Late in the first half of their 2018 game against Beggs High School (Ok.), Shiloh Christian (Ark.) defensive coordinator Jacob Gill finally felt comfortable enough to try a defense the Saints were workshopping in the offseason. Gill needed a defense that would limit the speed of a Beggs team that rostered multiple players who went to Power Five universities. So he took a chance. What began as something Gill said the team dabbled in against Beggs turned out to be the same three-safety defense that Iowa State has used recently to become a force defensively in the Big 12.
Since Iowa State made the switch to the three-high defense as their primary structure midway through 2017, Iowa State has played the scheme more often, allowing less than 240 passing yards per gam per gam every season despite playing explosive passing offenses like Oklahoma’s Air Raid every week. This defensive improvement also comes while Iowa State finishes outside the top five of recruiting rankings in the Big 12.
The Cyclones have created, and Gill is attempting to replicate, a defense that maximizes the talent on the roster, while minimizing the gap between larger schools with higher-quality athletes and smaller schools like Shiloh Christian, a private Christian school in Springfield, Arkansas. As ideas in the football world got passed up the chain, defensive coordinators in the NFL began using the personnel from the defense to gain the smallest edge on their opponents week in and week out.
It’s a defense that former Iowa State safety Lawrence White IV knows well. White played safety for the Cyclones from 2016-2020, and says the switch to the three safety defense came midway through the 2017 season, a Thursday night game against Texas.
“The switch was difficult at first because we were scrapping an entire defense for a game that was on Thursday,” White, who was a redshirt freshman at the time, said over the phone. “Once I saw it in action though, and saw the players in motion I really believed that this kind of defense could be special.”
Back in Beggs, Gill took a defensive lineman off the field and placed the team’s best athlete, a wide receiver, on the field as a third safety. Three negative-yardage plays for the offense later, Gill realized that they might have stumbled across something special.
“We all sat there after the game thinking ‘Wow, alright. This might work,’” Gill said on Zoom. “We had to ask ourselves how to get the best athletes on the field and this was perfect for us.”
Along the way, the three-safety defense provided a crucial data point in the evolution of the body type teams are beginning to look for in the secondary, namely at safety and slot defender.
“We found a way to get more of our best players on the field more often,” Gill said. “We’ve made the game easy for our kids while making it difficult for our opponents.”
How the Defense Works
After using the defense for the first time in 2018, Gill and other defensive coaches began to implement the defense gradually, using the scheme exclusively on passing downs. Passing plays are where the three-safety defense is most successful, limiting downfield passing attacks and run-pass options (RPOs) by forcing the offense to make short throws instead.
Cody Alexander, author and writer of Match Quarters, explained that the Iowa State defense is an offshoot of the traditional 3-3-5 defense created by former longtime college football defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn. This defense takes a defensive linemen off the field in place of a defensive back, hence the numbers: three defensive linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs.
However, Dunn’s 3-3-5 defense quickly became obsolete as modern offenses began to put more speed on the field. Normal schematic counters Dunn’s 3-3-5 defense used – such as Tampa 2, a coverage that tells the two safeties to each cover one half of the field, while the middle linebacker covers the entire middle of the field, became a problem for the defense when faced with true receiving threats from the inside.
This is where Iowa State Defensive Coordinator Jon Heacock got creative, Alexander said.
“In the Big 12 you play some of the best spread offenses in the country who use the Air Raid. The problem with the Tampa 2 defense is that you need an athletic freak at middle linebacker, who also has to play the run, which puts them in constant flux,” Alexander said. “What Iowa State did was play their corners really aggressively, and move a third safety to the middle of the field.”
At its core, the defense is effective because it removes the responsibility of a slower linebacker in pass coverage and gives it to a third safety, which Alexander explained has some of the same responsibilities as a traditional nickel corner.
“The third safety is what people call a box player,” Alexander said. “He’s playing the run from depth, because it’s a lot easier to play football going forward than running backwards.”
Because offenses are now designed to attack the linebacker in coverage, Heacock uses the third safety as a quick fix to the problem, allowing the player to cover anything that comes across the middle where the linebacker was usually in flux.
For coaches like Gill at Shiloh Christian, this helps tremendously when matched against modern offenses that use Run Pass Options (RPOs) to put the linebacker in conflict by making the player think about whether the play is a run or a pass. At the college level, multiple teams are throwing it more often, many times basing their entire offensive attack around it.
According to Sports Info Solutions in 2018 only two teams attempted more than 100 RPOs. In 2021, that number jumped to 13 teams, including traditional powerhouses like Alabama and Miami. In an RPO, the offensive line and running back run a running play, while the receivers run routes as if it’s a pass play. The quarterback reads the Sam (S) linebacker and bases the play on what he does. If he plays the run, the quarterback passes it, and if the Sam drops into passing coverage, the quarterback hands the ball off. The three-safety defense eliminates RPOs by taking away the problem of the Sam linebacker. The Sam linebacker is free to play the run, because there’s an extra safety behind him to play the pass.
“We felt like [the three safety defense] helped us answer some questions,” Gill said. “We can structure what we’re doing based on which players the offense is trying to put in conflict.”
As Gill prepared to continue to implement the three safety defense, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Shiloh Christian lost 23 seniors entering the football season, and got smaller on the defensive line as well.
Gill knew he had to change the defense to fit his players’ strengths, and this included the third safety position, most importantly the middle safety. The same spot where Gill placed a wide receiver in 2018 against Beggs could have a different role going into the 2020 football season.
“We put our best overall defensive back at the middle safety position,” Gill said. “Then we structure our calls and our coverage around what the player can do best. For defensive backs that are better playing against the run, Gill would move the player around for use as a pressure player, a strategy he used with an undersized defensive back he coached last year. The luxury of having the versatility garnered from the three-safety defense is flexibility among other players, Gill said.
“Being able to keep the coverage rules for the other two safeties the same is the beauty of this defense,” Gill said. “Now we can get versatility in terms of players we put around him, and maximize every player on the field.”
Christian played their three-safety defense on 40 percent of their snaps, and ended up winning the state championship. “If you look at our defensive efficiency numbers, we’ve played better defense in this structure than we did before,” Gill said. “Because of that [three safety] structure, we’ve been able to get our best players on the field more often.”
The responsibility of the middle safety player starts up front, Gill said.
“We teach him the front call first, whether he’s in the front or not,” Gill said. This knowledge is so important because against the run, the middle safety in this defense acts as a “cap”, according to Alexander, a player at the top of the defense who has to make sure no big plays happen, like how the cap of a drink keeps the liquid from spilling.
Think of it like a triangle: the middle safety is at the highest point, with the three intermediate defenders on the second level, and the defensive line at the bottom. The middle safety will come from his spot originally in the defense and run into the “box,” the space between the offensive tackles on the left and right side, to stop the run, or “fit” the run as Alexander called it. The triangle moves with the direction of the play, and the safety drops down into the play later.
“You now have a defender who isn’t in the box, and the offensive line can’t see them,” Alexander said. “It’s like an amoeba, offenses think they’re blocking this player at this point but then a second or third level defender comes running at you.”
This “amoeba” defense looks complex to opposing offenses, but for White it made his job simpler. As the free safety, White said he was an overhang defender, often being the extra man devoted to stopping the RPO.
“Playing in that defense is just fun man,” White said. “It was unique and made you want to play the game more.” White also defined what type of players Iowa State looked for in their safeties, saying that the middle safety was a “hybrid” between a linebacker and a safety, while the strong safety is more of a coverage player. “Having that other safety in the middle of the defense made my job a lot easier,” White said. “It allowed me to be more aggressive and make more plays around the ball.”
At the NFL level, offenses are beginning to change the personnel that’s often on the field, opting for more spread-out players such as four wide receivers in shotgun formation instead of two running backs on the field at the same time.
The increase of the spread offense is currently hitting the NFL, with high powered offenses like the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Rams manufacturing explosive plays through the air with their offense. The cycle of schematic ideas continues to run, however, and as ideas get passed from the high school and college level, one begins to wonder if this three-safety defense would ever make its way to the NFL level.
Cody Alexander, creator of the Match Quarters website dedicated to dissecting defenses at every level, doesn’t seem to think the structure of the three-safety defense will catch on in the NFL. “The three-safety defense involves getting cornerbacks involved more in the run game,” Alexander said. “The corners in the NFL are getting paid a lot of money to be coverage specialists, and it wouldn’t make sense to waste them in a run fit.”
From a schematic standpoint, the three-safety defense structure is meant to limit teams that are spread all the way out onto the hash marks. It’s a small adjustment, but as the old adage goes, football is a game of inches.
At the high school level, the hash marks are 53 feet and four inches apart. In college the number goes down to 40 feet, while in the NFL the number shrinks all the way down to 18 feet and six inches. There’s simply less space to put all three safeties on the field structurally like Iowa State does, and NFL offenses aren’t as extended beyond the hash marks as they are in college football.
“There are a lot of reduced sets and reductions in the NFL,” Alexander said. “Alex Gibbs, the godfather of wide zone offense always wanted to make the corner tackle, and by bringing receivers in closer you get better blocking angles on the safeties and force the corner to tackle.”
Where the three-safety defense could find its way into the NFL is in the personnel usage. According to White, the role of the middle safety is more of a hybrid player, a cross between a linebacker and defensive back.
This kind of player wouldn’t have a spot on the field in previous eras, being too small to put at linebacker but too slow to put at safety. Now, the NFL is becoming more positionless, mimicking other sports like basketball.
“Everyone is trying to spread everybody out and passing is the equivalent of the three-pointer in the NBA,” Alexander said. “Analytics tells you that it’s more efficient to throw the ball, so now you need more guys that can play in space.”
The ability to play in space is at a premium in the NFL now, especially as NFL teams begin to move their biggest receivers into the slot to get a matchup advantage. Reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year and Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp dominated NFL defenses while running a majority of his routes from the slot, which afforded an advantage to the Rams offense.
What people often forget, however, is that Kupp is listed at 6-foot-2 and 208 pounds, a bigger receiver than what people normally associate with playing in the slot. According to Sports Info Solutions (SIS), in 2021 six of the top 10 leaders in routes run from the slot were above 6 feet tall, including tight end Mark Andrews, who tops the list at 6-foot-5.
This is even more interesting when you compare it to 2016, when SIS first began charting routes run. That year, there were only two receivers over 6 feet tall in the top 10 of routes run from the slot.
The era of the Wes Welker type of slot receiver is ending, and now nickel cornerbacks are becoming more like the middle safety White talked about, a hybrid player who can match up with bigger slot receivers.
“You don’t want your 5-8 , 175-pound slot corner guarding Travis Kelce or Darren Waller, that’s a huge mismatch,” Cody Alexander said. “What you need now are more 6-1 or 6-2 safeties who can match up with these guys in the passing game and play the run.”
The NFL is already beginning to make this adjustment. Per SIS, among the teams that finished in the top 10 of Football Outsiders Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) metric against the pass in 2021, one of them had a player below 5-foot-11 play the most coverage snaps in the slot (Jourdan Lewis of the Dallas Cowboys).
Compare this to 2018, when SIS started tracking coverage snaps from the slot. In that year, among the top 10 teams in defensive passing DVOA there were seven players who were below 5-foot-11 who led their respective teams in coverage snaps from the slot. As the NFL gets bigger in the slot offensively, teams will begin to look for more players like the middle safety in Iowa State’s defense, players who are versatile enough to wear a lot of hats for the defense.
“The defensive back (DB) position is becoming more and more important,” Alexander said. “The key cog of defenses used to be linebackers, but now it’s safeties.”
As safeties become more important in football, the process of building teams and finding value in the safety and slot defender is becoming more important.
At the high school level, Coach Gill has noticed that the increase of participation in padless seven-on-seven tournaments, which are meant for skill position players like wide receiver, has increased the amount of players Gill calls “tweeners”.
“Kids grow up playing catch, and wanting to be a wide receiver and score touchdowns,” Gill said. “Because of how often teams pass the ball now, you need guys who can play in space and run.”
The focus on larger players who are “positionless” is shaping recruitment at the college level as well. According to 247 Sports’ player ranking database, the best recruits are given five stars out of five.
In the upcoming class of four and five-star safeties graduating high school, only two are below 6 feet tall. The ability to be “positionless” in the secondary is becoming less of a hindrance and more of a positive trait that not only college football teams look for, but NFL teams as well.
“NFL teams today can come to the table with three very talented receivers, which means that you have to play a slot defender who can cover,” former Atlanta Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “We perceived our slot defender as our third corner and a starter, that’s how important they are to the defense.”
During his tenure with the Falcons, Dimitroff worked with multiple head coaches, defensive coordinators and position coaches in order to build a contending team on defense. While the coordinators and people within the front office might have changed, the evaluation of the safety and slot defender didn’t.
“We started with general athleticism, like hip fluidity and agility,” Dimitroff said. “We’d then hone in on the ability to cover from the outside versus the inside. If a guy is really smart and athletic but lacks top speed, we’d find a role for him on the inside.”
As Dimitroff transitioned from being the GM of a defensive scheme like Mike Smith (who coached the Falcons from 2008-2014) to a Dan Quinn (Falcons coach from 2015-2020) scheme, he noticed how the roles of the safety changed as offenses began to modernize. “Quinn would much rather want two good athletes who could be interchangeable,” Dimitroff said. “There’s a lot of variability from team to team, but now you’re beginning to see the safeties go from being 225 pounds to more in the 195-205 pound range.”
Where we’re headed
As Coach Gill prepares for another season coaching the Shiloh Christian Saints, he’s preparing to run the three-safety defense as his “base”, or main, defense. For a smaller school in Arkansas, the defense has given Gill a way to play his best players while not having monstrous defensive linemen.
From putting in the defense and testing it on a crisp fall night in 2018 to making it their primary defense, Gill has noticed the benefits. Shiloh Christian has made the state championship in the previous two years, and their defense has been stronger and stronger each year.
“It’s really simple,” Gill said. “The more we’re in it [the three-safety defense] the better we play.”
While the true three-safety defense will likely never make it into the NFL, the change has already been felt. Football is like chess, and for defenses, the safety is quickly becoming the queen on the chessboard, and the value of the safety is skyrocketing.
“The NFL is a matchup league,” former Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff said. “Even though you want some badass guy to come down and fill a gap, being able to cover takes more priority in the league.”
A perfect case study of this change happening in real time is with the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers. For the Rams, their passing defense truly took off when former defensive coordinator Brandon Staley began to use All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey to cover the slot receiver beginning in 2020, taking away routes by bigger receivers on the inside and putting him closer to the action. This culminated in 2021. Ramsey helped the Rams to a Super Bowl victory.
“The different places we can activate him is a real weapon — it’s kind of like one of those ‘Jokers’ on offense, that you don’t know whether he’s going to be in the backfield, in the slot, attached to the core or out wide as a receiver,” Rams coach Sean McVay told Jourdan Rodrigue of The Athletic. “And that’s what Jalen is for the defensive side of the ball.”
Staley left the Rams to become the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, where he has a similar style of impact player in safety Derwin James. James finished fourth for the Chargers in coverage snaps from the slot, or the “Star” position as Staley calls it, at 6’2.
Staley could want him there more to be able to match up against bigger slot receivers and tight ends, and has already started addressing that need. The Athletic’s Daniel Popper wrote in February after the Chargers selected Baylor safety J.T. Woods that it gives Staley the flexibility to play James in the slot to be around the action and be a bigger body against bigger slot guys.
At the college level, the three-safety defensive structure is already making its way across the country. The most notable example is with former Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who now is the head coach at Oklahoma. The Athletic’s Max Olson reported in 2020 that Venables and other defensive coaches visited Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock in April to shadow the Iowa State defense and watch film.
What resulted was Venables implementing Iowa State’s three-safety defense and deploying it on a whim, just as Coach Gill did against Beggs High School. The only difference? Venables put the defense into action on a national stage, the 2019 College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State midway through the first half, down 13.
“We had to do something different,” Clemson safeties coach Mickey Conn told Olson, “because they were going up and down the field on what we were trying to do otherwise.”
Venables saw the success the Iowa State defense had in defending modern offenses, and deployed it for himself at Clemson.
Lawrence White IV is the best example of this defense changing the players themselves. After playing corner and quarterback in high school, White was stuck in the middle of the depth chart before Iowa State Defensive Coordinator Jon Heacock made the switch. From the moment the switch was made, White saw playing time increase for everyone in the secondary room.
“Going from two safeties on the field to three, you move up the depth chart,” White said. “Coach gained more trust in us to play more people and get reps in the game.”
White said once the switch was made, up to eight safeties would see the field during a single game. The best way to develop is to get playing time in games, and that development paid off for White. White became a full time starter in the three safety defense in 2018, and in 2019 and 2020 White was named honorable Big 12 by coaches and media.
White, who received a training camp invite from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was in the 2023 XFL draft, credits everything to Iowa State and that defense, proving that three is the magic number.