How to Defend RPOs with 3 High Safeties

How the 3 High Safety Defense Works Against RPOs

The 3 High Safety defense is a great way to combat the ever-evolving RPO offense in today’s game of football. It gives an appearance of a light box against the run but also allows your defense to be multiple with your looks and assignments.

One of the many reasons this defense can be successful is you will always have a force defender, whether it’s the Viper, Trap Corner, LB, or Rover. As far as personnel goes, you can really approach your defensive line from two perspectives. If you have an above-average defensive line that is strong, athletic, and can hold their ground you can take this approach that Iowa State and Northern Iowa use to a certain extent.

Against 10 personnel you will play a 0 technique and 4 techniques at the Ends. Once a Y is involved, whether in or out of the core, the Ends will shift to 5 techniques. If it is 10 personnel pistol, the ends will jump into 4is to help with the Inside Zone.

Your best players in this defense need to be your Boundary Safety, Viper, and your Rover.

Your ILBs need to be pluggers because they will always have some form of run support outside of them. Your Viper always goes to the formation regardless if it’s field or boundary. The Rover always lines up over the #3 receiver and needs to be able to play the middle of the field on certain pressures.

If your D-line is undersized, you can line them up in a 0 technique and 4 techniques, but move them accordingly.

How to Line Up in the 3 High Safety Defense

Against Tight End Wing

Against Tight End Trips


How a 3 High Safety Defense Has Helped Us

The 3 High Safety Defense was successful during the 2020 International Bowl for the U17 Japanese Team that I was fortunate enough to be asked to be the Head Coach this past January.

The success of the defense against the RPO offense is the appearance of a light box against the run and you are forcing an offense that wants to get the ball in space to either hand it off or hold the ball.

Another plus is that you are always adding a bonus defender against the run with the Rover, Viper, or Trap Corner. Coverages we used were Tampa 2 to the Viper Side, Trap away from the Viper, and 3 or 2 under with 3 deep.

We also trapped the boundary with our Corner blitz from the boundary. The Corner blitz from the boundary was effective and the Boundary safety would trap the boundary and the Rover would become the half safety. If you are running it against 3×1 the LB that is not blitzing has to run with #3 Vertical.

Take a look:

How to Coach the 3 High Safety Defense Against RPOs

  1. Defensive Line Rules are as follows: If is it 10 personnel there is a 0 technique and two 4 Techniques, if there is a Y in the Core the Ends shift to 5 Techniques. Against 10 Personnel Pistol, the ends shift to 4is. If you have an undersized DL, move them either away from the back or to the back based on your breakdown.
  2. The ILBs are aligned in 30s but will move based on the formation and where the ball is on the field. If they need to displace they will make a pull call and the direction they are moving.
  3. The Viper always goes to the formation regardless if it’s in the boundary or to the field. The only time the Viper goes to the field regardless of the formation is if they hear a Thunder Call, meaning we are blitzing the Corner from the Boundary.
  4. Coverage wise we are Tampa 2 to the Viper’s side and Trap Coverage Away. If we are pressuring we will make a Poach Call, so we are Press/Bail Cover 3 with the Rover becoming the Free Safety. The other safeties are moving on the snap coming down to be the Force/Flat Defenders.

How to Use Coverage Deception in the 3 High Safety Defense

If it’s 10 personnel, you will play a Zero and two 4 techniques. If there is a Y in the core, Our Thunder call means that we are running our Corner Blitz from the boundary and are playing Trap Coverage.

Coverages that we will play are Tampa 2 to the Viper side and Trap Coverage away from the Viper.

If we are running any other pressures, it will be a Poach Call, which is press-bail Cover 3. The Boundary and Field Safety will become the Force/Flat Defenders, Rover becomes the middle third player, and Corners Press-Bail into their thirds.

We ran everything out of a Tampa 2 look and moved on the snap.

Blitz Against Doubles

Blitz Against Trips

Understanding Run Fits in the 3 High Safety Defense

It is imperative that everyone on the defense understands their specific run fit.

As a coach, you need to put your players in the best position to succeed, and that starts with understanding what type of DL you have to run this defense. If you don’t have guys that can hold up in their gaps then you need to use your speed and quickness.

Line up to all the formations you are seeing and keep it simple for your kids. If you keep it simple they will play fast and execute at a high level. Always have a plan if you see 12 personnel, it will really give you an issue because of the extra gaps. Make sure to go through a blitz period and discuss the landmarks you want your players to get to against the run and pass.

Especially the trap players and force/flat defenders because you are trying to hold the Tampa 2 look as much as possible pre-snap.


The 3 High Safety defense is great against Spread RPO offenses because it forces them to make decisions that they would not normally make.

And at the end of the day, you just need to make the game plan simple and your kids will play fast and execute.

The article was originally published in Headsets: Volume 1, Issue 3.


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