The job of a 3-3-5 defense is to erode the offense’s confidence.

By Thomas Cousins

The players in a 3-3-5 defensive system must be convinced that they are all playmakers on the field. The old saying, “bend but don’t break,” simply does not fit this defensive scheme, which is a big-play defense.

Sacks, takeaways, tackles for losses and caused fumbles all lead to changes in momentum. The job of a 3-3-5 defense is to erode the offense’s confidence and make offensive players start second-guessing their scheme, game plan and coaches.

When this doubt takes shape, the defense is dictating the tone of the game, and the offense is playing catch-up. No matter what happens during the course of a game, it is the defense that must dictate to the offense what plays can or cannot be run.

Redundancy

One of the strengths of this defensive scheme is that it has redundancy built in for almost every situation. More than one person is usually assigned to do the same job.

For example, if the primary force player, the Stud, falls down or is blocked during a play, the corner is assigned secondary force so that the defense still accomplishes what it set out to do. Examples of redundancy include the following:

  • Having both outside linebackers and the corners assigned to force
  • Having both outside linebackers and the corners assigned to pitch on the option
  • Having refit reads for inside linebackers
  • Having the free safety assigned to run the alley for secondary run support

Personnel

Two schools of thought exist when dealing with personnel and personnel groupings. Either flip sides with your defense, creating a strong side and a weak side, or have a right side and a left side that do not flip.

For simplicity, this defense is designed to flip sides to keep players from having to learn multiple reads.

In the 3-5-3 system, the outside linebackers are called Stud (strong) and Whip (weak). They are hybrids who cannot only defeat blocks from the tight end or fullback but also cover those positions man-to-man if needed.

Most often, the Stud is more of a true linebacker and the Whip is more of a true defensive back.

These two players line up four yards deep and four yards outside the offensive end player on the line of scrimmage, but they have total freedom of movement anywhere in their areas of play – unless dictated to adjust by formations.

The inside linebackers are called Sam (strong) and Will (weak). They line up behind the tackles, three-and-a-half to four yards deep. They also have total freedom of movement anywhere in their areas of play. They need to move back and forth and side-to-side to confuse the offense about whether or not they are blitzing. They do not need to be overly big players, but they must be able to run.

The Mike linebacker lines up behind the nose three-and-a-half to four yards deep, also with total freedom of movement anywhere in his area of play. He needs to move back and forth and side to side to confuse the offense about whether he is blitzing or not. This is your toughest, most physical linebacker, but he can be a step slower than the other two inside linebackers.

The two defensive tackles that typically align head up to the offensive tackles. Quickness, not strength, is most important. Defensive linemen are never asked to take on the player across from them man-to-man, so they can be smaller than in other systems.

The nose guard lines up head up to the center. He needs to be the best defensive lineman on the field, and he must command a double team.

The three defensive linemen will line up as close to the line of scrimmage as possible. It is paramount that the five offensive linemen are forced to account for the three defensive linemen.

The free safety must be able to run the alley and also be effective in the passing game, willing to come up and make a tackle. If you have a cornerback who is a good tackler but a step too slow to be an everydown cover guy, he may be just right for free safety in this scheme.

The corners are simply the best athletes on the field. They are left on an island quite a bit, so they must be cover players with good instincts. In regards to the running game, the corners will be asked to provide secondary support and take the pitchback late on the option.

Now, let’s take a look at how the 3-5-3 lends itself to defending specific power offensive plays.

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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.

About the author

Dan Guttenplan