Football Fundamentals: The Tite Front Defense

The defense du jour against modern spread attacks is what is commonly known as the “Tite” front. Over the past couple years, you’ve seen Big 12 teams run it increasingly often, and SEC and other teams start to incorporate variants of the look more often as well as they begin to deal with an increasing number of spread formations. But what exactly is the “Tite” front? Like any front, say, a 4-3 Under, it isn’t necessarily any one thing. You can have single-high, two-high, or even three-high safeties. You can attach your overhangs differently. And with Tite, it may even mean different box numbers. And of course, there are multiple techniques that can be employed along the way. This post is a primer to the Tite front. At the end, I’ll link some of the better articles that get into greater depth for those interested, but for now, we need to understand the basics, so that we can understand how to attack it.

Let’s start with what is at the core of the “Tite” front. That is, the defensive line is aligned with defensive ends in a 4i-technique (inside shoulder of the OT) and the Nose is head up on the Center. Everything we talk about in this post is centered around this idea.

When talking about great run stopping formations, likely the first thing that will come to people’s minds is the “Bear” formation (46 defense). It was used (i.e. invented) most famously by the Buddy Ryan coached Chicago Bears teams. At the time, it had its own intricacies that aren’t employed as often today (such as the Jack LB lining up on the outside shoulder of the TE and the Charlie LB lining up on his inside shoulder), but at its core, it put a big dude right over the center and two other big dudes right over the guards. Of course, this was only an iteration of the “5-2 Eagle” Defense. And basically what the “Tite” front is, is an Eagle defense adapted to the modern, spread game. Virginia Tech adapted this technique to pull a massive upset of Ohio State in 2015.

This is fundamentally important, because zone schemes can’t get first level doubles on the way to the second level LBs. The second level is well protected, allowing them to get downhill or flow to the football. And pulling guards from the backside can be difficult because the interior DL can just attach themselves to their butt and follow them to the play. What you lose in pass rush off the edge, you gain by dominating interior gaps and protecting your second level, filling everything on the inside and spilling the ball to the edge defenders.

There are several ways of maintaining gap soundness with this front. The DEs will basically always be responsible for the B-gaps, what Coach Alexander calls “the holy grail for modern spread offenses”. This leaves the NT. Seth Galina talks about how to set the nose, and in simple terms there are several ways to do this.
  • Toward/Away. Have the Nose Attack toward or away from RB alignment (this is easiest for the NT to execute as there is no post-snap decision, but can be difficult for instance if the offense is in a pistol formation). This can help you protect a specific LB by having the NT responsible for the A-gap in that LB’s direction (preventing an OL from releasing to him) or can making you stronger at the point of attack, depending on what your priority is as a defense

  • Lag-technique. This means the Nose will “lag” behind the first step of the center. This does not mean the NT is slanting (and therefore potentially freeing the C from releasing to the 2nd level), instead, he is maintaining contact with the Center with his hands and impeding his path to the second level, while maintain a presence in the A gap opposite the Center’s first step.

  • Push-technique. This is effectively the opposite of Lag-technique. You will attack the Center at the snap, pushing with your playside hand (and pulling with your backside hand) to allow you to win the A-gap in the direction of the Center’s first step.
  • Two-gap. This isn’t as sound for a Tite front as it is a classic 2-gap 3-4. That’s because, with fewer box bodies, it is essential that the box defenders fill the interior gaps without being staggered. Two-gapping can cause hesitation in the LB’s read, and leave you open to getting gashed.
  • Slant. Also looked down upon because you don’t really control the center. If you are turning and simply trying to penetrate an A-gap, you are also freeing the Center up to release to the LB. By doing so, you can cause a stagger in the defense, and without other interior bodies in the box, that can be catastrophic. 
Box Defenders
Casual fans look at me with a sort of suspicious side-eye (I assume that’s how they look at me, I dunno, we’re on the internet here) when I tell them, historically, if a defense was going to add an additional DL to the field, they would simply move the MIKE down, often to a NT position.
The MIKE was a run stopper, he was a gap plugger, he often worked from the 2nd level but if he wasn't working at the 1st level, then he’s late. While modern football isn’t so cut and dry, and the MIKE has a lot more sideline-to-sideline responsibility, the idea remains fairly true in the Tite formation.

When people think run defense they think large numbers of DL, they think significant box numbers. When someone talks “Tite” front and sometimes they only have 4 true box defenders and 3 down linemen, it can be difficult to understand how fundamentally it’s a strong run defense. But the reality is, it’s difficult for the OL to get to the second level, and with the MIKE filling down you’re able to form a wall along the LOS that plugs all interior gaps.

There are what I would consider three main types of “box” looks that work from the Tite Formation. First, let’s look at the 4-Man box. This utilizes a single MIKE stacked behind the 4i-0-4i. The best example of this scheme is Iowa State. Of course, only having a 4-man box allows you to do a lot of different things with your secondary. Most importantly, though, is that your four interior gaps are filled.

Next is the 5-man box, which is probably the most common form a Tite. This leaves the MIKE and WILL in 30-techniques nominally (although they can shift due to formation strength if the offense is in 11 or 20 personnel) or pass strength (trips). This additional box defender helps defenses account for QB runs (the offense can add gaps with the read option or leading with the RB) and helps account for pulls or other methods of changing/adding gaps post snap.

The last one I’ll categorize is what is known as “Mint” in “Saban-ese”. Many lump this in with the 5-man box look with the overhang walked down (to form a 6-man box), but I like to differentiate it. While it still maintains a 4i-0-4i front, it will often walk-down a Jack LB on the edge or in a 3x3 split, creating a quasi-Under front, and presenting a hard edge to the offense rather than a soft edge. This, likewise, makes it a stronger defense for rushing the passer.

To respond to heavier sets, 11 personnel or 20 personnel, teams will often shift into Mint, or shift their entire front to look more like an Under.

The idea of the Tite front is to plug the interior gaps and spill everything to the overhangs. An “overhang” defender is one that aligns outside the formation, typically coming close to splitting the difference between the offensive EMOL and the closest receiver (known as an "Apex" technique). They typically align 4-5 yards off the LOS. In this way they serve several purposes. Due to their pre-snap position, they are extremely difficult to reach or edge, and in this way they can “box in” the offense. These overhangs will play everything outside-in, and by starting farther from the OL, it means they can effectively play everything in an inward direction, limiting the “conflict” the offense can put them in because they don’t need to be able to both widen and constrict (because they start wide). People think “spread offense” and they think taking advantage of all the sideline-to-sideline width of the field. The Tite formation overhangs counter that by forcing the run game into a small box. Without the basic ability to add lead blockers or stretch the fronts width via the use of 3, 4, 5-man surfaces (blockers attached to one side of the center), the defense is using the offense’s spread out pre-snap formation against them, and actually forcing them into a tighter space (in terms of running, anyway).

The other advantage of the overhangs is that they can easily be involved in the pass game. Because they are split off the formation, they do not need to be tight to the LOS in order to box everything inside. Rather, they have time to react and fill forward to any outside run threat. This allows them to play off the LOS. By splitting the difference between the OL and the next receiver, they naturally put themselves in the passing lanes of a lot of “quick-game” concepts. They are also naturally in position to get depth/width in their zone drops. By quasi-detaching them from the box, you allow the defense to focus on speed rather than strength, because of the limited “wash” they have to fight through. All this leads to defenders better prepared to defend the pass, by being in better position pre-snap, and being more athletic post-snap.

The downside of the overhangs is that, while they are in a position to play both run and pass, they are also in no-man’s land in terms of being flexible in terms of the types of coverage they can run. What I mean by this is that their position pre-snap does not lend itself to man coverage. Because they have essential run fit responsibilities (and everything breaks down in the front if they don’t perform that task well), their eyes need to be in the backfield; their pre-snap position requires them to be inside the receiver, which doesn’t allow them to re-route anything other than quick, inside breaking routes. They are often limited to zone drops. We’ll get into a little how you can manage a cover 0/1 out of the Tite front, but for the most part, that aspect of the defense is limited.

There are three basic secondary options that can be incorporated with the Tite front. We started with the 4-man box run by Iowa St, which they pair with a 3-safety look. This allows the middle of the field safety to often be a downhill defender, involving himself in the run game, typically to add another defender to the C-gap to help contain the spill from inside-out (especially out of a Cover 2 shell). Again, because of the position of the overhangs, the defense is typically going to run some sort of zone coverage. Theoretically, you can run almost any zone coverage out of this look with secondary rotations.

But it’s difficult to run man, because any man coverage is going to necessitate the deep safeties be matched up against the slot without any re-route and without great ability to get a quick pass rush.

Next is the 2-high look, which is probably most common. Given the 2-high pre-snap alignment, most coverages out of this are going to be 2-high zones (this includes almost all Cover 4 variants, so it isn’t that you are necessarily limited to spot drop basic zones). Like any defense, you could rotate into a Cover 3 look, but because of the position of the overhangs and safeties, it is difficult to rely on man coverage without moving the overhangs out closer to the slots.

The one way you can really run man coverage is out of a single high safety look. This allows you to move the outside safeties effectively down onto the slots and play them in man coverage. The danger here is that the front isn’t necessarily in great position to pressure the QB, which can make running Cover 1 difficult. In order to pressure the QB, you need to move the overhangs further inside and treat it more like a 3-3 stack with blitz exotics, but you have to be careful because fundamentally as a front, you are heavily relying on those overhangs to maintain the C-gaps still. Blitz too tight or don’t loop  fast enough, and you can easily get beat to the edge with only man coverage behind it.

Over course, you can still run your zone looks from this as well, so you aren’t limited to man coverage.

You can run some bracket man coverages out of Tite a bit, but it can be difficult because of the run responsibilities of the overhang. He is fairly limited in the “inside bracket” role he can play, and he can’t play really any vertical threat, so by running “bracket” you are really only taking away inside breaking quick game, which especially with a lack of pressure up front, can leave your back end exposed.

While what we are focusing on in this article is the 4i-0-4i front with overhangs, one advantage to the Mint front is its ability to quickly stem presnap into a more traditional nickel type front. Because the Jack is a hard edge, he can defend the run a bit different. With the 6-man box, the WILL can be used as a C-gap defender if needed, allowing the “overhang” to shift out to the slot pre-snap, and allow the coverage to really be any of the often preferable pattern match (RIP/LIZ) type defenses that many teams run.

Why is it called “TITE”?
You know, man, football coaches find a lot of weird ways to spell things. I don’t really know the true origins here. My main theory is that TITE was used by some in the community as a defensive line technique: “Tackle Inside Tight End” or “Tackle Inside Tackle” (TIT doesn’t sound as nice) or “Technique inside T/TE”. That makes some sense. But also, look in most playbooks, and when calling out the position of the Tight End, or the split of the WR, or whatever else a coach may use the word “tight” for, and more often than not, in the playbook it’s spelled “Tite”. Play sheets and diagrams are small spaces where there is a benefit to a word being one letter shorter.
Or someone just thought it looked right.

Coach Alexander has put together some great stuff on Tite Formation already:

Ian Boyd Has looked at the Tite front several times

And Seth Galina has put together a nice list of articles

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