Defending Tight End or Pro Spread Formations

Making adjustments versus TE sets in 4-2-5 or hybrid defense.

The game of football is a constant pendulum. As defenses move to hybrid players to combat the spread attacks proliferating through all levels of football, offenses are turning to tight end/”H-back” sets and a more traditional run game (Power, Counter, and Iso). An easy way for Spread teams to create an extra gap and keep their Spread principles is to add a TE to their formations.

More and more, if a team has access to a TE or “H-back” they are opting for a pro-style Spread look, basing out of 2×2 (Pro Twin) and 3×1 (Trey) formations, even running pro-style two-back sets (20p). This can stress a 4-2-5 defense because the hybrid Sam, or a true Nickel, can be exposed to a larger, stronger bodied TE and depending on how the defense chooses to align can put a safety in primary support of an interior gap.

In recent years, Oregon has used Spread TE sets with devastating effect, and even the typically receiver happy offenses similar to Baylor have opted to add more 11 personnel formations to their arsenal over the past few years to beef up the run game and force defenses to spin. Take a look at how Bret Bielema (former Wisconsin and Arkansas Head Coach), a constant critic of the Spread, recruits running backs against Spread teams across the country. He is not the only one in his corner.

Football, unlike any other sport, is a constant chess match. The fluidity of the game from TE sets to Spread sets and back again puts stress on hybrid defensive coaches. It is important to have a plan when facing teams with TEs or H-backs. One play can have a formation that creates an extra gap on the line, the next is a Spread formation, and then finally the offense puts the H-back into the backfield again or lines him up out wide. All this can be carried out in one series. The defense must have a plan to defend every single formation without the ability to sub.

In a perfect world, defenses could insert a traditional linebacker against tight end/traditional formations, and substitute the traditional player for a hybrid/nickel against Spread formations. With the advent of the Spread, even the TE position is changing into a hybrid player, one that can flex out, play fullback, or line up and block in the box as shown above. Defensive coaches have found out subbing against tempo teams can be impossible and puts the defense at risk of a big play (or penalty). It is also not realistic.

In order to be great at something, a team must have consistency. Constantly subbing players in and out, while trying to teach box techniques and coverage skills can be a daunting task, and many times unrealistic for the lower level coach. It is important for a defensive coach to have a set of rules and a plan for any formation. When an offense goes from a spread set to a pro-style set, the defense must react quickly and decisively with no hangover. Another question that must be asked when defending Pro Spread teams is if they are an RPO or traditional run offense because this changes how a defense aligns immensely. 

2×2 TE Sets — Pro Twin

Using a 9-Technique

Utilizing a 9-technique instead of putting the strongside DE in a 5 tech. allows the defense to put a wall up on to the outside of the formation. Though this creates an extra bubble (gap), most DCs would agree that a DE soloed on a TE is a mismatch. Offenses that use Buck Sweeps (pulling OL with a stretch path) will have to deal with the 9 setting a wall. Versus a 9 tech. the offense will be forced to handle the DE with a TE.

One main issue with this scheme is the bubble created by the 9 tech. This gap has to be filled by a second or third level player. Against Pro Spread teams that don’t utilize RPOs and are more traditional in the run game, the defense can insert a LB into that gap (“Squeeze”). When offenses base out of 11 pers. formations and establish an RPO scheme (see Oregon under Chip Kelley), the defense will have to shift its cover downs to the two-speed (WRs) and fill that gap with their safety (“Cheat”).

“Squeezing” the Run Game

When facing a TE set and utilizing a 9-technique by the strongside DE 4-2-5 teams have a choice, cover down to the two-speed side (RPO), or hold a seven-man box (Pro Spread). Each tactic has its set of issues, but it is up to the defensive coach how they want to attack Pro Spread formations. If an offense has a more traditional run game when using a TE, then the “Squeeze” alignment might be the best option. In this alignment, the Mike and Will align in their traditional gaps and protect the TE side. To the two-speed side, the Sam is in a run/pass conflict. If a team doesn’t use RPOs and attacks the TE in the run game, this scheme can have some advantages.

4-3 Squeeze technique vs. 2×2 Pro Twin set.

The Sam’s key is the open side’s offensive tackle. He is allowed to be ultra aggressive to the ball because the secondary is running a Quarters scheme. At the snap of the ball, if the OT gives the Sam a low-hat, or run read, he begins to fold into the “B” gap. If the offense runs a zone read play, the end will take the dive and Sam will take the quarterback in a clean gap exchange and the safety takes the bubble (pitch).

If the offense chooses to tag a “bubble” to the play call, the safety will attack the “bubble” with late support from the Sam (typical Quarters coverage). The theory behind the “Squeeze” tactic is that an offense won’t run GT Counter (guard-tackle pulling) weak to the open side. Especially with a 3 tech. to the pullers side (TE’s side). If Power is called, the defense has a plus-1 advantage with the boundary safety over top the TE. This scheme relies on what the opponent is trying to do (run game tendencies). If an opponent runs a gap scheme offense with little to no RPO plays, this defense can have its advantages.

“Cheating” the RPO

Most Spread teams don’t change too much just because they add a TE to the set. In most cases, offenses are still going to RPO and run WR screens, they may just run Power/Counter a little more often to get the defense to commit to stopping the run. The RPO forces the defense to create a cover down. The only way to do that in a 4-2-5, and keep your Nickel Sam, out of a run/pass conflict is to “cheat” the interior linebackers to the two-speed side. By doing this the defense vacates the “C” gap to the TE side. That can be problematic. Defenses that “cheat” the LBs have a trick up their sleeve. Most offensive coordinators do not count safeties in the box. By running a “cheat” tactic, defenses trick the offense into thinking it has an open gap to the TE side when in fact it doesn’t. That gap is taken by the boundary safety. See below:

4-3 “Cheat” scheme vs. 2×2 Pro Twin set.

The boundary safety reads the departure of the TE and if the offense chooses to run the safety fills the “C” gap reading the DE. Down block and the DE will spill – safety fits outside. Base block by the TE and the DE will try and compress the gap – safety initially fits the “C” gap and reads out of it if the play bounces. Verus the pass, the safety will collect the TE on is route and give the DE a width advantage against the OT.

Everything in the secondary is based on Quarters coverage. In pass distribution, the boundary safety will take the vertical of the TE allowing the Will to push late to the flat (freeing him up to read the RB). Over the two-speed side, the defense can run Sky or Cloud depending on the scheme or offensive tendency. To the naked eye or an offensive coach, it looks like the defense is leaving a gap open. This alignment to Pro Twin allows the defense to eliminate the RPO to the two-speed side while keeping gap integrity in the box.

“Brown” or Invert to the TE

If a DC is afraid of putting the strongside DE in a 9 tech., but still wants a full cover down, he can always turn to an invert technique by the boundary safety. This technique is what Don Brown bases out of versus 11 pers. (hence the name “Brown”). To the TE, the safety will sink down over the TE reading his departure. This tactic allows the safety to the TE side fit like he naturally would in against most formations – running the alley. Both inside LBs are aligned in 30s to help with runs on either side of the box.

Where this technique gets best of both worlds is with the full cover down provided to the two-speed side. Coach Brown bases out a Cloud concept over the two WRs. This helps versus RPO teams and allows the Sam to hang and read the box. One disadvantage of the scheme is the defense is giving the offense angles for the Buck Sweep and forcing the safety to be the force player on the edge. If a DC is afraid of putting the safety into a primary box fit position, Brown is the way to go.



Each alignment has its positives and negatives. It is ultimately up to the defensive coach and the opponent breakdown. If playing a team like Chip Kelly’s Oregon, that RPOs off Pro sets, then it might be in the best interest of the DC to run a “Cheat” alignment. When faced with a more 11 personnel single back-pro attack, the “Squeeze” alignment should fit naturally into how the 4-3 defense was formulated. The “Cheat” scheme really adheres to 4-2-5 principles of cover downs and using safeties in the box, where the “Squeeze” tactic is more of a traditional fit. Finally, “Brown” is a great third option that combines the principles of “Squeeze” and “Cheat” together.

Quarters vs. 3×1 — Trey

The Trey (TE Trips) formation can be one of the hardest formations to defend in football. A defense has to combat all the dangers of 3×1, but with an extra gap on the line. If the defense sets the front to the TE (Over), there is no one to carry the vertical of the TE or the defense has to insert a safety backside. Many times teams revert to kick coverage or spin to single-high. With a tucked Mike (“A” gap responsibility) it is hard to carry the vertical of #3 (TE).

The true dilemma is how can a defense cover down to the two-speed located outside the TE yet not compromise run fits. In order to get a plus-one in the run and pass while achieving maximum cover downs, a defense has to run an Under Front. By running an Under Front the defense can allow the Sam to apex #2 and the TE. The field safety plays regular Quarters coverage (Sky or Cloud).

The Sam, who is apexed, is reading the TE’s departure (high-hat/low-hat). If run, the Sam is in charge of the “O” gap, or outside, and against a pass the Sam is matching #2. To the outside eye it looks like the Sam is in conflict, but by keeping him apexed it allows him to slow play the run while keeping his pass distribution intact (running Cloud over the two-speed can help him “hang” in his position too). The field safety fits off of the Sam, making him “right”. In many cases, mostly at the college level, the defense will lock the Mike on the TE. This can put the Mike in conflict, but since he is reading and fitting of the DE (gap exchange) while fitting inside the TE for run the Mike is allowed to “hang.” If the offense doesn’t utilize the TE in the passing game, this tactic can work tremendously for a defense. This alignment allows the defense to gain an extra defender on the weak side as well because the boundary safety doesn’t have to “kick” over to the TE (or the defense doesn’t have to roll strong). The diagram below shows the Under Front versus a Trey set.

.03 TE 3X1
4-3 under vs. a trey set (3×1).

Solo Coverage

The true key versus any 3×1 formation is the Mike, who is really the player in run/pass conflict. If the TE releases vertical the Mike has to carry underneath the route. This is where teams that run arc-read plays can take advantage. One way to combat this play is to run Solo Coverage in the secondary. This allows the boundary safety to “eye” the departure of the TE and if vertical, attack the seam/post route. Mike in Solo Coverage can hold his gap and react late if play-action underneath the vertical of the TE. See the scheme diagram below:

.04 Solo v 11p


Teams that run wide splits with the two-speed put pressure on the defense to find a cover down against RPOs off Trey sets. By running a split field look, and an Under Front, the defense can protect itself against anything the offense throws at it. Even against Counter, this scheme is solid, using the boundary safety as the plus-one to the boundary. Adding Solo coverage can even add a double alley player to the mix, helping with front-side run fits too.

Opponent scouting is key when choosing how to attack the Trey set. If teams arc the TE or carry him on vertical routes, Solo coverage might be a great option. When facing a more traditional team, that keeps the TE in for protection or run blocking, a regular Quarters approach can be the base call. Whatever the DC decides to run, the key is the Mike and is he athletic enough to carry the vertical of the TE while plugging the run when called upon? The DC has to decide how to get the Mike help and if the TE will even go out for a pass.

Keeping it Simple

Treating Trey and Pro Twin formations like a condensed Spread 3×1 or 2×2 formation allows for smooth transitions for a defense’s players. A good base defense should be able to bounce from formation to formation with minimal checks. Building a great defensive scheme is founded on solid rules that are non-negotiable. An offense can only give a defense so many different looks. How a defense lines up against 2×2 or 3×1 should stay similar regardless of the personnel. Creating base rules help defensive players line up correctly every time. Formationing a defense allows players to react off rules set by the defensive staff and creates fluidity from personnel grouping to another.


© 2016, 2018 | Cody Alexander | All rights reserved.

Have a philosophy and go deeper than just X’s and O’s. MQ’s book is available on Amazon and Kindle (& now through PDF — Just click SHOP in the Menu):

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 contact 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. | #ArtofX

Author: MatchQuarters


14 thoughts on “Defending Tight End or Pro Spread Formations”

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: