What Is: The 3-3-5 Defense

Submitted by Seth on September 14th, 2017 at 12:47 PM

This series is a work-in-progress glossary of football concepts we tend to talk about in these pages. Previously:

Offensive concepts: RPOs, high-low, snag, covered/ineligible receivers, Duo, zone vs gap blocking, zone stretch, split zone, pin and pull, inverted veer, reach block, kickout block, wham block, Y banana play, TRAIN, the run & shoot

Defensive concepts: The 3-3-5, Contain & lane integrity, force player, hybrid space player, no YOU’RE a 3-4!, scrape exchange, Tampa 2, Saban-style pattern-matching, match quarters, Dantonio’s quarters, Don Brown’s 4-DL packages and 3-DL packages, Bear

Special Teams: Spread punt vs NFL-style


We’ve been writing under the assumption that our readers were all around for the early Rich Rodriguez years, and bought the edition of HTTV where Chris Brown described how Rodriguez-era West Virginia DC Jeff Casteel’s version of it worked. Now that it appears to be Michigan’s base defense (at least versus spread and option teams), maybe it’s time for a refresher.



Here’s the most common offensive play in football, Inside Zone, getting straight-up murdered:

The idea here is there’s always (mostly) a linebacker blitzing to be the 4th DL. Functionally McCray is a lineman, but if you’re the offense you don’t know that. Watch the right guard, #74, get totally discombobulated at this discovery.


My drawing here shows the run fits and the Don Brown version of the terminology. This particular play had a few variants:

  • The two ends are a little offset and Winovich motions inside on the play: that’s because those guys are both taking interior gaps.
  • The CB blitzed.

Only the first thing is interesting for understanding a 3-3-5. This defense, at its heart, is a one-gap, 4-2-5, except it trades the beef up front of a 4-man line for never knowing who’s in what gap or even who’s going to be the 4th lineman.

[Hit THE JUMP for a very short explanation of the jobs]



The 3-3-5 defense is foremost a personnel grouping with three down linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs:


I color-coded here to orient you on the spectrum of beefosity to speed, figuring red is a planet, yellow is a DE, green is a linebacker, blue is a cornerback. You can tell right away that we’ve got a lot of hybrids in here. Nobody’s red, the outside linebackers shade yellow, the middle linebacker has a blue hinge, and the safeties have some green. Let’s walk through each spot, referring back to the personnel on the field in the clip I used:

Nose: There ain’t no nose on the field. A 3-3-5 is welcome to function like a 3-4 defense with a two-gapping planet, but Don Brown’s 3-3-5 defense is a one-gap D that removes the nose (Mone) for a linebacker (Furbush). So let’s move on to the next job which is on the field.

Tackle: Lines up over the center in a 0- or 1-technique, which means he doesn’t betray which gap he’s attacking. Michigan’s normal 3-tech is Mo Hurst—in the clip above it’s his backup Lawrence Marshall, which really drives home the fact that we are not putting the Nose Tackle depth chart on the field. The tackle needs a quick first step to attack his gap as soon as the ball is snapped,

Anchor: Normally Gary, and Kemp in the clip we used, this job is unchanged from the 4-2-5’s strongside end position that Wormley played last year. The Anchor lines up off the strongside offensive tackle (a 5-technique) or maybe off the TE’s inside shoulder. He’s part beefy lineman, able to dominate doubles from the OT and TE or what have you, and part pass-rushing DE.

End: The weakside defensive end, Chase Winovich. He can be more pass-rushy but in a 3-3-5 or a 4-2-5 this guy needs to be able to play Anchor when the offense motions the TE to the other side.

Sam: In for the nose, this is the personnel change that makes a difference between the 4-2-5 and 3-3-5. You’re looking at a Jake Ryan-esque linebacker/defensive end tweener. You want a really athletic guy with good burst because he’s going to be your most common blitzer. The Sam might cover a tight end in coverage, or appear in all sorts of gaps with a mean head of steam. Michigan’s Sam is Noah Furbush.

Will: Another difference between the 3-3-5 and the base 4-2-5 is the WLB can be more of a Sam—by which I mean just like the Sam you’re going to regularly be blitzing the Will to act as a 4th defensive lineman who shows up anywhere. This is a good fit for Mike McCray, who’s more effective as a burly straight-ahead blitzer than a spacebacker.

Mike: A 3-3-5 Mike takes on some of the pass coverage and read-and-react stuff that often gets spread among the MLB and WLB in a 4-2-5. The biggest mistake Greg Robinson made was lining Kenny Demens just a yard or two from the line of scrimmage. You want your 3-3-5 Mike to be more like 5-7 yards off, where he can read the play and shoot past blockers or defend the pass. You can also have him be the blitzer—you never know where the pressure’s coming from. Devin Bush is perfect for this job as a tiny, ready-and-reacty dude who’ll insert his face in gaps.

Viper: The Rocky Long 3-3-5 coaches called this a “Spur” if you remember the nomenclature from when Stevie Brown played this. It’s exactly the same as Michigan’s 4-2-5 Viper. He lines up over the tight end side, hence the “eats his meat raw” description. Khaleke Hudson was born to be the Viper.

Rover: We used to call this the Bandit. He’s not very different from a Viper, except he’s not dealing with tight ends—he’s more likely to be over a slot receiver, so you’re looking at nickelback-like characteristics in addition to the general strong safety-ness. Michigan’s been using Kinnel and Metellus interchangably here.

Free Safety and Cornerbacks: No change.



I’ll save you a scroll:

The 3-3-5 is not just a nickel defense—it’s more like a one-gap 3-4 that sacrifices weight for surprise.

Offenses look for clues from the defense’s alignment to know what their jobs are gonna be. On inside zone for example the offensive linemen identify whether they’re covered or not to know ahead of the snap if they’re going to combo which guy and how. Option offenses like Air Force’s will all want to agree who they’re optioning.

Trying to make those identifications gets tougher the better the defense can disguise who’s in what gap, and the 3-3-5 is an extreme version of that. You can have any linebacker or even the safeties very often appearing in a base run gap, and the alignment leaves little clue who or where that guy will show up. If you haven’t practiced for it, your guys are going to miss assignments a lot.

Basically this:


…to the offense looks like this:




What’s a 3-3-5 stack?


It’s a way of aligning in a 3-3-5 that favors different personnel. The clip I showed functions like a stack. Teams that run the stack are more 3-4ish in how their defensive linemen play. A stack team plays with thicker DL who are less about getting upfield and more about preventing the OL from getting to the linebackers. That lets you use thinner linebackers, but you get less pass rush from your DL. See how Winovich and Kemp were taking inside gaps? That’s very common from a stack. Consider it a slider.

Is this like a 3-3-5 nickel?

If you mean Michigan’s nickel defense under Greg Mattison, sorta, but no:


That was a nickel defense with Jake Ryan playing defensive end. There wasn’t a lot of surprise where guys were coming from except when they went to an Okie. The Rover equivalent was Blake Countess, who wasn’t a threat to blitz as much as Kinnel/Metellus, who are often taking an edge. The 2011 defense wasn’t all about “good luck guessing who’s attacking” it was “I’m sending Jake Ryan off your edge, good luck with that.”

What’s the downside?

You’re still playing with less mass on the field. If the offense figures out what you’re up to, now you’ve got large linemen reacting instantly to smaller players. The (still-a-one-gap) philosophical opposite of a 3-3-5 might be the 4-3 defense that Michigan State was so successful with in the Dantonio-Narduzzi era:


This left little surprise what any defender was going to do on any play, but those defenders were very specifically recruited and developed to play the roles they would play every down. The strongside end would be a vicious pass-rusher and big and tall enough to really put a TE off his route if he tried to release into one. The DTs would shoot upfield at (or before) the snap and really nerfed what you could do with your guards. The weakside end was excellent in space and very responsible, making it very hard to play games with the backside. The outside linebackers are good pass defenders and evil blitzers. The Mike is a fast reader, good at aligning everybody, and able to ably handle both A gaps. Every play these guys grab their lunch pails and report to the gaps they were born to play.

A 3-3-5 asks lots of players to do different things. The clip I used here shows a good example because Winovich, your nominal pass-rushing DE, is taking an A gap, where two plug uglies are set up to double-team with a running back coming straight downhill. A 3-3-5 without the element of surprise is Michigan’s 2010 defense: undersized dudes with no momentum getting mauled by larger players. For those of you who’ve already been through all the therapy it takes to forget that, it looks like this:

This is Cincinnati running the same play Florida did in the first clip, but Michigan here mistimed their setup (and Cincy had an inkling before the game that Michigan was going to do this) so the UC guard and center are ready and have size on their side, meaning Winovich and McCray get taken for a ride, and the back gets a date with a filling safety for all the yards.



September 14th, 2017 at 12:56 PM ^

What's the downside of the 3-3-5?  I mean, properly implemented.  Not GERG implemented.

I can imagine an old school ton-of-mankind on the OL with a 3-yards-and-a-cloud philosophy may move the sticks on a 3-3-5.


September 14th, 2017 at 1:08 PM ^

Yea, I'd imagine that less overall mass amongst the front 6-7 guys in the box could lead to better push from the offense if the O-Line and TE succeeds in getting hats on hats.  Then again, in a larger sense it's always true that things go better for you if you execute properly.


September 14th, 2017 at 1:16 PM ^

As with any relatively light front, it is suceptible to being bullied by a disciplined, downhill power running game. A 280lb nose will get moved back by a halfway decent combo block, and a speed advantage doesn't mean anything once a big OL gets his hands on you.

The key part for those big OL is getting their hands on people. They might not know who to block if they don't understand whats going on in front of their face. Thats the difference between Kyle Kalis and an All American. The 3-3-5 seeks to pull the Kalis out of all opposing OL


September 14th, 2017 at 1:39 PM ^

The downside is if you run it against a team with 5 very good OL that can adjust on the fly you might have a long day.  How many college teams can put very good OL on the field? Not many.  The key to good OL play requires all 5 men to execute each play.  Good defensive play just requires one OL to mess up.  3-3-5 is hedging on the fact that confusion and speed will increase the odds that one OL will make a mistake and then the Defense can capitalize.  The tradeoff is that in the case where the OL doesn't get confused you are probably getting mauled at the point of attack.


September 14th, 2017 at 2:12 PM ^

I think one of the things Don Brown looks for (as mentioned in HTTV) is people that are like human missiles. These 220-230 lb missiles running at full sped into a gap hit a larger stationary object and push it backwards. I think this is why it is key not to have your linebacker sniffing the butt of the teammate in front of them. When they hit that 300 lb lineman at full speed they disrupt their forward motion and prevent them from opening their gap.

The Dean

September 14th, 2017 at 3:04 PM ^

Every defense is based on gap integrity. It is just a matter of what type of player you want filling those gaps (That’s what she said). A 3-3-5 is designed to defend spread/passing attack offenses because it trades size for athleticism. Most spread teams play on the perimeter which is why it is useful. The 3-3-5 generally does not do well against quick hitting power run teams a la Wisconsin, Bama or OSU (2015 version....not sure about 2017 yet). Power run teams generally have man sized guards that can get to LBs with ease and thus gain 4-5 yards on a quick hitting iso. This is especially the case when playing a guy like Hurst at the nose…ish instead of a guy like Mone because Hurst won’t take up two blockers. There’s a lot of pros though. I played the Viper position in a 4-2-5 and 3-3-5 scheme at WMU about 10yrs ago and we had a ton of blitz's that were very difficult to pick up.

Michigan is doing an unreal job filling its defensive roster with really unique guys so they can switch schemes. They can play a traditional 4-3; 4-2-5 and 3-3-5. I don't know if I've seen a team that can be good at all three, but they seem to be capable. It's impressive.


September 14th, 2017 at 1:07 PM ^

The dude who completely poops the bed is RG#74. He and the RT are responsible for Winovich and McCray, but RG#74 just stands straight up like he's pass blocking and allows Winovich to kick their arse. Add on the corner blitz, and that play was destined for failure. But that's terrible technique and effort by RG#74. Much more of that, and he should be on the bench.


September 14th, 2017 at 1:46 PM ^

There's a large blurry area between forced and unforced errors.  Did the RG miss the line call?  Was he confused by the 3-3-5?  Or is he just bad?  When misdirection is the goal, it's tough to say.  Sometimes confusion can even have a carryover effect, especially when pressure gets players to lose trust in what they see.  But that's not the sort of thing that shows up in a clip of a single play.

Not saying you're wrong, but my point is that we need to be careful here.  If in the attempt to break down assignments you remove confusion from the equation for lack of a way to tell what's deliberate vs. what's just brainfarting, the 3-3-5 is an objectively terrible defense because you can blame the OL.  But the objective as I understand it isn't to win assignments straight-up but to make the OL underperform through mental errors.


September 14th, 2017 at 2:53 PM ^

No amount of assignment confusion can lead to that block. He's the uncovered playside guard on an inside zone. He and the playside tackle are responsible for the end and the playside backer.

He should probably expect to chip that end and work up to the linebacker, as it would be drawn up on the whiteboard. The slant changes his plans, but his first step should be short and to the playside, and he should keep his shoulders square to the line for exactly this type of stunt. With good technique, he can handle this stunt with his eyes closed -- Winovich runs into him. Instead, his footwork is nonexistent and he stands straight up. He does this before he knows the defense is stunting.

This isn't a case of the defense confusing him, at least not significantly. He's liable to see this stunt against an over or an under, and he should expect it against this front. He is simply a player with dreadful technique.


September 14th, 2017 at 3:00 PM ^

Yes and no. Being an offensive lineman means keeping a lot of things in your mind. One of the main assets of an all-angles attacking defense is it exponentially increases the amount of things on offensive lineman has to worry about on any play, increasing the frequency of total boners. One thing that was made abundantly clear from watching the career of recently graduated blockers is that confusing defenses can really play hell with guys with low awareness.


September 14th, 2017 at 3:35 PM ^

Yes and no, indeed. Your last sentence nails it, this guard has low awareness to begin with.

But I'm sorry, if he played with the technique he was taught, this would be a relatively easy pickup. You could argue that the defense is confusing him and making his lose his technique, but I think the eye in the sky don't lie, and his technique went to hell the moment the ball was snapped, before Michigan moved a muscle.

It would be one thing if he bailed out and chased the linebacker, allowing Winovich to run free. Or is he was so sure he had to combo Winovich that he stepped too wide and lost him inside.. Then I'd say it might be the defense messing with him. But that "block" that he "executed" wouldn't work against any look. He killed the play by himself, and would have even if Michigan played this straight up, as the offense draws it up on the board.

Your larger point stands, defenses to fuck linemen up all the time. My point is that this isn't one of those instances.

As an aside, you're one of the best guys on the internet.

SC Wolverine

September 14th, 2017 at 1:08 PM ^

Quick passes right behind the aggressive blitzers with downfield blocking from guards and tight ends.  As in the tunnel screens were are going to eat in great abundance in the coming weeks until Don Brown shows he has a fix for it (hint: it will involve aggression).


September 14th, 2017 at 2:29 PM ^

I love these!!  Its fun to see how things are supposed to work.  But its still bothersome knowing how poorly it used to be run.  I've known for years, like the rest of us, that the 3-3-5 was sucktastic under Rich Rod.  But I never really understood why.  Now that I do, I still wish RR would have just let Shaffer run his defense.

My take on that was he (RR) wanted to run his spread offense against a defense, in practice, that could theoretically stop it.  Thus, pushing his offense to be better.  And so I'm still right back where I started - RR didn't care about defense.

Thanks, Brian, for the circular clarification!  


September 14th, 2017 at 3:13 PM ^

I'm no X's and O's type of guy, but this kind of thing really helps me understand the game better.  You do a really nice job, Seth ... I really enjoy your write-ups.

I'm curious ... what's your background in knowing X's and O's?  Just accumulated knowledge over time?  Or do you have some playing or coaching experience under your belt as well?


September 14th, 2017 at 3:24 PM ^

I wasn't allowed to play because I was under 100 pounds when I first wanted to go out so yeah it's just from covering this for long enough. I read every UFR, everything ever written by Chris Brown, and most of what other guys of that ilk have put out there. I've talked to lots coaches, went to a few clinics, and started drawing stuff up for other people before I tried my hand at publishing my own opinions. I still lean on coaches and players but a lot of times these are very simple concepts we talk about constantly and I'm writing for myself when I got started. I'm not an expert--I'm a guy who tries to fill in the gaps between what the professionals know off-hand and what a casual fan knows.

The Maizer

September 14th, 2017 at 3:49 PM ^

Maybe this is a dumb question. I'm not sure I get how this play illustrates the effectiveness of the 3-3-5 confusing the offense. I mean I get that they looked confused and failed to block the DL, but it seems like the CB blitzing from the edge would have made the tackle even if the OL got all their blocks. I guess the RB has somewhere to cut away from Lavert if McCray isn't blasting through the B-gap?


September 14th, 2017 at 5:38 PM ^

You may be right about the CB blitz. I wrote it up as a sight read, which is hard to tell the difference from a blitz sometimes. In this the safety and CB invert their run lanes, so Hill is now defending the alley and the safety has outside. BC used to get a ton of picks from that because they're dropping right into the slants some QBs are taught to throw when tbey think the CB will blitz. Even if it was a CB blitz, the 3-3-5 got McCray in free to the gap the RB is supposed to attack. I wanted to focus on that and not get into sight read cover 2.


September 14th, 2017 at 6:40 PM ^

Exceptional post. Aside from the UFRs it's content like this that really, really sets this site apart from all the other football sites out there. If I can humbly request more of these, that would be incredible.