Gaining leverage on overhang players and access to the “alley” against odd fronts

[Ed. Note: The piece below is by Mike Kuchar, a defensive coordinator and researcher with the new site, X and O Labs. Mike previously wrote a piece for Smart Football called “Breaking Down Boise,” about Chris Petersen’s Boise State offense.]

Defenses across the college and prep ranks have been forced to adjust to the rise of four receiver spread formations.  Commonly referred to as “sub” personnel, our researchers at X&O Labs have found that many four defensive line teams have shifted to three down linemen structures to match speed with speed.  What started out as nickel packages has grown into an every down defenses.   Coordinators are replacing one of their defensive linemen with linebacker/safety hybrids to combat speed and defend the width of the field.

After surveying over 2,000 college and prep coaches, we’ve found that the most difficult challenge when facing odd front teams is finding a way to occupy the alley defender (usually an outside linebacker or drop safety).  Often taught to be the force player, it’s this overhang player that can cause problems for offenses wishing to push the ball to the perimeter.  Sure, it’s offensive pedagogy to attack the B gap bubbles vs. odd front teams, but it’s only a matter of time until defenses try to take that away by slanting or stemming to a four-down front pre-snap. Eventually, you’ll need to get to the perimeter, so why not save time by getting there immediately?  Our researchers at X&O Labs have sifted through feedback, and we’ll show you how to do just that below.

Case 1: Using Tight End Structures, Particularly 11 or 12 Personnel

Even if you don’t have a tight end in the program, start to develop one.  Over 80 percent of coaches polled by X&O Labs attack odd defenses by using various tight end formations. Whether by using 11 personnel (one tight end, one back), 12 personnel (two tight ends, one backs), or 21 personnel (one tight end, two backs), the tight end is pivotal in the run game.

We’ve all seen how productive spread offenses like Oregon, Boise State and Florida have been within the last three years.  What separates those teams from traditional spread teams is the implementation and execution of the tight end on normal downs.  According to our research, using a tight end in spread personnel accounts for two valuable advantages:

1.      It changes the structure of the defense: No longer can that safety/linebacker play in space, which is exactly what he wants to do.  Now he’s forced to cover down on a bigger, stronger opponent giving you leverage to get to the alley.

2.      It provides for an instant mismatch in the run game: Many of these hybrids don’t like to get their hands dirty.  These types, who usually weigh in the 180-210 pound range, are forced to balance up and fit in the framework against bigger tight ends.

X&O Labs’ Coaching Analyst, Mike Canales, who is also the associate head coach and offensive coordinator at the University of North Texas, contributed heavily to this Coaching Research Report.   Canales has modeled his spread scheme after studying a ton of what Oregon does to attack the perimeter with their speed sweep and option series.  “Anytime we’re going to get odd fronts, like we do when we play Louisiana-Monroe, we need to make some adjustments to our scheme,” said Canales.  “Teams are going to give you a six-man box, regardless of what you’re putting on the line of scrimmage.  Handling that overhang player with a six box is a bitch.  You can’t stay in 10 personnel with no tight ends because those slot receivers aren’t big or strong enough to handle safety types one-on-one, so you need to get into 11 or 12 personnel to force the defensive coordinator’s hand.”

To do so, Canales will run a set comprised of 12 personnel, similar to what Boise State runs on offense.  Having one tight end on the ball (Y) and one tight end off the ball (U) (a typical tight/wing alignment) (Diagram 1) gives you the versatility to go either way with your scheme by simply moving or motioning the tight end.

It doesn’t matter which tight end is the Y, or which is the U, as long as you keep the scheme simple.  It makes the defense declare where they are going to drop the deep safety to the original tight end side or if they are going to stay in a two deep structure.   According to Canales, many teams will drop that safety to the tight end side declaring the strength.  Now all you need to do is move the U back and your picture is clear.  You’re ready to attack the alley.

Case 2: The Read Zone/Bubble Concept

What spread offense would be complete without the zone read scheme?  We all know that the beauty of the read zone concept is that it essentially combines two dynamic offensive schemes – the inside zone and the option.  While the inside zone is a quick hitting, cutback play that attacks the tackle box, it’s the read complement that makes its money with spread teams- dissecting odd defenses.  According to our survey, it’s also the go-to-call for high school and college programs when trying to get to the perimeter.  Thirty-eight percent of coaches polled  believe the read zone concept is the most advantageous way to get to the alley.

When you keep the play structure the same, it’s easy to manipulate defenses by getting into various formations.   By definition, the odd front is a balanced front with two inside linebackers, two outside linebackers and two high safeties.  Even with one high safety, the odd stack structure is still balanced.  In order to manipulate that balance, we’ve found that many coaches will often shift, trade or motion into 3×1 trips sets in order to get odd fronts off-kilter.

One of Canales’ favorite ways to do this is to step the U off the line of scrimmage and motion him across the formation to show a trips set, usually to the field side of the formation.  After he does that, he’ll run the zone scheme back into the boundary with the read coming back out the other end.  He’ll have different ways to influence the over-hang or alley player, depending on whether he feels that he’s a run or pass first defender.

“We tell our QB’s to look to check the alley player’s horizontal width.  If he’s inside the safety, we know that he’s a run defender because he’s closer to the core (tackle box).  If he’s truly a pass defender, like a curl/flat defender, chances are his alignment is going to be closer to number two.”

If Canales is getting an indicator that the alley player is inside the safety (with the number two receiver out leveraged) he’ll run the zone away and wrap the U around to occupy the alley player (Diagram 2).   If Canales is getting the indicator that the alley player is fitting outside the safety, he’ll run the bubble fake off of the zone (Diagram 3) forcing the alley player to expand, opening up the alley wider for the run game.

According to Canales, it’s a simple adjustment.  Either way, the alley player is caught in a tough predicament.  “If we run the zone and the defensive end chases, who’s the QB player?  If that inside linebacker is late on his read, we’re out the gate with the QB.  He’ll ‘run-the-ladder’ as we call it – from hash, to numbers to sideline.  The overhang player will usually get caught between playing the bubble or holding his option responsibility. If teams start to declare or roll their strength to the field side of formations you can always go back and keep the zone play to the boundary – they’ll be a gap short.”

Case 3:  The Bunch Toss Scheme

Over 15% of coaches surveyed feel the best way to get to the alley is to attack it downhill with some sort of toss scheme.  X&O Labs’ Coaching Analyst, Ben Coates, will use this scheme as the offensive coordinator at Central State University (OH).   Coates teaches the benefits of blocking angles, to attack the alley defender in his Gator scheme (Diagram 4). Coates will use the bunch formation, with the number two receiver (usually the Y/tight end) up on the line of scrimmage, to block that force player.  The number one receiver gets his hat on the deep safety, while the most inside receiver arc releases to block the corner, as opposed to using the pulling tackle. “We don’t feel that the tackle on the corner is a good match-up,” says Coates.  “We’ll just have the tackle pull with his eyes inside for a second level player.”

Our research found another variation of the bunch toss or crack scheme is to have number one block the alley player (Diagram 5). Here, the number one receiver will block the next “Most Dangerous Man” (MDM) on or inside of him that’s not the defensive end or EMLOS.

The number two receiver will crack the defensive end while the number three receiver will pull or arc block the first defender supporting outside (usually the corner) aiming at the outside armpit.  The play side tackle will again block inside/out on any pursuit.  It’s even possible to get the play side guard out against odd fronts, because chances are he will be uncovered.  If the center can handle the nose, you’re in good shape.

Case 4:  The Counter Boot (Waggle)

According to our research the bubble screen concept, yielding a 37.3% coaching approval, was not the most efficient way of affecting that alley player in the pass game.  It was the counter boot or waggle series, at 38.9% favorability, that was most common among our survey respondents.   What is important to note is that we’ve found the most effective way to run the boot scheme is with standard 11 personnel as the University of Utah does when running the scheme (Diagram 6).

A spread team by structure, Utah has had tremendous success running the speed sweep, particularly to the field side.  Here, the QB fakes the inside zone scheme or speed sweep and runs the naked boot opposite.  Now, the action is away from the alley player, who has to get his reads quickly before the Y attacks the flat after just taking a quick “bump” block on the inside shoulder of the defensive end.  The number one receiver on the play side runs the deep comeback with a drag and a post back side.  It’s important that after he disengage from the running back, the QB runs a ten yard circle away from the line of scrimmage to clear the rush of the unblocked defensive end.  It’s a productive scheme if teams are chasing back side.  By the time that alley player diagnoses the play, the Y is behind him and in the flat.


For the last three seasons we’ve found that the top scoring defenses in the FBS have seen a decrease of 24 percent in their season average.  At this point, defenses are playing “catch-up” with the various offensive schemes.  However, according to our research, by using a tight end in spread schemes, offenses should be maintaining the advantage over defenses.  Not only does it create an extra blocking surface, but coaches are able to manipulate the defense, making them declare where they are going to bring the extra player.  As always, offensive football is all about numbers, leverage and grass and detecting a numbers advantage pre-snap is priceless when scheming against an opponent.

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X&O Labs ( is a private research company specializing in the research and study of established coaching concepts and new coaching trends. Sent directly to coaches’ email inbox, X&O Labs releases its research every Tuesday to the coaching community.  This is a free service from X&O Labs.  Click here to receive X&O Labs’ free research.

  • Robbie Cole

    Something we did similar to your adjustment with zone read where you have the U wrap around to the alley player…we got this from Shawn Elliot at Sout Carolina, formerly of App. State. He has the backside OT cross the face of the DE (who is often a B gap player anyway) and go out to block the overhang player/OLB. The U would then fold around the the backside ILB to pick up the man that the backside OT would usually end up getting anyway. The Qb is able to stick with his normal read. We do this vs 3-3 and 3-4 fronts. We also run a zone bend where we hinge the backside OT and fold the U to the ILB. And we do also run the Zone read with backside bubble. This was very good for us this year.

  • Jon E.

    This is leverage that you mentioned in your Boise State article, Chris.

    Its interesting that these very prolific offenses utilize TE nearly every down, if not every down. There’s something to be said for the position’s versatility.

    Some of my first memories of studying football were watching BYU in ’96 with Chad Lewis and Ituli Mili playing TE. They ran 12 and 22 personnel a great deal, and did it very well in a passing system.

    Alley control is an interesting concept as part of this. Teams do usually play the safety tight to the closed (TE) side, and few are effective in the alley with the safety because of it.

    The Steelers, on the other hand (as well as other good 34 teams) are able to play a quarters variant to the TE side and have the safety strictly read the TE key. They are able to get the alley filled quickly and set the edge well with a stand-up OLB.

    Still, having a closed or tite side does a lot to check the defense’s ability to play in space.

    I think the TE needs to be explored more for the leverage they provide and conditions they impose on the defense.

  • K. Nelson

    Not sure where to put this, but I’d love to see you do a write-up on the “diamond” backfield Oklahoma has been using, among others. I saw Illinois employ something real similar in their bowl against Baylor, and Oklahoma State just used it against Arizona in the Alamo Bowl. Best I can tell, it’s basically a way for the offense to play 9 on 9, and be in a symmetrical offensive look that is easy to run or pass out of. It’s got all the elements of pistol, wishbone, power I, you name it. It’s an awesome offensive formation in its diversity and I suspect we’ll see much of it in the next few seasons of college football.

  • Mr.Murder

    Stem the outside backer who has to be the EMLOS over a tight end. ow he has room to read the blocker’s intial step, it fits the front, it allows team mates to see the flow because the blocker’s first step must declare. Vrabel is the player who comes to mind at the pro level who used this technique to a very high degree of effeciency.

  • Chris: The Diagram 5 Gator Crack concept is what Andy Coverdale calls “Bunch Crunch” — it works especially well against alley players who read #2’s hat, and set up #1’s block perfectly…even if #1 whiffs, the alley player takes himself right out of the play…

  • Drew Voller

    Hi Chris, I am a big fan of your site. I actually started my own site a while ago, and let it fall by the wayside. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I sat down and typed out around 4500 words addressing every major grip about Browns coach Eric Mangini. Some of the right people stumbled on it and posted links allover the internet, and ended up driving a few thousand readers to it. So I am just happy that fellow Browns fans thought enough of it. As I said, I am a fan and would really appreciate if you have the time to take a look.
    All the best,

  • Drew Voller

    Got thrown by the website input… Guess a link would help, lol.

  • Coach C

    I know my experiences in coaching high school ball isn’t as applicable to college ball, but for what it’s worth we saw this trend at the high school level this last year. 2 things I wanted to mention.
    when we would face 30 front teams (3-3 stack or 3-4) they would start crashing the 5 tech DE into the b gap backside and bring the olb through on the c gap. So we had to add the bubble screen to the backside as a control. in fact, initially i would tag it but after a while we just put it in as part of our zone play. I loved it, but the other thing I wanted to say is you didn’t mention speed option to the TE side, as a way of attaching the alley player.
    For us speed option became our big hitter play, but the thing I loved about the play against 30 front teams is we would run it to the TE side with our TE attached. essentially, our TE and Tackle would double the 5 tech DE up to the playside ILB. this turned the olb or alley player into the pitch key. we blocked everyone else up playside, but what worked so well for us was the delayed read on the OLB.
    this forced the OLB to try and cover in greater space, than if we read the DE, it made the pitch key for the QB almost impossible to false read. one of my issues with running speed option against 40 front teams is it’s basically just a delayed toss to the RB, where as the leverage you gain against 30 front teams with a TE creates a massive alley for the QB when the OLB tries to slow play the pitch.
    As far as a C.P. for the QB, I would tell him about 9 out of 10 times he is going to keep it, now get a pre-snap read on the outside backer if he is tight on the TE pre-snap think pitch, but if he is wider think keep. It may sound stupid but the pre-snap process for run plays helps these high school QB’s tremendously.

  • Drew T.

    I’ll second the request for a breakdown of the “diamond” formation seen by Oklahoma State and TCU in bowl games. It’s the first time I’ve seen someone use it this year and I really liked some of the things they were able to do with it. Thanks!