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Disrupting the Spread with the 3-5 Defense

by: Matt McCarty
Defensive Coordinator, Northwestern College (IA)
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Focusing on blitz opportunities and mixing coverages can help stop the spread option team.

Regardless of the level of the game, championship football means playing strong defense. We run a 3-5 stack defense because it fits who we want to be as a football program. We want to be an aggressive, attacking team and we feel this scheme fits our style of play. We have run the 3-5 stack very successfully since 2003. This past season, we faced two spread offenses who, at the time, led our conference in scoring and total offense. In one game we gave up 14 fourth quarter points when we led 51-0 and in the second game we shut our opponent out. Our 3-5 stack defense gives our players the best opportunity to play fast and aggressive against any type of offense, especially the spread.

“There is no substitute for being physical and playing with an attitude”

Each week, as a defensive staff, we try to determine what our opponent hangs their hat on offensively. When playing a spread offense it is no different. What is their identity? What can we do defensively to take away what they do best. Are they a spread option oriented team? Are they a spread 3-step or quick screen team? Are they a spread team with a lot of play action and 5-step passing concepts? Determining what their identity is allows us to tailor a game plan in which we can effectively attack them and dictate the game to our opponent. We are also always looking for personnel or formation cues we can give our players so they can play fast and physical.

The first thing we do when we install our defense is talk about option responsibilities. With every blitz and coverage concept we add, we explain option responsibilities. Option teams force a defense to play disciplined. We may play one or two option teams a year, but by focusing on our option responsibilities every day with every call, we are prepared to face a spread option attack. Our players can play fast and aggressive within the calls we make.

Against a spread option team, we want to determine who will carry the ball. Then, we determine how we take him out of the offense and how can we can also confuse the quarterback’s reads. From day one, we preach option fits and responsibilities with our players. Playing an option team does not change anything for them. They understand what their role is on every call. One plus of the 3-5 defense is that you have numbers to the offense’s weak side. A way to gain numbers on the strong side is to “roll” coverage to the strong side and play a cover 2 shell (Diagram 1).

Diagram 1.

By rolling our coverage strong, we can run many different blitz combinations and confuse an offense’s reads on the option. Our players can attack vs. the option because they know A and B gap players have dive, C gap players have the QB and D gap players are QB to pitch. We will always try to assign two players to ensure that we take away their best option. It is important to teach your linebackers to settle at the line of scrimmage on a blitz if they read run and to keep their shoulders square. This will allow them to react and be involved in stopping different facets of the option game. It will also allow for teammates in pursuit to get involved in the play.

We will attempt to disrupt a spread quick-passing team by being physical with their wide receivers with our underneath coverage players. We may utilize our roll coverage from diagram 1 and not blitz in order to get as many underneath droppers in passing windows as possible. We also teach our defenders to drop to offensive players instead of areas and pattern read. This plays into our aggressive mentality and desire to be a physical defense.

We also will employ two variations of man 2-deep coverage against quick passing teams. This will allow us to jam and be physical on the line of scrimmage and disrupt the offense’s timing but also have two deep defenders. We will play straight up man or “trail” coverage where we teach our defenders to undercut all routes and stay a yard off the wide receiver and between the QB and WR at all times.

Up front, with any of these coverage variations we will attempt to get in the face of the quarterback and force him to scramble. We will slant our defensive line all one way or run a twist to try and create an opening to pressure the QB (Diagram 2). We will designate a QB Spy who will be a delayed blitzer to any opening he finds to the QB. If we can disrupt the routes and force the QB to hold the ball, the delayed blitzing LB will have a great chance to get to the QB.

Diagram 2.

One major benefit of the 3-5 defense is the many blitz combinations it offers. It is important when playing a spread team that tries to attack down the field through play action or the 5-step passing game to teach your linebackers to disguise blitzes. This is done to set the offenses protection in a way that optimizes your blitzes capability of disrupting the quarterback. Sacks are great but any pressure that disrupts the quarterback’s timing is our objective.

Two strong blitzes we use come from our MAD and SMOKE series of blitzes. We have different combination of blitzes out of each series and can play different coverages behind the blitzes depending on the situation.

The first blitz is called MAD because we will blitz our MLB and our Dog. We create a twist with our DE and MLB to hopefully free up our DE and add inside pressure with the outside pressure from our Dog (Diagram 3).

Diagram 3.

The second blitz is from our SMOKE series. We will hard loop our DE outside all protection, trying to pull the tackle with him. We will then delay blitz our Dog inside to an opening created by our blitzing LB and looping DE (Diagram 4).

Diagram 4.

When we blitz, it is very important that the cover guys drop to an offensive player and collision the receiver. The cohesion between blitzing and disrupting routes creates great opportunities for big plays on the defensive side of the ball.

We have had great success running the 3-5 defense at Northwestern. It allows us to line up and be aggressive against any type of offense we face. It allows our players to play attacking, physical defense and puts them in the best position to make plays. Most importantly, it fits the mentality we want to play with. We are always adapting our scheme to disrupt today’s style of offense.

About the Author: Defensive Coordinator Matt McCarty begins his seventh season on the staff of Northwestern College (IA) this fall. A Northwestern graduate, McCarty was a four-year letterman as a defensive back and an honorable mention All-America as a senior. He also works as an instructor in the Kinesiology Department and is the staff’s Recruiting Coordinator.

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