Varying Uses of Middle Safety in 3-High Structure

Mar 11, 2021 | The LAB, Three High Coverage Structures, Defense, Coverage

By Bobby Curran
Defensive Coordinator
Conway High School (SC)
Twitter: @CoachCurran42


Three-high safety defense is the most trending topic in defensive football recently. Foundationally, we are a Tite front, 3-4 defense. Going into the season we wanted to be able to paint a different picture for the offense than our "base" without changing personnel. In doing so we incorporated the three-safety defense as a changeup for us. Getting into the three-safety defense and changing as little as possible was our goal. To do this, we took our MLB and told him to align as the deep middle safety (8-10 yards). There are a lot of philosophies out there that allow for many different players to fill the role of the middle safety in a three-deep shell. What we found is, if you want to keep your teaching the same across all positions, the easiest position to move is one of the middle linebackers from our base 3-4. The MLB being deeper does not change anything for him. His run fits are the same. His pass responsibilities are the same. The secondary shell is the same.

As a quick note, we will line up our three-high package against anything. We've run it against 10 personnel, and we've run it again 32 personnel when a team got heavy on us. This just furthers the point that if you keep the rules and fits consistent, it doesn't matter what you see on Friday night, your kids can line up and play ball.

A frequently asked question to me when talking about going back and forth from a 3-4 to a 3 high is, “How do you deal with the last #3 and pass distribution?” Our base foundation is press quarters so when we hear #3, the first thing that pops in our heads is a “push” call that is a staple in every quarter’s toolbox. With three-high safeties and only one inside linebacker, we do not want him leaving the box to chase anything. We’d like to take the thinking off his hands and just have him focus on the box.


Teaching Progression

Basic Picture: This is a picture of our base defense. As in any defense, we have a multitude of ways we fit things. We can box, spill, and use various players in different roles, which is why we love the 3-4 defensive structure.


Ways We Use our 3rd Player

In pass coverage, we must relate to #3. After the pass routes distribute themselves, the #3 usually becomes the in-breaking route because no matter where they start, the inside player is always going to turn into #3. Thinking with the end in mind, we know what his assignment is going to be. This being known, we can now move his alignment to put him in the most advantageous position for him. This means we can change his alignment. With our three-safety package, we can use him as our QB player in the run game, we can spy him on a particular player, we can use him as a robber, and, as you'll see on film, we can use him as an RPO hunter.

Coaching Points:

Alignment: Our M will align stacked directly behind our W, depth will be decided by game plan and down and distance. Typically, if we are in a running situation, we’ll have him around 8 yards. The deeper in the down and distance, the deeper his alignment will take him. We use his heels as our key for alignment. If I want him at 8, that means his heels are at 8, etc. Again, he will relate to #3 if #3 is removed. That’s the only thing that will take him out of his stacked alignment. If #3 is in the backfield, he’ll stay stacked. The stacked alignment, for us, simply makes his assignment and angle harder to pick up for the offense.


Reads for our MLB to stay the same regardless of his alignment. As a caveat, I will say, in spring/summer, when we work on reads, I teach our LB how to read backfield and linemen. I do this because every player is different. Some are exceptionally good at reading guards. They can decipher a down block vs. a reach block, etc., and get where they need to go. Others are outstanding backfield readers. I give them a bit of freedom in deciding what works best for them if it fits our system. He will get his pass read just as he would in the box, the high hat from the offensive line. His keys will change week to week given the game plan. For example, if we are going to be heavy 3 high safety for a given week, we will have him key the #2 WR if we know we'll get a strong RPO game, etc.