Defending Trips – Stress Coverage

Most HS QB’s can’t throw the 15 yard Comeback. So make’em.

Defense is reactionary by nature. The offense knows the play and the defense must be structured enough to counteract and defend. Outside of forcing the offense’s hand through pressure, a defense must play on the law of averages and use the tendencies of the offense against them. For most high school offense the #1 wide receiver in a Trips set rarely gets the ball, and when he does it usually comes by way of an underneath route or a sprint out by the offense. Few high school QB’s can make the 25-yard comeback throw from the opposite hash. The few that can make the throw must execute the long throw which can tend to hang in the air long enough for a good corner to react to it. Plus, most high school offenses won’t run a four vertical play and attack the #1 WR to the Trips side. Usually, it is the #2 on a bender or the “X” WR to the boundary (especially if the defense is “kicking” to the three WR side). Using the law of averages can give the defense an advantage and protect itself from the backside fade and a “solo-ed” CB.

Defending Trips is about sectioning off the formation and forcing a weak armed QB to make a long throw. Some defensive coaches turn to Special coverage against Trips because the #1 WR rarely gets the ball. In Special, the CB will lock on the #1 WR and the defense runs a Two Read scheme by bracketing the #2 and #3 WRs. This allows the Sam to move to outside leverage of the #2 and drive on any out routes. The #3 WR bracketed by the Mike underneath and the field safety (Cover Safety – CS). There are several issues when Special is the base defense against Trips. One, the coverages is susceptible against crossing routes by the #1 and #2 WRs. Since the CB is locked on the #1 WR he must follow him everywhere he goes (MEG coverage). Offenses can easily use rub and pick routes to wall off the CB and knock off the Sam. Another issue with Special is the vertical of #2. Since the Sam is outside leveraged, and the CS is holding the inside of the #3 WR, it is easy for the offense to use a four vert scheme to attack the coverage. Most teams will run the #3 WR on an “over” route to the opposite hash allowing the #2 WR to bend into the middle of the field (MOF) creating a window and a relatively easy throw for any QB. By alignment, the Sam is beat to the inside and must work outside-in to get hands on the WR. Special is great when teams are running out routes with #2 and #3 and is a coverage all two-high defenses need in their repertoire. If teams are attacking vertically, Stress is best. 

Stress Coverage

.01 Stress

Stress coverage assumes the offense isn’t going to run four verticals and if they do the QB is going to be forced to throw the most difficult outside throw (comeback-COB or fade to #1). As stated earlier, most offenses don’t throw to #1 vertically out of a Trips set. This tendency allows Stress to be a base Trips coverage because any deviation by any of the WRs from a vertical path and the coverage turns into Sky coverage (Four-Read). The formation is broken into three parts: CB/Sam playing an over/under scheme verse #1 and #2, a bracket of the #3 WR by the Mike and the CS, and finally the backside coverage.

The CB to the Trips side must stay over the top of his “unit” which includes the #1 and #2 WR. This is essentially a Cover 3 scheme over the top of the unit. The CB will take the vertical route while the Sam will take anything underneath. See below:

.02 Unit-Bracket

The key to Stress coverage is the Sam and his ability to eliminate the vertical of #2. He must get hands on the #2 WR and force the route to deviate outside. Versus a four vertical play, the Sam must absorb the vertical of #2 while the CB plays the apex of #1 and #2. The goal, if the offense is going to run four verticals, is to force the QB to throw to #1 vertically and allow the CB to have time to react and get to the ball. With hands on #2, Sam’s eyes are looking through to the #1 WR. If the #1 WR runs a stop or come back, Sam’s responsibility is to slide underneath the route while the CB overtakes the vertical. Just like in any zone coverage, the underneath player must force the route to work towards the deep player. The diagram below demonstrates Stress versus four verticals:

.03 Stress v 4-vert

As stated earlier the key to Stress, and eliminating the four vertical threat, is the Sam. In the diagram above, the Sam is working through the #2 WR until #1 sits on the comeback route. If both WRs continue to run vertically the Sam will hold his position underneath the #2 WR and carry him vertically. With the CB apexed and the Sam holding underneath coverage on #2, the QB will be tempted to through to what seems like an uncovered #1 WR. The CBs role in Stress is much like that in Cover 3 and he should anticipate a double vertical route. Throwing from the hash to opposite boundary to a vertical by #1 is a long throw and one a CB in deep coverage can turn and run to.

Stress is about forcing the outside throw. The CB and Sam are leaning on #2 while the Mike and CS are bracketing the closest WR to the QB. The CS is playing the route much like he would in Sky coverage (Four Read). The Mike, as usual, is relating to #3 and matching his route. Unlike Sky, the CS is using a fast bail (like he would in Cloud or Two Read). This allows the CS to combat a vertical by #3. Mike can be late support underneath because he is the conflicted player and must fill the “B” gap versus run. Again, any deviation by the WRs from a vertical path (out or in) and the coverage reverts to Sky. By running a split field coverage and Stress to the field a defense can combat any route combination thrown its way.

The Backside of Trips

By holding the CS on the inside of #3 and placing the responsibility of the vertical route on him, frees up the backside safety to help the CB versus a solo WR and gives the defense the freedom of inserting the DS in the box or using him as a plus-one versus the run. Many teams will put their best WRs away from the Trips to ensure a one-on-one match-up. To counteract this adjustment, defenses can use split field coverage and leave the backside safety (DS) to help the CB. Here are three examples:

Sky Press

.04 Press

Sky Press allows the defense to put a hands on the single WR immediately and eliminate some route combinations altogether. This particular coverage also helps the defense against weakside runs. The DS is the “O” gap player (or outside the box alley player) and the Will inserts himself in the weakside “B.” Like in any Quarters coverage, the Will is responsible for #2 weak.

Texas (Cover 2)

.05 DOS

When teams run switch routes using the back out of the backfield the defense can adjust by running a Cover Two scheme to the boundary. The Will can hold his position in the box versus run because he is a late push (curl/flat player). The CB is pressing the single WR and keeping his eyes on #2 weak. If the back flares or runs a wheel, the CB will take him. Like in Cloud or any Cover Two concept, the DS is fast bailing and taking the vertical route of #1.

Black (Two Man)

.06 Black

Black is the man version of Texas (Cover Two). This allows the Will and the CB to lock on to their respective WRs. This coverage can be good on 3rd and long or any obvious passing situations. If teams are prone to run switch routes (slant-bubble/post-wheel) running Texas might be better, but if the offense leaves the RB in to block, the Will can insert himself on a delayed blitz once the RB commits to blocking. This coverage essentially allows the defense to bracket the #1 WR and get hands on him immediately.

Film Study


Distribution Tape


Stress plays on the law of averages for an offense. Even if a team runs four verticals Stress is developed to force the QB to make the most difficult throw. The versatility of the coverage is when teams run level routes. If any WR runs an under or out route the coverage reverts back to Sky with the CB relating to #1 and the CS relating to the new #2. Where coverages like Stress earn their keep is when they allow the backside coverage to stay the same. When defenses “kick” the coverage they are susceptible to weak side runs and leaves the CB on an island. Many offenses still put their best WR to the opposite side of Trips because they can achieve a one-on-one matchup. Stress allows the defense to stay two-high and bracket the solo WR. A great defense tries to stay plus-one in the pass and plus-one versus the run. Stress allows the defense to protect the field and boundary while forcing the QB to make a terrific low percentage throw.

© 2017 | Cody Alexander | All rights reserved.

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Author: MatchQuarters


31 thoughts on “Defending Trips – Stress Coverage”

  1. If #2w doesn’t flare (i.e. pass blocks instead) would you give a call for Mike and Will to exchange so that Mike doesn’t have to carry an underneath from #3 all the way? Or would that confuse them too much because of a potential split flow?

  2. Could be a dumb question but if #3 runs a shallow crosser and #2w flares backside, would you tell Mike that he needs to carry #3 all the way here because Will must match #2w?

  3. That’s maybe a stupid question but I blame the language barrier. What do you mean with “match” do you mean man to man coverage after paddern distribution?

    1. You are working to that man and matching his movement. Yes, there is a time and place you might take him. Usually for the overhangs, they are capped, which means the Safety will take the vertical all the way.

    1. No. It is different. The safety aligns inside #3 & works inside the vertical. CB & Sam work a match Cov 3 concept. This allows the b/s safety & CB to work independently.

    1. The Mike pushes with the flare and the Will pushes underneath the #3 WR. The Will always relates off the #2 wk player. In this case, that is the RB. I treat 3×1 back to just as I would Quads for this reason.

      1. Thanks. Really like the concept, just trying to understand it better.

        How about Dbl post and wheel? Or Dbl fin and dig?

      2. Dbl Post = CB tops #1 and the CS tops #2. Sam would take the wheel and the Mike would push to underneath #2. The Sam has the toughest position.

        Dbl In Dig (Levels) = The CB would top the in by #1 while the Sam would carry the in by #2. The Mike would make the dig run the hump while the CS tops the dig. The key here is the exchange of the Sam and the Mike. This is a good route against Stress because the Mike would need to drive on the under route when it crosses his face. So as he is carrying the dig vertical his eyes need to be on #2. Once Sam delivers #2 to the Mike he needs to get his eyes back on #1 coming in. Obviously, this should be rep’ed until the players are comfortable with the exchanges.

  4. If the offense lines up with trips or a bunch set to the boundary, would you still defend with Stress?

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