MQ Film Study: Defending Unbalanced Trips (2018 Michigan State)

Using Quarters to adjust to one of the most popular ways the Spread goes unbalanced.

The use of unbalanced formations is nothing new. Whether it is a simple Tackle-over to create a four-man surface or the use of an unbalanced open set (no attached TE) to get the defense to roll its coverage, unbalanced formations challenge a defense to stay sound and keep its numbers even on either side of the ball. One popular Spread unbalanced formation is the two-back Unbalanced Trips set that places three WRs to one side, yet keeps a two-back structure in the box. This can be a great way to out leverage a defense because it creates conflict.

The two-back set forces defenses to acknowledge the offense’s ability to run the ball. Adding three WRs to one side forces the defense to leverage the secondary to a perceived passing strength. This conflict is what leads to issues when facing a team that utilizes this type of unbalanced formation. In an earlier article, I highlighted ways to defend the top Spread unbalanced sets. One of them was the 20 pers. “X-off” formation usually paired with Jet motion to gain a Quads look to one side (below).


This formation, in particular, forces a defense to acknowledge the leverage of the two WRs while challenging the defense to see that one of them is ineligible. The backside “X” WR now has the ability to go in motion. By using a quick motion like a Jet motion, the offense can now conflict the defense. One great way to do this is by using a BAsh, or “back-away,” run scheme. This split-run action can have a devastating effect on a defense’s run stopping ability if the defense over rotates the secondary or is overly aggressive to the direction of the motion.

01 Unbal 20p Q CTR Bash Jet

In the above diagram, the Jet motion challenges the defense to honor the fast pace of the WR. If the defense overreacts, the Q-Counter will hit home. Pop motions are great eye-candy used by offenses to gain leverage on the defense. In the play above, the QB can either read the DE or the Mike ‘backer depending on who is more aggressive. Either read works well, and the offensive coordinator can switch the read at any time. If an offense has a “box read” (counting the number of defenders between the tackles), the QB could see an apexed Sam and throw a WR screen, especially if the CB is backed off. The key to defending these plays from an unbalanced set is understanding numbers.

Outside of “X-off” formations that utilize quick motions, the offense can get the same “push” pre-snap by placing the backside WR on the other side of the formation to create an Unbalanced Trips set. Simple option rules and understanding numbers can prepare a defense for quick motions and two-back unbalanced sets. Below is an illustration of how a defense can get out-leveraged if they don’t have the correct structure. As I’ve stated on numerous occasions, a defense must have overhangs on either side of the box. Michigan State ends up a man short against Utah State’s Slice Read or Split Zone “Keep.”

By placing the “X” WR on the other side of the formation, the offense has created a three WR look. Add the “Y-off” and the offense has created a Quads alignment and has spread the defense out. The defense has to honor the three WRs by placing numbers over them. Though the #2 WR is not eligible to receive a pass downfield, he does create a gap that someone must be responsible for and can create unique eye-candy for a defender.

In the clip above, Michigan St. rotates their secondary to the field. This strong roll can create problems on the backside of the formation because the back side overhang vacates his responsibility. Option teams are familiar with this concept and use “Over” (unbalanced) sets to do the same thing and read numbers. Utah St. uses a Slice Read (similar to an Arc Read, but with split flow) from a Split Zone action.

An Arc or Slice Read is an extension of the Zone Read. It puts a blocker on the overhang and is a great complement to Split Zone or just straight Zone where the H-back or Y-off slot seals the edge. In the clip above, the backside DE does his job of “surfing” (work down the heel line keeping shoulders square, like on a surfboard) on the zone action away, but the addition of the wrapping TE adds a blocker backside that the defense can’t handle. By rotating the secondary strong, the Michigan St. defense has numbers to the TE, but are a man short to the “read” (RB’s) side. The use of an Over Front helps the Mike vacate against any outside flow to the TE, but versus zone action, both ILBs have to fill their gaps. This is where the Spartan’s alignment issue comes into play.

02 Unbal Trips - Arc Read [BG]

As the play develops, the defense is clearly overloading the front side. The Sam works back near the box because the field safety (FS) has rolled down in between the #2 and #3 WRs. The front side CB is responsible for #1 and the FS negates the ineligible #2 WRs ability to block him by turning his back to him (block in the back). If the TE were to arc out, the Sam would fit outside, the DE would take the Dive (no “B” gap player), and the Mike would fit inside the arc (plus-one mentality).

The problem with the run fits is to the backside where there is no overhang. The CB is utilizing a C9 technique or “C” gap at nine yards. His depth works against him when defending this play. The Spartans free up the Will by using a Nose stunt (opposite “A”), but the arcing TE is able to handle him. As stated, the CB’s depth now makes him late on the fit and the Aggies have man blocking on the edge (shown above).

Later on in the game, Utah St. comes back to the same play with a similar result (below). By putting the formation into the boundary (FIB), the overload becomes more of an issue because there is now plenty of space to the field. The Will, who in the prior clip slow played the arc block, fits much better. The issue, again, is space. Instead of fitting tight and inside the arc block, the Will fits and expands. This little expansion opens up a crease and the QB cuts back. Had the Sam fit tight, he would have hit the QB in the backfield or made the play bounce drastically, giving the CB coming from depth time to rally. Outside of the arc block was the C9 CB’s fit, which would have walled the play, eventually forcing the QB to cut back to the Sam or another defender. The Spartans did have the plus-one numbers you want, and the C9 had better leverage due to the FIB, the fits were just a little off.

When defending an Unbalanced Trips formation it is important to understand a defense’s option rules. Each level of the option has to be accounted for: Dive, QB, and Pitch. Without the understanding of these rules, a defense can lose its plus-one in the run fits. Below is an example of how Michigan St. would adjust in their game versus Indiana later that year. The diagram illustrates how a defense can stay even versus this tricky unbalanced set.

03 Base vs GFK Unbal Trips

To the “Trips” side, the FS has rolled down into an inverted position. This inhibits the offenses ability to throw a screen to either eligible WRs. If the offense runs a Bubble, the FS has the leverage to turn it back to his help in the Sam and alley running boundary safety (BS). The offense can opt to throw a screen to #1, but the FS has leverage on his blocker and the CB’s depth allows him to naturally fold overtop the FS creating a plus-one advantage.

The key teaching point over the three WRs is to not get caught looking at the ineligible man (#2). Offenses can manipulate the defense by bubbling the ineligible WR and running a play-action Snag to #3 (five-yard hitch). The Sam is starring a hole through the H-back/TE and the BS will have to come from depth to stop the route. If the FS sees the #3 WR going vertical, he can quickly clamp and disrupt a pass. Otherwise, it can be a big play.

The placement of the RB is important too. In the clips prior, Utah St. split the backfield. This allowed them to attack the boundary where the Spartans had no overhang. Split Zone run action forced the ILBs to fill their gaps and the C9 CB was late because he was coming from depth and inside. Michigan St. would fix this issue against the Hoosiers later in the season. By placing the CB as the “pitch-man,” or overhang, to the open side, the Spartans had numbers and forced the Arc Read frontside (below).

The simple fact that the defense had numbers backside with the addition of an overhang forced the Hoosiers to the field. By doing this, the Spartans ensured they had a plus-one alignment to either side of the box. When defending a team that uses this type of formation, all gaps need to be covered. As the play starts, the FS uses his outside leverage to wall the Bubble to eliminate the WR screen. The Sam and BS work in tandem to fit the arcing TE.

When teams use an Unbalanced Quads formation, four WR alignment, someone has to be responsible for the off TE. The Sam or the BS needs to be able to take the vertical. In the clip above, the Sam is sitting on the TE’s arc while the BS works to the Bubble. The Spartans align in an Over Front and designate the DE to the 3 tech.’s side as the QB player. The Sam will fit outside the arc and the ILBs will rally. The capper, or plus-one, to the fit, will be the BS folding in. The DE closes down on the zone away blocking and “surfs” the QB, eventually making the play. An adjustment that can be made is to have the DE charge the mesh, but this can open up a natural bubble for the RB if the DE climbs to high. Regardless, the adjustment stopped the Hoosiers Arc Read.

When the Spartans got an Unbalanced Trips formation, the front was always set to the RB. This ensured that the QB would receive a “give” read. When the RB was set the Unbalanced Trips side, this helped keep the play inside the box. In the clip below, the QB pulls the ball because the DE charged the mesh. When the DE charges the mesh he is working to the outside shoulder of the QB. This is an aggressive way to force the issue. If the QB gives the ball too early, the DE can adjust and make a tackle for loss (TFL). Below, the QB waits and pulls the ball at the last second. The DE adjusts and forces the QB to run east and west. Though the DE didn’t make the play, he made the QB drastically bounce, elongating the play, and allowing the defense to rally.

There are a couple other teaching points that can be taken from this clip. First, the Sam works outside the arc block on fast flow. Essentially he is reading the QB’s shoulders. Parallel shoulders by the QB tells the Sam he is working out and he doesn’t need to waste himself going under the arc. Like in the clip prior, the Sam takes the arcing TE’s vertical path. Once he sees the QB take off and run, he now can scrape over the top of the arcing TE, anticipating the Mike and Will following him (cutback).

The second point of emphasis is the FS that has rolled down. At the end of the clip, he knifes inside the #2 WR. This is a cardinal sin for DBs, who in most fits need to keep their outside arm free. As noted in the diagram above, the FS fit is outside the #2 WR, much like a Nickel would in Special /Stump coverage. This fit creates a natural wall. Though the overall gain was only two yards, the play could have been a huge TFL had the safety just stayed outside.

When Michigan St. played Ohio St. towards the end of the season, the Buckeyes chose to use a same-side (SS) Power tagged with a Bubble screen to attack the Spartans. Like in the illustrations above, the field safety (FS) rolled down and worked outside the #2 WR (ineligible). To the backside, the CB stayed low as the weak side overhang and the boundary safety (BS) worked to the middle of the formation reading #3. As with the prior schemes, the Sam was keying the slotted TE. In the clip below, the Spartans snuff out the Power for a one-yard loss.

One thing to notice in the clip above is the away side DE. The Spartans don’t play him as a “heavy” technique (rip into the open “B” if the OT blocks out), rather the Spartans use him as a natural wall to the away side. This helps the Will and CB from needing to be a quick force on any spill. Another advantage to using him as a wall is the ability for him to fold back into the fit as illustrated in the clip. This assists with teams that try and squeeze the Power into the “A” gap, or for schemes that try and cross-face with the Nose. The weak side DE closes down any open gaps by folding in for the cutback. The CB literally stays at home, outside the box, for any cutback or reverse.

To the front side, the Sam reads the TE through to the mesh. Once he determines the play he triggers. The next clip illustrates the use of a “heavy 5” and how it can also be a disruptive force against the run. The ripping DE frees up the ILB and forces the play to cut back or go east and west. Like a spill without a puller.

Later in the game, the Buckeyes come back to the same play and throw the Bubble (below). The Sam steps to the box and sees the QB throw the Bubble. As the ball is in the air, the Field Safety (FS) triggers and works to build the wall. The Boundary Safety (BS) is already angled towards #3 and triggers on the ball throw, as does the CB. The play is forced to go east and west, giving time for the BS and the Sam to rally.

A couple of coaching points can be taken away from the above clip. The FS has to work outside. When he peeks inside, that allows the WR to bounce. It is important to make sure each player understands their fit. By the FS making the read ambiguous, it can hinder the BS’s ability to run the alley. Luckily, the FS set the point well enough to force the WR to spin out to the sideline for no gain. Below are the run fits for the Buckeyes SS Power (Bubble).

04 Roll vs SS Pwr (Bub)

The Spartans’ game versus Michigan illustrated how multiple they can be when facing the same formation. Many times when given a “bastard” formation like the Unbalanced Trips set, coaches will choose to have one check and maybe a pressure off of it. As shown above, the main tweak in the scheme initial scheme for the Spartans has been the weak side overhang (moving the CB from a C9 position to off the open side). Against Utah St., the Spartans opted for a C9 CB instead of placing him near the open side away from the three WRs. When playing a Spread Option team, it is best to leave an overhang weak, and the Spartans adjusted against the Hoosiers later in the season.

Early in the game versus Michigan, the Spartans chose to defend the Unbalanced Trips set from a CB “over” Cover 1 scheme. “CB over” just refers to bringing the CB from the back side over to where the WRs are. The issue with this alignment is to the open side, there is no weak overhang. Aligning with what the Spartans have done before, the front was set to the RB. This makes the “read side” or RB’s side DE the QB player.

Below, if the QB had pulled the ball and the TE even chipped the DE, this would have gone for a massive gain, thus illustrating why a defense needs to have overhangs on either side of the box. What this also illustrates is how pre-snap alignment can affect a read for the QB. By placing the 3 tech. to the RB’s side, the QB assumes he will hand the ball off (the DE has him).

Later in the game, the Spartans correct the error of no weak side overhang and use a “zero” man or “max” coverage look. The boundary safety works down to be the weak side overhang while the same CB over scheme is used to the Unbalanced Trips. This time, the Wolverines decide to stay front side, running an Arc Read similar to what the Hoosiers ran earlier in the article. The Sam hits the arcing TE thick (head-up/down the center) and the DE slow plays the fit. The DE doesn’t surf, rather he decides to charges the mesh. This is where a defense can get into trouble by charging the mesh. If no one is going to rock back, there can be a crease as illustrated by the clip. Luckily, the BS folds quickly and makes the play to force a 4th Down.

One major teaching point from the clip is in the BS’s read. If he would have been looking at the mesh or even the arcing TE, he would have been much quicker to the ball. In “zero” coverage every secondary player needs to have eyes on a key. For the DBs to the Unbalanced Trips that is easy, but a coach has to decide who the BS will take, the TE, RB or QB. Regardless, he shouldn’t charge up into a gap that is occupied by an ILB. In previous clips, you can see the open side CB sitting there and slow playing the fit; he is the adjuster.

Finally, the Wolverines used an Unbalanced Trips set to attack the Spartans on 3rd Down. Unlike before, the Spartans used a two-high shell and their three-down package to defend the set. The Spartans used a “Palms” or 2-Read concept (what I refer to as Cloud) over the two outside WRs. The Mike cut through the middle of the formation and the Sam gave the illusion of man coverage on the #3 WR, only to drop to the curl area. Though the play gained yards, the Spartans were able to hold the Wolverines from gaining a first down on what I refer to as a “Scissors Screen.”


One thing is clear when defending an offense that utilizes an Unbalanced Trips formation, you must know your option rules. The formation may seem easy enough to handle, but a defensive coach must understand how overhangs will affect the offensive play calling. Reading one’s keys is crucial too. The ineligible WR can’t be ignored, but a defender can’t take the bait if he runs a Bubble or stands their clapping for the ball. If rolling strong, both safeties must key the #3 WR. At the end of the day, understand option rules, leverage, and read your keys!


© 2019 | Cody Alexander | All rights reserved.

For more on defending the Spread Option, click HERE.

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Author: MatchQuarters


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