added value by putting another athlete on the field without sacrificing run fits.

Here is a list of MatchQuarters’ other three-down resources:

  1. The Okie Front
  2. The Tite Front (303/404)
  3. 3rd Down Calls From a 3-4

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5 thoughts on “Defending the Spread From a 3-4”

  1. MOF content would be extremely useful. While a mere 20 or so snaps a game come from this position, that is more than enough to get you beat. Looking forward to your thoughts. Good stuff and keep it up!

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