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The 3-3-5 Defense: An In-Depth Guide

Posted by Throw Deep Publishing Staff on

The 3-3-5 defense is a high risk, high reward defense.

It is a defense that is derived from pressure and athletic defenders. Many defensive coordinators use it as a sub package, but there are some that will use it as a base defense. 3 defensive linemen, 3 linebackers and 5 defensive backs allow for heavy pressure, and mixed coverages. 

Coach John Grayson has put together an in-depth video series on the 3-3-5 defense and his playbook.

CLICK HERE to see previews from the course, or keep reading to learn more about the 3-3-5.

What is the 3-3-5 Defense?

The 3-3-5 defense uses 3 defensive linemen, 3 inside linebackers and 5 defensive backs. The 3-3-5 is sometimes referred to as a 3-5-3 defense or a 3-3 stack as well.

3-3-5 Defense Diagram

The defense has 3 defensive linemen as previously stated and in its base set, a combination of 5 linebackers or DB’s lining up across from the defense. The outermost players are sometimes referred to as linebackers, and sometimes as defensive backs.  

What Kind of Players Do You Need for the 3-3-5 Defense?

The 3-3-5 relies on faster, more athletic players that may be considered smaller in a more traditional defense. In a 3-3-5, some defensive coordinators will drop bigger linebackers down to the line of scrimmage to play the defensive line. This will allow for the defensive linemen to student and move, something typical in a 3-3-5 defense. To fill the void at linebacker, dropping bigger defensive backs down to linebacker allows for maximum speed and athleticism on the field. Faster linebackers to go with the more athletic defensive line are able to stunt and blitz

What are the Strengths of the 3-3-5 Defense?

The biggest strength of the 3-3-5 is the flexibility and versatility of the scheme.

From a 1 high shell, the 3-3 stack, without giving away any  tips in coverage, you can play cover 1 or cover 3. Same pre snap shell, two different coverages. The 3-3-5 also has the ability to add rushers from different spots. Brining one of the stacked linebackers, or one of the overhangs off the edge adds a fourth rusher.

Slanting while bringing an edge rusher is a great way to create an over or an under front. Blitzing one of the stacked linebackers up the middle is also a great way to add a fourth rusher. All of this, from the same pre snap shell. The athletic defensive linemen and linebackers allow for maximum speed on the field at all times which is a strength of the defense.

Furthermore, its very easy to adjust to formations using the 3-3-5. A tight end or a wing is easily adjusted based on game plan, but is usually done with a stack backer, while staying gap sound.

What are the Weaknesses of the 3-3-5 Defense?

The edges are a very vulnerable spot in the 3-3-5 defense.

Buck Sweep for example, a running play where both guards pull can be very troublesome for a 3-3-5 defense. If a center can block your nose, and the tackle can reach your defensive end the two guards are now pulling up to your playside overhang and your playside stack backer the offense has numbers.

In the event the #2 receiver can block your overhang, now the offense really has numbers, and you will be depending on a free safety to come down and make a tackle. It is up to one of your defenders to beat a 1 on 1 block and make a tackle. Ideally, more than one of your defenders can beat a block.

The same principle applies to an outside zone play towards the edge. 

How Do Offenses Like to Attack the 3-3-5 Defense?

The best way to attack a 3-3-5 defense is in the seams if you’re throwing it, and off the edge if you’re running it.

Four verts will always kill cover 3, which is the base coverage for most 3-3 stack teams. Corners will try to squeeze the seam route, with help from the free safety, but a quarterback with a good arm will be able to hit the go route from #1 on either side. Failure to squeeze a seam route will allow a much easier throw to either #2 receiver in the seam.

3-3-5 Defense Weaknesses

Another great way to go about attacking this particular defense is with the “trips” formation, which is usually set to the field. With a defense adjusting to the “trips” formation, only 5 players are left in the box. 5 offensive linemen for 5 defenders.  Adjusting to the trips for the 3-3-5 isn’t difficult, but what’s left after your defense adjusts is a vulnerable 1 receiver side, which in many cases sets up to the boundary.

3-3-5 Defense vs Trips Diagram

Generally vs. a Trips set, you will move your free safety over, and displace one of the 3 inside linebackers to match numbers to the field or to the trips set. This creates the same issue to the edges, and weakens your number of box defenders. 

Common Blitzes from the 3-3-5 Defense

The 3-3-5 is known for the large amount of blitzes it can throw at an offense, so let's look at a couple of the most common in this defense.

3-3-5 Sam Blitz

3-3-5 Defense Sam Blitz

A very simple blitz out of the 3-3-5 slants your defensive line (right in the diagram), and blitzes one of the stack linebackers off the edge. This creates and over or an under front for you and your defense depending on the back, the direction you are slanting and who you’re blitzing. It is very easy to substitute which stack backer you are sending, and you can also send one of your overhangs. This changes who’s coming and where they’re coming from creating several variations to a blitz, without changing the blitz. 

3-3-5 SAW Blitz

3-3-5 Defense SAW Blitz Diagram

The second blitz helps you to create a “Bear” front by blitzing. Sending two stack backers and pinching your defensive line moves your defensive line and linebackers in order to bring 5. The stack backers, can also be replaced with the overhangs. This is the beauty of the 3-3-5, multiple blitzes, from multiple players with only two calls. 

Common Coverages from the 3-3-5 Defense

We've already talked about how the 3-3-5 can disguise the coverage very easily from an offense, so let's take a look at some of the most common coverages from this defense.

Cover 1 and Cover 3 work well together in this defense because there is 1 high safety in both coverages. The defense comes out in the same shell. Even motion won’t tip the offense, a stack backer, can bump to cover the new #3 receiver in the event there's a motion to trips from the shown formation below.

3-3-5 Cover 1

3-3-5 Defense Cover 1 Diagram

Cover 1 is a great defense often associated with the 3-3-5 defense. It compliments Cover 3, another coverage that looks similar before the snap (we'll talk more about that in a second).

The high safety allows defenses to switch between cover 1 and cover 3 given differing situations. In cover 1 your corners generally lock up on your #1 receiver. Your overhangs will cover your #2 receiver, and one of your stack backers will end up covering the back. Whichever backer isn't covering or pressuring in cover 1, can become a “Rat” player which means that he plays the middle of the field and looks to help other players in man to man coverage with crossing routes.

Your corners will take #1 on both sides. Your overhangs will then take the #2 receivers. The stack backers will split the field covering the more athletic back in most cases. With the stack backers splitting the back in coverage, the 3rd stack can become a “rat” in coverage and look for crossers to jump. The free safety hangs over the top supervising all of this and helping on deep routes. 

3-3-5 Cover 3

3-3-5 Defense Cover 3 Diagram

 Cover 3 is the most common coverage played from the 3-3-5 defense. In this defense, the corners and the free safety each take a deep third. The two overhangs will cover the flats. Your stack backers, in the diagram, the “Sam” and “Will”  will be your curl players. Your 3rd stack backer, the “Mike” in the diagram, if not on a blitz will cover the hook. 

What Coaches/Teams Use the 3-3-5 Defense?

Joe Lee Dunn is credited as the “father” or inventor of the 3-3-5 defense. He coached at Mississippi State, Memphis, and Ole Miss among several other stops.

Matt Campbell and the Iowa State defense are most famous for running this style of defense. Campbell made it popular to help combat the high scoring offenses of the big 12. Tony Gibson at North Carolina State runs the 3-3-5 as well. Gibson has been at West Virginia as a defensive coordinator amongst several other stops as a position coach. 

Additionally at the prep level, Tim Racki was an early adopter of the 3-3 stack when he was at Driscoll Catholic in Addison, Illinois. Racki won 4 straight State Titles at Driscoll from 2001-2004. Racki left Driscoll for Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park, IL. At Nazareth, with defensive coordinator Jeff Tumpane, the Roadrunners continue to run the 3-3-5, where they have won 4 state titles giving Racki 8 total using the 3-3-5 defense.

Want More?

Check out our 6-part series where Coach John Grayson explains his entire 3-3-5 defense playbook HERE