Defending Heavy Personnel Concepts From 3-4 Spacing – Case 1: Defending Concepts from Balanced 1 and 2 Back Formations

Apr 1, 2019 | Front, Defense, Odd Front Structures

By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
X&O Labs
Twitter: @MikekKuchar



Editor’s Note: This research will be centered on defending the following personnel groupings:

  • 12 Personnel (one back, two tight ends)
  • 13 Personnel (one back, three tight ends)
  • 22 Personnel (two backs, two tight ends)
  • 23 Personnel (two back, three tight ends)


Produce a three-man surface when preparing against Odd defenses: that’s been a practice for offensive coaches for years. Add a bigger body such as a tight end at the end of the line of scrimmage and force a smaller body (such as an outside linebacker in an Odd outfit) to hold water against him. It seemed to be a more ambitious plan than preparing against a pure 7 or 6-technique defensive ends synonymous in Even front teams.

As offenses have evolved into using heavier personnel groupings, they have forced Odd defenses to adjust in defending them. But, rather than change the structure of the defense, Odd coaches are choosing to alter their support structure to get more numbers at the point of attack. As evidenced in this report, many of these coaches have chosen to tie safeties into the fit by using a two-high quarters coverage structure in defending it.

In this study, we research how 3-4 coaches are choosing to play with two-high safety spacing against heavier personnel, such as 12, 13 and 22 groupings. We segment our research into the following formation structures:

  • “Ace”- pure one back formation structures from both detached and attached tight end alignments.
  • “Deuce”- pure two back formation structures from both detached and attached tight end alignments.


There are generic labels that we selected to help in identifying and separating these formation bases. But there is a distinction that must be made in game planning against these formation types.


One Back vs. Two Back Distinctions

We found that many Odd coaches will alter their adjustments based on this one-back vs. two-back approach. While they may still decide to stay in two-high coverage structure, they may decide to change the personality of these defenders based on the backfield number. Illinois State defensive coordinator Travis Niekamp is one of those coaches who claim this to be a big debate in the defensive football offices each week. “We talk about are they a two-back team or a one-back team based on who that sniffer is, "said Coach Niekamp. “We use one-back vs. two-back rules. It's really one or the other based on each opponent. We try to figure out if that sniffer is a glorified fullback or is he a legitimate tight end? Most offenses will either be a gap scheme team and insert team with two-back or they are a one-back zone team mindset. Is he a viable downfield pass threat or not? Is he a blocker? Do they move him around where they want out of the point of attack? We make our decisions based on that."


Applying Quarters Coverage Methodology

At its core, quarters coverage is a man coverage philosophy. Coordinators have the ability to put nine defenders in the box to defend the run yet still be able to have the ability to handle four vertical threats. For Jason Bornn, the head coach at Saugus High School (CA), quarters coverage has been the base call in his 3-4 defense the last 16 years and 62 percent of the time he will drop 8 to play against heavier personnel groupings. “It just works for us because we use one safety as force and one safety as backside cutback,” said Coach Bornn. “It cleans the fit up better. We need nine defenders in the box to defend the run game. I never understood when coaches say, ‘Cover 3 puts eight defenders in the box.’ Not really. You’re wasting the high safety. It’s seven in the box. You get nine with quarters.”

For Coach Niekamp, who spent the lion’s share of his professional career as a four-down coach, felt at one point the best solution to defending heavy personnel is to line up in pure Under front and play buzz safety, or Cover 0. “But, the problem with man is you need to fit it right,” said Coach Niekamp. “And if you don’t fit it right, you’re going to be a man short. And that missed fit is that play winds up being a big play or a touchdown. The nice thing with the split safety look is you can be wrong but still be okay as far as the fit goes because you’re always going to gain that extra safety back. We found out that after being an even front coach for nearly 20 years, we can line up more quickly and execute better out of Odd with the shifts and motions with formations. It was a no-brainer. Why not be an Odd team?”

So, in order to match up with heavier personnel groupings in the Missouri Valley Conference, where more than half of his opponents lined up with two or more tight ends, Coach Niekamp decided to operate from a field and boundary defense. “I liked that for two reasons: tempo and matching personnel,” he said. “You can personnel to match an offense. You would like to be mirrored but this is not the NFL. You still need to find a faster guy to put to the field and a slower player to put toward the boundary.” 

So, in order to defend these sets Coach Niekamp will not adjust his structure; rather he will adjust his support calls based off rules. “We are a quarters defense and have the ability to vary our support structure accordingly,” he told us. “We can cloud a corner or sky a safety. Those are our generic rules. We want to make sure we can line up and play fast. The key is the interior defenders and the front three because the beauty of the 3-4 is that if you can have Nose that can guarantee double teams you are freeing up a linebacker. You can eat up five offensive linemen with three guys and it makes things easier. That’s why we saw gap schemes. They couldn’t block them, so they had to read them.”