Defense: Stopping the Triple Option

In this article Coach Hickman discusses how to stop the triple-option offense. He uses the Navy vs. ECU game as a backstory.

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Coach Brett Hickman

Some of the most embarrassing losses in East Carolina’s recent football history have come at the hands of Navy’s well-oiled Triple Option machine.  The fond memories of a 76 spot in the rain in 2010 immediately comes to mind. 

Stopping Navy was so much on Mike Houston’s mind that when interviewing Defensive Coordinators this winter, he put each candidate through an exhaustive process in which defending the Triple Option had its own three hour presentation window from each candidate.  Its one game…..but its a big one.

So here we are again.  Navy week.  

In ten years of coaching college football, I have seen and prepared for the triple option over twenty times in my life.  Like Mike Houston and much of his staff, my most formative years in coaching were facing opponents in the South Atlantic Conference at the Division II level, and against Big South and Southern Conference opponents at the FCS levels. Not to mention, we see it twice a year at West Brunswick in eastern North Carolina high school ball..

Carson-Newman, Brevard, Lenoir-Rhyne, Wofford, The Citadel, Kennesaw State, Socasttee, North Brunswick

Those names mean nothing to you.  But my heavens….I feel like I’ve spent half my life studying their film and trying to find a way to slow down one of American football’s most tried and true schemes. 


In my first season as the Linebacker coach at North Greenville University we were struggling in the midst of a 2-9 season when we went to Hickory to take on an improving Lenoir-Rhyne team under Fred Goldsmith.  The Defensive Coordinator for the Bears was a young man named Mike Houston.

The Bears embarrassed the Crusaders that night 49-7 in a game where it legitimately could have been 80 if Goldsmith did not have class.  Out of that beating came an obsessive drive to defend the Triple Option from Chad Staggs and the rest of our defensive staff.

Over the next two years, and working in consultation with long time Triple Option assistant coach Mark Tucker (ETSU, Citadel, Charleston Southern), our staff developed a plan that is still used by all of us today at various levels.  In fact, Staggs has developed the reputation as maybe the best defender of the Triple Option in college football at NGU, Charleston Southern, and now Coastal Carolina.  

Here are the five things we learned that you must do to slow down the option

Develop a Mindset

Navy, and other option schools, beat most people on this alone. 

If you spend all week worrying about defeating scoop blocks at the line of scrimmage you are beat.  If you spend all week worrying about getting cut blocked on the perimeter, you are beat.  If you spend all week pissed off you cannot rush the passer you are beat.

Playing the option is not a boxing match.  It’s a fistfight.  And at some point you have to decide you are ok with that.  Go look at the Army-Citadel score from last week….or the Kennesaw State-Wofford FCS playoff game from last year.  Now go look at how those teams fare against some more traditional offenses or even worse, Air Raid football teams. It aint pretty.

That is not coincidence.  Teams that can replicate the speed and physicality of the scheme in practice are always a leg up in defending it.  That’s not a revolutionary point.  But it does stand to reason that I strongly believe in time Mike Houston’s teams at East Carolina will defend Navy much better than Ruffin McNeill’s or Scottie Montgomery’s teams due to familiarity with the scheme and commitment to winning at the point of contact. Finesse football teams are an option football teams dream. 

The attitude or mindset East Carolina approaches this game with will tell me exactly where it is from a culture standpoint and if the Hard Edge/No Excuses mentality Mike Houston wants is really taking shape.  

With all of that being said, execution is still vital.  And here are the techniques ECU must use to give itself a chance on defense.

Secondary Eye – Control

Sitting in the West Brunswick gym this January watching J’vian Mccray play basketball, Coach Houston and I were able to rehash some of our old wars between North Greenville-Lenoir Rhyne and The Citadel-Gardner-Webb.  Inevitably, the discussion turned to defending the Triple Option. 

Secondary coaches at heart, both of us have traditionally defended to scheme in what I define as “Flow Quarters” which requires safeties to be “conflict” players against the run and the pass.  Where the issue exists is that the pitch in the triple option scheme hits so fast that the safeties often have to come down in run support much faster than against a traditional scheme thus making it more difficult to diagnose playaction pass.  

If East Carolina decides to play “Flow,” Tripp Weaver has the hardest job this week because there are so many variables and keys in this particular scheme.  The East Carolina safeties (and corners if Navy goes into their bunch sets) must be on their P’s and Q’s with both technique and eye discipline to not give up the deep ball this week.  

Blake Harrell could throw me (and the Navy offense) a real curveball and decide to play Navy in a leverage 1 high structure with the free safety running the alley to both sides.  This is the ultimate risk-reward given its susceptibility to middle of the field play-actions and while it’s really good because the 8-man fronts give you hard leverage on the pitch right now, it provides easier angles for the slots to block.  In my opinion, I do not think you’ll see this. But I have no intel to suggest we won’t.

Tackles , Tight Ends, or Bunch Receivers …..CANNOT GET A FREE RELEASE

In watching Navy’s game vs. Temple and Tulane via Youtube, I was appalled at how the “Dive Players” (Defensive Ends or Outside Linebackers) never attempted to knock Navy’s second level blockers off course.  This led to the inside linebackers for these two teams being set up for failure with a face full of Midshipmen coming in their grill (or knee caps) everytime.

We drill this constantly in our three and four down fronts with both our ends and our outside backers to “punch squeeze” on the way to tackling the dive because you must……..

Get Two Hats To The Alley

It drives me nuts to listen to coaches say defending the Triple Option is not hard because, “you only have to play assignment football.  Put a guy on the dive, the QB, and the pitch.” Yea, it’s that simple until they change up a scheme and they block on of them.

The dive by nature should be stopped because the option’s base play leaves a defender unblocked at the point of contact (the read key).  In my estimation, this man should be the base dive defender unless you have a “swap” call on.  This is why the fullback rarely gets the football on the triple option play against good defenses because good coaches know you always stop the play inside-out. 

Thats not to say the FB is neutralized automatically.  Option coaches are not just going to run the triple option scheme all day.  They have a wide array of traps, double options, and hard dives to get the fullback his carries regardless.

So now that we’ve assessed that the “read defender” will primarily be a dive player, that leaves us four guys to defend the quarterback and the pitch component. Those four guys are outside linebacker, the inside linebacker, the playside safety, and the playside corner.  Sounds easy enough…..but it ain’t.

Remember when I said you have to “punch squeeze” a releasing Tight End or Tackle? Well, that guy is coached too.  Option coaches work “veer” releases every week to avoid such a technique and their sole purpose is to pin your inside linebacker from getting to the alley. Can East Carolina keep the playside inside linebacker free in its scheme? We will see.

The playside corner is going to be in one on one coverage 99 percent of the time unless he is blizing this week.  So he’s a non-factor in run support unless the receiver he is covering crack blocks a safety or linebacker.  If that’s the case he’s going to “crack replace” and play the pitch.  Otherwise, he will be run off all day in man coverage.  So now, the option coaches have eliminated one guy by releasing a tackle to him (inside backer) and ran another one off (corner). See the problems here? 

Now we get back to my buddy, Tripp Weaver.  Remember when I said that safety has a hard job? He has to be able to teach a safety in three days of practice the difference in a wheel route and and arc release crack block.  If you’re wondering, the two look almost identical and if you are late on the arc block, you’ll get cut.  If you are wrong and it’s the wheel route its a certain touchdown.  So there’s that as well.  

So we’ve discerned that the safety has to be perfect, the corner is a non-factor, and the playside inside ‘backer is only free if the down lineman or outside ‘backer do their job perfectly.  

This brings us to our final defender, the “Pitch Key.”  Typically this will be the outside ‘backer in a 3-4 or a nickel/sam in a 4-3.  How does Blake Harrell decide to play this defender?  Does he fast play it and deliver big hits on the quarterback or the pitch man? Sounds great in theory, but the quicker the ball gets pitched or gets the QB upfield, the less effective the Navy perimeter blocking schemes must be. I personally think the ECU staff chooses to  slow play it (feather technique)  and give the other three blocked defenders a chance to get off a block and make the play on the quarterback or pitch (depending on who the pitch key is being taught to play).  

If it sounds complicated that’s because it is.  And we are just talking about defending one play.

A detailed video explanation is below in what we refer to as the alley. 

Defending the Cut

It sounds simple enough, but you cannot play football on the ground.  And regardless of how cheap you think it is, a cut block when executed correctly and fairly, is both clean and devastating.  

The technique seems simple enough to teach.  Number 1, the man trying to defeat the cut block must first leverage the football and never let the attacker leverage him to the sideline.  The angle of attack is ultimately the most important aspect.  Second, the defender must be in a position to drop his outside leg so that the blockers helmet or shoulder does not get to the knee cap.  And lastly, the defender must strike the crown of the blockers frontal lobe with his thumbs down using the strongest part of his hands (the area between the thumb and the index finger).  

Ole’ing the block only creates more space in the alley for the defenders to run and sets no edge on the defense.  Getting leveraged gives the runner more space to get to the sideline.  The safeties and linebackers have no choice….to get off the block, they have to take on the block.  

Playing the cut comes down to the original point of a mindset. You know it’s coming all game.  Do not whine or complain when it happens.  Just do your job.  But it also comes down to the technique that the Pirates are practicing this week.  


East Carolina’s staff has a long history of defending the triple option.  While it is a mixed bag, most of it is good.  But what wasn’t was the Pirates 2019 trip to Annapolis.  Until, this program wins a game against Navy and plays well defensively then it’s a stain on the program; regardless of how well the coaches have defended it in the past.

It is on good authority that East Carolina has prepared for Navy on various days during training camp and has not waited until this week to practice against the option.  That gives me a little more hope for a good outcome on Saturday.  Additionally, Navy does not have the captain of its ship the last few years due to graduation.  Malcolm Perry was an elite college quarterback. 

I have no doubt in my mind that Blake Harrell and Mike Houston will have a good plan.  But I do have concerns about a young defense seeing an offense for the first time and developing the mentality and awareness it takes to effectively shut it down in just one week of preparation. 

Saturday is a massive day for this ECU program.

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