The “Nub” Side

Defending single-width formations.

There are certain formations that pop up during a season that can give a defensive coordinator pause. Unbalanced sets, for instance, are used by many offenses to force 16 to 18-year-old athletes to think on their feet or force a defensive coordinator to burn a timeout. Pro spread offenses use tackle-over sets to confuse the defense and gain leverage, while 10 personnel spread and two-back offenses utilize unbalanced sets to work quick motion from the single receiver side (“X-off”). Though “nub” formations are not unbalanced, they are very similar and continuously give defenses trouble. When the formation is combined with RPO and Air Raid schemes, it can put immense pressure on DCs.

Single-width formations are paradoxical. On one side an offense has multiple receivers, while on the other it has a running formation. “Nub” formations force the defense to acknowledge a true “run” side, while also defending multiple receiver formations. Offenses that utilize TE sets can create leverage issues or force a secondary player to be left by his lonesome against a bigger player. Many defenses will choose to spin against “nub” formations to gain extra men in the box and replace lost overhangs.

As modern football progresses, more offenses are choosing to go away from under center formations. This allows the offense to have a two-way go in a Pistol formation or a “read” side in an RPO offense from the gun. There is nothing more threatening than an offense that is powering the ball down the field while implementing RPOs. Packaging plays forces the defense to stay even and protect the run fits and pass distribution, all at the same time. Instead of spinning, a defense needs to stay in a two-shell look and develop a game plan dependent on the tendencies and personnel preference of the offense. 

11 pers. Trips

.01 Trips

The top “nub” set used by spread teams is Trips. This particular set has multiple uses and can really stress a defense. Whether using motion or playing static, the offense can attack a defense in multiple ways. The first thing the defense must establish is a hard edge to the TE side. Putting the defensive end in a 9 technique establishes a wall and discourages Buck Sweeps. Stretch plays to the “nub” side are popular because the second level force player is coming from the secondary. Many DCs are wary about leaving their CB to take on pullers. By establishing an anchor point outside the TE, the defense has ensured a cutback and allows the DS and CB to fold into the box.

To the passing strength, the defense can play Stress or Special. Solo can be used, but a defense risks putting the boundary CB in conflict because he is primary support and must latch on to the TE. Another dilemma with Solo is when the RB is to the TE’s side. This should be an alert high-low. With two receivers to that side, the offense can run a flat/corner concept. If the defense were aligned in Solo they would be a man short in coverage. With the Will tucked in the “A” gap, the offense can quickly wall him off or out leverage him to the boundary with the RB. Staying in a split-field coverage is preferable versus Trips.

Putting the DS in primary support allows for optimum cover downs and meshes with how a four-down defense aligns to Pro-Spread offenses that run RPOs (“Cheat”). If the offense is using motion to get the slot from the boundary to the field, the adjust is simple. Versus offenses that employ packaged plays with their Pro formations, it is important to optimize the cover downs to the speed side. Running a “Cheat” alignment and putting the boundary safety in primary support allows a smooth transition from 2×2 Pro Twin to single-width Trips. Stress, in particular, converts to quarters (Sky) if there is a push route. If concerned about RPO screens or out cuts, the defense can check to Special.

The main issue in pass distribution versus Trips is the Mike. Since he is in conflict, offenses can run stretch play-action and read his fold. Using natural gap exchanges can allow the Mike to “hang” and read the offensive tackle. Since the Mike is a late push in Stress and Special, this natural exchange suits the situation. If concerned about the run to the nub side, a DC can always “plus” the alignment of the Will and put him in a 30.

12 pers. Ace Trey

.02 Ace Trey

The Trey formation is tough to defend in its own right, add Ace to the problem and now a DC has major issues. Ace personnel groupings are unique because of the two extra gaps created. Using base rules for 3×1 formations and putting the front in an Under alignment allows the Mike to cover down to his responsibility, the #3 receiver. The main issue with Ace Trey is clear, how does a defense protect against the vertical of the #3 receiver without losing backside run and pass integrity? The answer isn’t simple.

To eliminate the primary support of the DS a DC must move the DE from a “wide” alignment into a 7 or 6i (see above). This takes the safety out of the fit but leaves the CB to hold the edge of the formation. The most efficient way to defend Trey is to run Solo coverage, but the answer is not that simple when the offense creates a “nub” away from the Trey. Versus 11 pers. Trey, the Solo coverage allows the defense to slow play the vertical of the #3 receiver (TE) and creates a double alley player in the DS. Even though the safety can now fit off either side of the formation, the defense is susceptible to eye-candy created by an arc of the Trey side TE. Against 11 pers. Trey, the DE to the open side can hold the edge as the anchor point. When the offense creates an Ace set, the DC must choose where to set the DE. This conflict is why Solo versus Ace Trey does not always work.

If a defense were to move the DE inside the nub-TE and the CB now is a force player, the safety is taken out of the fit, but a smaller skill player now has to hold up against pulling offensive lineman. If the offense sets the back to the “nub” side, there is now an issue in coverage because the DS will kick to the TE if he goes vertical. Regardless of the front, the best way to defend Ace Trey is to run an Under Wide front, put the backside safety in primary support and run a “sink” technique to the Trey side.

A “sink” call tells the Mike he will carry the TE vertically. There is no way around Ace Trey, the Mike is going to relate to the TE’s path. In any match scheme, the Mike relates to the #3 wide receiver. The issue with Ace is the offense has forced the defense to hold the nub-side gap. If the TE arcs he must sink with the TE and work to his inside shoulder. Even though the Mike is in conflict, the natural gap exchange created by the Under Front allows the Mike to naturally work to the inside shoulder of the TE. In an Under Front, the DE to the TE has the dive and the Mike has QB. Versus an Arc Read play, the Mike would naturally fit the inside of the TE and the Sam fits the outside shoulder. This “clamp” secures the fit and ensures the defense is sound. Running Cloud over the two receivers in Trey enables the Sam to slow play (“hang“) and protects against RPOs with the CB driving on any screen. If a DC knows the offense has a tendency to pass, he can always run Solo to help the Mike, especially in the Red Zone.


Many offenses like to use “quad” sets to force the defense to overload the strength. Any formation that puts four receivers to one side of the center needs to be referred to as a “quads” formation. Even though there are technically three receiving threats to the front side in Ace Trey if the RB is set to the three receiver side he can easily run a push route (flare/flat) and create a 4×1 route combination. The tendency by DCs would be to rotate the defense to that side, but by doing this the defense is exposed to the Buck Sweep back side. A defense should always attempt to stay even and establish plus ones where they can.

21 pers. Twin

.03 Twin

The best way to defend two-back Twin is to mirror the defense’s philosophy to Pro Twin. If the offense uses Twin to run RPOs to the two-speed side, the defense is best suited to run a “Cheat” alignment with the linebackers and gain a full cover down. When playing power teams that do not utilize RPOs or packaged plays, the defense can use a “Squeeze technique and fold the Sam into the open “B” gap. If the offense bases out of the Gun or Pistol and sets a back to the nub-side, the defense must always be alert to a High-Low scenario.

When teams spin to this particular set, the LBs are able to hold the box, but the defense has put themselves at risk to play-action to both sides. To the nub-side, an offense can easily run a Power Pass (flat/corner) and read the CB’s leverage high to low. If the CB does not sink, the TE could be wide open for a big gain. To the two-speed side, rolling the safety down has created one-on-one matchups and exposed the defense to seam throws (high percentage). It’s better to not take the bait and stay in a two-shell. The safeties are better suited for fitting the run and the defense is protecting itself against the dreaded RPO.

22 pers. Tite

Usually only seen on the goal line in modern football, the Tite formation or two-back/two TE set, is a great way for the offense to read numbers and attack a defense. The set creates a one-on-one matchup for the single receiver. With everyone in the box, the offense can max protect and throw outside isolation routes to the field. If operating out of the gun, the offense can create a high-low scenario to the “nub” side. The same issues for Ace Trey can be found in Tite, but the offense is lacking a third vertical threat. This lack of vertical threat takes the conflict off the Mike. An Under Front is still preferred because the Mike is closer to the edge of the box to help defend against Speed, stretch, and strong side Buck Options.  See the base alignment below:

.04 Tite


Defending TE sets are difficult. At the surface level TE formations are running formations, but as teams begin to utilize option and RPOs into their offense, the pressure for a defense to align correctly goes up exponentially. Using gap exchange and staying in a two-high shell can help a DC to stay even and protect itself. The main issues versus “nub” formations are seen when the offense sets the back to the nub-TE. The fact that the RB can push to create leverage on the CB or safety forces the defense to hold its position to the “nub” side. It is important for DCs to be able to distinguish the difference between back alignments. These little adjustments by the offense can make a huge difference in play calling for the defense.

A defense is smart to keep an anchor point on either end of the formation to hold the edge versus outside plays. The Under Wide front versus two TE sets allows the defense to gain a cover down to the field and an anchor point to the nub-TE. The only issue is what to do with the DS. The DC can fold the CB and “kick” the DS or he can put the DS in primary and have the CB as an extra force player to the “nub” side. Defending the “nub” really boils down to the tendency of an offense. How is the defense utilizing the nub-TE and why are they doing it? Once a DC has an idea, the alignment issues should become clear. As always, staying even and carrying several options will help a DC in the long run. A defense must be flexible and adaptive.

© 2017, | Cody Alexander | All rights reserved.

What are you waiting for?! Get the book that is changing defensive football.

Available on Amazon and Kindle (click the link) —

Cautious Aggression: Defending Modern Football

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


12 thoughts on “The “Nub” Side”

  1. I may have missed this in the reading, but what determines when I should call Sky or Cloud to the nub side? By the way, bought your book and read it in 2 days. You did a great job. Thanks for what you do.

    1. Thank you! If the RB is to the TE you have a High-Low threat & need to check Cloud. If RB is away, you need the safety to fill fast & the CB can absorb the TE.

      1. I should have been more specific, but in diagrams (21) SW and (22) SW (the last two diagrams in the post) you essentially have a back and TE to the nub side. Just trying to figure out why the BC is a fold defender on (22) SW and not the same on (21) SW. The only difference is “2w” is aligned diffently to the nub side in each spot so I’m sure that has something to do with it. Sorry if I’m failing to notice the obvious. Perhaps you can play either Sky or Cloud in those situations, but if a subtle change like 2w’s alignment as a sniffer or being even with the QB dictates Sky or Cloud to the nub side then I’d want to be able to stress this to my players and give them a reason why.

      2. I did that to show the difference. Even in A Sky alignment (DS as primary fit) you can still play the High-Low with an “Alert” call. This call tells the CB to play a flat rout like Cloud. I wanted to illistrate the 2 ways you can fit the look. Boils down to tendency & game plan.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: