Defending the Ace Formation

May 30, 2011 | Defense, Game Planning, Defending Specific Offensive Systems and Concepts

By Mike Kuchar Senior Research Manager X&O Labs [email protected]

Now that spring football has firmly entrenched itself in the college football landscape, most X&O Labs researchers are out pounding the pavement for the newest trends and innovations in the coaching industry.  Your first evidence of that will be our report next week on the midline option – we already have our "bugs" planted at Coach Ken Niumatalolu’s spring practices in Annapolis.  So, instead of bringing you a full-fledged report on a topic this week, we’ve decided to respond to inquires based on our readers, which in essence of our mission statement.

We’ve been contacted by a number of coaches who were interested in researching different ways to defend the Ace formation.  For clarification purposes, the ace formation (Diagram 1) is based out of 12 personnel (two tight ends, a running back, and two receivers).  While it may seem like a symmetrical, balanced offensive formation – it can be very deceiving.  It provides numerous problems for defenses.  The problem we wanted to delve into was training those third level players like safeties and corners to effectively play fast in the run game.  The Ace formation puts a ton of stress on the defense because it forces those safeties to become involved in support.  Since we were pressed for time – traveling does that to you – we reached out to a couple of close friends on the defensive side of the ball asking them about how they defend the Ace formation.


While it may seem like a no-brainer concept on paper, running the ace formation is pointless unless you have the tight ends to do it.  Therefore there are two primary reasons why offenses line up in the Ace Formation:

  1. It creates an extra gap in the run game – from the tight end to the back-side tackle; there are usually a total of seven gaps for the defense to defend in the run game.  A gap is defined as the spacing between offensive linemen.  A double tight end formation presents nine total gaps that the defense must account for.  While most defenses can account for seven gaps by placing an additional eighth defender (like a safety) it becomes even more difficult to place nine in the box against eight defenders.
  2. It creates the presence of four immediate vertical threats – if both tight ends can get downfield in a hurry, defenses can be caught in a bind.  While it may be true that teams line up in Ace to run the football, those that have the ability to throw the ball (like Boise State) can be scary good.

But before you start your game planning to defend 12 personnel, according to the coaches we spoke with there are some important questions that need to be clarified. 



  • What is their run/pass tendency? Compiling this percentage could be as simple as staying in two high (verse high percentage pass teams) or one high (verse high percentage run teams).  We all know football is a numbers game, so getting an extra hat down either by rolling your safety or by moving the front, could be an effective answer.
  • Where is the blocking tight end? Many teams, particularly at the high school level, are lucky to have one dominant tight end let alone two.  In fact, we’ve found that many offenses will change personnel into 12-personnel just to create another gap – regardless of how effective of a blocker he is.  So we suggest setting the front to the dominant tight end and let them run into the teeth of your defense.
  • Can their tight ends/receivers get vertical in a hurry? If they can, you have issues – no question.  But in reality, most tight ends can’t.  Out of traditional quarters or halves coverage (which of course is most synonymous with two deep shells) chances are your safeties will be matched on those tight ends.  As long as the safeties can clean up their run/pass reads, playing them vertical should not be a concern.  If they even decide to go vertical.  Most tight end routes break at 8-10 yards and with a quarters safety over the top, you have plenty of leverage to play those routes.
  • Can your third level players successfully fit on inside runs? As Mark Hendricks, the secondary coach at James Madison told us, it’s a lot harder for your safeties to make a tackle outside-in than making one inside-out.   This means that safeties are geared to making plays on the perimeter, particularly in two-high looks.  Offenses can negate that by cutback runs like zone, forcing your safeties to make plays.  Since you need a safety to account for the extra gap inside, there really isn’t a schematic solution, just a fundamental one:  Teach your safeties how to tackle in close areas.
  • Can you play the edge (D gap) effectively? This was interesting to our research staff.  We figured many coaches would preach about canceling the gaps inside the tackle box effectively.  While this was true to a certain extent, coaches found it just as important to make sure the perimeter runs are cleaned up.  The majority of the coaches we consulted felt you need to have an immediate presence in the D gap – which means having an outside linebacker or walk-up backer play outside shade of the tight end (9-technique).  This puts immediate pressure on the perimeter, and doesn’t allow any type of second level climb like you would have against a 7-technique on zone schemes.
  • Do you need to have an automatic check defensively? Most coaches have common checks for empty, trips and ace structures.  But the key is to have more than just one.  Without question, if an offense sees you check beforehand – especially if you’re no huddle – you’ll be in trouble.  Just get all the legwork done based on tendencies and you won’t be forced to show your hand.

All this said, there are really three offensive concepts we’d like to focus on defending when it comes to the Ace formation – the zone run game, the boot/naked concept and any other nub side runs.  We realize that an offense can produce a myriad of problems out of this set.  We’ve found these three give the guys we spoke with the biggest headaches.