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 7:54 PM ^

First off very nice post.

Secondly to all the people worried that they are the ones that "figured out" that they might have problems against power run teams, I ask you to ask yourself this....Do you think that RR hasn't thought of that?

If they think stopping power teams will be a problem they will shift alignments, if they don't they'll stay in this defense.

Does anyone know that TCU's #1 rated defense in the country last year was a 3-3-5?

For those still worried go watch the WVU-Oklahoma Fiesta Bowl game.

The FannMan

March 29th, 2010 at 10:27 PM ^

I had no idea how the 3-3-5 worked, and felt like the the rest of the class was leaving me behind. This was a good intro. It also makes our defensive recruitment make more sense to me. A ton of DBs and LBs with good speed.

Am I correct in assuming that the SSs will need to be more like a hybrid b/t a traditional saftey and an OLB?

Do the linebackers have to do more or less reading of plays under this system with the SSs closer to the line?

Space Coyote

March 30th, 2010 at 10:18 AM ^

The SSs would preferably be a little bigger so they can be stronger at the point of attack, but, IMO, they should still be closer to a SS rather than a LB. Kovacs is listed at 200 pounds, I would say that’s fine. Because the SSs are outside the tackles they need to shed fewer blocks, though it is a bit more than they typically would in a 4-3. I think more so than size, technique and teaching how to take on blocks is more important.

As for LB reads, one of the advantages is that LBs typically have fewer reads in this defense. If they read run they can be more aggressive towards it because they typically don’t have TE coverage. Their read is pretty much gap, then ball, though that is a simplified view and is probably far more complicated than that (but still supposedly easier than 4-3 reads). Reads also depend on particular coaches, so I could be quite wrong.


March 30th, 2010 at 5:23 PM ^

are why we'll probably see a lot of double tight and tight trips sets. Kovacs is the kind of guy you'd gladly line up a TE against, run or pass. Obi is in a similar spot --but with more upside up the middle-- though I kind of assume this defense means handing off TE responsibilities to Mouton and Roh.


March 29th, 2010 at 11:38 PM ^

I hope these slides show the versatility of the 3-3-5 to some disbelievers. Against old school teams like Wisconsin you have 8 players within 4-5 yards of the line of scrimmage. There is your 8 men in the box cliche. Against spread teams like Northwestern you have 5 db's on the field to combat multi-WR sets. This is done without personnel changes.


March 30th, 2010 at 8:26 AM ^

First, which SS on your diagram is the "bandit/spur" (or is one side bandit, the other spur?) that I keep seeing references to? And secondly, how does this defense prevent the TE drag across the middle that I keep seeing in my sleeping and waking nightmares? Thanks very much for a great post.

Space Coyote

March 30th, 2010 at 9:59 AM ^

So both are technically spurs, or bandits, or whatever you want to call them.

As for the TE drag, hopefully the LB zones negate a lot of those. With different linebackers blitzing and dropping into zones it should hopefully be a little more difficult for QBs to read (though how much more confusing, I wouldn't say that much versus a typical 4-3). In man coverage the Spur would cover the TE most likely for any route towards the boundary. I would assume that between the LB nearest the TE and the spur, that that LB and spur would have in/out coverage, so in a drag situation, the LB would pick him up. which would hopefully be a more favorable match up for the defense. It also helps in this case because the SS doesn't need to scream down in run support, having his momentum take him past the TE. To defend the TE drag we do really need to sure up our LB zone coverage though.


March 30th, 2010 at 12:31 PM ^

This is a great post-appreciate it! My excitement for the 3-3-5 is curtailed by my concern for yet another defensive scheme. Best athletes on the field makes sense...Just tackle! Go Blue.


March 30th, 2010 at 12:45 PM ^

I'm not a coach so feel free to correct me on this but...

It seems to me that the strong safeties are the key to this defense, especially in terms of our ability to adapt to different offenses. Against a Wisconsin they will need to play a lot like linebackers, maybe pinching in a bit to force things into the middle and compress the running lanes, essentially turning this into a 3-5-3. Against passing teams they are more likely to be concentrating on pass defense, man or zone.

Am I right or wrong? If I'm right, how are the "Spurs" looking this spring?



March 30th, 2010 at 7:38 PM ^

In many ways the SSs are the hardest positions to fill in the 3-3-5. Like you said they are LBs against running teams and have to cover slots against spread teams. Fortunately we don't face too many primarily pass spread teams (Purdue, Notre Dame) where SSs can be victimized by quicker slots.

I don't know how they are doing this spring, but Kovac's and William's strong suits are tackling and run support so they would suit us well against the running teams.


March 31st, 2010 at 8:30 PM ^

(Purdue hat on)

Purdue does not really have quicker slots. While it would be natural to assume that a team that runs a spread offense would look for speed in the slot position, for whatever reason, neither Hope nor Tiller has been able to find much of it. They do usually have good pass-catching TEs (Stratton, Keller), but the WRs are more like Largent than Moss.

It doesn't sound like a big deal until you get a QB who completes about 50% of his passes, and then you discover that four-yard crossing patterns won't get you first downs. Now, the Purdue spread can still beat you for a long gain if the CB/S falls down or otherwise blows the coverage, but it generally won't be from sprinting past it.

(Purdue hat off)

But I suppose one way to battle an ND-style spread would be to rotate the coverage toward the faster slot receiver. (Not sure how to say what I mean ... I am thinking about making sure there is help over the top toward that side, assuming they are not running multiple streaks, which I think was covered in an earlier comment.)


March 30th, 2010 at 1:10 PM ^

Don't be suprised if UM drops the bandit, short side SS into deep coverage and plays either quarters or cover 2, deep 1/2s. It something Coach Robinson has done in the past.


March 30th, 2010 at 1:16 PM ^

This is a great post that helps those of us without prior football experience really grasp the structure of the defense. Going a step further, it would be helpful to see some picture pages or short video clips of how the 3-3-5 is run and how it responds to various offensive formations.


March 30th, 2010 at 1:38 PM ^

Loved the number and quality of the visuals and the explanations.

If there's a followup, I'd be interested in hearing more about the weaknesses and how an opposing offense might try to attack (beyond runs up the model).

In the big picture, any defensive scheme sounds good in theory. Like on the offense side of the ball, the formation and personnel is secondary to execution and appropriate playcalling. Here's to hoping the 2010 team is vastly improved on the execution bit.

To me, 3-5-3 is a more accurate label for the defense if you're focusing on the traditional alignment away from the line of scrimmage. However, it sounds like the focus is more on roles and distance from the ball - with the 2 SS responsible for short-distance outside. It makes sense for these players to be fast DBs in this scheme. To me, they're DBs playing what was traditionally a LB role - so the "hybrid" terminology seems appropriate. To strike a balance between alignment and personnel, I'd call it a 3-3-2-3.

Speaking of personnel, it seems that, besides the NT, MLB,CB, and FS, the other 6 positions (DE, OLB, and SS) can utilize "hybrid" players who might fall somewhere between DE/DT, DE/OLB, OLB/SS in terms of size and skill-set. This makes me more optimistic about some of the lower-ranked or at least less-hyped players we've recruited. I'm thinking specifically of Davion Rodgers and Jake Ryan at OLB and all the DL(who weren't necessarily un-hyped, just there was a lot of questions about how they'd be used.)


March 30th, 2010 at 1:52 PM ^

So who has the contain responsibility on a zone read? I'd guess the DE is going to be going playside, so that leaves the OLB or SS out there. The OT will be free to pick whichever he wants, and I'd guess he'd pick on the SS, unless he's dropping into coverage. If the SS doesn't drop, that leaves the CB against 2 WR, setting up an obvious over/under route.

We got creamed by OSU against this. Most of the time we wound up with nobody in the backfield to contain Pryor, sometimes the SS and OLB would be blocked by the same OL.


March 30th, 2010 at 7:00 PM ^

Well, the zone read leaves the Weak DE unblocked. That means the OT is probably going for the OLB. My thought is to have the DE go for the QB at all times. This will force the ball into the RB's hands and he will be heading toward a side with a NT, DE, MLB, and OLB all flowing with the rest of the OL. The SS will be matched with the SR. Assuming the SR gets a good block in, the RB can either cut between the OT and the SR, or head to the outside where he can get another block from the WR who will stop the OLB. At this point, the CB crashes down to the line and he is forced to change directions, which allows the rest of the players to catch up to him. 0+-2 yards.

Keep in mind that this is sometimes referred to as the 3-5-3 because of the positioning of the SSs. RR claims to have numbers advantage as long as there are 6 or fewer defenders in the box. Depending on whether you consider the SSs to be in the box, you could say that we hold the numbers advantage.

los barcos

March 30th, 2010 at 2:11 PM ^

ive tried to stay quiet about the switch to the 3-3-5 but here is what i dont understand:

the op said " Because it is unfeasible to switch defenses to match offenses in college football... it is important to find a base defense that can be implemented to at least some degree of success against these different teams." to which i say, why?

the conference's solid defenses (OSU, PSU, iowa, wisc, us back in the day) essentially kept their same defensive scheme throughout the season without much variance. i dont get the notion that we have to tailor or defense week-by-week to the teams we face.

anyone want to help me out on that?


March 30th, 2010 at 2:26 PM ^

He's not saying that we will be changing the defensive formation. He is saying we will call different plays. We might pinch the line with a lot of 5-6 man blitzes against Wisconsin, then have the tackles take the C gaps (a pseudo contain) with a 3 man rush to force OSU to beat us with TP's arm.

All of the defenses that you list are able to do this without switching formation. He was pointing out that this will allow us to be able to do the same with a lot more emphasis on versatility.

Mountaineers Fanatic

April 1st, 2010 at 7:53 PM ^

The other thing to think about is that "back in the day" offenses didn't run as many diversified formations as they do today. The B10 was known for its running offense, the so called 3yds in a cloud of dust. With offensive schemes changing so much, DC need to find defenses that with very little adjustments can match what all the offenses will be doing. The 3-3-5 defense can basically use the same defense week to week and only adjust their slants/stunts and blitzes


March 30th, 2010 at 3:22 PM ^

Awesome summary; agree this should be a front-page thing (and I think it is, now, else I might not have seen it). One thing I wonder about from your explanation of the scheme is how it would look from a man scheme (I know, lots of arrows and no ovals). I'm talking schematically, how a team might blitz from a man look, gap responsibilities, how receivers in motion would be handled, that sort of thing.

I think this defense could be very flexible, but every defense has some warts. This one will be vulnerable to FB leads up the middle and TGDSCD (That G*d-Damn Shotgun Counter Draw) that teams inexplicably have stopped using despite UM giving up about 15 YPC every time it's run. Other than that, it should be pretty stout, no more or less so than any other alignment.

For articles like this we should have a 'Football 101' tag or 'Sweet FB knowledge' or something like that.


March 30th, 2010 at 5:29 PM ^

to play much actual Stack. the Over shift you show is far more likely, imo, though Roh will probably be given a lot of freedom to line up however he likes given his assignment. regardless of actual scheme, it looks like GERG is trying to give more responsibilities to Roh and Mouton and fewer to Obi while still compensating for certain issues in the defensive backfield.


March 30th, 2010 at 8:04 PM ^

If this defense is run with the right personnel and executed well Michigan could be undefeated soon.

Imagine that Michigan offense outscoring teams and the 3-3-5 defense confusing offenses. It ought to be good!

Fun, Fun, Fun!


March 30th, 2010 at 8:56 PM ^

Any chance that the SS's would be used on run-down blitzes? Say perhaps when expecting a sweep, or to cause havoc on a Zone-read play?


March 31st, 2010 at 2:01 AM ^

I agree, on some running plays we'll hit the gap and get into the backfield but others may go for big 10 yard chunks. The 3-3-5 may help us a bit against the big passing play with the FS ball hawk. I'm a bit worried about changing up the defensive scheme as well. Though it may end up fitting the talent on this team, but hopefully the defense will get this scheme down by week 3 or 4 instead of week 9 or 10! Overall, no matter what scheme we are running the defense will be better than last season...so I'm optimistic, given the potential of the offense to score more points! Looking at the 3-3-5 it may work better in the red zone, thus we may see teams march on our defense up and down between the 20's?

My only question will the MIKE (Obi) be calling the blitz package by reading the offensive formations or will the package be coming in from the sideline?


March 31st, 2010 at 11:06 AM ^

Even though they are switching defenses again, I think it is important to note that they are not bringing in someone from the outside to try and implement a new defense. When English took over they improved vastly I think because he was already familiar with all of the players they had and was on the same page as they were in terms of fundamental development and terminology. In both Schafer's and Robinson's first years they were outsiders coming in. I think that makes a huge difference in defensive players adapting to new schemes. Also I think (or hope) this was likely the long-term goal from the beginning of GERG's time here, with last year as more of a transition period, grooming the players for this defense.


March 31st, 2010 at 1:51 PM ^

It seems from these diagrams that the cornerbacks are always responsible for a deep zone. Can I assume that our cornerbacks will typically not be in press coverage? I guess that could be a good thing for our relative inexperience at that position. Although it seems that most cornerbacks prefer playing tight press coverage.


April 1st, 2010 at 8:25 AM ^

A 3-3-5 is usually a Cover 3 defense in which the cornerbacks and the free safety each have a deep third. They can run any coverage they want (2 man, man free, cover zero, etc.), but it's easiest to run a Cover 3 zone.

Cornerbacks do like to play press man coverage, but ultimately, every player likes to do what he's familiar with. That's why kids like Gholston and Lawrence Thomas are resistant to playing defensive end. But if we can win with this defense, the corners won't care whether they're playing a deep zone or in press man.

Mountaineers Fanatic

April 1st, 2010 at 8:03 PM ^

Just a couple things I want to point out. First, RR ran the 3-3-5 at WVU and they were very successful against the run. In fact, they were in the top 20 rush defense and top 30 in overall defense.

Secondly, another defense/coverage I didn't see the OP show is a cloud or roll coverage defense. The defense can start out looking like a cover 3/1 and roll to one side of the field. This would assist with run support by having one of your corners play press while the opposite side corner roll back into a deep third. This also confuses the QB as far as which defensive scheme is being run


August 11th, 2010 at 11:26 AM ^

yeah they were ranked high but part of that was the fact that the offense was a threat to score every time they touched the ball and a lot of teams were forced to pass to keep up.  However they still passed considerably less against WVU and produced about 20 fewer first downs in 100 more rushing attempts.  The defense works.


March 16th, 2011 at 9:59 PM ^

1. Very nice post. I was looking into 3-3-5 stuff lately, so this was pretty good find.

2. I would like to think that, zone blitz scheme doesn't necessarily have to have a DL pulling back to cover while rushers flood the fire zone. That's one flavor of it, but not the whole. Say, 'we can use our linemen to cover shallow field.' That's all there is to it. In a nutshell, a zone blitz consists of zone coverage and free rusher (due to talent mismatch or due to scheme or due to simple overloading)

3. As in all three-down linemen defensive schemes (i.e. the famous 3-4) the performance of the down linemen will make or break this defense. (I am exclusively talking about the down linemen, so the argument is still valid in this 3-3-5 scheme as well.)

I once considered myself a disciple of Fairbank-Bullough 3-4, but these days I am more drawn to Bum Phillips 3-4. This is particularly because Fairbank-Bullough always leave the guards unattended, forcing the LBs to eat them up. If the defensive linement are 320+ lb behemoths, then Phillips 3-4 should be the choice of scheme IMHO. This is because: 

           a. It's a one-gap scheme, so DLs don't have to react consistently.

           b. As it's a one-gap system, it allows the DL to absorb double team more easily.

           c. Since the OL would be double-teaming the DL, it forces the running options too.

4. Once the beast 3 linemen are in place, then that's when the true power of 3-3-5 starts to shine (IMHO). Of course, you would have to have capable safeties and 1 fearsome OLB to make it work. Simply put, it becomes a 3-4 defense, but with at LEAST 3 different flavors, assuming the OLB is the rusher. (Which is a dangerous assumption, by the way - OLB could simply be a decoy.)

5. I believe Jets this year used some variant of 3-3-5 during their playoff run this year (as they didn't have a legitimate pass rusher outside Calvin Pace) and that seems to tell me that 3-3-5 can (and will) stand the test of the time, even in the most fierce competitions.