Defend Trips with Quarters Coverage

By Cody Alexander

The spread offense has proliferated through football and is now the dominate scheme in most areas of the country.

High school offenses utilize the spread to combat the lack of “big body” depth at most schools. More players can be involved in the game, and many of the spread offense’s formations put tremendous pressure on the defense to line up correctly and defend every inch of the field.

One formation in particular tends to give defenses the most fits: trips. By utilizing three wide receivers to one side, the offense has removed a player from the box and put that defender in space. The whole premise of the spread is to put the offense’s best players in space and force one-on-one matchups either vertically or in the open field.

Defensive football, now more than ever, is about matchups and making plays in the open field. It is up to the defensive coordinator to develop a plan to counteract the space and matchup problems faced when defending trips.

The best way to defend the trips formation is with split-field quarters coverage and an under front.

No spin zone

There is a tendency by some defensive coaches to spin to a single-high safety and gain a player in the box to defend the spread offense’s running game. By doing this, the defense has essentially created one-on-one match-ups across the board.

By inserting the Mike in the box and kicking the backside safety to the No. 3 receiver, the defense has eliminated a conflicted or fold player (Mike) just to open itself up to the pass, particularly the backside post or fade. Traditionally, an offense puts its best receiver as the backside “X” because defenses would spin single high to combat the run and keep the linebackers in the box.

The one-on-one matchup with the backside cornerback is exactly what the offense is looking for. Spread offenses want a defense to spin to single-high.

The best way to gain a plus-one in the run and pass distribution is for the defense to stay in a two-high shell and run variations of quarters coverage. By staying in a two-high shell, the defense can insure ample coverage across the board and eliminate single coverage by any one defender. A quarters defense can combat a trips formation several ways by utilizing three basic coverages: Stress, Solo and Special.


Stress coverage assumes the offense will not throw to the No. 1 receiver to the field vertically or run four vertical routes. A base principle of quarters coverage is to make the quarterback make the farthest throw. In trips, this would be the 25-yard comeback or a fade to the No. 1 receiver. These are hard throws for most high school QBs, and many cannot complete them.

Stress is a great base for defending trips because of its simplicity and flexibility. Any deviation from a vertical path by the three receivers to the field and the coverage morphs back into base quarters coverage – or four read.

The key to Stress is the Sam linebacker and his ability to cover the No. 2 receiver vertically. He must get hands on the receiver and force him to “run-the-hump” outside. A disadvantage of Stress is found in the Sam’s coverage abilities. If an offense challenges the defense with a four vertical route, the Sam must be able to play man coverage on the slot.

The Sam and field corner are playing the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers as they would in a Cover 3 scheme with the cornerback topping the vertical routes and the Sam cleaning up anything in the seam or flats. The Mike linebacker and the field safety bracket the No. 3 receiver.

By keeping the field safety on the No. 3 receiver, the defense can ensure protection for the middle of the field and bracket the closest receiver to the QB, eliminating a high percentage throw. The main goal in quarters coverage is to achieve a plus-one in pass distribution and in run fits. Stress achieves this by putting four over three to the front side. To the backside, the defense can run a multitude of coverages to combat any throws to the single receiver. If a loose Cover 4 match scheme is a defense’s base coverage – four read – Stress can easily be the check to trips.


Defensive coordinators turn to Solo coverage when the defense wants to gain an extra coverage player to the field while holding the backside safety in the box fit to the boundary. Solo also is a good coverage if the offense does not put its stud receiver to the single receiver side or the defensive coordinator feels comfortable leaving his boundary cornerback man-to-man with the X.

Solo tells the backside safety to spy the No. 3 receiver. Like Stress, Solo also assumes the offense will not run four verticals. If No. 3 runs a vertical route, the backside safety will kick and climb to top the receiver’s route. The defense gains a plus-one over the No. 1 and No. 2 receivers because the field safety shifts to inside leverage of No. 2.

The coverage call over the outside receivers is dictated by the defensive coordinator and can match what the defense’s base coverage would be versus a 2-by-2 set. Solo is essentially a pseudo Cover 3 scheme. The backside safety will only kick to the trips side if No. 3 goes vertical and gives the defense a double alley player in the box.

One disadvantage of Solo is the cornerback to the backside must assume he has no help with a vertical route, and the offense can run the backside safety off with a vertical by No. 3, leaving the boundary O gap exposed.


Special is a unique coverage that assumes the offense will not throw to the No. 1 receiver to the trips side. Many spread offenses do not utilize the No. 1 receiver in their passing routes, using the receiver as a decoy to run off the coverage man. Special uses the offense’s tendency against it by playing man on the No. 1 receiver.

The outside linebacker to the trips side assumes the cornerback’s role as though the offense is in a 2-by-2 set. Essentially, the defense has shrunk the field and eliminated a player from the offense’s route combinations. The key to Special is the Sam’s ability to play as though he is a cornerback. Most generally, the coverage to the Trips side in Special is a two read.

In two read, the cornerback is responsible for the out cut of the No. 2 receiver. In Special, the Sam linebacker assumes this role. One advantage of using Special as a coverage is if the offense uses the two inside slots to run most of their route combinations.

A two-read scheme is a perfect match switch routes. The field safety will hold the inside of the No. 3 receiver and, just like in two read, if the receiver goes vertical he will carry the route. Like in Stress, the Sam’s ability to play man coverage is key to the success of Special coverage. If the No. 1 receiver to the trips side is a non-threat, the coordinator can move the outside linebacker outside to No. 1 and bring the cornerback into the coverage.

Defending trips formations with a two-high shell is necessary for modern defensive coaches. Offenses use the 3-by-1 formation to force the defense to choose between the run or the pass.

By aligning in an under front, the defense can relieve the stress put on the conflicted player (the Mike) and gain numbers in coverage.

Modern spread offenses wants the defense to spin to single high. Spinning creates one-on-one matchups across the board and puts the defense at risk. Keeping a two-high shell protects the defense from the backside post/fade and puts an added box defender to the boundary. All three coverages discussed in this article can be used as a base coverage or to attack tendencies by the offense.

Cody Alexander is the secondary coach at Midlothan (Texas) High School. You can follow him on Twitter @The_Coach_A. Visit his website at: