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Lost in space: How spread passing teams isolate the worst defenders

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Arizona State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week I discussed how West Virginia’s “all or nothing” defense is engineered to embrace the extremes of the spread offenses they face in the Big 12. Rather than trying to draw up sound base schemes that can handle the isolation and stress that the league’s various spread offenses put on a defense, Tony Gibson shifts his defensive players around wildly in order to dictate terms back to the offense.

Everyone else in the Big 12 just does the best they can to match up and contain offenses, but spread teams are very, very good at isolating their best receivers in space on defenders and making hay. One of their favorite ways to do this is by spreading out the defense with four and five receiver sets, only to focus on simple, two-man route combinations with the slot receivers that often get good receivers on “bad” coverage defenders.

Here’s a few tricks for how they accomplish that goal:

The standard trips formation

Whether it’s 3x1 or 3x2, most offenses built around a spread passing attack will spend a large chunk of their time with three receivers split to the wide side of the field:

It’s an unbalanced set that can force the defense into more predictable responses that the offense can attack. In the shot above, Alabama has a middle linebacker lined up in a way that makes him partly responsible for defending the “no. 3” slot receiver who’s third from the bottom.

Linebackers and safeties are generally the worst guys on the field at defending routes, because they need to be good at defending runs and their skill sets and practice time reflect that positional requirement.

What’s more, every response by the defense to a 3x1 formation has to balance the risk of over shifting too hard to the field and leaving the backside receiver isolated.

Overloading the boundary

Spread passing teams will often also overload the boundary with two or even three receivers in order to achieve a similar result as above, either isolating the single-side receiver in an abundance of space or getting receivers matched up on bad coverage defenders like boundary safeties and linebackers.

In this clip you can see Oklahoma motion their ultra-versatile RB Joe Mixon to the boundary to form a 2x3 set with trips to the boundary. The reason they do this is that TCU predictably shaded their better coverage defenders to the field against the initial 2x2 set to handle the greater danger that comes from those receivers running in all that open space. But that just means that when Mixon motions to the boundary, OU’s passing strength is now arrayed against the weaker side of the Frog coverage.

Two-man games in isolation

Once an offense has a pair of receivers lined up either on the opponents they want to be lined up in or in the amount of space they want to work in, then comes the two-man combinations that will chew up defenses.

To use a basketball analogy, the formations above are akin to an offense selecting who they want to use to set a screen in a pick’n’roll in order to best attack a given defense. The various two-man route combinations that spread teams will use after they align the receivers they want to get the ball to are the pick’n’roll in this analogy.

What makes trips sets so dangerous is that they can force the defense to stop the two-man combination without being able to utilize a cornerback!

For instance, in the example above, the cornerback is covering the outside receiver while Oklahoma is running a whip-dig combination against a pair of linebackers.

The inside receiver (flex TE Mark Andrews) runs a quick inside route, then breaks back outside. If the middle linebacker follows him outside then it opens a passing window to throw the dig route, if not, then the QB throws the whip route outside. It’s a very simple read for the QB and if the receivers are good, it’s not terribly difficult for them to get open running those routes against linebackers.

Here are some other examples of common two-man combinations that spread teams will use with their inside receivers to create easy wins for their QB. It’s not just y-stick anymore.


We’ve talked a lot in this column about how teams will run curl-flat in the modern era, a favorite method for multiple teams to create an easy read and easy gains with their passing game. Here’s one more:

In cover 4 the defense isn’t necessarily poorly positioned to stop this combination. The free safety or middle linebacker can rob the curl while passing the flat route off to the nickel. The problem for the defense is that despite their coordinators’ best efforts, they’re still dealing with speedy receivers in a lot of space. With that outside receiver (Z) running a go route against the best coverage player (the cornerback) the “Y” slot receiver is now basically the outside receiver while the nickel is the new corner and the middle linebacker the new nickel.

It’s very easy for offenses to put good receivers positions to thrive but it’s difficult for the defense to do the same with the nickel and middle linebacker positions because those guys may have to defend a running play on this down or the next. The slot receivers just have to know how to run good routes, that nickel and middle linebacker need to know how to match routes and also how to fit the run. As a result, they are rarely as good at matching routes as the slot receivers are at running them.


This is one of the more lethal combinations that spread offenses will use to attack defenses. It’s often more commonly deployed with boundary twins formations that feature an H-back or fullback and can use the threat of the running game to set up dig/post as an RPO (run/pass option) or traditional play-action play:

The play-action sucks in the linebacker, the strong safety gets sucked in defending the dig route, and then there’s no help for the corner inside against the post route. This is probably the most common way you see this combination deployed, as a way to attack teams vertically for their aggressiveness against the run game. Additionally, defenses like to choose their boundary safety and linebacker for their play against the run, so these are often some of the weaker coverage defenders.

But spread passing teams that don’t like to rely on the threat of the run can also utilize this two-man combo and get after a team’s worst coverage defenders.

The nature of cover 4 teams is typically to defer stress outside to the routes that are harder to hit and to use the safeties and linebackers in conjunction to help each other out. So in this instance, you get the free safety and middle linebacker working together to bracket the dig route and leaving the nickel to handle the post route without help inside. The outside receiver is running an option route, looking to win deep or run a comeback if the corner stays on top of him. He’s basically just holding that corner so that he can’t help where the real action is and potentially serving as a release valve if the QB is pressured and needs to rollout and throw the ball to the sideline.

Despite their Air Raid system, Oklahoma is more of a run-centric offense these days, thanks to having backs like Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. As you can see here though, that doesn’t mean they still can’t get a speedster like Dede Westbrook in the slot where he can abuse a nickel on a post route.

Mixing in the wheel route

Teams can get really tricky by changing up which two of the three receivers are going to be involved in the two-man combo and they can do this with everyone’s favorite route, the wheel.

Here’s what’s stunning about this particular play.

-TCU is running this combo with trips to the boundary, so they don’t have as much space to work in as they would to the field.

-Oklahoma has their best inside coverage player (nickel/SS Steven Parker, #10) aligned over the first slot and the second slot bracketed by their best coverage linebacker (MLB Jordan Evans, #26) and their most veteran safety (FS Ahmad Thomas, #13). They have their best cornerback (CB Jordan Thomas, #7) lined up over the outside receiver. There’s no way they could get better matchups to stop this combination.

-TCU’s three receivers involved are John Diarse (the H receiver, #9), Ty Slanina (the Y receiver, #13), and Jaelan Austin (Z receiver, #15). These are all quality route runners but don’t represent the most athletic or most experienced wideouts on the Frog roster. In fact, those are the third, seventh, and fifth leading receivers in TCU’s WR stable.

Despite all of that, the combination is completely successful in removing Steven Parker with the wheel route, drawing the bracket coverage on the dig route, and then setting up young Jaelan Austin to beat Jordan Thomas inside on the post for a TD.

A good two-man combination is easy for a QB to read, easy to throw, and regularly sets up the receivers to get open easily enough even against good coverage defenders. TCU didn’t need to threaten the Sooners with the running game or even get weaker coverage defenders out in space, they just needed to work their two-man combination.

Oklahoma ultimately won this shootout in Ft. Worth 52-46 and are now in strong position to redeem their season with yet another Big 12 championship. However, many of the defenders on both sides of the ball spent the game lost in space. It’s a tough world out there facing modern spread passing attacks.