3-3-5 defense

Complete Guide to the 3-3-5 Defense in Football

One such defensive formation that has gained popularity over the years is the 3-3-5 defense.

Below we look into the details of the 3-3-5 defense, exploring its history, key principles, player roles, and strategies.

Whether you are a coach, player, or simply a football enthusiast, this guide will provide valuable insights into this unique defensive formation.

History of the 3-3-5 Defense

The 3-3-5 defense, also known as the “Stack” defense, has its roots in the 1980s when it was first introduced by Joe Lee Dunn, a defensive coordinator at Mississippi State University.

Dunn developed this formation as a response to the increasing popularity of spread offenses, which were designed to exploit traditional defensive formations.

The 3-3-5 defense gained widespread attention in the early 2000s when it was successfully implemented by West Virginia University under the guidance of defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.

West Virginia’s success with this formation led to its adoption by several other college football programs, and eventually, it made its way into the professional ranks as well.

Key Principles of the 3-3-5 Defense

The 3-3-5 defense is built on several key principles that make it an effective strategy against modern offenses.

Understanding these principles is crucial for coaches and players looking to implement this formation:

  • Flexibility: The 3-3-5 defense is highly adaptable and can be adjusted to counter a wide range of offensive formations and strategies. This flexibility allows the defense to react quickly to the offense’s movements and minimize potential mismatches.
  • Speed and Agility: The 3-3-5 defense relies on fast and agile players who can cover a large area of the field. The formation prioritizes speed over size, allowing defenders to quickly close gaps and make plays.
  • Multiple Blitz Packages: The 3-3-5 defense offers a wide variety of blitz packages, allowing the defense to apply pressure on the quarterback from different angles. This unpredictability makes it challenging for the offense to anticipate and counter the defensive pressure.
  • Zone Coverage: The 3-3-5 defense primarily employs zone coverage schemes, with defenders responsible for specific areas of the field. This approach helps defenders maintain their assignments and provides opportunities for interceptions and turnovers.

Player Roles in the 3-3-5 Defense

The success of the 3-3-5 defense heavily relies on the execution of individual player roles.

Each position within the formation has specific responsibilities that contribute to the overall effectiveness of the defense:

Defensive Line

The defensive line in the 3-3-5 defense consists of three players:

  • Nose Tackle: The nose tackle lines up directly over the center and is responsible for disrupting the offensive line’s blocking schemes. The nose tackle’s primary objective is to occupy blockers, allowing the linebackers to make plays.
  • Defensive Ends: The two defensive ends line up on the outside of the offensive tackles. Their main responsibilities include setting the edge, containing the run, and applying pressure on the quarterback.


The 3-3-5 defense features three linebackers:

  • Mike Linebacker: The Mike linebacker is the leader of the defense and lines up in the middle of the formation. They are responsible for making pre-snap adjustments, calling out assignments, and providing run support.
  • Will Linebacker: The Will linebacker lines up on the weak side of the formation and is often the most athletic linebacker. They are responsible for covering running backs, tight ends, and providing support in pass coverage.
  • Sam Linebacker: The Sam linebacker lines up on the strong side of the formation and is typically a bigger, more physical player. They are responsible for setting the edge, stopping the run, and providing pass rush support.

Defensive Backs

The defensive backfield in the 3-3-5 defense consists of five players:

  • Cornerbacks: The two cornerbacks line up on the outside of the formation and are primarily responsible for covering wide receivers. They must have excellent coverage skills and the ability to quickly react to the offense’s movements.
  • Free Safety: The free safety lines up deep in the secondary and is responsible for providing help over the top. They must have exceptional range and ball-hawking abilities to defend against deep passes.
  • Strong Safety: The strong safety lines up closer to the line of scrimmage and is responsible for providing run support and covering tight ends. They must be physical and versatile to excel in both run defense and pass coverage.

TCU 3-3-5 Does Not Mean Stack Defense

Strategies and Variations

The 3-3-5 defense offers several strategies and variations that coaches can employ to maximize its effectiveness.

Here are a few notable examples:

Zone Blitz

The zone blitz is a popular strategy in the 3-3-5 defense that combines zone coverage with unexpected blitzes.

In this strategy, a defensive lineman drops into coverage while a linebacker or defensive back blitzes the quarterback.

This creates confusion for the offensive line and increases the chances of generating pressure on the quarterback.

Man-to-Man Coverage

While the 3-3-5 defense primarily relies on zone coverage, coaches can incorporate man-to-man coverage schemes to keep the offense guessing.

By assigning defenders to specific offensive players, the defense can disrupt timing and force the quarterback to hold onto the ball longer, increasing the chances of a sack or turnover.

Stunts and Twists

The 3-3-5 defense allows for creative stunts and twists along the defensive line.

By having defensive linemen exchange gaps or loop around each other, the defense can confuse offensive linemen and create opportunities for tackles for loss or quarterback pressures.

FAQs – Complete Guide to the 3-3-5 Defense in Football

1. What are the advantages of using the 3-3-5 defense?

The 3-3-5 defense offers several advantages, including:

  • Flexibility to counter various offensive formations
  • Ability to apply pressure on the quarterback from different angles
  • Opportunities for interceptions and turnovers through zone coverage schemes

2. Is the 3-3-5 defense effective against both the run and pass?

Yes, the 3-3-5 defense is designed to be effective against both the run and pass.

The formation’s speed and agility allow defenders to quickly react to running plays, while the zone coverage schemes provide adequate pass defense.

3. Can the 3-3-5 defense be used at all levels of football?

Yes, the 3-3-5 defense can be used at all levels of football, from youth leagues to professional teams.

However, the success of the defense relies heavily on the execution of individual player roles and the coaching staff’s ability to adapt the strategy to their team’s strengths.

4. How does the 3-3-5 defense differ from traditional defensive formations?

The 3-3-5 defense differs from traditional defensive formations in several ways:

  • It prioritizes speed and agility over size
  • It offers more flexibility and adaptability
  • It relies on zone coverage schemes rather than man-to-man coverage

5. What type of players are best suited for the 3-3-5 defense?

The 3-3-5 defense requires fast and agile players who can cover a large area of the field.

Linebackers with good coverage skills, defensive backs with range and ball-hawking abilities, and defensive linemen who can disrupt blocking schemes are well-suited for this formation.

6. How can offenses counter the 3-3-5 defense?

Offenses can counter the 3-3-5 defense by utilizing quick passes, misdirection plays, and power running schemes.

By exploiting potential gaps in the defense and creating mismatches, offenses can neutralize the advantages of the 3-3-5 defense.

7. Are there any notable teams that have had success with the 3-3-5 defense?

Yes, several notable teams have had success with the 3-3-5 defense, including West Virginia University, which popularized the formation in the early 2000s.

Other successful teams include Mississippi State University, where the formation was first introduced, and the University of Michigan, which implemented the defense under defensive coordinator Don Brown.

8. Can the 3-3-5 defense be used as a base defense or only in specific situations?

The 3-3-5 defense can be used as both a base defense and in specific situations.

However, some teams may choose to use it primarily in passing situations to take advantage of its speed and coverage abilities.

9. How does the 3-3-5 defense handle tight ends and slot receivers?

The 3-3-5 defense typically assigns a strong safety or a linebacker to cover tight ends and slot receivers.

These defenders must have the versatility to provide run support and cover these offensive players effectively.

10. What are the potential weaknesses of the 3-3-5 defense?

While the 3-3-5 defense has its advantages, it also has potential weaknesses.

These include vulnerability to power running plays, potential mismatches against larger offensive linemen, and the need for disciplined zone coverage to prevent receivers from finding open spaces.


The 3-3-5 defense is a unique and innovative formation that has gained popularity in football due to its flexibility, speed, and adaptability.

Coaches and players who understand the key principles, player roles, and strategies of the 3-3-5 defense can effectively implement this formation to counter modern offenses.

While it has its strengths and weaknesses, the 3-3-5 defense offers a fresh approach to defensive strategy and continues to evolve as teams find new ways to maximize its effectiveness on the field.


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