Attacking 3rd Down With Multiple Fronts

Using packages & “problem” fronts to attack the Spread on 3rd Down.

Though 3rd Down is probably one of the more overrated downs in football (in terms of importance), being able to get off the field is an important concept for any defensive coach (yes, I’m being dense). Any series is won on 1st Down. Win that down and now the offense becomes more predictable on each subsequent play. By winning 2nd Down and forcing the offense into an obvious passing situation, the defense can now attack the offense. This is why looking at efficiency stats are important.

Looking at’s DEff, you will only find two teams in the Top 25 with losing records against FBS teams, Northwestern and Miami (N’western’s OEff is 124 and Miami’s is #76 which explains their 6-6 record). Winning early downs is key to winning 3rd. That being said, defenses need to have a plan for 3rd Down and it’s variations (short, medium, long). The ultimate goal is to get off the field. Understanding how your opponent attacks 3rd should reflect your gameplan too. If a DC regularly goes to the same pool for 3rd Down, an OC will learn your rules and beat you at your own game.

Predictability in football is the holy grail. It is why coaches spend hours diagnosing film and coming up with a plan. Wining the base downs (1st and 2nd) is key to a successful defense. 3rd Down efficiency is a decent metric and does, to an extent, help with win probability. T. Tony Russell of Blue Stampede wrote an interesting article on the topic of 3rd Downs and win probability. Russell found that “3-and-Outs” doesn’t necessarily correlate to win probability. Yes, defensive coaches love to get off the field, especially if you have a dominant offense, but this stat over time doesn’t directly correlate to wins.

As Russell explains, the use of 3rd Down Efficiency (the percent of 3rd downs that a team is able to convert into a first down) ignores about 71% of all other plays. 1st Down conversion rate or just passing down efficiency are better stats to use when looking at win probability. So what does this have to do with winning 3rd and Long?

First, there is always a point at which a team chooses to pass at a high rate. This means a defense needs to win its passing downs. In the NFL, any yardage mark is a throwing down, but generally, if the yards to gain is around 4+, most NFL teams are throwing. In College, that mark moves to around 6+, which is probably similar at the High School level. Second, defensive coaches need a plan for passing downs, especially on 3rd Down. Finally, not all schemes are created equal when it comes to pressuring the QB. A defense needs options. A DC needs to consider several things:

  • Is the QB a runner? Is he a thrower?
  • Do they have a dominant WR?
  • Do they slide, Big-on-Big, or Combo their pass-pro?
  • What is the RB doing, or who is he responsible for?

All these questions need to be answered as a plan for 3rd Down is developed. This particular article gives you several ideas and ways to attack an offense in obvious passing downs, especially 3rd Down. As Russell pointed, winning passing downs is a better metric for win probability. Win your passing downs, or get a sack/turnover, and you have a higher chance of winning the game, which at the end of the day, is the only thing that matters.

1) The Overload Front

1 Overload

One of my favorite ways to attack an offense on 3rd Down is the Overload Front. In an Overload Front, the defense will put all its numbers to one side. This front mainly runs from a four-down look, otherwise, you have something completely different. Above, the Georgia Bulldogs align three linemen to one side. The boundary side only has a DE and a LB that is responsible for the “B” gap and RB. Versus a nub-set, as shown above, the CB will be over there as well.

The Overload Front shown above doesn’t have to be run from a special package. Georgia’s Mint Package has the right personnel group to attack the Gators offense. Depending on the pressure, the line can be given any configuration. Below, the Bulldogs put their Jack ‘backer, DE, and Nose to one side. To the boundary, the other DE is in a “tilt 5.” Georgia utilizes a speed loop by the Jack to attack the center of the line. The “big” bodies to the left use their size and power to occupy the right side of the Georgia line. The “tilt 5” to the boundary collapses the left side and occupies the guard and tackle as he pinches into the “B” gap. This allows the Jack to come free in the middle and rush the throw by the QB.

1-2 Overload

The Nose and boundary DE “pin” their linemen and create a gap for the Jack. Above, the DE to the right attacks the “B” gap, pulling the nearest guard. This hesitation combined with the Nose pining the center in the opposite “A” gap creates a gap for the Jack to insert. To the left, the DE engages the guard and slides to the outside bringing the tackle and guard with him. That is five O-linemen defending three D-linemen. By the time the Jack loops into the “A” gap, the left guard is too late and the QB has to make a hurried throw. The end result, 4th Down.

2) The 505 “Mug” Front

2- 505 Mug.png

If running a 3-4, the 505 “Mug” front is one of the easiest ways to put five men on the line. All the ILBs have to do is walk down on the guards. This is basically an inverted Bear Front in the sense that the DEs are now outside, and the ‘backers are inside. Schematically, this forces the O-line into man protection because everyone is covered. The addition of loop stunts and line movement can help “waste” the O-line. Below, the Gators attack the Georgia offense with a five-man replacement pressure that brings outside rushers from the secondary.

Bringing players from depth can confuse the O-line. Ideally, skill players are best to bring from depth because they can hit home with their speed. Above, the Gators use one of their DBs to attack the perimeter of the Georgia line. When bringing edge pressure, many coaches will attack the interior “A” gaps to create a push, forcing the Qb to step one way or another into an edge rush. Florida drops the LB away (W) from the RB and the ILB to the RB has him man to man (M). Though the pressure doesn’t create a sack, the QB is forced to throw with speed in his face. The timing is off and the QB throws an inaccurate throw. 4th Down.

2-2 505 MUG.png

Schematically, the Nose and looping right DE is creating vertical pressure in the QB’s face. The Nose pushes away from the RB bring the center and guard with him. The DE to the right quickly loops to the opposite “A” gap. The center is forced to quickly work back and pick him up. If he would have latched onto the Nose, the DE would have come free. As the Nose moves into the “A” gap, he continues to work outside. The looping DE brings the tackle to the Nose as he continues to occupy the left side of the O-line, making the tackle blind to the edge. This allows the Di to come free.

To the left, the 5 tech. moves into the “B” gap bringing a double form the tackle and guard. This isolates the RB on the Ni. The Mike shuffles outside, spying the RB and can insert once the RB is engaged. The mugged Mike can also make the guard hesitate because he has to honor his presence. Had the QB stepped up away from the free hitting Di, the Mike would have inserted unabated to the QB.

3) The Double “A” Mug Fly Front

3- Dbl A Max.png

One of the most common ways to attack an offense’s protection on 3rd Down is the Double “A” Gap mug look. From a four-down front this is done from a “fly” or “jet” look were the DEs are in wide 5s and the interior linemen are in 3s. This creates a one-on-one with each lineman as well as places two defenders on the center. These pressures with the addition of drop-outs can confuse the offensive linemen and create free hitters on the QB. LSU creates this look from their three-down front, but the design is the same as if it were from the more common four-down look.

LSU attacks the Tide’s Empty formation with a maxed-out look. There are six defenders to the offense’s five linemen. Someone is coming free. The two 3 techs force the guards to honor them leaving two defenders on the center. Whichever defender the center chooses to block is wrong, because one is coming free. This clever Sim pressure uses the O-line’s rules against them. By engaging the guards, the to 3 techs ensure the center has no help. With two men lined up in 5s, the tackles must kick out. As soon as the 3 techs engage, they rock out to pull the guards and engage the tackles. All this leads to a free player careening towards the Bama QB.

3-2 Dbl A.png

A Sim pressure gives the illusion of a max blitz only to drop out players or insert others from depth. The goal of a Sim is to create havoc for the O-line by moving players or inserting players from depth. Sims only work though if the max pressure is actually ran. If offenses know you are only going to rush four, they will slide or sit back and wait. The Sim shown above is a typical scheme used when trying to attack an offensive line. Usually, in a Sim, the defense will find a way to get two edge rushers and attack the “A” gaps. This gives vertical pressure, forcing the QB to step to a side and a one-on-one scenario on the edge. In the diagram above, the pressure was placed squarely on the center, who never really had a chance.

5) The Bear Front

4- Max.png

The Bear Front is similar (if not the exact same) as the 505 Mug. The only difference is where the D-line is located. The interior of the front consists of the “bigs,” or D-linemen. The edges are occupied by the LBs or EDGE players (EDGE is a fancy way of saying DE/OLB hybrid). Colorado uses two DEs and one their OLB hybrids as interior players. This is in the same thinking of a four-down moving a DE into a 3 tech. to get an isolation block on a weaker guard.

The Buffs add numbers to the field as well, walking down their field EDGE (“F”) and $-backer. A $-backer is an ILB that can guard a TE, or is athletic enough to use in coverage (I explained the nuances of the Mint Package in an earlier post). In this particular pressure, the “$” is going to need to wall the seam and literally run down the hash. The “F” EDGE will cut the flat. This is why the “F” is outside and the “$” is the 5 tech. By placing the numbers to the field, Colorado triggers the slide to that side. This is part of the pressure scheme as well. The point of this is to overload the field side, get USC to slide the protection that way, and place two players for the RB to handle. The result is a sack.

Three main concept ideas are present in this scheme. First, the overload is intentional and pulls the slide protection to the field. The drop-out by the two edge players “pulls” the Trojans line and creates advantages to the boundary. Second, Colorado places the boundary EDGE on the backside guard. As stated earlier, this is common practice in four-down “fly” fronts where an athletic DE is brought down to a 3 tech. to attack a weaker G. The result above is a great example of that. The Buffs’ EDGE clearly overpowers the USC guard and combines with the CB to create a sack. Finally, the add-in by the CB places two defenders on one blocker (the RB). The Mike sets the RB up by running directly upfield. This action leaves a gaping hole for the CB to get the sack.

4-2 Bear.png

The diagram illustrates a common theme in this article, the “wasting” of O-linemen by design. Not very rusher needs to “hit home,” but rather occupy a lineman so that a gap might open up or expose a single O-lineman (usually a guard) to a one-on-one situation. The placement of the defenders on the line is not by accident either. Both DEs are placed to the field and will work that way to “pull” the slide protection as well as create a natural wall so the QB has to step up into the gap created by the pressure.

5) Odd Dime

5- 3-3-3 Pressure.png

I threw the Odd Dime look into this article because it is becoming a popular package to run not only as a base but on 3rd Down. Brent Venables, DC at Clemson, used this package early in the 2019 season to combat Spread offenses. The Tigers used this package to pressure the offense by giving the illusion of a “drop-8” only to hammer down on the O-line. The pressure is a five-man loop scheme that ends up with a sixth blitzer when the RB blocks. This is referred to as a “green-dog.” If the RB engages a defender and blocks, the LB can insert where there is a natural gap.

The goal of this pressure is to create a one-on-one with the RB on the Sam LB. The Mike directly engages the tackle because if the RB blocks the Sam, the Mike will then insert. If the pressure hits home, the QB will be forced to work to the boundary where hopefully, the DE looping away from the direct pressure will be there to collect him. The Nose forces a clamp form the guard and center, while the boundary DE tries to occupy the left guard and tackle by darting into the “B” gap.

5-2 3-3-3 Pressure.png

As the pressure unfolds, the Sam “fish-hooks” behind the RB. This technique is used by many higher-level teams to force a step-up by the QB. In this case, the QB steps up to a green-dog Mike who forces an errant throw. Had the QB tried to scramble away from the pressure, the loop to the boundary would have blocked that escape route as well. A well designed, simple blitz that results in a 4th Down.


When a passing down, especially on 3rd Down, presents itself, the defense must have a clear plan. There are several “problem” alignments that can put stress on an offense’s pass-pro. Defenses can’t live in one thing either. For instance, Sim pressures are becoming an increasingly popular way to attack offenses, but if a defense doesn’t use a max pressure that correlates to the Sim, then the offensive line will just sit back and collect the four rushers.

Winning passing downs in about creating matchups that are advantageous to a defense. Who is the weakest lineman? Who is your best rusher? Does the offense isolate the RB or a certain tackle? These are great questions to find the answers to. Find ways to get in different looks to isolate your best rusher on the offense’s worst O-lineman. Have a plan and execute!


Watch MQ’s clinic that goes deeper into 3rd Down Fronts:


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