3-3-5 Fundamentals

Submitted by Space Coyote on March 30th, 2010 at 10:56 AM

[Ed: Excellent diary that helps orient everyone to the 3-3-5.]

One of the greatest difficulties Michigan faces in the Big Ten is that there are a vast array of offenses deployed. You have the Wisconsin’s and Michigan State’s of the world still running two TE with a FB and slamming down your throats, and Northwestern and Purdue on the opposite end of the spectrum. Then you have all those teams in between, the single back look from Iowa, the mixed attack of Penn State, and the offense that periodically exists in Columbus and Champaign. Because it is unfeasible to switch defenses to match offenses in college football (see move to 3-3-5 against Purdue in 2008), it is important to find a base defense that can be implemented to at least some degree of success against these different teams. >

This means two things, one, you need some versatility in your players. Two, you need to put your players in the situation that helps them the most. I’m not going to say either way that the 3-3-5 is that, I just want to give a brief overview of the defense and then make a few points at the end.

First I’ll cover some basics.

This is the numbering system I’ll be using, where the dark circle with the X is the center:

Note, that for linebackers, the numbering system adds a zero to the end. For example, if a LB is lined up off the line, but stacked above a 4-tech DE, he would be playing a 40 technique. Pictured below is the base formation.

Defensive ends (DE) are in 4-techniques, or head on with the offensive tackle. Nose tackle (NT) is on the nose of the ball. Outside Linebackers (OLB) are in a 40-tech, while the middle linebacker (MLB/Mike) is in a 10-tech. The strong safeties (SS/Spur) are three yards off the line and three yards outside of the last man on the line. Corners (CB) are 5-9 yards off the line over the wide receivers, and the free safety (FS) is deep center. While this seems like a 2-gap system for the NT, it will be typical to apply some sort of slant to make it actually more of a 1-gap system.

Next you will see a basic coverage that will be run. This is a cover-3, zone under. Notice that there are no stunts or blitzes here. This is a very vanilla defense and would only be run in obvious pass downs most likely. Red is deep zones (in this case thirds), yellow indicates flats/seems, and green is underneath zones for hooks and curls (the MLB in this case covers the “hole”).

The next look is at a very simple outside linebacker blitz. This is still a cover-3, zone under. [Ed: continued after the jump, with lots more diagrams and some simple bullets on pros and cons.]

Notice the only change is in the linebacker coverage, where now the MLB no longer covers the hole, but instead covers the unoccupied OLB zone. The zones get a little larger as the LBs must now cover a little more area. The OLB is blitzing the A-gap and there is a slant left.

A similar blitz can be done in various ways when the slant is the same side as the blitzer. Below, you can notice the OLB is now blitzing the B-gap.


Next you see a pinch, now the OLB is attaching the C-gap. These are 3 really basic zone blitzes that will be incorporated. Most likely the blitzing OLB will be Roh in our case.

Blitzes can then start to get more creative while keeping the basic cover-3, zone under look. Blitzes can come from any of the LBs, or from the SSs.

These different blitz packages (plus many more options) can confuse the offensive line and QB, not to mention quickly fill gaps in the run game.

It gets more confusing for offenses however once you start implementing different zone coverages as well. Below is an example of a cover-2, zone under, sending 4 guys at the QB.

Furthermore, all the blitzes can be applied to this zone, and further zones, such as inverted cover-2s and cover-1, man under.

In summary:

DE: Must control gap. On blitzes they must turn their blockers shoulder allowing for LBs to get free to the ball. Heavy emphasis on slants.

NT: Preferably a 2-gap NT, but can suffice with a 1-gap because of slants. Must maintain control of assigned gap.

D-Line as whole: goal is to maintain gap responsibility, allowing for the rest of the team to flow unabated to their assigned position.

Mike: Responsible for A-gap not assigned to NT. Must fill hole hard at point of attack a destroy any cut back (if play is toward slant) or be prepared to take on pull (if away from slant). Coverage is assigned as stated above (typically hole or hook/curls).

OLB: Responsible for B and C gap, depending on slant. If DE they are stacked over has B-gap responsibility, OLB takes C-gap. Coverage accordingly (typically hooks and curls).

Linebackers as a whole: Fill gaps hard. Be prepared for pulls as it is typical to have inside gaps. Get to gap before ball carrier and fill strong.

Strong Safeties: D-Gap and flat responsibilities. TEs and slots in man coverage. Force runs back inside.

CB: Maintain responsibility, keep in coverage. Essentially typical CB responsibilities for any defense.

FS: Ball Hawk.

As stated above, the 3-3-5 is extremely versatile. You can see from the various zones and blitzes/stunts that it can be confusing for an offense. The versatility extends however to other formations. Below you will see a 3-3-5 strong.

As you can see, this looks very familiar. AKA, it looks like a 4-2-5, or a lot like what we ran last year. While it can be called something different, look different at first, this will be typical in my opinion of what will happen next year, with Roh moving up and essentially playing another DE. The line, from left to right, is in a 7-1-3-5-techniques respectively. The linebackers, from left to right, are in a 40-tech and 30-tech.

In Summary


As some people might note that Rich Rod apparently enjoys a football player that has speed, the 3-3-5 defense is a style of defense that maximizes that potential. Essentially, it is like a spread version of a defense, with players spread sideline to sideline and flying to the ball. While players should fly to the ball in every defense, the 3-3-5 allows more players better angles to utilize their athleticism more so than a physical presence to take on blocks and such.

It is also difficult to scheme for from an offensive point of view due to its versatility, particularly in the pass game. This is because at any one time, up to 5 different players can blitz from a point close to the line of scrimmage, making an immediate impact on offensive linemen reads and QB reads. The other difficulty from an offensive point of view is the various zone drops that can be implemented. From typical cover 3-zone under, to a cover 1-man under, to inverted zones where the SS will drop into the cover 3, or cover 2s where the FS steps up instead of back, cover 2s where FS slides to one side, back side CB takes other deep half, to all other various zone options. This makes it very confusing for a QB to pick apart. Especially when you combine the two with zone blitzes. These blitzes can also cause havoc in the run game.

It allows us to have our 11 best athletes on the field. By having 5 so-called DBs on the field, our athleticism is optimized. It also allows us to use many of these hybrid players (such as DT/DE hybrids as 3-3-5 DE, DE/OLB as 3-3-5 OLB, S/LB hybrids at spur).


Obviously, run defense can be seen as a weakness in this defense. With only 3 down linemen, gaps seem to be larger than your typical 4-3 defense. If your linemen lose ground and get pushed back, huge gaps open up as the other players trying to fly to the ball now have obstacles in their way in the form of 300 pound men.

With many blitzes necessary, it opens up the you win-some, you lose-some mentality. The effect of blitzes and stunts come from the defensive player directly shooting through a gap, many times from a position where it’s not expected he will come from. However, these blitzes also lead to them sometimes starting out of position in the hope that they are quicker to react to getting in position than the offense. This can back fire on run plays where the offensive line reacts less to the defensive line and knows exactly where the ball is going. A slant or blitz can take a team out of position to make a play, thus, you win some, you lose some.

Obviously, this year, a weakness is that it is a new defense that the players once again have to adjust to. One of the hopes leading into next season was consistency with responsibilities and terminology from last year. While much of the terminology may be the same or at least more similar than a new DC, a new defensive scheme still leads to players thinking more, rather than their responsibilities acting as second nature.

My feeling:

It sucks that we are switching defenses again, yes, but this may be a long term outlook. I know many don’t like hearing that because so much of Rich Rod’s future depends on this year, but in the end, many of the players recruited fit better into this new 3-3-5 defense. It is versatile and not as typical, making it more difficult for offenses to prepare. Personally, I still prefer the 4-3 under, but with the talent we have and players we have, this switch does make sense. Hope this helped, and sorry if the formatting is awful, I can’t claim to be good at this stuff.

EDIT: As someone noted below, zone blitzes typically refer to when linemen drop into zones. What I meant by zone blitzes is blitzes with zone concepts behind it. Though the typical zone blitz definition can still apply to the 3-3-5.

EDIT 2: Small rant now gone. Probably wasn't the place for it so continue on as if it did not exist.



March 29th, 2010 at 3:02 PM ^

Great post. I consider myself to have pretty good football knowledge for a fan (thanks to a lot of knowledgable posters here.) However, it's really nice to get a post like this breaking everything down and showing us all the main pros and cons of the scheme.


March 29th, 2010 at 3:10 PM ^

When Brian was doing his game analysis, the team showed a weakness with this type of formation to passes to the flats on swing routes. To protect for this play under the based cover-3 zone under, the SS would have position himslef to support the run or blitz, while at the same time cover the route. To over the route, he would be inside of the reciever and have to cover as the reciever heads out. It would also be difficult for the corner to provide aggressive support since he would have to drop back to provide the Deep 1/3 coverage.

How would the 3-3-5 protect for that? Would we go man more?

If our SS are fast enough, then could they drop back to cover the deep 1/3? But would that pull them from the line support role?

I know that it is just one play, but the main fustration of last year's defense conjures up images of the cornerback lining up 9 yards deep and the safety not being able to stop that pass.

Space Coyote

March 29th, 2010 at 3:19 PM ^

If the SS can read the play well enough and diagnos this play then that is probably the overal goal. However, things like cover 1, man under, and the rolled cover 2 can also combat this problem.

And you are correct on the other cover 3 option. On probable pass downs the SS can quickly retreat to the outside thirds while the CBs press, this would also defend that quick pass, though there probably won't be many of those passes will be attempted on third and long.

One other threat to running that now is that the SS are sometimes blitzing off the corners. This quick throw could end up being darted right into their hands.

Again though, in summary, it is hoped that the SS can defend the flats


March 29th, 2010 at 4:06 PM ^

how this Defensive scheme addresses the issue we had last year at the Iowa game. When the other team sends 3 WR guys out in deep fly/out patterns, it forced the FS to make a split second cover choice towards one side of the field where the 2 guys were going long. Then the offense slips in a 4th receiver late down the middle (TE) where the FS was supposed to be, for a big gain....


March 29th, 2010 at 4:45 PM ^

You could play quarter-quarter-halves with this defense, where the CB and FS each play a deep quarter toward the three-receiver side. Meanwhile, the backside corner would play a deep half.

You could also go man free and have the free safety playing the deep middle.

Ultimately, there are plays that *can* beat every defense. No defense is perfect. But if you get the right athletes on the field, then I think everything will take care of itself.


March 29th, 2010 at 6:19 PM ^

A play for every defense, and a defense for every play. Without knowing what's coming beforehand, it comes down to athletes reacting correctly, working as a team, and flying to the football. This seems to put us in a position to do #1 and #3 immediately, and we'll keep working on getting the whole team on the same page. I'm thinking it should get better as the season progresses, and I'm hoping the O can put up enough to cover for a few mistakes.

Blue in Seattle

March 30th, 2010 at 1:44 AM ^

I would think that play gets eaten up by this defense. A late receiver means that everyone now knows it's a pass play. Yes the CB's and FS are covering the deep fast receivers, but you know have 3-5 players (2-SS 3-LB') tracking the remaining backfield/tightends.

assuming 5 linemen stay put, and the QB, then the 3 deep WR's, there are only 2 players left to cover. One is probably the running back picking up the blitzer, but because the defense has only committed the blitzer plus 3 defensive Lineman and the 3 Cover guys, there are 4 players left to cover two and since it's late, everyone knows it's a pass.

that sounds like plenty to cover the late receivers PLUS a mobile QB who decides everyone is covered and he'll just run it.

On top of that, I think this formation can simplify the roles for the young players in the secondary, plus it keeps it simple for the MLB.

I think the success of this defense is built on the 3 defensive linemen. And even though we've lost BG, the defensive line is where the most experience exists.

Against power run/grind it out, this defense bends, but hopefully doesn't break, and as long as the offense takes things up a notch, then the win some lose some will be covered.

Mountaineers Fanatic

April 1st, 2010 at 7:26 PM ^

When players drop back in zone, especially if its a matchup zone, the play man to man until someone else enters their area. When you have deep routes and your corners and FS are covering a person, the guys underneath will drop back (especially when they realize it's a pass) to make sure nobody is able to set up behind them and in front of the safey. That might leave a little more room for a delayed RB route underneath, but the LBs should be able to spot that and match up with him. If the LBs play their position correctly, you should 'almost' never get a RB or TE to go free up the middle...at least for no more than a few yards.

Mountaineers Fanatic

April 1st, 2010 at 7:21 PM ^

The SS should not let anyone outside of him. If a RB rolls out, he has that guy and must stay with him (even in zone cov). He can still help out on the run plays, but will be a little slower getting there but usually by the time the SS realizes its a run or pass, he would be able to make a break on the ball and still be in position to not allow much

Space Coyote

March 29th, 2010 at 3:21 PM ^

I just used powerpoint actually, then converted the slides to jpeg. I used to have a software package on my old computer but I forget what it was called. I know there are some free ones out there but I'm not sure how good they are. The one I used to have wasn't too bad, but I find powerpoint just as easy

Mr. Bako

March 30th, 2010 at 12:24 PM ^

I just graduated from business school and we mapped business processes quite often. Visio is great. As the OP mentioned, PP works but it's not the most user-friendly. A third option is ABC snap graphics which can be had for free. Not quite as nice as Visio, but it's better than using PP.


March 29th, 2010 at 3:20 PM ^

This formation might hurt us against the Wisconsin's of the world however I liked our success against Iowa in stuffing their running game (just couldn't cover a TE to save their life). Hopefully this will produce more turnovers in the form of int's since you're not going up against Peyton Manning week to week but mostly athletes with an arm. All I ask is please, for the love of God, stop the WR bubble screens that go for 6-8 yds a pop. That killed us against Mich St. and Penn St. Hopefully having an Emilien(sp?)/Robinson combo at the SS position can help thwart that play then maybe switch in Cam Gordon for better run support. Very interested to see how this works out and how all those athletes on the defense will preform.


March 29th, 2010 at 3:21 PM ^

Simple explanations and very nice illustrations. +1

One quick point of clarification: when you say

These are 3 really basic zone blitzes that will be incorporated.

(emphasis mine)

I take it you mean "blitzes with zone schemes behind them?" I was under the impression that the term "zone blitz" has a rather specific meaning, referring to a linebacker blitzing while the defensive end in front of him pulls back into the coverage that that linebacker otherwise would have been responsible for (i.e., the DE and the OLB start from their usual placement but switch roles during the play). Forgive me if it seems like I'm picking on what may have been accidental word choice; I think in this case it does make an important difference.


March 29th, 2010 at 3:27 PM ^

Based on the discussions previously, it sounded like Roh was the only OLB who was really athletic enough to cover a flat and go toe to toe with a TE or slot receiver would that limit the number of blitzes the D can run? If the defense sends a safety on a blitz, wont that put a lot of strain on the 2 remaining LBs to cover the 4 remaining gaps?

Blue in Seattle

March 30th, 2010 at 1:50 AM ^

assuming the blitz doesn't take one of the gaps, yes.

and that's where the chess match ends up being played by the DC-OC. When and how do you blitz on running downs against a running team?

OLB blitzes seem to take out a gap, and end up being a 4-2-5 defense. And if the OLB has the timing right, maybe stronger than a 4-2-5, since only 3 of the 4 lineman are known and targeted by the offensive lineman.


March 29th, 2010 at 3:56 PM ^

This is really excellent information. For someone who was previously skeptical of the "switch", I feel better, and warmer and fuzzier about the 3-3-5. Thank you for educating me, seriously.


March 29th, 2010 at 4:23 PM ^

While I think it could be at a disadvantage against a strong running team it allows our players to use all that athleticism. If we have a sideline to sideline team we should be strong against the run anyway.


March 29th, 2010 at 4:47 PM ^

Good post, larsonlo. This ought to get bumped to the front page, IMO. I've never tried drawing up defenses for the blog because I don't have the software, so I'm glad you mentioned that you used Powerpoint. Maybe I'll see if that can work for me.

03 Blue 07

March 30th, 2010 at 2:00 PM ^

I agree, Magnus- it's awesome for that. I also go with a 4-6 with the "speed" personnel grouping for when the other team is in a 3-wide set (as opposed to the Nickel). The base 3-3-5 is susceptible to runs up the middle, though. And the 3-3-5 bear is susceptible to the pass, as well.

Space Coyote

March 29th, 2010 at 6:57 PM ^

Because the 3-3-5 unbeatable in that game. Then again, you can't run up the middle at all in that game, unless it's the computer with the FB, then it's an automatic 4-6 yards no matter what D you run

Louie C

March 29th, 2010 at 8:00 PM ^

The 3-3-5 is the shit in the original xbox's 07. I also like to use Michigan with WVU's playbook. This is after Henne graduated of course. The thing I like about the xbox version is that it has the TRUE WVU playbook unlike the generic versions in the later versions on 360. I have a whole new respect for RR because that playbook is kickass. I know for sure that they are going to light shit up if they can execute the offense well.


March 29th, 2010 at 4:58 PM ^

This defense is ok, but will be severely tested by UConn Huskies and NL Kellys early in the season. at this point, RR will switch back to the 4-2-5. Disastrous results will ensue, as has been typical of the last 2 years.
We should have really gotten Kelly instead of Richard, but nothing we can do about it now.

Jon Benke

March 30th, 2010 at 4:35 PM ^

So it goes both ways... Under the whole "you win some, you lose some" way of thinking, we're most likely not going to shut anyone out this year, though I can assure you of this... No one will shut us out either.


March 30th, 2010 at 5:16 PM ^

no scheme is going to protect inferior talent. likewise, no scheme is going to undermine talent unless it takes talent off the field for less talent. and that's obviously not an issue of scheme.

in conclusion: you suck.


March 29th, 2010 at 5:08 PM ^

This alignment concerns me, especially with a fullback lead up the middle. Having four guys occupied to the outside near the LOS, and having our Dline and LB's outnumbered 7 to 6, it seems like runs up the gut would be a vulnerability.

Space Coyote

March 29th, 2010 at 6:55 PM ^

One point I would like to make though is that this stack makes it difficult for the O-Line to double to the next level, or in other terms, start off doubling a lineman and move to the LB. Because the offense doesn't know the slant of the defensive line, it can allow LBs to slice into the back field.

Also of note, the OLB don't really have outside responsibility. They are inside guys. They are B/C gap, not D gap. These gap responsibilities are also initial responsibilities, it would be the hope that once the people responsibile at the point of attack do their job, the rest of the defense finishes the play. That is typically how very good defenses run.

That said, yes, if the offense runs properly up the middle, it can be a vulnerability. This gets back to the you win some you lose some though, and the up the middle run can be shut down if the defense is run correctly. As said before, there is a defense for every offense and an offense for every defense


March 29th, 2010 at 10:18 PM ^

Very true about execution, I agree.

It just seems to me that more traditional defenses are stout up the middle first and foremost, and tend to filter offenses towards the edges. Those plays are usually more strung out, and you can get a safety to come up and make a stop (again, if executed properly).

But with the 3-3-5, it almost seems the opposite: With 2 CBs and 2 Safeties at the LOS, you are essentially shutting down the flats and edge play, and forcing teams up the middle instead. I can see how it can work. But I can also see how quick hitters up the gut could bust open easily. And if it's a quick hitter, a RB could be into our FS in no time since they are running between the tackles.

As you said, it seems like a gambling type of defense. Where the more traditional defenses tend to work when execution is good, the 3-3-5 appears (to me) to require execution AND some luck...you have to hope you have the right blitzers or the right slants to get the proper penetration.

I'm not hating on it...frankly I don't care what they run as long as it works...I'm just commenting on what I see from your diagrams...I don't honestly expect teams to beat us by running fullback leads up the gut alone, but it could be run enough to frustrate me as a fan.


March 30th, 2010 at 11:47 AM ^

Another play that I have seen in other playbooks is to have both DEs take the B gaps, the NT take an A gap, and the MLB take the other A gap. First, that should fill all of the gaps on the inside and force the runner to the outside. Second, the guard adjacent to the A gap that the MLB will take has the option of doubling the DE, or take the NT. If he chooses the DE, the MLB gets in unblocked to take out the FB. If he chooses the MLB, then the DE most likely gets in behind the FB and makes a BG vs. MSU style play.

03 Blue 07

March 30th, 2010 at 1:58 PM ^

Yes, generally speaking, my understanding has been that this defense is very versatile and does an excellent job of attacking. It is most susceptible to isolation plays. If you can attack it with a fullback leading through the A or B gaps and the tailback coming in behind him, generally, I think the 3-3-5 can be attacked by grinding at it like so. If the offense has the beef to pull this off (like an OSU or Wisky) then it can work. That being said, though, we've seen teams pull it off against us when we were in the 4-3 and its variants in years past, too, so, yeah- there's that.

At the same time, though, it does have a lot of benefits (3-3-5), as the OP nicely laid out, mainly in versatility and speed and the fact that when you combine speed/versatility, you can keep the offense on its toes and when they don't know where the pressure will be coming from, and that pressure is coming from fast players from different angles, it can make life difficult for the offense.


March 29th, 2010 at 7:30 PM ^

If the rant was edited out, I would be all for this being a front page post. Putting that rant in such a fine post is sorta like putting Paris Hilton in The Hurt Locker.

Space Coyote

March 29th, 2010 at 9:58 PM ^

put a small rant at the start about another topic, but edited it out, so that's why it's not there. At the end there is a point that says that I edited it out. Just so that's cleared up


March 29th, 2010 at 7:33 PM ^

i take it that Big Will would obviously be an NT, and Martin as well? then RVB at DE and then maybe Patterson or Sagesse filling in at DE and NT?
as far as newcomers go would Black, Paskorz, Wilkins, and Ash all be at the 4 tech DE spot?