Defending RPOs With a 3-3 Stack

By Zach Davis

Run-pass options (RPOs) are the newest strategy offenses use to put defensive players in conflict.

Offenses have been attempting to put defensive players in conflict since the creation of football, but the proliferation of the spread offense has forced defenses cover more grass, and most offenses on top of that run some version of read option as well as RPOs.

The spread offense revolution has taken away the ability of defenses to get a plus-1 in the box versus most formations in traditional coverages. However, you can always use zero coverage to get a numbers advantage in the box.

Zero coverage is risky, but you do not have to rush six all the time when you are in zero coverage. You can rush three to six players and keep the same coverage scheme for the secondary so you players can play fast. It is imperative that we keep the defense simple so our players can play without thinking.

I have either been a defensive coordinator or head coach for the last seven seasons. I have a love for defense even though I was an offensive lineman my entire playing career.

I started out being a 3-3 Cover 3 guy in 2011 who loved to blitz and play three deep, three under. That was a great defense because we played against a lot of wing-T teams, and we were able to keep the ball in front and use our front movements to disrupt their blocking schemes. These days, we only see wing-T twice a year, and even those teams run some elements of the spread.

So, in order to combat the spread, we have adapted to more man to man coverage so our defenders are not in a run-pass conflict.

There are some teams that use split field coverages with their 3-3, and they have great success with it. I have used versions of split field coverage in the past (palms and press quarters) with good success, but I found the teaching to be tedious, and my players were thinking too much during the snap. Defensive players who are thinking during the snap get blocked, bust assignments and do not fly to the football. Using man principles allows your players to play fast and aggressive.

Alignment and assignment are key to any defense, and that is another reason I love man coverage. We number the receivers from the outside in, and we teach that to our players Day 1.

We also teach our players that numbers 1 to 49 and 80 to 99 are eligible numbers. We will cover the five eligible receivers on each play regardless of where they align. This keeps their rules simple and allows us to align to unique formations. Here are our base alignments in the 3-3 versus the spread.


Alignment rules

The alignment rules are simple in this version of the 3-3 stack.

  • The ends play in 5 techniques so they can slow play the quarterback versus zone read, spill all kickout blocks and be contain rushers on pass.
  • The nose aligns in a 0 and is a two-gap player.
  • The Sam and Will align at 5 yards stacked on the tackle, and the Mike aligns at 5 yards stacked on the center.
  • The Raider aligns 4-by-4 from the tackle or in a 9 technique versus a tight end.
  • The Bandit has the same alignment rules as the Raider.

The Raider will cover the No. 3 receiver man to man to the field or to the strength of the formation, and the Bandit will cover the No. 2 receiver to the boundary or weak side of the formation.

The Sam, Mike and Will all work off of the back for the coverage responsibility.

The corners cover the No. 1 receivers, and the free safety will covers the No. 2 to the field or strength of the formation.

I have used field/boundary and formation strength to determine alignment, and both work. I do prefer formation strength because formation to sideline has no effect on alignment and coverage responsibilities.

Defending specific RPOs

The first RPO I want to talk about defending is inside zone coupled with the stick concept. The play and how we want to defend it are illustrated below:

  • The end to the back slow plays the quarterback and is ready to fall in on the hand-off.
  • The end away from the quarterback is pinching because a good call versus trips is to blitz the Bandit to give you a four-player pass rush.
  • The Will is unblocked, so if the end to the read side can force the ball carrier to keep it front side, the Will should be able to make the play. We are man to man in the secondary, so the offense will be forced to hand the ball off to our loaded box.

The second RPO I want to talk about defending is outside zone coupled with slants. The play and how we want to defend it are illustrated below:

  • The end to the back shuffles square, and he is our BCR – boot, counter, reverse player.
  • The wnd away from the back is fighting the reach block.
  • The Sam, Mike and Will are fast flow to their gaps and mirroring the path of the ball-carrier.
  • The Raider beats the crack block with speed.
  • The corner and free safety crack replace because versus a loaded box, the offense will want to make the corner tackle.
  • The Bandit and corner to the back play the slant routes man to man with inside leverage.

The last RPO I want to talk about defending is power coupled with a vertical. The play and how we want to defend it are illustrated on the next page:

  • The left end spills the kickout block to the Sam and the Raider.
  • The nose holds the playside A gap.
  • The end away from the back is our BCR player.
  • The Mike gets over the top of the down block.
  • The Will looks for the run through.
  • The Bandit looks to fold for the cut back.
  • The routes are covered with inside leverage by the corners and the free safety.

Zach Davis is the head coach at Riverside High School in Belle, W.Va. Visit his website at and download his podcast Mind of a Football Coach on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter @ZachDavis24.