“How do you play Trips?” – Pt. 2

MQ explains the top Trips coverages.

The Trips formation creates a dilemma for any defensive coordinator and the problems usually start in the box. The major issue with any 3×1 formation is how a defense chooses to defend the #3 receiver. Regardless if a defense runs an Under Front or Under, the Mike either has to cover down to the #3 WR or the defense has to spin a safety to gain a cover down. If the defense uses the Mike as a cover down, it loses a man in the box and makes the Mike a “fold” or conflict player. To alleviate the issue some defenses drop the boundary safety into the box, but that leaves a defense susceptible to the back side post. Below is an example of Nick Saban’s “Rip/Liz.” The sinking backside safety allows the frontside ILB to vacate and cover down to #3.

02 r-l 3x1

A “fold” or conflict player is susceptible to the Spread’s deadly weapon, the RPO (run-pass option). The run-pass conflict created by Mike’s width and assignment can cause him to hesitate. Play a team like Baylor under Briles, who spreads their Trips formation past the hash, and the Mike will struggle to get to the #3 and fold into the box. In theory, the Mike is always wrong. That’s pretty depressing news for a DC. Below is an example of the Over Front versus a 3×1 formation with no adjustment from the defense.

v. Over

If a DC wants to keep a 6-man box and put the 3 technique (DT) to the Trips it creates a problem for the Mike who has to plug the strong-side “A” while reaching #3 in pass. That’s not an easy thing to do for even the most elite ILBs. The answer for most coaches is to kick the coverage (bring the backside safety across), or spin to some kind of Cover 3 (illustrated above in Saban’s Rip/Liz scheme). In order to make it hard on the offense, a DC must change-up the coverage or move the gaps. It is important to have a base coverage. One that protects you from the most harm. To stay ahead of the offense, a defense must be multiple in its looks, adding pressures, blitzes, and a change-up in coverage if need be. Part 2 of “How do you play Trips?” will explain the multiple coverage pieces to Trips Open.

Kicking the Coverage

Basic “Kick” Coverage:

In “Kick” Coverage the field is divided into 3 zones: Quarters, Bracket, and Man. The #1 and #2 WRs are covered by the field corner, Sam, and Cover Safety who play either 2-Read or Quarters (this is typical “plus-one” mentality – three over two). The Mike and the “kick” safety bracket the #3 WR on a vertical, while the Will and boundary corner play man on the single-WR and the RB. This is a forced “kick” for the backside safety and not a read or “clue.” On the snap of the ball, the “kick” safety will work over top of #3.

To the backside, if the back flares or pushes to the Trips side, the Will gives a “push” call, matches the RB’s path, and plays zone (Mike will overtake the “new” #3 while the Will drops to the low hole). This coverage is used when teams cluster their receivers and run high-low (shallow/mesh) or rub schemes with their #1 and #2 receivers. In order to allow the Mike to be a fold player, the “kick” safety hurries over to top any vertical route by #3.

If a defensive coordinator feels the boundary CB can win a one-on-one matchup with the X receiver (or the single WR is not the top threat) this can be a great coverage. Offenses that see the boundary safety kick can take advantage of this with a good “X”, or run stretch to the boundary. Ask any good offensive coordinator and they will say, “I love it when a team goes single-high.” Even though “kick” is technically not a single-high coverage it functions much like a strong roll Cover 3. This coverage can be advantages on run downs if cutting or trapping the CBs, but a defense that kicks all the time is susceptible to weakside runs and a good X receiver.

.01 KICK

Narduzzi/Dantonio “Solo” Coverage:

Solo Coverage takes the dilemma of a kicking safety and tries to solve it by reading the departure path of the #3 WR. The goal is to essentially while getting the best of both worlds – help out the Mike (#3 overhang) while still allowing the backside safety to fit weak (technically the “new” Will LB vs 3×1).  The coverage piece is the same as basic “kick” coverage except for how the Down Safety interacts with the nearest slot (#3). In Solo, the DS will shuffle to the #3 receiver (“clue”). If the #3 slot runs anything other than a vertical the safety will square up read the QB/mesh and attack either alley.

The theory behind Solo coverage is why waste the “kick” safety if a defense doesn’t have to? Essentially if the #3 WR doesn’t go vertical, the backside safety is a “free” player that can sink into the middle of the field (MOF) or read the QB/mesh and add in. Knowing offenses can easily run stretch or speed option to the boundary, Solo allows the DC to “steal” a man on the Trips side while keeping integrity to the boundary. It’s like single-high with training wheels.

.03 SOLO

Click here to go to MQ’s article on Solo Coverage

Strong Roll Cover 3:

The golden standard for coaches trying to gain a true 6-man box (and THE go-to for zone blitzing) is to spin to Cover 3. Depending on the coach, the front can be set to or away from the three receivers or off the location of the back. The diagram below shows an Over Front. This allows coaches concerned about the run to gain an extra man and eliminate a LB from coverage.

The issue with Cover 3 will always be 4 verticals. If the offense has a strong single-WR the CB to the boundary is basically in man coverage. If a DC trusts his boundary CB in one-on-one situations, spinning to Cover 3 can be a valuable changeup. In the run game, this defense is susceptible to the stretch, especially if running and Under Front with the Will tucked in the weakside “A” and rolling the backside safety to the strength. Any kind of wheel route by the #2 WR can be problematic if the Sam is not a runner. If a defense knows what they are going to get on a 1st down this coverage can be useful, just understand it has flaws, especially if a team RPOs the backside X.

.05 COV 3

One way teams are utilizing Cover 3 and staying relatively safe is by spinning weak or running a coverage scheme similar to Saban’s Rip/Liz. By spinning weak the defense is ensuring the integrity of the front side coverage stays intact. The insertion of the backside safety also allows the overhang to the #3 WR vacate the box. This can be usefull against Spread teams that run the Snag route to the #3 WR. Below is a diagram of how a Quarters team can get the same look while technically “spinning” to single-high.

01 Spot Draw

Splitting the Field

Special Coverage: 

The theory behind Special coverage aligns with how the offense attacks the slot receivers. The averages suggest that an offense does not throw to the #1 receiver to the Trips side. In Special, the defense locks him up with a CB, hoping to eliminate him completely. In Special, the CB to the field mans up on the #1 WR (MEG – Man Everywhere he Goes) allowing the Sam, Mike, and field safety to play a 2-Read concept over 2 and 3. Saban calls this coverage Stubbie and utilizes a Nickle Sam known as the “Star.” Teams that run a 4-2-5 and have a Ni Sam that can cover can turn this coverage with ease because the Ni understands how to play 2-Read.

To switch up the coverage, a DC can loosen the CB responsible for #1 to the Trips side and have him play MOD coverage (Man On Demand). In MOD coverage, the CB will assist the Sam only if the #1 WR goes underneath. If #1 pushes vertical, the CB will take all of #1. This adjustment can be especially useful on 3rd in long (vertical push routes). Saban calls this Cover 7 check (the name for his two-high coverage schemes) Stump. This alternative/adjustment is similar to Stress coverage which will be discussed next.

In Special, the field is split to allow the defense to gain a run fit player to the boundary while also protecting the boundary CB from a one-on-one situation. By reducing the field, the defense can gain a plus-one where it needs to – against the biggest pass threats (the slot WRs), and ample protection to the boundary. Special plays on the law of averages and condenses the field for a Spread offense. If teams aren’t throwing four verticals and are using high-low and rub schemes with #2 and #3, Special can be a great base or changeup coverage.

An alternate to Special would be to switch responsibilities of the Ni Sam and field CB, especially if a defense’s Ni Sam has some coverage ability. In many 4-3 hybrid schemes, the Sam is a glorified safety. This switch would allow the Ni to slide outside and cover the #1 WR who probably isn’t involved on the route combination. The one weak spot in Special is the vertical of #2. If the Ni Sam can’t run with a vertical it can be an easy completion for the offense. Some teams that base out of Special will loosen the Sam to about 7 yards, allowing him to stay on top of #2.

An opponent breakdown is a key to Special coverage. A DC has to find out how many times the #1 WR to the Trips side is attacked in 3×1 formations. If not many, this can be a great coverage. To the boundary, a defense can play with the different types of coverage because it is a true split-field coverage. This allows the defense to play 2-man, regular Quarters, or press with the safety over the top (bracket).


Click here to go to MQ’s article on Special/Stubbie.

Stress Coverage:

Stress coverage forces the offense to change. The coverage challenges the offense to throw the width of the field and complete low percentage routes. In Stress, a defense is playing for the route combo that will give it the most “stress,” four verticals, hence the name “Stress”. Where Solo was single-high with training wheels, Stress is the counterpart to Quarters, split-field disciples.

Like Special, Stress assumes the offense is not going to throw to the #1 WR to the Trips side, or it at least wants to bait that throw. Where Special locks up the #1 receiver to Trips, Stress asks the question, “If the offense won’t throw to #1, why even cover him with a man?” In terms of efficiency, Stress is trying to do more with less by stealing a man to help with coverage and helping the Sam if #2 runs vertically. Unlike Special, the Sam LB is actually located inside of #2 and walling any underneath route by the slot. The CB will work to apex #1 and #2 much like he would in a Cover 3 scheme.

The most difficult pass in football is the outside comeback/fade from the opposite hash to the far boundary. By playing a pseudo-Cover 3 technique, the field CB can cover the seam and outside fade simultaneously. The key in this coverage is the Ni Sam. If the Sam can collision and carry the vertical of the #2 WR, pushing him to his help in the deep CB, it alleviates pressure off the field CB and allows him to relate back to the vertical of #1. If #2 runs a seam and #1 runs a comeback, the Sam will slide off of #2 and cut underneath the route of #1. The field safety sits inside #3 and covers him vertically while the Mike helps bracket with underneath coverage. If the offense doesn’t run four verticals the coverage reverts back to Quarters. Below is a look at the Comeback/Seam combo by #1 and #2. Watch how the CB has to “lean” in and top the route by #2

The weakness in this coverage, like in Special, are routes that challenge the Sam to carry #2 vertically. If the Sam can’t carry or eliminate, the vertical of #2 this coverage can have some leaks. Benders by #2 are also problematic because the CB has to work from outside in. If basing out of Quarters, a defense can easily install this as a base because it functions very similar to a “loose” Quarters look. As with Special, the backside can do a multitude of different things to match up with weakside runs and a dominant X.


Click here to go to MQ’s article on Stress Coverage


Each coverage has its place in a defense’s repertoire and a good DC has several ways to defend Trips depending on what the offense is running out of the formation. If a defense plays just one type of coverage an offense will pick it up quickly and exploit its weaknesses. It’s important for a defense to be multiple, but not to the point that the players do not know their assignments. Schemes like Stress and Special work for Quarters teams because the concept translates against different formations. If a team bases out of a Match Cover 3 it most likely will utilize a strong roll or “kick” the coverage. Many Cover 2 based teams utilize Kick because it functions similar to Cover 2 in the sense that each safety is over top the #2 WR (in the case of Trips #2 has moved to the three WR side). As aways an opponent breakdown is key. A defensive staff needs to find where the ball is going, and attack the offense on their tendencies.


Looking for Part 1 and Part 2? Click the links below.

Part 1: Why You Should Run an Under Front to 3×1 Sets

Part 3: Defending Trips — Fitting the Run


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