3 High Safety Defense

By Josh Runda

Defensive Coordinator, Linebackers

Bluffton University, OH

Twitter: @Rundatheball


At Bluffton University we base out of the 4-2-5. However, when I became the Defensive Coordinator, I knew I wanted to be able to run the 3 High Safety defense as well. This would allow us to be multiple and make offenses prepare for 4 man fronts and 3 man fronts. The trick was finding a way to marry the two defenses and be able to have variations of the same coverages out of both looks. Our identity is simplicity and at the end of the day we want our players playing fast and playing with confidence. Our goal is to be able to run our coverages in our 4-2-5 and 3 High Safety defense without changing the language. The 3 High Safety defense also gives us the ability to run different variations of drop 8 coverages.

The Basics

If you aren’t familiar with the 3 High Safety defensive structure, here is a look at our base alignment to a 2x2 attached tight end formation.

Positionally upfront we play with an End (E), Nose (N) and End (E). At linebacker we play with two in the box linebackers, our Mike (M) and Will (W). Our Sam (S) is a true field player. In the secondary we play with two Corners (C), a Strong Safety (SS) which travels to the field, our Boundary Safety (BS), and our Star (ST). The Star is our middle safety.

Our Base Coverage

We are a split field coverage team working in triangles. Our strong safety works with the sam and the corner to their side and the boundary safety works with the will and the corner to their side. Our safeties align on the outside shoulder pad of the #2 WR to their side. Based on their alignment, they decide if they can give help to the corner to their side. If they do think they can give help they will put us in a Cover 2 call to that side. This means all three defenders are going to read off the #2 WR’s release. If the safety does not think they can give help they will put us in a Cover 4 call to their side. In both coverages the mike is going to have eyes to #3.

We are a +1 mentality to the box and because we often count the Star as a run first defender, we utilize him as a “takeaway” defender in our base coverage. This simply means that we will utilize the star to take away something the opposing team does well in the passing game. We also can add him on to the rush or use him as a spy vs. mobile quarterbacks.

In this clip we go Cover 4 to the boundary. The boundary safety (#11) makes a “Man” call meaning he is not locked on the tight end. We utilized the star (#18) as a middle hole defender because we knew they liked to get the running back out of the backfield.

Here we utilize the star (#18) as a “crosser player” meaning he was taking first crosser.

Again here we use the star (#18) as a “crosser player” which allows our will to carry the seam longer.

This team had a mobile quarterback. We were able to use the star (#18) as a “Spy” and still play our normal split coverage rules.

We added the star (#18) on as a fourth rusher in this clip. He creates good pressure and we remain in our base coverage.

3-2 Box Fits

We are a single gap run fit team at Bluffton. We look at the 3 High as another way to get to the 4-2-5 just doing so post snap. When we talk run fits with our players, we want them to understand that out of base run fit rules we should still be a +1 box to any formation we align to. The star has a true gap fit, but we try not to over coach this position. We want the star to be a backside hip of the ball carrier player. This gives him the ability to fit off what he sees and correct a misfit. We try and keep our linebacker rules simple and let them play fast. They read off the guard to their side.

Linebacker Reads

· Block down – go off his outside hip

· Block out – go off his inside hip

· Pull away – scrape

· Pull to - spill

Looking at Diagram 2, here is power to the tight end side. Out of this look we consider the linebacker who is getting action to their side as our 3 technique, it’s just happening post snap. In Diagram 2 the will is getting action to their side and their guard is blocking down so here they become the 3 technique by working off the outside hip of the guard. The mike is getting a pull away from their side making the mike a scrape/cutback player. By accounting the star in the fit, we still get our 4-2 box. The star, who is reading G-C-G is becoming the spill player and our boundary safety who would be in a Cover 4 call off the tight end is becoming the fit man off of the spill because the tight end is blocking down.


Here is a look at power. The End gets washed and the star (#18) ends up playing too wide. The star should be the spill player and boundary safety (#11) should be the tackler with the mike (#19) being a scrape/cutback player.

The will (#10) should be the B gap fit. The star (#18) does a nice job playing inside out and playing off of the misfit

The boundary safety (#18) should be flat foot reading the tight end. The star (#8) would be the spill player with the boundary safety being the tackler.

Now let’s look at split zone out of the same formation but with the tight end off the ball. We still gain our extra hat with the boundary safety. However, there is no longer a D gap to fit to his side. In the fit below you will see the boundary safety is now fitting the B gap. The star is now reading through the offensive line to the tight end off the football. As the tight end works across the end should spill and the star is working off the spill and fitting to the outside. The mike is getting a step down so he works to the outside hip of the guard. The nose is playing a fall back technique off the center and playing the A gap. The will gets a step out so he works off the inside hip of his guard and the remaining C gap is taken care of by the end.

The will (#33) gets a step out by his guard and he does a nice job playing off the inside hip creating a run through. The star (#18) does a nice job staying over the top and playing with patience.

Another nice job by will (#33) playing off of his guard and creating penetration.

Here is a good look at the B gap opening up and the boundary safety (#11) fitting. The star (#18) does a good job of tracking the back side hip of the ball carrier.

3-1 Box Fits

The 3 High gives us the ability to be extremely balanced and sound in defending 2x2 RPO’s. We have done so by playing with a 3-1 box. We do this by playing a 4i-0-4i front. We move the mike over the nose playing A gap to A gap off the nose with the ends playing the B gaps. This allows us to walk the will and sam into an apex. We call these players “Hold/Fold” players. The “Hold” player is the apex backer to the side of the running back and is not considered to be in the run fit. The “Fold” player is the apex backer to the front side of the zone, opposite the running back, and is the C gap defender. The star fits the C gap to the read side and becomes the quarterback player. This allows us to remain 3 for 2 to the pass option side of the RPO.

Here is a good example of the Hold/Fold players. This time out of pistol. The sam (#8) gets the quarterback’s back and knows he is away from the read side and does a nice job folding into the C gap and making the play.

This week we played heavy to the running back knowing the quarterback was not a threat to run it. You can see the star (#18) tracking the backside hip of the ball carrier and staying square. Does a nice job of playing back to the ball.

Good look at the Hold player here to the read side. The star (#18) again does a nice job of playing to the backside hip of the ball carrier.

Here we get a puller. The sam (#23) who is opposite the read side does a nice job folding. The mike (#19) here is the spill player on the puller.

Installing 3x1 Adjustments

We defend 3x1 formations several different ways. These formations are typically a game planning check for us. We focus on teaching our coverages in concepts to simplify these adjustments to our players. Diagram 2 and 3 is one variation of how we can adjust our coverage to a 3x1 formation. In this picture we are playing our Cover 2 coverage to #1-2 and matching #3 with the star. By matching #3 with the Star, it allows us to be 4 for 3 to the field and 3 for 2 to the boundary while keeping our +1 box mentality. The boundary safety has the option to make an “Easy” or “Hard” call to his half of the field. “Easy” puts the boundary safety in the run fit as the C gap defender, if pass shows he will become the flat defender. We can play the corner in a press-bail technique or play him off at his normal alignment. He is the over top defender to #1W. The will is dropping under #1W. A “Hard” call simply switches the responsibilities between the boundary safety and the corner.


This is an “Easy” call by the boundary safety (#2) making him the C gap defender. We get the ball to bounce to the c gap and he becomes the tackler. The star (#8) is the match 3 defender to the field.

The corner (#27) this time plays off. The motion puts us in our 3x1 check. The boundary safety (#11) does a great job out of an “Easy” call playing aggressive off of the spill and becomes the tackler.

Another variation to defend 3x1 puts us in our Cover 2 coverage to #2-3. We use a shuffle/funnel technique by our Sam so that he can become the read corner to his side. In doing this, we can now play man to man coverage on #1S with the corner. By shuffling and funneling with the sam post snap we give the same look for the quarterback in his pre-snap read. Because we are losing the sam as our #2S drop, it’s important we replace that player with the star. This especially helps us against any 4S look. By dropping the star inside of #3S he now assumes the coverage rules of the sam. This helps protect against the stick route and also helps us defend the RB out of the backfield in a 4S look. The Mike is a #4S/ Middle hole dropper. By replacing the sam with the star we can still work a “Push” call between the mike and the star if the running back swings. We still work the “Easy” and “Hard” call to the boundary side out of this variation.

*Push Call – Swapping responsibilities.

This is a good look at the shuffle/funnel technique used by the sam (#23). Notice it’s post snap and his eyes go to #3. In this picture we swapped the mike (#19) and star’s (#18) responsibilities. Because it’s empty, we can play “Read” or “Nail” to the backside.

We would like the sam (#23) to shuffle out harder. We want to make sure we get an inside release and stay over the top of the #2 receiver.

Here is a look at a “Hard” call. The corner see the down block from the tackle and fits C gap.

4 Under 4 Deep

Dropping 8 also allows us to play a couple of true zone coverages that we can’t out of our 4-2-5. Again, we try to teach our coverages as concepts to our players. For our 4 Under 4 Deep coverage the rules for our secondary are the same as they would be for our Cover 4 call. This allows for us to keep our +1 box mentality for the run. Our 4 underneath droppers are the will, star, mike and sam. The will works directly to the flat, the star becomes the Hook/Curl dropper to the boundary side, the mike takes Hook/Curl to the field and we work the sam as a Curl/Flat defender.

Nice job by the mike (#19) here in our 4 Under 4 Deep coverage. As he drops to his spot he keeps his head on a swivel, sees the ball out quick and drives.

Here is another look at our 4 Under 4 Deep. This is really good by the will (#33). He is a straight flat dropper. Does a great job getting himself in position to make a play.

Good drop here by the mike (#10). He gets to his spot, gets his eyes back and is able to make a play.

In this clip we attached a “Press” for the corners. At the snap they bail, and we get 2 for 1 on the corner route. The strong safety (#2) does a great job of staying over the top and making a play.

5 Under 3 Deep

Having a third high safety gives us the ability to give a cover 3 look and still play our corners in a “Hard” technique. The boundary safety becomes a deep third player, the star is the middle deep third player and the strong safety is a deep third player. The corners are playing Flats, and this puts less pressure on our outside linebackers. The sam is a Curl player to the field the mike is a Middle Hole/Hook player and the will has the Curl drop to the boundary side. This coverage can be inverted as well simply by playing it as an “Easy” concept.



The 3 High Safety defense has given us the ability to play the same coverages we do out of our 4-2-5 while also allowing us to play some drop 8 coverages. By teaching our players in concepts, it keeps the learning curve simple and allows our players to learn the coverages and run fits quickly and efficiently. This gives us the ability to teach the proper techniques and make sure our players understand the different route combinations and run plays they will see each week. The 3 High Safety defense gives us the flexibility to be able to defend the run and pass in several different ways and be sound in doing so. I hope this article was helpful and I appreciate you taking the time to read through it. We are an open book here at Bluffton University and always happy to talk ball. I would like the thank FB Coaches Forum for giving me the opportunity and platform to share these ideas and concepts.