MQ Film Study – Learning Stress Coverage (Arizona St. – 2017)

Run Quarters? Then this is the Trips Check for you. MQ dives deep.

Defending Trips can be difficult when trying to stay in a split-field look. Some defensive coordinators opt to “kick” the backside safety to the three WR side in order to keep the LBs “capped,” or assisted with verticals by a Safety. Another way to play Trips is to slide the backside Safety into the box. This allows the overhang to the #3 WR to exit the box and take any vertical by #3 (with limited support by the front side safety). Finally, a coach can always spin to Cover 3 versus Trips.

Trips is an odd formation because it puts three speedy players to one side of the defense. It literally “stresses” the defense. If kicking the coverage, the backside CB is exposed to one-on-ones. Spin to single-high and a coach has created one-on-one matchups across the board. In order to stay in a split-field look and support the backside CB, a coach needs to stretch the coverage. If based out of Quarters, a way to do this is to run Stress Coverage to the Trips side.

.01 Stress

What Stress does is take the basic Quarters coverage (I refer to it as SKY), and stretches it across the Trips formation. This leaves the defense in a true split-field look. The front side is independent of the back side, and vice versa. By staying in a two-high structure, the defense can manipulate the coverage and fits to the backside in order to fit what the coach needs. In Stress, as stated, the regular Sky coverage is stretched.

Stress “caps” the weakest LB with the Field Safety (FS) who is taking all of #3 vertical. Sam and the field CB will work in tandem. The CB will play MOD coverage just like in Quarters. MOD means, Man On Demand or Man Outside Deep. If #1 goes vertical, the CB will run with him. The Sam is responsible for #2 out and up. His objective is to “catch” the slot and force him to run the hump (run around him, elongating the route). Both the CB and Sam will work in a similar way as a Match-3 scheme that asks the overhang to “match” the vertical of #2. Smash Rules still apply. Meaning, if #1 stops, the Sam will work to it and the CB will be responsible for the vertical of #2.

Need a quick refresher on Quarters coverage? Click HERE.

Stress coverage plays on a few things. One, the offense isn’t going to run four verticals the entire game. If they do, this coverage forces the most outside throw or the vertical/comeback to #1. That is a grown man throw, especially at the high school level. Second, if the offense doesn’t run four verticals, and one or more of the WRs run intermediate or short routes, the coverage reverts back to Quarters (MOD). This is why in the diagram above, the keys are 1-2-3, or 3-2-1. The DBs work to the next man if someone goes out or in. This is the beauty of Stress. If you teach Quarters as a base, then Stress is an easy Trips check.

Most modern defenses are functioning with a Nickelback at the Sam. This allows the freedom to uncap the Ni. Even though the CB is there, the Ni must still carry all of #2 vertical with little help. With no vertical coverage, the Ni is uncapped. The Mike (or Will depending on how you structure your defense) is capped by the FS because he is most likely a lesser skilled pass defender. This “capping” of the ILBs also helps with a push by the RB. Since the ILBs don’t have to carry a vertical, they can push with the RB to the flats.

Trips sets force the Sam/Ni out of the fit. In order to reduce conflict, the ILBs must have vertical support. Especially if you are going to keep the backside Safety (DS) as help for the CB. This fact is also why placing the 3 technique away from the Trips allows the backside Safety to stay high and work down versus the run (he fits the alley). The foundational theory behind the coverage is that the offense will not want to throw the widest throw. It is a low percentage throw and if the offense deviates from four verticals, the base coverage of Quarters is what it will revert back to. This allows for less teaching and more time spent on technical work.

Pass Distribution

One advantage of running Stress, or any split-field coverage from a three-down, is the ability of the boundary ‘backer to cut the “X” WR. This is illustrated in the clip below. The boundary Safety will sit on the hash while the boundary CB takes the “X” vertical. The boundary LB cuts off the ability of the QB to throw near the sticks. This underneath coverage allows the CB to be patient and sit high on the route.

The boundary safety can now sit on the hash and cut-off the Post if the “X” runs to the middle of the field (MOF). The ability of the boundary safety to protect the hash gives the front side safety the ability to play the CB. The “true” rule for the front side Safety is to take the vertical of #3. A vertical route in Stress is determined by the depth of the WR. The #3 WR in the clip goes above the Mike LB. This makes it a vertical route. That being said, the QB is clearly not looking at the Over route, instead, the QB is staring down the Curl coming form #1. The field CB does a great job of “catching” the route near the sticks and the front side safety slides over to assist because he knows the back side safety will cut the Over route while the Mike and Will wall the underneath throw. The end result is a sack.

Below is another look at a similar route combination as the above clip. The CB will need to take all of #1 with #2 going out and with a vertical stem by his WR (MOD rules). The #3 WR climbs underneath the Mike allowing the ‘backer to now work to #2 who is going out (that means to keep moving and find work). The field Safety keeps working with the Climb route and the Mike keeps working to the Curl. Sam takes the flat because he has “all of #2 out and up.” The CB can sit on #1’s route because he knows he has help underneath and can read the departure speed of #1. With an inside stem, the CB knows he is getting a Curl or Post.

Coaching Point #1: The Sam in the below clip makes the cardinal sin of jumping outside of the #2 WR. Though he is able to regain his leverage and make the play, the Sam should try and use inside leverage at all times. Much like a CB in blitz coverage (known as “Scootch” or “Catch” coverage). This is also a great example of how the Sam must carry the vert. of #2. The Bender back inside (which was created by the player jumping outside) makes the throw a high percentage through because it comes back into the MOF. The goal in the coverage is to widen the throws and clamp down on the #3 WR going over the middle versus four-verts.

Coaching Point #2: Even though Utah ran a Quads look, Stress reacts the same way. The Sam doesn’t carry the vertical because he sees the Comeback by the #1 WR. The CB doesn’t “lean” on the #2 WR creating an open Bender back inside. Even though the WR was open, this is still a hard throw to make. The CB should have stayed on his track, especially with the WR outside the numbers. There needs to be a hard deck for the CB who should not work outside the bottom of the numbers (split rules). Had the CB worked to #2, this would have been clinic tape.

Stress also lends itself to Bluff or Show calls. These calls make the defense look like they are going to blitz, only to drop post-snap. Below is a great example of this. The use of stemming pre-snap is something that meshes well with Stress because it “looks” like man pre-snap. In the clip, there is an illusion of blitz. The Mike cuts the Slant coming in and the Sam is able to “top” the #2 WR’s slant. Press by the boundary CB forces a back-shoulder throw which the WR didn’t anticipate. The result is a 4th Down.

Run/RPO Distribution

Stress helps with the run game as well because it doesn’t change many of the fits. Utilizing an Under Front helps counter the formation into the boundary (FIB). The clip below is a prime example of why an Under Front works against Trips. Many defenses will set the 3 tech. to the Trips and sink in a secondary player. Below, the 5t and 3t set the edge. The Center that is pulling has nowhere to pull too. The Sam LB (who is aligned as the Mike) easily runs through the gaping hole and makes a tackle for loss (TFL).

**Note: Most offenses won’t run four verticals while aligned into the boundary. This is why Stress is such a great FIB check because it turns into Quarters and the weak overhang has support because of the tight spacing.

One complaint coaches make about running an Under Front (in Arizona’s State’s case, Okie) is the conflict of the Mike on the #3 WR. The use of a “heavy” 5 tech. can alleviate that issue and allows the Mike to “hang” in his position, creating doubt for the QB. Below, the Huskies have oversplit the Trips. This means the #3 WR is outside the hash. The Mike, who doesn’t want to get a full cover down (too far from the box, will apex the WR and the Tackle. The field Safety sits on top of the #3 WR. The Sam has his eyes on the #3 WR. In fact, everyone is keying him. His departure will help the other defenders predict what route combinations they will get.

The goal for the Sam is to work outside the Slot versus a Bubble. If the #3 WR were to run a Snag route (another favorite complaint about the Under Front versus Trips) the Mike will hang in the window. Option wise, the Mike is the QB player versus Zone Read and the 5 tech. is the Dive player. In the clip below, the OT flashes his hands at the 5 tech. who rubs into the “B” gap. All gaps are now accounted for in the box. The QB pulls the ball and throws to the Bubble. The Sam is able to work outside the Slot, forcing the #3 WR to cutback to a careening Mike.

** Note: The goal of the Mike versus any Trips set with the RB to him is to “hang” in the Hitch window as long as possible. The use of a “heavy” 5 tech. that can eliminate the “B” gap is key to this scheme working. The end result is a play for little gain and the defense winning 1st Down (no play over 3 yards).


Stress is a perfect match for Quarters defenses. It simulates Day 1 install Quarters (MOD). This allows coaches the ability to spend more time elsewhere on technique or other scheme needs. The scheme also lends itself to blitzing defenses because it can give the illusion of man, or can be manipulated pre-snap to look like Cover 3 (FS) starts low on #3 with the Mike aligned near the LOS). Stress affords the defense an ability to stay split-field as well, giving the defense an extra man to the boundary. If basing out of MOD Quarters, Stress should be a Day 1 install in camp.

Want more info on Stress? Check these MQ resources out:

  1. Defending Trips with Stress Coverage
  2. Stress Mini-Clinic:

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10 thoughts on “MQ Film Study – Learning Stress Coverage (Arizona St. – 2017)”

  1. Why does Sam have to take 2 vert if theres a safety over the top? Wouldnt SS take 2 vert, FS take 3 vert? Is it so FS can help on backside?

    1. It’s a split-field concept. The f/s Saf is taking all of #3. Sam has #2 w/ limited help from the MOD CB. It is a way to gain b/s help from the boundary Saf. You are refering to Solo or Poach coverage.

    2. Corner caps #1 and #2 vertically and helps S with #2 vertically. SS caps #3 vertically and helps mike with #3 vert. And like you said the FS helps backside with corner on X vertically

    1. Sam has #2 out & up. Mike pushes to #3 w/ safety on top. This is why I tell the FS to step-off just like you would in Sky (Quarters). Read through quick game.

  2. Great article!! Quick question about the technique of the S. When S carries #2 vertical, S has inside leverage on #2. Does S make a “man turn” on #2 and run with him, facing him, with his back to the QB, but keeps his eyes on #1 in case #1 runs an IN/DIG route and or a COMEBACK route?

    If S has inside leverage on #2 what type of technique would S use if #2 runs an IN or DIG route? Would he do a baseball turn or a speed turn to run with the IN or DIG by #2?

    Or does S back pedal, staying inside of #2 but with eyes on #1? Guarding #2 with his body and guarding #1 with his eyes?

    1. Yes. Man turn w/ eyes on #1 for Smash/In cut. S is using catch coverage. If #1 comes in he has leverage & will carry him through as long as #3 doesn’t push.

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