Defending the Spread’s Unbalanced Sets

Ideas on countering the optical illusions of unbalanced formations.

Offenses use unbalanced formations to get the defense out leveraged. An offense does this by creating an extra gap by moving a guard or tackle to the opposite side of the formation. Unbalanced sets are optical illusions created by the extra lineman to one side. Teams can also use wide receivers when creating unbalanced sets. By putting a WR on the line and covering him up, the offense has now freed the single WR (“X”) so that he can motion across the formation. Many defenses refer to this set of unbalanced formations as “X-off” formations.Unlike pro style unbalanced formations that just shift the line one way or another with an extra guard or tackle, X-off formations use a player that is normally static in the motion game.

Unbalanced sets, in particular, are designed to be optical illusions to the defense. In a pro style (11 personnel) unbalanced, the defense is so used to seeing the same Center over and over, that they fail to realize the shift on the line and can’t identify the new three-man surface. This causes the defense to be a gap short and out-leveraged by the offense. In an unbalanced spread set (20 pers./10 pers. – mainly Trips), the offense uses the WRs to create the illusion. It can be hard to identify WRs on the line, especially when tempo is involved. The defense can be surprised by the jet motion from the “X” WR if an unbalanced set goes unnoticed.

Offenses can use quick huddles and tempo to throw off the defense when using unbalanced sets. Defense generally lineup off of personnel and identify key players on the offense (like the Center’s number or a slot WR). It is important to teach the front seven to identify the three-man surface when playing pro spread teams that use unbalanced out of their 11 pers. sets. When facing a spread team that uses WR unbalanced sets, the key is to identify if the single WR is off the ball. To the front side, the secondary players (and cover down) must identify if multiple WRs are on the ball.

Top Unbalanced Formations

20p Unbalanced Twin Open


As more teams begin to shift to a 20 personnel look out of the spread, it is only natural that the first unbalanced a defense will see is the Stacked X-off look. This look puts pressure on the defense because of the potential of two lead blockers on a quick motion. If teams spin to the unbalanced side, the offense can easily backdoor the defense with a QB counter. The key is knowing what the offense likes to do out of the 2×1 unbalanced set. In most cases, the offense is using the two lead blockers to create plus numbers to the stretch side. The covered WR can give the illusion of being eligible and draw the cover down to him. It is the boundary CBs responsibility to alert the rest of the defense that the “X” WR is off the ball. This is a “bastard” formation or not a normal alignment. This alerts the defense that motion is coming. The CB will align in a loose technique in anticipation of the jet motion. The DS can even work inside the box as well. On motion, the CB will slide down to a 3×3 alignment off the EMOL and the DS will work to the middle of the formation. The Sam will begin to work down towards the box, anticipating setting the edge versus a jet stretch play. The Mike aligns in a “40” to ensure that he can escape the box if the stretch is handed off, though his read does not change; he must still fit the box.

When facing an unbalanced set, the Sam can apex his position and even work down to the end man on the line (EMOL). As the diagram above shows, the Sam is the force player on the edge and must make everything cutback to the Mike and Will who are scraping. If teams utilize the Stack backfield to gain numbers on the edge, it may be in the best interest of the defense to set itself in an Under Front. By aligning the Mike in a “40” he can quickly react to the stretch and still read his guard. The diagram below shows the defensive fits versus a jet stretch from an unbalanced set.


11p T-Over Twin – Squeeze (Run Heavy) vs Cheat (RPOs)

When defending the Pro Spread, the main way offenses get into unbalanced is with T-Over sets that create a three-man surface away from the TE. Most defenses are going to align their front off of where the TE sets up. This can cause the DL to be shifted over a gap and out-leveraged when the offense comes out in an unbalanced set. When defending Pro Twin it is important to understand what the offense is trying to do and identify the new “center.”

If the offense trying to run out of the formation the defense’s best bet is to align in a “Squeeze” alignment. This particular alignment keeps the Mike and Will towards the interior of the box and makes the Sam a fold player. Like in 20 pers. above, the defense has identified the formation is unbalanced, the Sam can now apex the EMOL and the near slot. Most offenses utilize unbalanced sets to run the ball. It creates an extra gap where the defense is not expecting it. For this reason, the Sam can remove himself from his cover down and creep towards the box. In the diagram below, the Mike is “zeroed” on the new “center” and the Will aligns in a “50” to handle the “C” gap. As stated earlier, the Sam is apexed and will fold into the “B” gap. Technically, the #1 WR to the TE side is the “X” WR and off the ball. If the offense has a tendency to motion the WR the defense should treat the “X” just as they would in 20 pers. The CB will give an alert motion and “X-off” call to the defense. See the diagram below:


Smart offensive coordinators will understand that defenses recognize an unbalanced formation as a high percentage run formation and will utilize the law of averages to create simple RPOs and read the conflicted player. If the offense uses their 11 pers. unbalanced sets to read the conflicted player (RPO), the defense would be best suited to line up out of a “Cheat” alignment. In fact, with just a guard and a TE, the defense isn’t in bad shape if they put the DS in primary support on the “B” gap. In the diagram below, the defense is aligned in a “Cheat” alignment. The term “Cheat” refers to the interior LBs “cheating to the two-speed side. This alignment allows the Sam to cover down to the slot, thus eliminating a pre-snap pass read. Both interior LBs align in “30s.” The Mike is wide enough to adjust to the gap exchange created by the DE taking the dive versus zone away. The Will’s departure from a zero alignment (he is technically the Mike in “Cheat”) allows him to widen and support the DS if the play comes to him. The boundary secondary players are in an automatic “Sky” check (or 4-Read). The BC is in a loose alignment to counter the potential of motion by the WR. In the “Squeeze” diagram above, the BC is in a soft press technique (the offensive tendency is no/little quick motion).


The key to defending 2×2 unbalanced from 11 pers. is to understand where the TE is at all times. It is important that the defense aligns itself as though the TE is ineligible, but the secondary must understand that he is not covered up. In the diagrams above, the formation is similar to that of a traditional Trey set. The only difference being the TE is an ineligible tackle, and the weakside tackle is the TE (with the “X-off” the ball and able to motion). In the diagrams above, the defense identifies the new “Center” and aligns accordingly. By establishing a new “Center,” the whole defense can adjust to the optical illusion that is created by unbalanced sets. If the defense identifies and adjusts, the formation normalizes.

Here is how a 4-2-5 would align to a normal 11p Pro Twin set:





11p T-Over Trey


One of the hardest unbalanced sets to defend is T-Over Trey. With three WRs to one side and a three-man surface to the other, the defense is in a bind. As stated earlier, it is important to redefine the formation. Developing an understanding of formation enables the Mike (or whoever is in charge of setting the front) to align correctly to unbalanced formations. By reestablishing the front and identifying the new “Center,” the DL can adjust and the front seven won’t be out-leveraged. In the diagram above, the defense has adjusted to the three-man surface by identifying the new “Center” and lining up as though it is a normal Trey formation. The only departure from the normal Trey alignment is the Will because of the law of averages (unbalanced = heavy run). By aligning the Will in his gap allows him to be better suited to combat the run to the boundary.

Here is how a 4-2-5 would align to a normal 11p Trey set:



Understanding how the formations look is more important than finding the TE and setting the front his way. The Mike has to be able to identify where the three-man surface is, are there multiple WRs, and adjust the front accordingly. Much like how offenses will identify the “Mike” in pass protection, versus unbalanced sets, the defense must identify the new “Center” and react off him. One thing to always keep in mind is the single WR and can he motion. This allows the CB to that side to alert motion and prepare the defense. Identifying eligibles is key too. When a team is prone to use unbalanced formations it is important to rep and preach identifying ineligibles during practice.

© 2017, | Cody Alexander | All rights reserved.

If looking for more information on how to line up to 20 pers. and 11 pers. here are some previous articles:

20 pers. – Over vs Under

11 pers. – Aligning to TE Sets

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Author: MatchQuarters


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