The 3-3-5 defense against Big Ten-style rush offenses

Submitted by Erik_in_Dayton on December 11th, 2010 at 10:00 PM


If you recall, before the potential coaching change engulfed the world of Michigan fans (myself included), we were interested in whether or not the 3-3-5 defense could stop Big Ten-style run offenses.  There were various football people who insisted that it could if run properly and those, like Chris Spielman, who thought that it had too many “bubbles” (I fell into the latter camp, fwiw).  This diary is intended to address that issue. Obviously, the issue is more likely to be relevant if RR is retained (the wisdom of which I don’t mean to comment on here).

By "Big Ten-style" run offense, I mean, perhaps sloppily, any offense that does not primarily run out of the spread.  A majority of Big Ten teams now run out of the spread, of course, but the idea floating around toward the end of Michigan's regular season was that the 3-3-5 could not stop traditional Big Ten-style rushing attacks.  I accordingly looked for results from the 3-3-5 against run offenses similar to those used by Iowa, Wisconsin, etc. 

[Edit: I may not have been clear enough in defining "traditional Big Ten-style rushing attack."  I'll try to be more specific:  A running attack that mostly involves a QB under center and mostly involves the use of a fullback or at least one tight end on running plays.  Why am I using that definition?  I'm using it because it because I think that's what people mean when they say that the 3-3-5 can't stop Big Ten-style rushing attacks.  This criticism tends not to be very specific, so it is difficult to address it with a great deal of specificity.  It is difficult to catch the boogie man.]

For obvious reasons, WVU offers the best and most relevant example of a team that uses the 3-3-5.  I decided to look at WVU's success (or lack of it) against Pitt, Rutgers, and UConn from 2005-2009 as a measurement of the effectiveness of the 3-3-5 against Big Ten-style run offenses.  I think we can agree that those teams run using offenses that are similar to traditional Big Ten-style offenses or, at least, that they generally do not run out of the spread (or some exotic non-spread offense like the triple-option, wing-T, or lonely antelope*). 

Here, we can imagine the protest that WVU's 3-3-5 may work in the Big East but would not work in the Big Ten, as the Big East is inferior.  To this I have two responses:  First, WVU plays against Big East-caliber players when it plays the above teams but it does this with more-or-less that same caliber of player on its own side.   Off the top of my head, I'm fairly sure that Pitt, for one, nearly always out-recruits WVU, so WVU likely does not have a talent advantage in that match-up.  As to UConn and Rutgers, I believe that WVU typically out-recruits those schools, but certainly not to the degree that Michigan or any other top-echelon Big Ten School does.  I might be wrong on these assumptions and, frankly, I don't feel like looking it up.  The motivated reader is welcome to shed light here.  In any event, I hope we can agree that WVU does not have a significant talent advantage over Pitt, UConn, and Rutgers and so the “But it’s the Big East!” argument fails on that count. 

Second, it is possible that Big East coaches are inferior to Big Ten coaches so that Big Ten run offenses are more nuanced and difficult to defend than are Big East run offenses.  I have no answer to this objection.  I don't have the time or expertise to offer a meaningful reply.  WVU's 3-3-5 offers us the most relevant example of that defense, though, so we have to work with what we have.

With those issues addressed, below are the yards per carry (ypc) of Rutgers, UConn, and Pitt from '05-'09 for their entire seasons, not including their ypc against WVU in those years.  Below also are the ypc for each team against WVU (WVU ypc) for each of the relevant years and the difference between the teams' season ypc and WVU ypc for each year.





WVU ypc






















The average difference in ypc between Rutgers’ season ypc and its ypc against WVU was -0.9 ypc for '05-'09.




WVU ypc






















The average difference in ypc between UConn's season ypc and its ypc against WVU was -1.3 ypc for '05-'09.




WVU ypc























The average difference in ypc between Pitt’s season ypc and its ypc against WVU was -0.6 ypc for '05-'09.


Further Thoughts and Conclusion:

I realized as I was compiling these statistics that I did not account for sacks.  WVU averaged roughly 31 sacks per year from ’05-’09, a seemingly middling amount (and roughly what Michigan averaged for those years).  A brief review of the rest of the Big East’s sack totals for those years suggests that WVU was not a stand-out sack-wise in the conference for our time period.  It is none-the-less possible that, despite WVU’s average performance as a pass rushing defense, WVU had a disproportionate amount of sacks against UConn, Pitt, and Rutgers and that these sacks artificially lowered those teams’ ypc against WVU.  WVU recorded seven sacks for 50 yards in one of the games listed above.   

I am not inclined, half out of laziness, to go back and pick through the sacks-against totals for UConn, Pitt, and Rutgers against all non-WVU teams and then against WVU.  It strikes me as unlikely that those teams’ ypc were lowered by sacks against WVU any more than they were lowered by sacks against all other teams.  Again, though, the motivated reader is welcome to illuminate this issue.

UConn, Rutgers, and Pitt rushed for an average of 0.9 ypc less against WVU during our time period than they did against all other teams.   WVU’s worst performances were against Pitt in 2005 and 2008, when Pitt increased its ypc by 0.8 and 0.7 against WVU.  Other than that, WVU routinely held teams to their average ypc or less.  Twice (UConn 2005 and Pitt 2006), WVU stoned teams to the tune of a decrease of at least -3.9 ypc. 

As a comparison (and here my laziness shows up again), Alabama’s very strong rush defense of 2009 held its Division I opponents to 1.6 ypc less than those teams rushed for during their entire seasons (here, though, I did not subtract those teams' ypc against Alabama from their total ypc, so the above number is artificially deflated).   The fact that WVU’s performance against UConn, Rutgers, and Pitt does not match Alabama’s (deflated) performance of 2009 shows us that WVU was not dominant.  Despite this, I am inclined to say that WVU’s performance was pretty good or, if you like, A-okay. 

Despite the imperfections in the above analysis, I now believe that the 3-3-5 can succeed against traditional Big Ten offenses.  Of course, replicating WVU’s success would require recruiting appropriate players for the 3-3-5, developing them, and then using the 3-3-5 at least as well as Jeff Casteel does at WVU. 



*There is, of course, no such offense as the wing-T. 


The Impaler

December 11th, 2010 at 10:03 PM ^

Despite the imperfections in the above analysis, I now believe that the 3-3-5 can succeed against traditional Big Ten offenses. Of course, replicating WVU’s success would require recruiting appropriate players for the 3-3-5, developing them, and then using the 3-3-5 at least as well as Jeff Casteel does at WVU.

This is all you had to write


December 11th, 2010 at 10:13 PM ^

what a "Big-Ten style run offense" is. The association of the Big Ten with the pound it up the gut running strategy hasn't been accurate in my lifetime, with the exception of Wisconsin.

Blue Bill

December 12th, 2010 at 12:57 PM ^

Actually, Michigan ran a lot of option and misdirection and-- yes-- ran quite a bit out of the T-formation back then.  The OP seems to consider a "traditional Big Ten Offense" to be an offense that tends to run out of formations one typically sees on Sundays.  I can kind of understand using that distinction in this context, as I think the concern is whether or not the 3-3-5 can stop run plays using lots of really big, strong dudes in the middle of the field, but there is a difference between the 2010 Wisconsin offense, which was primarily a power run game out of the I-set, and the Mike Hart Michigan offenses, which constantly ran the zone stretch with a single back.

Not a Blue Fan

December 12th, 2010 at 1:24 PM ^

Yeah, I'm struggling to figure out how "the spread" is defined (and "Big Ten Offense", too). Is the spread any offense that runs the zone-read? Is it any offense that routinely puts 4 vertical threats on the field (recall that Wisconsin always has this)? Is it any offense that routinely doesn't use a fullback? Is "The Spread" like pornography ("I know it when I see it")? Similarly, what is a "Big Ten Running Offense"? Is it the old fashion ISO with a fullback? Wisconsin doesn't really use this much - mostly out of 2 personnel and relying on zone (or some pin-and-pull or power variant) blocking; I think we would (mostly) call Wisconsin a traditional Big Ten running offense. I'm not sure how you are differentiating between the two offenses.

I personally believe that the 335 can work in the Big Ten. It's not all that different from the 425 or 43 under (especially when you put the weak DE in a two point stance, as OSU often does). At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I think the problems with the 335 as Michigan has it implemented is that 1) the talent on defense is pitiful (stated as objectively as possible) and 2) the coaching staff doesn't know how to implement a 335. I think that your scheme matters a lot less than how much talent you have and a hell of a lot less than how well the scheme is coached.


December 14th, 2010 at 5:01 PM ^

I didn't try to apply any more specifics to the term "Big Ten-style" rush offense than have people in the media and on this blog when using the term.  I'm not arguing that the term holds up under much scrutiny.  But, we've all heard people say that the 3-3-5 can't stop a "Big Ten-style" (or some close variance of the term) rushing attack, yes?  Also, I assume that we can agree that most people wouldn't apply the term "spread" offense to Wisconsin, though there may be some way to make that valid. 

Upon closer inspection, it may be that it doesn't make much sense to lump "spread" offenses together or any other offenses together.  People do it, though, so I tried to address the question of whether the 3-3-5 could stop "Big Ten-style" rushing attacks, as the term has been used (however lazily) recently. 


December 14th, 2010 at 1:30 AM ^

offense that while greatly different from the  offenses Bo and Woody used in the 70's, still is predicated on protecting the football, chewing up clock, and wearing down defenses with a physical rushing attack. The pass is much more involved in this modern interpretation of "Big Ten-style" football, but it still plays a secondary role to the run.


December 11th, 2010 at 10:16 PM ^

One of the questions that come to mind is whether WVU would represent one of the better teams that those opponents face, regardless of the defensive scheme. In other words, even if WVU ran a traditional 4-3 defense, would those teams still experience a lower YPC against WVU compared to the rest of their schedule?

We don't really have a good control group, so it's very difficult to do this analysis.


December 11th, 2010 at 11:11 PM ^

I consider Big Ten offenses in question on whether 3-3-5 can work against are: primarily Wisconsin,Iowa,Penn State,MSU. They run more traditional run oriented offenses with blocking tight ends,sometimes two or three,fullbacks,and big physical running backs. It just seems like against teams like that using 5 defensive backs is not a good idea,plus having just 3 down linemen would make the D line undermanned. Use the 3-3-5 against spread offenses and four down line and traditional back seven against the other teams. It will be interesting to see in Rose Bowl game with an excellent TCU defense that runs 3-3-5 going up against Wisconsin.


December 12th, 2010 at 12:16 AM ^

How many rushing attempts did these teams have compared to thier season averages.  It would be interesting to see if they were playing from behind and were forced to abandon  the run.  Also how did the 3-3-5 do against Louisville when Bobby Patrino was coaching.  He runs more pro style offense's that rely on the run to set up the pass.


December 12th, 2010 at 12:31 AM ^

In the games listed above, WVU's opponents almost always (IIRC) rushed at least 25 times.  The exception that I remember off the top of my head was Pitt in 2006, when Pitt ran 19 times for one yard.  Generally, WVU faced at least 30 rushes, if not 35. 

I didn't look at Louisville under Petrino, but that would be interesting. 


December 12th, 2010 at 12:58 AM ^

I can attest that the wing t does indeed exists because i currently play in it at the collegiate level. We destroy bad defenses but get worked by the good ones


December 12th, 2010 at 9:31 AM ^

But, I do not believe there is enough data in this analysis to clearly "reverse" my current position regarding Michigan running the 3-3-5 as their base offense against "non-spread"  based opponets.  3-3-5 against Purdue or NW is fine.  Michigan running the 3-3-5 against Wisc., MichSt., OSU, Iowa, PSU has been a disaster. 

The argument pro the 3-3-5 now is: "If and when we have the right coaches, and if we have the right type of "athlete's" and if we call the right plays at the right time, this defense can be as good as all the other defenses that elite teams run now. "  I can win the lottery too, but the likelihood of that happening is slim and none. 

I still think that Michigan running the 3-3-5 against our major competition in the B10 is absolutely the wrong thing to do to give our guys the best chance for long term, consistent success against these opponents....


December 12th, 2010 at 11:09 AM ^

I would be more interested to see how good the 3-3-5 holds up against power run teams like wisconsin than a big east offense which doesn't run first.  That would mean a lot more than what wvu has done against a much different profile of teams

magnus_caerulus (not verified)

December 12th, 2010 at 12:30 PM ^

Schemes are overrated at times, but recruiting and coaching is the only way any scheme will work. 

UofM played good to great defensively from the late nineties to the early two thousands.  They ran mostly 3-4, 4-3 schemes.  Then when USC, Florida, OSU and Texas's programs got big time again, recruiting got much harder, and bringing in top level talent was tough even for us -- I know shocking right!  We had a hard time retaining and then the "great transition" happend.  Our defense sucks.  Sub-par recruiting, retention and frankly coaching has put us in this position.

335 could work, but not as a base D, at least IMHO.  I prefer the 4-3 under we were running last year, and moving to the 335 in certain packages and situations.  I kind of hoped they would have just run five vanilla sets, and practiced and played them to perfection.  Maybe they did, but I don't understand how their alignment and angles are so poor week in and week out. 

I have coached and taught for awhile now, and no matter how smart someone is or thinks they are, keeping it simple is your best bet.  Add when its obvious they can handle it, but until the physical and mental part of the games are honed, its tough. 


December 12th, 2010 at 1:10 PM ^

I am starting to believe what RR says about scheme doesn't matter. Its all about staying in your gap and staying disciplined. I know GERG is forced to run a D he doesn't know much about, but it is obvious our defensive staff is not drilling these things in our guys heads. It makes me sick to watch our guys constantly out of position and trying to make arm tackles. Whatever happens with the CCs I hope the defensive staff can preach this and it stick in their heads.

Indiana Blue

December 12th, 2010 at 3:04 PM ^

is great for discussions, but carries little to no reality.  Saying well ... the Big East sucks - so sucky teams playing each other means that you can compare this or that is ... not meaningful.

I don't see any reason the 3-3-5 can't work in the B10.  As with any defensive scheme (or offensive scheme for that matter) you must have the personnel AND the coaching to make ANY scheme work.   For the same reasons you can run a 3-4 or a 4-3 or a 4-6 (remember the '85 Bears) ... and those will work with the right personnel AND coaching  -  in any league (including the NFL) ... remember when the Tampa 2 was "invented" ... its just a scheme with the right personnel AND coaching.

So why has our D been the worst in history.  At some level its a combination of personnel AND coaching.  Can the 3-3-5 work ?  Absolutely !  When .... who the fuck knows !

Go Blue !


December 12th, 2010 at 8:16 PM ^

Let's say you have two teams, one runs out of the I formation and another runs a base 3-3-5 defense.  Let's say that the talent of both is 5 out of 10.  You don't think we can learn something from the results of games between those two teams that we can apply to two teams whose talent levels are 8 out of 10 and which run the same schemes?  Why?  Those of us who looked at RR's success at WVU offensively and projected that he could replicate it in the Big Ten have largley been proven correct (500 yards per game this year). 

Saying that looking at the success of WVU's 3-3-5 is "not meanginful,' with nothing backing that up, is just as conclusory as saying that the 3-3-5 can "absolutely" work with nothing backing it up. 

Indiana Blue

December 13th, 2010 at 11:03 AM ^

is that the Big East Champion who is going to a BCS game this year was a team that Michigan beat rather easily this year.  If UConn was in the B10 and (using the transitive property) would have finished at least 8th in the B10 standings.  They would have won at most 2 conference games.

In regards to WV ... under RR it still was all about the offense.  Yes the WV offense could move the ball on anyone .. and score.  But the fact they played Big East opponents those years (pre good teams at Cincinnati or Lousville) had more to do with who the defense played than the scheme (still does).  In their BCS wins against Oklahoma & Georgia their defense gave up over 500 yards against OU and over 400 yards against UGA.

I still believe its coaching and personnel.  Besides .. had Michigan gone 8 - 4 and then 9 - 3  over the last 2 years (with a winning B10 record)   .... would any of us be so concerned about the 3-3-5 ?

Go Blue !


December 14th, 2010 at 4:46 PM ^

I'm not saying that A is greater than C because A is greater than B and B is greater than C.  I'm not even making the point that Michigan can specifically beat UConn, Rutgers, and Pitt with the 3-3-5 because WVU did.  I'm saying that the 3-3-5 has stopped "Big Ten-style" rushing attacks (which I defined loosely above, though no more loosely than the term has been used in the media and on this blog). 

 "But the fact they played Big East opponents those years (pre good teams at Cincinnati or Lousville) had more to do with who the defense played than the scheme (still does)."

--Again, WVU was playing with Big East-caliber players too. It's not as if WVU was running a bunch of NFL guys out there and relying on their superior athleticism...Also, what I did above compares the opponents' ypc vs. all other teams to their ypc vs. WVU, so I'm accounting for the rushing strength (or lack thereof) of the opponents.  More, my point isn't that WVU couldn't have stopped UConn, Pitt, and Rutgers with a 4-3 or 3-4.  My point is that WVU sometimes did stop those teams, despite their use of Big Ten-style running attacks, with the 3-3-5.  Accordingly, the 3-3-5 can stop that kind of offense. 


December 12th, 2010 at 4:20 PM ^

The 3-3-5 defense could work except with our personnel and the passive way we run it.  The 3-3-5 is just a 3-4 with the smallest linebacker replaced with a larger than average safety, not much difference.

The best 3-4 defense always have at least 4 attacking the line of scrimmage.   Dick LeBeau is probably most known for this.  If we insist on running the 3-3-5 we need to send at least one to two of the backers or DBs on each play.  We don't do that enough to get easy TFLs.

Second, our current personnel are not suited for this.  Mike Martin is a great player, but he is not a traditional nose guard.  He is better as a DT in a 4 man line.  Roh is not a good LB as evidenced by his poor pass coverage.  He is better suited as a weak side DE.  Well, why not send him every time in the 3-3-5?  Because then you have a de facto 4 man line, and additionally, you do not disrupt the offense the way 3 man lines are schemed to do as there is no uncertainty in who the 4th attacker is.  We should play to our strengths and use a 4 man line as a base and 3-3-5 in special situations/packages.


December 13th, 2010 at 5:43 PM ^

is that Roh is not always placed outside the tackle which neutralizes a guy that weighs 250lbs, it is just an issue with the scheme and seems crazy to me. I would much rather have him running downhill collapsing the pocket instead of going heads up with a much bigger lineman.


December 12th, 2010 at 7:09 PM ^

in my opinion I don't think this defense would have been good if they ran a 5-5-5...Most of the time they looked lost and flat out's sad and it hurt's. I wish it wasn't this way but it is and unlike the offense in 2009, I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel. I hope I'm wrong,I really do.


December 12th, 2010 at 9:13 PM ^

think that as thin as we were up front and as young (and smurf-like) as we were in the backfield, it was our lack of solid LB play that made us so awful.  Apart from Kenny's progress, and the occasional fortuitous Mouton moment, we were really hard to watch at the mid-level positions.  Good stack teams have solid outside backers that can: 

1. pass rush

2. flip hips, then run and cover the intermediate routes

I love both guys, but Jonas and Obi were ill-suited for this in most cases.

My name ... is Tim

December 12th, 2010 at 9:33 PM ^

I don't get why we need to even justify the 3-3-5. We're hiring a new defensive coordinator (or we better be), and I don't care what arrangement he runs. Hell, put 9 DBs out there if it has worked for you over the course of your career. I HATE the idea that our DC search would be limited to Jeff Casteel because RichRod favors the 3-3-5 but apparently has no ability to coach it himself. RichRod/Brandon should hire someone who has a long, positive history of coordinating defenses with little regard to how he's done it. Then, let him coach the defense the way he wants it. Any other plan for this offseason on defense would be counter-productive.


December 12th, 2010 at 10:01 PM ^

I was interested in it b/c Michigan might stick with it and, as a budding football nerd, for purely academic reasons. 

"RichRod/Brandon should hire someone who has a long, positive history of coordinating defenses with little regard to how he's done it. Then, let him coach the defense the way he wants it. Any other plan for this offseason on defense would be counter-productive."

---I agree completely with what you said.