Defending 11 Personnel from a 3-4

How to adjust to TE sets without a natural adjuster.

Spread and Pro-Style offenses utilize a Tight End versus three-down defenses because the defense lacks a natural adjuster. Unlike a four-down defense that can distribute their anchor points evenly across the formation, the 3-4 lacks the extra lineman to defend the extra gap (hence the name “Odd Front”). When faced with an 11 personnel formation, many 3-4 defensive coordinators choose to spin to single-high coverage to gain an extra man in the box. Another adjustment for many DCs in this situation is to attach the outside linebacker to the TE’s side. With the loss of a coverage man and overhang, the DC is forced to spin. When defending an 11 pers. offense from a 4-2-5 or 4-3, these little adjustments aren’t needed because the anchor points are evenly distributed and don’t need to be created.

In a four-down scheme, the defensive ends act as the walls of the box. When a TE is introduced into the formation, the DE to the TE’s side moves to a 9 technique (unless it is Trey and then he is in a 7 or 6i). The four defensive linemen allow the defense to stay even and adjust with the linebackers and secondary. The evenness of the four-down is why many spread teams attack 4-2-5 and 4-3 defenses from 20 pers., utilizing an H-back. In 20 pers., the offense can use the “H” to attack either side of the defense, reading the overhangs to determine what play to run. If the “H” was attached to the formation (TE) he would lose his two-way go.

Defending 11 pers. formations from a 3-4 boil down to understanding how certain fronts react to the extra gap. From a single-gap fit 3-4, a defense can easily adjust to TE sets and stay within a two-shell scheme. The lack of an adjuster is an issue, which is why many 3-4 teams that face the spread, and Pro-Style spread, choose to defend from an Okie Front because it reacts much like the four-down Under Front. Using the offense’s formations as a guide, it is easy to build simple rules within the defense, setting the strength and when to attach the OLBs, to alleviate the issues seen in many 3-4 defenses. Combining an Okie Front with a match quarters scheme can adapt and flex with any formation an offense throws out, it just boils down to how a DC chooses to line up.

Cover Downs, Overhangs, and Setting the Front

Anytime a defense is defending a spread offense it is important to understand overhangs and cover downs. An “overhang” refers to the position that becomes the force player directly outside the box. In a 3-4 there are two overhangs, the OLBs. When a TE is introduced and an OLB is attached, the defense loses the overhang and must adjust. Some DC’s choose to spin to single-high to account for the loss of an overhang, compromising their two-high shell.

Traditionally, the overhangs in a 3-4 (Sam and Jack) were glorified stand-up ends, but as more offenses have begun shifting to the spread, three-down defenses had to adapt. Like its four-down sister, the 4-2-5, a Hybrid 3-4 defense aligns its Nickel player to the field (Sam). The traditional Sam went from a stand-up DE to an extra defensive back. The use of hybrid defensive schemes is why the Okie Front is a great scheme when defending the spread because of its flexible nature. Understanding how the 3-4’s lack of an adjuster can be used against it is crucial to defending the spread.

The term “cover down” indicates how far removed a force player is from the box when defending a slot receiver. A “full” cover down indicates the overhang to the most receiver side will align on the “inside eye” of the #2 WR. Many defenses when defending the spread utilize a hybrid defense to gain cover downs on speedy receivers, even 3-4 defenses. The use of a full cover down allows the defense to combat RPO offenses and force throws away from the slots (high percentage throws). When running a 3-4, issues can arise versus TE sets if the defense doesn’t set the front correctly.

One mistake 3-4 DCs make when designing a defense is found when the front is set. When defending the Pro Spread, many coordinators choose to set the front dependant on the TE. This can lead to issues because there is an overload to the TE’s side and a “soft” edge created by the lack of an anchor point (see image below). The force player is also put into conflict by the lack of an anchor point, exposing the defense to RPOs.

.99 ORvVA

If utilizing a hybrid player, the defense has now put their main cover down in conflict and susceptible to RPOs. In the picture above, the main force player to the field also has a role in pass distribution. Another issue is the distribution of anchor points. In the image above, there are three D-lineman to one side of the ball, the TE’s. This may protect the defense from power and stretch to TE’s side, but the field side is open to option and RPOs. Offenses that utilize a TE can also run power to the weakside because of the extra lineman to its strength. By shifting the entire line to the TE creates an imbalance in distribution. It is important for a 3-4 defensive coordinator to understand how the defensive front and how he attaches his Sam and Jack affect the fits.

Setting the Front

The best rule of thumb for setting the front versus the spread is to always set the front to the most receiver side. This allows the defense to always be in an Under Front and protects the defense’s cover downs. By putting a defensive end to the most receiver side a defense is ensuring a cover down to the slot. If employing a hybrid scheme, setting the front to the most WR side is crucial for keeping the Nickel out of the box, or attached to the line. Setting the front to the most receiver side also ensures the defensive anchor points are aligned evenly across the offensive front. The Okie Front, in particular, gives the defense a chance to do this versus Pro Spread formations.

Versus a Pro Twin (11p – 2×2), the defense is in an Over Front, which is the front used most by four-down teams when defending this particular formation. When the offense aligns in Trey, the TE and both WRs are together. The rule stays the same, the front aligns to the most receiver side. If an Okie team aligns to Trey by setting the strength to the most receiver side they will remain in an Under Front, which is what defenses should base out of when defending 3×1 sets (it protects the cover downs).

11 pers. 2×2 – Pro Twin

When defending an offense that utilizes a TE it is important to understand what the offense is trying to do with its run game. The answer to this question will determine how a defense aligns to the formation. If the offense is using the TE to create an extra gap for the run game and using the WRs as blockers on the edge, the defense would best be suited in a “Squeeze” alignment to Pro Twin. See below:

.01 (11) 2x2 - Squeeze

The “Squeeze” alignment shifts the Mike and Will to the TE’s side and makes the Sam a fold player. By running this scheme the defense has taken the boundary safety (DS) out of the run fits, creating a plus-one scenario versus the run. Taking the DS out of the run fits also allows the LBs to be aggressive to the run since the safety and CB will absorb any verticals by the TE and WR. If the running back is to the TE side (FIB – 3 into), the Will is allowed to move closer to the TE and able to push if the RB flares.

The main issue with “Squeeze” is highlighted versus RPO teams. With the Sam in conflict, offenses can use his responsibilities against him. If utilizing a “Squeeze” alignment, a DC is better off running Cloud to the two-speed side. By running Cloud the DC has allowed the Sam to “hang” in his alignment (apex of the #2 WR and EMOL). This “hang” technique combined with the natural gap exchange with the DE keeps the Sam in his cover down longer. Versus a zone read, the DE is the “dive” player, the Sam takes the QB, and the CB takes the pitch.

If a team runs a Zone Read (Bubble) back to the TE’s side, the DE can chase the RB while the Sam slow plays the run. Even if the offense chooses to run a Zone where the offensive tackle base blocks the DE forcing the Sam to fold, the use of Cloud coverage inhibits the offenses ability to throw screens because the CB will jump any out route. One way to counteract this adjustment by the offense is to run a “heavy” technique by the DE to the two-speed side. In a “heavy” technique the 5 tech. will align almost in a 4. If the OT blocks out on the DE, he will shoot into the “B” gap. Versus option, the DE’s responsibility is dive anyway. The heavy technique allows him to work to the dive regardless of the play.

“Cheat” Alignment

Where “Squeeze” is designed to assist the defense in defending a traditional run game from a Pro-Spread offense, “Cheat” is created to combat RPOs from offenses that run the Chip Kelly/Oregon Style TE offense. As stated earlier, offenses use a TE versus 3-4 teams because of the lack of a natural adjuster. This lack of an adjuster can force defenses into compromising situations where they can lose their cover down or two-high shell. When defending spread offenses, especially ones that utilize RPOs, it is important to stay within a two-shell scheme to eliminate one-on-one matchups. The “Cheat” alignment to Pro Twin allows the defense to gain a full cover down to the two-speed side and extra support to the field from the two inside LBs. See below:

.02 (11) 2x2 - Cheat

The DS to the boundary becomes primary support and is now the conflict player. Like the “Squeeze” alignment shown prior, the conflict player is still protected by gap exchange. If the offense runs a “pop” pass to the TE, and he arcs vertically, the Jack will close the window and the DS will absorb the vertical of the TE. The defense must align in Sky coverage to the TE to allow the safety to become primary support. Sky coverage natural fits in this situation because the safety in Sky is fit support. The only change is the DS is now primary support and is responsible for a gap. If the offense chooses to leave the TE in for extra protection, the DS will relate back to the #1 receiver, playing underneath any post or dig. Many teams will run their 20 pers. backside hitch play-action/RPO versus 3-4 teams from a TE set to get the defense to spin.

To the field side, the defense can run a Cloud or Sky scheme depending on the tendencies of the offense. The adjustment to the speed side by the ILBs has allowed the Sam to gain a full cover down to combat RPOs and help in pass distribution. Offenses that employ packaged plays within their TE formations can be counteracted by the “Cheat” alignment. This particular alignment can also be used when teams are pass heavy because of the full cover down. One issue of the “Cheat” alignment is when offenses put the back to the TE’s side creating a 3 into FIB. With the Will tucked into the “A” gap, it is hard for him to push with the RB and can easily be out-leveraged. This scenario is why a defense must play FIB differently than if the formation was to the field. “Squeeze is a better choice when defending an offense that puts the back into the boundary to run rub routes, mainly pick/flat with the TE running a corner route. A defense must carry both of these adjustments, but depending on what a defense is seeing every week, either one can be its base alignment.


As stated earlier, if running a three-down defense, setting the front to the most receiver side allows the defense to adjust to most formations. When defending 3×1 sets it is important to gain a cover down to the #3 receiver. Versus a Trey formation (TE Trips), setting the front to the Trey side allows the Sam to gain a slight cover down on the #2 receiver. Mike also is allowed the luxury of a cover down. One mistake made by DCs is to set the strength to the TE while attaching the OLB to that side as well. This alignment forces the defense to spin to counteract the loss of an overhang. If running an Okie Front, a defense can simply adjust to a Trey set and keep its two-shell integrity. See below:

.03 (11) 3x1

When defending the spread a DC must always be aware of the option. An Under Front puts the Mike close to the edge of the box to counteract the Speed Option. It also puts Mike in a position to better relate to the #3 receiver, the TE. One advantage a three-down team has over a four-down team is the extra pass dropper. This extra dropper allows 3-4 defenses to “kick” their coverages to 3×1 formations.

Running Solo to Trey releases the conflict of the Mike. Trey is primarily a running formation. The offense has put an extra blocker on the line and has created an extra gap; because of this, the Mike is in conflict. In all match concepts, the Mike relates to the #3 receiver. In the case of Trey, this is the TE. Most DCs would agree they don’t want the Mike carrying the vertical of the TE while attempting to stuff the run, there’s just too much conflict. Solo alleviates some of that conflict and helps the Mike. The backside CB is “locked” on the single receiver, but has support from the Jack underneath.

To the front side, the Sam is the primary force player and will hold the edge if the offense runs at him. A DC may choose to run Sky or Cloud over the two receivers. Many DCs at the lower levels feel more comfortable running Cloud because of Sam’s conflict and to combat RPOs, mainly a Bubble to the #2 receiver.

Trips (Nub)

Nub formations are tough to defend regardless. Using the rules established in this article (set the front to the most receiver side), a 3-4 defense can align in a way to alleviate conflict and create optimum cover downs. The Trips Nub formation puts an extra gap to the boundary while forcing the defense to adjust to three WRs to the field. This conflict can put immense pressure on the defense. There are two ways a defense can adjust to this unique set, Stress or Solo.


.04 (11) SW - Stress

Setting the front to the most receiver side assists the Mike in his cover down and the attached Jack to the boundary allows the defense to build a wall for cutbacks. If the RB is to the Trips side, many offenses will attempt to run Buck Sweep back to the boundary. The Jack should act as the main force player and the DS and boundary CB will fit off the wall. The CB to the boundary is in primary support while the DS is the plus one. If the RB is to the nub side, the safety will alert the CB to the High-Low (flat/corner) and the coverage will morph into a pseudo-Cloud concept. To the front side, the defense is running Stress. If teams are running to the nub side, it makes no sense for the defense to kick the coverage. Running Stress keeps the DS home.


Solo interacts with the formation much like Stress except the safety is reading the vertical of the #3 receiver. The main issue with Solo is when the back is set to the TE side. The High-Low conflict forces the defense to check back to Stress. Since the Will is tucked into the “A” gap, running Solo puts the Will in a compromising situation and makes it easy for the offense to out-leverage the “push” player (Will). If teams are attacking the defense from the three-receiver side, it makes sense to add an extra player to the field. Solo allows the defense to gain a man without totally compromising the backside fits. See below:

.05 (11) SW - Solo


Done right, a defense can defend the Pro-Spread from a 3-4. The lack of an adjuster can be counteracted by running an Okie Front (think Under in four-down terms). Starting with the strength, a defensive coordinator can eliminate many issues by setting the front to the most receiver side. This alignment protects the cover downs and allows the defense to stay in a two-high shell. It is important when defending the spread to establish plus-one scenarios in the run and pass. Utilizing an Okie Front and the rules suggested in this article will give the defense a chance.

Defenses must carry adjustments and practice them. If the offense starts to take advantage of the defensive alignment, the defense needs to adjust. The multiple ways shown in this article can act as a defense’s base or an adjustment to the way it has traditionally defended TE sets. Remember, defending the spread boils down to cover downs and overhangs. Understanding how the offense reacts to different alignments is key to success.

© 2017 | Cody Alexander | All rights reserved.

Get the book that is changing defensive football (click link) —

Cautious Aggression: Defending Modern Football

Looking for 3-4 Resources? MQ has you covered:

  1. Defending the Modern Spread from Okie:
  2. The Tite Front (303/404)
  3. 3rd Down Calls From a 3-4

As always, support the site by following me on Twitter (@The_Coach_A) and spreading the word to your coaching friends by liking and retweeting the articles you read (even sharing them via Facebook and LinkedIn).

Do not hesitate to email me with questions through the site’s CONTACT page or through my DM on Twitter. I enjoy speaking with you guys (iron sharpens iron).

– Coach A.

Author: MatchQuarters


19 thoughts on “Defending 11 Personnel from a 3-4”

    1. I set up two cones (the B gap). I have the Sam get in Apex alignment. I’ll have a player act as the RB. The Sam has to fold inside w/ lead foot up, square shoulders, & make a tackle. Can also work it if you are rubbing the DE (HEAVY) to where he takes the QB. Just flip roles.

    1. I like the fit of the safety better. Most of the TEs we see at the HS level are glorified OTs. That being said, if we get a team that runs Y-Corner, we will run a variation of Cloud to allow the CB to zone over the flare. This allows the Will to beat up the TE and stay in the box with the safety over the top.

  1. It would be helpful to see how this plays out when the “strength” (most WR’s) is set into the boundary. Also, the article mentions being in an over front vs. Pro Twins. Our Sam is always to the field. Is the article suggesting that over is preferred or that’s what the front would be with “conventional” strength rules (set to TE)?

    1. 1) The Sam would attach & the front would be set to the 2-speed FIB. I’d run Squeeze & fold the Jack into the “B” gap. Same as in the article, just flipped.

      2) it turns into an “Over” Front because the 3t or 4i is set to the TE (actual front is set to the 2-speed side). As I showed in the article, setting the 5t to the TE side leaves a soft edge to the 2-speed side & puts the Sam in conflict (RPOs).

      1. I see, your’re referencing “setting the front” in terms of the B gap bubble. I’m an “Over” guy so “setting the front” to me says 3 technique. We have a 3-4 package and I have to be careful with the calls since our general strength rules do not always apply. This does put the system in a bind though. You can’t simply give an “always” rule and be in what you want, i.e., 2 speed to field vs. 2 speed FIB. MOF is a whole different ball game!

      2. In a 3-4 scheme, the strength to me is the 5 tech. (he is the “hard” edge of the box). If using that as a base, the front can be set to any formation except MOF 10p 2×2 Pistol and in that case, you just have the Mike choose a direction depending on tendency. Your system can work too. In your case, set the 3tech to the TE or “H” vs 11p/20p or to the RB in 10p. The only issue with setting the front by rules, as I stated, is only seen in 10p 2×2 MOF Pistol or 12p Ace Pistol (even in a 3-4).

      3. I’m with you now. Because we are an Over team I need to call us into Under/Okie. The call would set the 3 tech opposite their base rules vs. most formations. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: