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Multiple 3-3-5 Defense

...Harding University style
Defensive Coordinator/Defensive line, Harding University
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Following the 2000 football season our defensive staff was faced with the stark reality that the system/style of defense we were using was not only unproductive – it was unacceptable. Harding University has a history of physical, hustling, technically sound defenses primarily built around the philosophy of minimal fronts and coverages with an emphasis on execution and individual technique. Our dissatisfaction with our defensive productivity was compounded by the challenges presented by the offenses in the NCAA division II Gulf South conference.
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Playing great defense in our conference means you must on one extreme effectively defend the wishbone/flexbone and on the other defend the no-huddle/hurry-
up/shotgun/5-wide attacks that are prevalent in our game. Fortunately for us, as we began to formulate our defensive plan we developed a close association with University of Arkansas coaches, including John Thompson, now the head coach at East Carolina, and Dave Wommack, now defensive coordinator at Arkansas. These two men have had a tremendous impact on current defensive thought, particularly in the area of multiple 3-man front defense.

We believe that one of the reasons these men have been so successful is their willingness to think “outside the box.” In other words, they have not allowed themselves to be bound by either traditional defensive thought or current trends.

As we contemplated these ideas in relation to our situation at Harding University we made the decision to change from a 4-3/cover 4 (quarters) base to a multiple 3-man front system. The statistical results have been fairly dramatic. During the 2000 season, we allowed 436 yards and gave up 33.5 points per game. We had 13 sacks and our opponent’s third down conversion percentage was 41 percent.

During 2002 we allowed 315 yards and 22.5 points per game. We had 36 sacks and our opponent’s third down conversion percentage was 29 percent. In 2001 we had 35 sacks and our opponent’s third down conversion percentage was 28 percent. We are convinced that the multiple 3-man front defense gives us a simple defensive system with the flexibility to defend both the power and option running teams and the spread offenses that we face from week to week.

In order to make this article an effective reference tool for those that might be interested in our system we will give a brief overview of our base defense and then move into specific packages that we use against different personnel groupings.

Diagram 1.

Diagram 2.

Diagram 3.

Diagram 4.

Diagram 5.

Diagram 6.

Diagram 7.

Our base defense is a 3-3-5 - three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs. We are a field-call defense, in that we will primarily declare strength to the field. Our end, Bandit linebacker, Gator and field corner line up to the field while our tackle, Willie linebacker, Rover and boundary corner line up to the boundary. (Diagram 1)

The three linebackers stack behind our D-linemen and the strong safeties (Gator and Rover) will align anywhere from on the line of scrimmage to 5-yards deep, and 2-3 yards outside the tight end or the tackle on an open end side. We give our three linebackers and our five defensive backs tremendous freedom to move pre-snap. We want to sell the possibility of the blitz on every play.

Our base alignment for our three down linemen is a heads up alignment. From this alignment, we use a variety of charges/movements. If the call is BASE, we want all three D-linemen to explode off the ball and knock the lineman in front of them into the backfield. If the O-lineman moves laterally, we will bend and pursue as flat as possible given the aggressiveness of the charge.

If we make a JET call, our tackle and end widen to a 5 tech. The width of the 5 tech will vary according to down and situation. If the call is BOWT, all three down linemen slant towards the tight end, and the outside linebacker away from the tight end becomes the contain rusher on pass. (Diagram 2)

With a WAR call, we slant to the field, and our Willie or Rover blitzes from the boundary depending on the number of wide receivers set to the short side of the field. If one or no wide receivers are deployed to the boundary, the Rover blitzes and the Willie takes his place as a flat defender vs. pass. (Diagram 3)

Two wide receivers to that side means the Rover stays and Willie becomes the outside blitzer. (Diagram 4)

With BASE and JET, we play a 5-under, 3-deep zone coverage we call cover 6 zone. (Diagram 5)

In our system of nomenclature, zone coverages are numbers and man coverages are words.

When BOWT is called we use a 4-under, 3-deep coverage that we call 6 BOWT. (Diagram 6)

By the same token, if we have a WAR call, the coverage is 6 WAR and is 3 deep, 4 underneath. (Diagram 7)

We use the same numbered blitz system for the three man front that Coach Thompson and Coach Wommack developed while they were at Southern Miss.

Since that system was detailed in an article by Coach Wommack for this magazine (Southern Pride, Sept. 2000), we won’t go into that part of our defensive scheme. Suffice it to say that this is a simplified system that allows us to bring pressure from a variety of positions on the field while playing man-free, straight man and zone coverage (zone blitz). At this point in the article, we would like to focus on change-ups that we use against different offensive personnel groupings.

One particular change-up that we like vs. 2-back sets is called RAG. RAG means the Rover and Gator will blitz flat off the edge and the Bandit and Willie will contain on flow. We add a pinch stunt by the tackle and end. (Diagram 8)

Additional coaching points for this call are as follows: 1) If there are two wide receivers to one side the outside backer becomes the blitzer and the Rover/Gator is the contain-flat player. (Diagram 9) 2) The outside blitzer will always cross the face of a tight end. 3) The outside backer away from the flow should shuffle and be patient for boot-waggle-etc. 4) The coverage used with this call is a 3-deep, 3-underneath match-up zone. 5) Outside backers should expect bounce on any angle read to their side. 6) Fast flow to their side means the outside backer must fly!

Diagram 8.

Diagram 9.

Obviously, the strength of this call is against the run so we try to match the down and situation tendencies when using this stunt. We would point out that the matchups against passes can be surprisingly effective depending on the ability of the corners.

Against teams that use multiple formations with 2-back personnel we usually make a double call. The huddle call might be RAG/WAR check, meaning that we want RAG vs. any 2-back set and WAR vs. any one-back or empty-backfield set. If our opponents are keeping one tight end in the game and tend to run to the tight end, we might call RAG/BOWT check, meaning that we want RAG vs. 2-backs and BOWT vs. one-back or empty.

Another change-up that we feel is effective against 2-backs and 1- or 2-tight ends or 1-back, 2-tight end sets is our Rebel front. Rebel is a completely different look than the 3/3/5 that we use as a base, but it is a look that we can move to without making a personnel substitution.

In this call our end moves to a 6 tech to the field, our nose is a tilted 4i to the field, our tackle is a tilted 4i to the boundary and our Rover is a 6 tech to the boundary. This particular adjustment matches our current personnel ... there are many ways we could get to this front from the 3-3 but this one is best for us at the present time.

Our linebackers are deployed in this manner: Bandit and Mike are in 20i alignments, splitting the inside foot of the offensive guard and aligning their toes at heel depth of the nose guard and tackle. Bandit is to the field and Mike is to the boundary. Willie is 5 to 7 yards deep directly over the center. Corners are man to man vs. the wides and will run across with motion and go corner over vs. twin sets. Gator, free safety and Willie combo the backs and the tight end, depending on flow. (Diagram 10)

Diagram 10.

Diagram 11.

Diagram 12.

Coaching points for this defense are as follows. 1) End and Rover must be heavy on any inside release by the tight end. He must not be allowed to seal a scraping linebacker. On flow away, close down then get as deep as the deepest back. Do not allow reverse, boot, etc. 2) Nose and tackle will aggressively slant inside thru the hip of the guard. DO NOT GET CUT OFF BY THE TACKLE! 3) Bandit and mike key the fullback. If the fullback comes to your side outside the guard (outside cheek or wider), scrape laterally and hit the first crease. If he comes inside the guard (inside cheek or tighter), explode thru the A gap and make the play. If the fullback goes away, you must beat the offside guard thru the A gap. You cannot get cut off. 4) Willie backer is an extra player where he is needed. He can be dive, QB, or pitch vs. option. His primary rule is to key the tailback in the I formation, and the single back in any one-back sets. Against counter/cutback teams he can be very patient and really sit on the backside. Against shotgun sets, this is a great defense against the QB counter/zone play. We have the Bandit and the mike key the one back and the Willie key the QB. (Diagram 11)

One thing to consider, however, is that you must play man coverage behind it. We love to stem from this front back to our 3/3/5 prior to the snap. We want to keep the QB guessing whether we are playing man, man-free, 3-deep/3-under match-up, 3-deep/4-under or 3-deep/5-under with a 3-man rush.

This is the real beauty of this entire system and the reason why we believe in it so strongly. A final point about the Rebel front is that it is a very effective front against I teams that run the mid-line option. The deep backer (Willie) allows us to have an extra man on the fullback when you get mid-line path. This allows the nose and tackle to come off on the QB very aggressively when the fullback runs inside the offensive guard. (Diagram 12)

This makes it imperative that the backside linebacker and 4i tech cross the face of the guard and tackle respectively. If either gets cut off, the fullback can run out the back door unhindered.

To close this article, we would like to present an alternative that can be used against 4- and 5-wide receiver sets that allows for good coverage match-ups, strong run support and some different coverage looks for opposing QB’s. Bronco is a coverage system that allows our five defensive backs to play man coverage on the 4 wides and one back of our opponent. This can be loose or press man coverage, or a mix of both.

Our Bandit and Willie linebackers position themselves 8 yards deep and 1 yard outside of the tackle. They key the one-back, and on running plays they will smoke downhill and be hard run players. They play like linebackers against the run, albeit from 8 yards deep.

Diagram 13.

Diagram 14.

Diagram 15.

Diagram 16.

Diagram 17.

Once they determine that it is a pass, they get a little depth and look for crossers. You essentially have man-to-man coverage with two hole players. The front call is usually JET, and the mike has the QB. When he reads pass he will hug the QB, adding himself to the rush. If one-back is in the backfield, he belongs to the FS, Gator or Rover, depending on the field and the formation.

A 2x2 means the FS has the back and Rover has No. 2 into the boundary. (Diagram 13) A 3x1 to the field means FS has No. 3 to the field and Rover has the back. (Diagram 14) A 3x1 to the boundary means the FS has No. 3 and the Gator has the back. The combinations associated with this call are endless.

From this same look we will run the FS out at the last minute and play 6 zone. (Diagram 15) We will also high/low the Bandit and Willie on a pass read and allow one to play the high hole and the other to play the low hole. (Diagram 16) We can also use Bandit and Willie to double cover dangerous receivers. (Diagram 17) The concept behind this call is to give the illusion of being short against the run (5 in the box), when in reality we have seven. From a coverage standpoint, it is difficult for the QB to determine whether we are man or zone and how our outside linebackers are matching up.

We love this multiple system because it allows us to commit maximum personnel to the run and pass from the same basic defensive look, and also lends itself to multiple fronts and coverages without personnel changes.

About the author
Ronnie Huckeba

Ronnie Huckeba has been the defensive coordinator at Harding University since 1994. He coached the secondary at Harding from 1986-1987, and coached the front seven at Harding from 1988-1993. He and Randy Tribble, the head coach, have coached defense together at Harding since 1988. For more information,email:


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