Mastering the American Football 3-3 Defense: Strategies, Blitzes, and Coverages Explained

Ashley Hopkinson

American Football 3-3 Defense

In the ever-evolving landscape of American football, defensive strategies play a crucial role in shaping the outcome of a game. One such innovative alignment is the 3-3-5 defense, also known as the 33 stack or spread defense.

This formation features three down linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs, offering a unique blend of flexibility and coverage.

Pioneered by veteran college football defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn, the 3-3-5 defense aims to confuse offenses with its dynamic positioning. By stacking linebackers and safeties directly behind the linemen, this scheme can effectively adapt to various offensive plays.

However, while it excels in versatility, it’s often vulnerable to short and medium pass routes over the middle, particularly in the hole and hook coverage zones.

Overview of the 3-3-5 Defense in American Football

The 3-3-5 defense, known for its flexibility, adapts well to modern offenses. It’s particularly effective against spread offenses that feature multiple wide receivers and fast-paced play.

Key Characteristics and Basic Setup

The 3-3-5 defense employs three linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. This alignment maximizes coverage in the secondary and allows for various blitz packages.

  • Three Linemen: The defensive linemen primarily focus on rushing the passer and containing the run.
  • Three Linebackers: These players often have dual roles, including pass coverage and run support.
  • Five Defensive Backs: The secondary includes two cornerbacks, two safeties, and a nickelback, enhancing pass defense capabilities.

Each player’s role varies based on the play called. Linebackers and defensive backs can blitz, drop into coverage, or play man-to-man, complicating the quarterback’s read.

Evolution and Variations

The 3-3-5 defense has evolved to counteract spread offenses. Joe Lee Dunn popularized it, but teams now use various adaptations.

  • TCU Variation: Texas Christian University uses a version of the 3-3-5 featuring three safeties and two linebackers. This setup sacrifices a linebacker for additional coverage in the secondary.
  • Tampa 2 Influence: Some variations incorporate principles from the Tampa 2, using a deep-dropping linebacker to cover the middle and defend deep passes.

Various defensive coordinators tweak alignments, formations, and responsibilities to adapt to specific offensive schemes. The 3-3-5 defense continues to evolve, demonstrating its staying power in modern football.

Strengths of the 3-3-5 Defense

The 3-3-5 defense offers several potent advantages that make it a compelling choice for many teams. Its strengths lie in its flexibility and enhanced pass defense capabilities.

Flexibility Against Various Offenses

The 3-3-5 defense excels due to its adaptability. It allows teams to disguise coverages effectively by maintaining a similar pre-snap shell regardless of the actual play call.

For instance, from the same setup, teams can execute either Cover 1 or Cover 3 without tipping off the quarterback (

Adding rushers from various positions, such as linebackers or overhang players, enhances the defense’s unpredictability. This flexibility enables seamless adjustments to different types of offensive plays weekly.

Enhanced Pass Defense Capabilities

One of the core strengths of the 3-3-5 defense is its superior pass defense capabilities. Incorporating five defensive backs ensures that offenses aiming to stretch the field vertically encounter solid resistance.

The use of Cover 4, which deploys four deep defenders, mitigates the risk of long completions, particularly against offenses employing multiple vertical routes.

The 3-3-5 scheme limits the deep coverage zones each defender needs to account for, enhancing the overall efficiency in pass defense. The athleticism of the defensive backs and linebackers further ensures a robust defense against aerial attacks.

Weaknesses of the 3-3-5 Defense

The 3-3-5 defense, while versatile and effective in pass coverage, exhibits certain weaknesses that opponents can exploit.

Challenges in Physical Match-Ups

The 3-3-5 defense often faces challenges in physical match-ups. With only three down linemen, the defensive front can struggle against larger and more powerful offensive lines.

This can be particularly evident when facing run-heavy offenses that utilize strong blocking schemes to create running lanes.

The linebackers in this formation must also contend with offensive linemen more frequently, which can wear them down over the course of a game.

Vulnerabilities Against the Run

The 3-3-5 defense is susceptible to running plays. With only three linemen, the defense often relies heavily on linebackers and safeties to fill gaps and stop the run. This can lead to vulnerabilities, particularly against teams that excel at running the ball.

Power running plays, such as those involving pulling guards or fullbacks, can exploit the reduced number of linemen at the point of attack.

Additionally, if offensive teams effectively block the linebackers, the secondary can become responsible for making crucial tackles, which poses a significant risk for long runs.

Implementing the 3-3-5 Defense

A 3-3-5 defense requires a specific set of player attributes and skills, as well as focused training and tactical planning. This section will outline the key aspects needed to successfully implement this defensive formation.

Required Player Attributes and Skills

To execute a 3-3-5 defense, each player must possess certain attributes and skills:

  • Defensive Linemen: Stocky and powerful, able to engage and shed blockers. Speed is less critical, but quickness off the line can disrupt plays early.
  • Linebackers: Versatile and agile. Must be adept at switching between pass coverage and run support. Example: a linebacker in this scheme might drop back into coverage against tight ends or wide receivers while also taking on running backs.
  • Defensive Backs: Speed and coverage skills. Nickelback and safeties should be able to cover a wide range of field areas. Example: defensive backs in a 3-3-5 must handle slot receivers and deep threats effectively.

Training and Tactical Considerations

Effective implementation of the 3-3-5 defense involves meticulous training protocols and tactical considerations:

  • Training Drills: Focus on flexibility and quick adaptability. Drill exercises should include both pass coverage and run defense scenarios.
  • Communication: Ensuring seamless communication among players, especially between linebackers and defensive backs. This is critical for defensive adjustments based on offensive formations.
  • Disguising Coverage: Teach players to disguise their coverages to confuse the opposing quarterback. Example: a common tactic involves showing a blitz but dropping into zone coverage at the snap.
  • Gap Assignments: Emphasize the importance of gap integrity. Defensive linemen and linebackers must understand their specific gap responsibilities to maintain a balanced run defense.

Incorporating these elements can significantly improve the effectiveness of the 3-3-5 defense, making it a formidable tactic against diverse offensive strategies.

Strategic Uses of the 3-3-5 Defense

The 3-3-5 defense offers flexibility and adaptability, addressing both run and pass plays efficiently. It provides defensive options to counteract various offensive strategies with multiple looks and blitz packages.

Common Blitz Packages and Their Applications

Defensive coordinators use a range of blitz packages within the 3-3-5 defense to pressure the quarterback. One popular package includes sending a linebacker through the A-gap, exploiting weak spots in the offensive line.

Another involves cornerback blitzes, where the nickelback or another cornerback attacks from the perimeter. This may disrupt timing and force hurried throws.

  • Linebacker Blitzes: Linebackers commonly blitz through interior gaps, creating immediate pressure on the quarterback and disrupting the pocket.
  • Cornerback Blitzes: Utilizing the nickelback or another cornerback from the edge, these blitzes often catch the offense off guard, collapsing the pocket from the outside.
  • Stunts and Twists: Defensive linemen and linebackers exchange gaps post-snap, confusing offensive linemen and creating opportunities for a free rusher.

Coverages and Countering Offensive Strategies

The 3-3-5 defense uses varied coverage schemes to confuse quarterbacks and counter different offensive plays. Typical coverages include Cover 1, Cover 2, and Cover 3, allowing defenders to adapt based on the offensive alignment.

  • Cover 1: Man-to-man coverage with a single high safety. This coverage often accompanies a heavy blitz, pressuring the quarterback while relying on defensive backs’ ability to cover receivers tightly.
  • Cover 2: Two high safeties split the deep field, with cornerbacks and linebackers covering underneath zones. Balancing run support and pass coverage, this is useful against balanced offenses.
  • Cover 3: Three defenders split the deep field into thirds, while the other defenders cover short zones. This prevents deep passes but may leave vulnerabilities in short and intermediate routes.
  • Adjustments for Spread Offenses: When facing spread offenses, the 3-3-5 shifts to zone-based coverages, using five defensive backs to match up against multiple wide receivers, reducing big-play potential.

The 3-3-5 defense’s strategic uses hinge on versatility, giving defensive coordinators numerous tools to counteract and disrupt various offensive game plans effectively.

Prominent Examples of the 3-3-5 Defense in Action

The 3-3-5 defense shines in several notable instances, showcasing its adaptability and effectiveness against various offensive schemes.

College Football Success Stories

Many college teams have achieved significant success with the 3-3-5 defense. The West Virginia Mountaineers, under Coach Rich Rodriguez, used it to counter high-powered Big 12 offenses, achieving a 7th national ranking in points allowed per game in 2007.

Similarly, the University of Arizona Wildcats improved their defensive performance under Coach Jeff Casteel by using the 3-3-5, leading to notable victories and a rise in the Pac-12 rankings.

Adaptations in Professional Play

The 3-3-5 defense, though uncommon in the NFL, is occasionally employed in specific situations, particularly to counter offensive threats.

Defensive coordinators use it in passing situations for extra coverage and pressure, often on third-and-long to enhance pass-rushing and complex coverage schemes.

In 2020, the Miami Dolphins effectively used variations of the 3-3-5 to disrupt high-profile quarterbacks, leveraging additional defensive backs to cover multiple receiving threats, demonstrating the strategic flexibility and effectiveness of this defense in professional football.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the 3-3-5 defense in football?

The 3-3-5 defense is a football alignment that uses three down linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. It offers flexibility in defending both the run and the pass.

Why is the 3-3-5 defense effective against spread offenses?

The 3-3-5 defense is effective against spread offenses because it provides more defensive backs to cover multiple wide receivers, while still maintaining a solid front to stop the run.

What teams are known for using the 3-3-5 defense successfully?

Teams like West Virginia and the University of Arizona have achieved defensive excellence using the 3-3-5 scheme in college football. In the NFL, the Miami Dolphins have also used this defense successfully against specific offensive threats.

What coverages are commonly used with the 3-3-5 defense?

Common coverages used with the 3-3-5 defense include Cover 1, Cover 2, and Cover 3. These coverages help to maximize the defense’s flexibility in responding to various offensive plays.

How does the 3-3-5 defense handle blitz packages?

The 3-3-5 defense handles blitz packages by utilizing its three linebackers and five defensive backs to create complex and unpredictable blitzing schemes, making it difficult for the offense to identify where the pressure is coming from.


The 3-3-5 defense stands out as a versatile and effective strategy in American football, adept at countering both running and passing plays. Its success in college football and occasional use in the NFL underscore its adaptability.

Teams like West Virginia and the University of Arizona have demonstrated its potential for defensive excellence, while the Miami Dolphins’ use in 2020 highlights its relevance in professional play.

This defensive scheme’s ability to neutralize diverse offensive strategies makes it a valuable asset for any team looking to bolster their defensive capabilities.

It emphasizes speed and flexibility, allowing defenders to switch between different coverages and blitz packages seamlessly. The 3-3-5 defense also helps in cluttering passing lanes and creating turnovers.

Photo of author

Ashley Hopkinson

Ashley Hopkinson is an esteemed American Football coach at South Gloucestershire and Stroud College. With a passion for the game and a dedication to mentoring young athletes, Ashley has played a pivotal role in developing the college's football program. His expertise and motivational skills have not only enhanced players' performances on the field but also fostered a strong team spirit and work ethic. Under his guidance, the team has achieved significant success, reflecting his commitment to excellence and sportsmanship. LinkedIn

Leave a Comment