Defend Against Power Formations From the 3-5-3

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By Thomas Cousins

We have all been taught as football coaches that offense wins games, but defense wins championships.

This statement is true, and because of the 3-5-3 defense I feel that football is becoming more even in terms of matching up with today’s high-powered offenses.

This defensive concept is not new. The 3-5-3 and all of its variations have been around for years, but as more and more coaches move to this defensive scheme, it has become the great equalizer in terms of matching up smaller, speed-type personnel with both wide-open and power offenses.

Part of the reason I have had success is that while I don’t do specific pursuit drills in practice, I incorporate pursuit into every drill my team uses – whether individual, inside, skelly or team drill. Because we are always stressing pursuit, our players know no other way.

Many of the techniques and schemes within the 3-5-3 go against what coaches have grown up learning and what defines “sound” football. Be creative, and you will find that this defense is easy to run and fun for your players.

You cannot be bound by what you perceive as boundaries in defensive football. Sure, voiding zones all over the field and having a three-man front on the goal line are not normally considered examples of sound judgment in football, but if you are willing to be a little different, this defense will work for you as it has for us.

The 3-5-3 defensive has the following advantages:

  • Many coaches struggle against how to block or game plan for the 3-5-3 because most of the defensive reads and reactions are backward from what offenses expect.
  • It is extremely flexible. Nickel and dime substitutions can be made without disrupting the overall scheme. In fact, with the right personnel, no substitutions need to be made at all.
  • The defense is an eight-man front, yet five speed players are on the field for pass coverage. You get the best of both worlds: pressure and pass defense. There is big difference between a defensive end who runs a 5.0 40-yard dash chasing the quarterback and an outside linebacker who runs a 4.5.
  • It allows for the use of smaller, speedier players.
  • Offenses often do not know where pressure is coming from.

The 3-5-3 does have some perceived disadvantages, including:

  • Teams lining up and trying to mash your three defensive linemen.
  • Not covering the tight end.
  • Being limited to Cover 3 or man-to-man coverage.
  • Not giving multiple looks up front.

However, as this article will show, the 3-5-3 not only lends itself to defending the spread offense, but it is effective against power looks as well.

The No. 1 key is that the defense must not get outflanked by the formation. This is done by:

  • The linebackers and defensive backs must always check for play action.
  • Inside linebackers bounce everything to the outside.
  • Outside linebackers force everything inside.
  • Defensive backs come up late on the run.
  • Defensive linemen must not give up ground on double teams.

The 3-5-3 defense considers any type of double tight end formation to be a power formation. When facing such a formation, the outside linebackers must tighten up to two yards by four yards off the end player on the line of scrimmage, such as in the examples below.


More variations versus power formations

Tuff. Use this versus double tight. It may be helpful to bring the Stud linebacker down as a fourth defensive lineman and play the tuff front.

Goal line. In short-yardage situations, it is sometimes helpful to jump into goal line to add extra defenders to the line of scrimmage.


Thomas Cousins is an assistant football coach at West Ashley (S.C.) High School, a position he assumed in 2006. Before joining the Wildcats’ staff, he coached at Avon Park (Fla.) High School for seven seasons (1999-2005), the last three as the Red Devils’ head coach. Involved with football for more than three decades as either a player or a coach, Cousins began his coaching career in 1991 as a defensive line coach at his alma mater, Newberry College.

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