3-3-5 defense exerpt by Smart Football

Submitted by Jasper on June 7th, 2012 at 5:24 AM

At the risk of inducing PTSD in a subset of this blog's readership (specifically, the people who believe the spread offense will never-ever-ever work in the Big Ten because the associated midget receivers can't properly handle the football in 15F temperatures), here's a Grantland piece on the 3-3-5 defense:




June 7th, 2012 at 2:37 PM ^

As I recall, a reporter noted that Hoke's D at SDSU under Long ran a 3-3-5, and asked Hoke if he thought it could work in the Big Ten (implicitly referencing the tire fire that was Michigan's D under Rodriguez). He said sure it could, and that it was a flexible defense, you could have 3 or 4 or 5 guys on the line of scrimmage, and that very flexibility was why they liked using it at SDSU. But he was answering as a general manner, and never indicated he'd use it at Michigan. (And obviously once he hired Mattison, the question was moot.)

Section 1

June 7th, 2012 at 10:10 AM ^

...all we needed to do was to give more autonomy to Greg Robinson?

See how this goes?

There could be a thread about a Smart Football (a great website) link to an article about the 3-3-5.  And/or there can be more MGoTrashtalk about Rodriguez.  You see how this gets started?  You see who is starting this sort of thing?


June 7th, 2012 at 7:10 AM ^

Give me the 9-1-1 defense. Roh-Heitzman-Brink-Ash-Wilkins-Campbell-Black-Beyer-Clark in front, Demens in the middle, Thomas Gordon in back. Let's see Wisconsin try to run on that.


June 7th, 2012 at 8:23 AM ^

A defense build on speed and controlled aggression.  Probably not the best defense to try to switch the '08 team into.  Doubt that Shafer/GERG did the recquisite homework to know what the opposing offense was most likely to run. Also, we were not fast. We were a lumbering 4-3 cover defense that played bend, don't break...


June 7th, 2012 at 12:27 PM ^

We actually played a 4-3 the majority of the time Rodriguez was here.  In 2008 the defense gave up 45 to Illinois, 46 to Penn State, and 35 to MSU against Shafer's 4-3.  Then RR had the team switch to a 3-3-5 for the Purdue game, with continued disastrous results, and immediately switched back.  The entire 2009 season was played in a 4-3 defense with even more continued shitty results (think Iowa tight ends walking into the end zone without a defender in sight).

The 3-3-5 was pretty much used as a last resort to try to change things up when the 4-3 was clearly producing terrible results.  But like Magnus correctly pointed out in an earlier post, if you do something unconventional at all people will be much quicker to turn against it when things don't go well.


June 7th, 2012 at 9:13 AM ^

There's more discussion of the 3-3-5 in the Smart Football book (this is an excerpt), but in the book it became clear that even the best 3-3-5 coaches should not (or would not) use it under all circumstances.  After all, there's this quote about Joe Lee Dunn (who is credited with creating the 3-3-5):

Even with his success, Dunn's career can also be a warning about the 3-3-5. He's held down jobs with good schools, but he never was able to break out beyond schools like Memphis, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss. While at their best, his defenses were suffocating and hard to plan for; when the talent dropped off, the aggressiveness once viewed as a virtue seemed to bleed over into a lack of discipline and a penchant for giving up big plays. Since then, he has coached at Ridgeway High School, New Mexico State, and now Division III McMurry. In football, pragmatism rules, and inflexibility — even if it's with a great idea — leads to the rest of the landscape passing you by.


June 7th, 2012 at 9:23 AM ^

I don't know whether that's an indictment of the 3-3-5.  It says "when talent dropped off" the defense didn't work as well anymore.  Well...what defense DOES work when you don't have talent? 

It's Jimmy's and Joe's, not X's and O's.


June 7th, 2012 at 9:34 AM ^

True, true, but this was a larger theme in the piece in the book.  He argues how Charlie Strong and others who were "masters" of the 3-3-5 chose not to deploy it except for certain situations.


I highly suggest the book to anyone interested in some of the intracacies of football -- and it's less than $10 on Amazon.


June 7th, 2012 at 9:51 AM ^

True, but the book also has a chapter dedicated to Mike Leach's Air Raid offense.  There are certainly elements of Leach's offense in almost every school's playbook, but many teams just use those plays situationally.  However, Leach has devoted himself to practicing those things almost exclusively and getting really good at them; I think it said that Leach ran four verts 11 times in one game and the QB went 9/11 on that same play throughout the game.  There are many schools out there who wouldn't want to throw the ball 50-60 times a game.  In fact, I bet the old school Michigan atmosphere would have turned against Leach in much the same way that it turned against Rodriguez if we had hired Leach instead. 

"How dare you throw the ball 60 times at Michigan?!?!?!  This is the Big Ten!  We run the ball here!  And how are the receivers going to catch the ball in freezing November weather?!?!?!"

If you line up in the "I" and run the ball at Michigan, but you do it poorly, all you have to say is "We have to get better at running the ball."  The fans will be mad, but they'll see the problem and know that you're trying to fix it.  If you go 5-wide, but you do it poorly, the fan base will have questions about execution AND scheme.  The same goes for the 3-3-5.  If Strong's 3-3-5 didn't work as a full-time defense, people would have thought he was a nut job AND a bad coach.


June 7th, 2012 at 9:55 AM ^

It wasn't the most talented, but it was still pretty talented.  Good coaching + good talent = good defense.  I know recruiting rankings don't mean everything, but we had three 4-stars on the defensive line that really made things go.  Games are won in the trenches, and we were lucky enough that perhaps our two most talented guys (Martin, Van Bergen) were both defensive linemen and could hold the point of attack, get penetration, fluster quarterbacks, and frustrate opposing coordinators.


June 7th, 2012 at 10:31 AM ^

You wrote:

"defensive linemen and could hold the point of attack, get penetration, fluster quarterbacks, and frustrate opposing coordinators."

I watched last year's USC victory over Oregon and it seemed to me the key to that victory was exactly that ... the USC defensive line seemed to do an extraordinary job that day getting into the backfield and disrupting things.


June 7th, 2012 at 3:28 PM ^

but those same guys, those same 4 stars, were on the field the year before getting absolutely torched.  teams ran on martin and rvb the year before, the year mattison shows up they are stuffing every 3rd and 4th and 1 in sight.  i try not to flame but that right there tells me GERG should have to apologize to every UM fan for mailing it in.


June 7th, 2012 at 4:35 PM ^

Was it GERG's idea to play Roh at linebacker?  Was it GERG's idea to play a 3-3-5?  Was it GERG's fault that we had injuries and freshmen at the cornerback positions?

The "Jimmy's and Joe's" comment is an overimplification, I know.  You can't just throw some decent players out there, tell them to "make plays," and expect it to happen.  You still have to have some semblance of coaching and fundamentals.  That's what was lacking under Rodriguez, and I'm really not sure how much of that is Robinson's fault.


June 7th, 2012 at 9:22 AM ^

This is an odd analogy, but for people who played World of Warcraft a few years ago (before they stratified talent specs) the conventional wisdom was that your character's gear and your skill trumped whatever limitations his character spec imposed on whatever battle he was doing in-game.  I kinda feel the same way about defensive schemes.  The quote from the article that kept jumping out at me re: the 3-3-5 was that "it also puts a lot on the coaches to get the calls right."

Which... yeah. There's something to be said for (decided) schematic advantages, but it's ultimately on the coaches to use schemes correctly. Hell, if our personnel are best suited to run a 2-1-8 scheme, run it.  /omgflashbackto1994colorado

Sione's Flow

June 7th, 2012 at 9:36 AM ^

There is one element of the 3-3-5, that can work. When playing Florida in the SEC title game, Nick Saban used 3 down linemen to combat the spread. but behind that he ran a 4-4 with one LB constantly tracking Aaron Hernandez

Eye of the Tiger

June 7th, 2012 at 10:21 AM ^

It's something that, if used correctly, helps mitigate speed on the offensive side of the ball. 

Like with any defensive scheme, concentrating on stopping X opens up possibilities for Y.

In this case, Y is power running.

Big 10 teams like power running.

By the transitive property, running the 3-3-5 in the Big 10 opens up possibilities for the exact thing that Big 10 offenses like to run. 

Now, that said, I don't think a 3-3-5 is automatically doomed to failure, a la Michigan 2010, in the Big 10.

Rather, if it was coached by someone who knew the system in and out, and had his own position coaches, and the right defensive backs, it might have been considerably more successful.

That said, I don't think it's an optimal defensive scheme for the Big 10.

Even in the best-case scenario, the 3-3-5 is going to have problems against power teams like Sparty, Iowa and Wisconsin. 

Incidentally, those exact teams caused us fits during the years 2008-10. 

I think, hypothetically, that TCU's 4-2-5 robber system would be a more effective nickel-all-the-time package for the Big 10. 

But the only evidence for that is TCU's one game against Wisconsin, and their defense did "good not great" in that game. 


June 7th, 2012 at 5:01 PM ^

We'll have to disagree about TCU's defense against Wisconsin. Wisky scored 30 or more points in every game after MSU, had a 72% passer at QB, and had 3 RB's with 1000 yards of rushing that combined for 46 TD's (Ball technically only had 996 yards, but whatever). They came in after steam-rolling opponents and TCU just shut them down in the redzone.


June 7th, 2012 at 5:54 PM ^

It doesn't mitigate speed.  It mitigates size through the use of speed.  Teams that run the 3-3 are usually small and fast.  Does it help against the speed?  Sure.  If taught and run properly with the right players it will shut down a power running game.  Then again, that can be said about any defense. 

Like you said though Michigan's 3-3 was coached by someone who had no idea what he was doing and was surrounded by guys who can't coach fundamentals.  That is a recipe for disaster. 


June 7th, 2012 at 10:21 AM ^

In that chapter of the book there's more that's not in the Grantland excerpt.  Specifically:

"Finally, this defense tends to put a lot of pressure on the cornerbacks, both in man coverage and in zone coverage which is effectively like man coverage, with very little help.  Disguise and movement help 3-3-5 teams cover up flaws, but this does not change the fact that this defense puts its corners -- and its primary deep safety -- in a lot of open space with a lot of green grass to cover."

I find this interesting because in the 2010 season Michigan's most senior corner (Woolfolk) was out, and the remaining corners were somewhat unseasoned.

As others have said -- it comes down to situational usage and talent.  At the right time with the right people the 3-3-5 can be effective.  As a base package with inexperienced corners?  Maybe (and probably) not.

NOLA Wolverine

June 7th, 2012 at 10:37 AM ^

There were a lot bigger problems when we ran the 3-3-5 than where players specifically stood pre-snap. A dormant front 7 and an inability to hit, tackle, or cover anyone is why they never stopped anyone. I've got a pretty good feeling that even if Alabama lined up in the 3-3-5 front every play last year Dont'a Hightower would still be a heat seaking missle blowing ball carriers up. And, conversely, that Obi Ezeh would have been equally invisible had he lined up in the 3-3-5, 4-3, 3-4, or in the opponents back field.

His Dudeness

June 7th, 2012 at 11:00 AM ^

VT has run the 3-3-5 for years with great success. It works with the right coaches and players. Of course, so does everything in the history of ever.

03 Blue 07

June 7th, 2012 at 1:45 PM ^

Just want to note that a.) I have to get this book; it's fantastic analysis. And b.) no defense will/won't work, per se, if based on certain fundamentals. There's a time and place for everything, if taught properly. Our problem? GERG not being a 3-3-5 guy, and it not being run properly once it was instituted.