3-3-5 defense

Understanding The 3-3-5 Defense In Football

Defense alignments in footballs are always changing as teams copy with offense formations. You’ll find most teams passing more as opposed to the traditional running game. Defensive alignments change to meet the varying needs of the opponent’s offense.

Some of the common defenses over the years have been the 4-3-4, 5-2-4, cover 2 defense and the progressive 3-4-4. One other Defense that is steadily gaining popularity is the 3 3 5 defense formation.

So, what is the 3 3 5 defense formation? The 335 Defense in football is a defense alignment with five defensive backs, three linebackers, and three down linemen.

It’s also called the spread defense or the 3-3 stack. It’s a defense used when teams want to confuse the offense during a blitz, especially in zone coverage. But it can also occur in man coverage.

Teams that run a 3-3-5 defense are smaller than the opposing offense but very fast. Looking to learn more about the 3-3-5 defense formation? 

Let’s dig deep below and see teams that should use it, how it’s run, and its strengths and weaknesses.

What is 3-3-5 Defense in Football?

The 3-3-5 Defense in football is an alignment of the Defense comprising 2, linebackers, 3 down linemen, and 5 defensive backs. It is a type of nickel defense featuring 5 defensive backs. The 3-3-5 Defense can also be called the Spread Defense or the 3-3-stack.

This is a defense alignment aimed at confusing the offense when running a blitz. It is widely used when the Defense has zone coverage but can also be used when man-marking.

Positions Needed In 3-3-5 Defense

The 3-3-5 defense formation features a defensive line, linebackers, and the secondary. The first position, like most formations, is the defensive linemen that line close to the line of scrimmage.

Defensive Linemen

On the defensive line, this formation features two defensive ends, one defensive tackle, a traditional nose tackle, and a tackle’s head. The formation chosen can have the nose tackle lining upfront directly over the center and the tackle head over the football.

football teams running in the field

There are variations on how defensive linemen can position themselves on the field. The defensive tackle can be shaded into a more traditional role as in the 4-3-4 Defense.

On the two defensive ends, we have the stronger side and the weaker side where tight ends line up;


We also have the linebackers that line up a few yards from the line of scrimmage. The three linebackers take different positions on the field. As with most defenses, we have the middle linebacker, also known as Mike.

The middle linebacker in a 3-3-5 defense formation will line up 5-7 yards from the scrimmage line. The position acts as the quarterback of the Defense to recognize formations of the offense.

The positions on the sides are the stronger linebacker Sam and the weaker linebacker Will. The stronger linebacker takes a position on the stronger side of the field towards the tight end. You’ll also have the weaker linebacker taking a position on the weak side towards the tight end.

However, these formations in 3-3-5 defense formation can drop during pass coverage.


The last position in the 3-3-5 defense formation is the secondary, where we have two cornerbacks, two safeties, and a third Nickelback. There is the free safety and the strong safety that take up their traditional positions on the field.

The same applies to the two cornerbacks who take the same positions as in other defense formations.

In a short while, I’ll show you how the 3-3-5 Defense is run with these positions.

Who Should Use The 3-3-5 Defense

Now that you know the 3-3-5 defense formation and its positions, who should use it? Can every team use the 3-3-5 defense formation?

Not every team is suited for this type of defense formation. The formation only works for teams with players that have speed, coverage abilities, and power. These attributes are necessary to help keep the fast passing offenses.

It’s a suitable defense formation when facing teams with multiple wide receivers set up in a shotgun formation. It’s a formation that can also work when a team has skillful players in the secondary.

The formation is not ideal for teams with powerful, beefy, and big defensive linemen. Speed is a key attribute if you’re going to run the 3-3-5 Defense. It only works when a team has players that are good with pass coverage. 

The players in the secondary must be able to come to the line of scrimmage and make tackles, therefore, contributing to stopping runs.

Teams that run the 3-3-5 Defense must have defenders that understand their responsibilities well. They will need to perform various roles in the line of scrimmage apart from protecting gaps.

Lastly, the 3-3-5 defense formation can also be used by teams in specific situations. For example, it is great against offensive teams that pass a lot and have multiple wide receiver formations. You can also use it in long to go first downs and third downs.

Strengths Of The 3-3-5 Defense

The 3-3-5 Defense, just like other defense formations, has weaknesses and strengths. Let’s see some of the main strengths of this defense formation.

defense and offense in football

The 3-3-5 Defense provides defenses with more speed to counter faster offenses. It features more defensive backs than linemen that are faster. This is a great feature considering most offenses in football are quite fast nowadays. It is a great defense formation that helps teams keep pace with today’s offenses.

Secondly, the 3-3-5 Defense can help create confusion in the offense. Creating confusion in the offense is a great way to create gaps and create more yards.

Most teams are not familiar with the 3-3-5 Defense. Using a 3-3-5 defense gives quarterbacks and offensive linemen a big task of trying to identify new formations they are not used to seeing.

Thirdly, the 3-3-5 Defense is versatile and can be used in multiple formats. For most teams, the Defense is great for defending against passing plays. However, it can also be used against running plays. 

It does allow safeties to play closer to the scrimmage line. This helps create more support during running plays.

The 3 3 5 Defense also supports flexibility. It’s a formation that allows for more blitz. With down linemen (3) and defensive backs (5), linebackers have more freedom to blitz. They can also serve as an extra defensive lineman who is not involved in starting play. This works in a 3-stance at the line of scrimmage.

Overall, the 3 3 5 Defense is superior in so many ways helping clog up space in the middle of the pitch. It’s worth noting most offenses nowadays tend to take advantage of the middle when making shorter running routes.

This is prevented when defenses run the 335 Defense. They clog the middle and prevent short running routes from the offense.

Weakness Of The 3 3 5 Defense

The 3 3 5 Defense does have some weaknesses. It’s not the best Defense in every situation. 

First, the alignment of players makes it quite hard to reach the quarterback. With just three down linemen, the offensive linemen have more space to break very fast at the snap. This is because they have more space and a better vision of the downfield.

The offensive linemen of the opponents can easily recognize a blitz and make counters before the quarterback is under pressure. The free space allows them to see a stunting defender fast and put pressure on him.

It is also a chance to give the offensive linemen more space. Offensive linemen of the other team are not faced with down linemen. The free space they have makes it easier to get off the line of scrimmage at the snap. This happens especially when the offensive linemen from the other team are big and athletic.

This formation can also give opposing teams more time to throw. This happens because of the alignments that keep the cornerbacks, safeties, and linebackers further back away from the line of scrimmage. 

The 3 3 5 defense formations give opposing offensive linemen more space and time to make throws. The offensive linemen will face very few blockers as there are fewer down linemen at the scrimmage line.

The formation is also weaker when you have a bigger defensive team that is slow playing against pacey wide receivers, running backs, and tight ends. It’s a formation that requires speed and small bodies to counter the speed of tight ends and wide receivers.

Overall, the 3 3 5 Defense is weaker when your team lacks athleticism. It’s a defensive formation that requires powerful and bigger defensive backs capable of making strong tackles.

When a team has fewer down linemen, there are more ball handlers that need tackling. You can only tackle them effectively with bigger and more powerful defensive backs.

How To Run A 3 3 5 Defense

Teams and coaches looking to run the 3 3 5 Defense must know its positions and alignments. Below are steps to run a 3 3 5 defense formation.

football teams at the scrimmage line

Step 1: Set Up the Defensive Line

To run a 3-3-5 defense, start by setting up the defensive line. Here, you need big guys up front. There need to be five defensive linemen at the line of scrimmage.

You will set up two defensive ends and one defensive tackle. You can also have a traditional nose tackle line up directly at the center’s head. This is called a 0 technique.

In the formation, you’ll have the tackle’s head line directly over the football. Players can also line up in a 1 technique with the nose tackle used in this situation. The tackles need to clog up the A gaps on different plays.

The formation will clog the center and the guards helping free an inside linebacker. Teams can also change the formation by shading a defensive tackle to have the 4-3-4 defensive formation. 

Have the strong side of the defensive line on the stronger side of the field. The weaker defensive line can also line on the weaker side of the field. Teams can vary their formations and have the weaker lineman play at the center in a 3-point stance.

The main role of the weaker linebacker is to contain the outside runs and also protect the quarterback from pressures.

Step 2: Set Up the Linebackers

With the defensive line in place, you need to set up the linebackers. There are three linebackers in this formation.

Start the play with a middle linebacker who is referred to as Mike. The middle linebacker will be the quarterback of the Defense. His main role is to identify formations the offense is calling and communicate to the Defense.

The Mike linebacker will line up at the center, 5-7 yards away from the scrimmage line. The spacing allows him to read the offense and react. He can also plug holes on runs and provide coverage.

The central linebacker in this formation can also become a blitz due to the excellent support in the passing game.

We also have two linebackers; the strong and weaker lining on the stronger and weaker sides of the field, respectively. The stronger linebacker is Sam, while the weaker linebacker is Mike.

The stronger linebacker Sam gets paired with the tight ends in both passing and running plays. Therefore, he needs to be strong and quick. Remember, he also needs to blitz.

You’ll have the weaker linebacker Mile blitzing a lot. He is versatile and can be used as a defensive lineman to help cause commotion at the line of scrimmage. This position can also drop and provide coverage depending on the run of play.

Step 3: Set Up the Secondary

Lastly, you need to set up the secondaries to run a 3-3-5 formation. The secondary involves lining two safeties and two linebackers. You then need to add a third nickel with the skills of cornerbacks and safeties.

To properly run a 3-3-5 defense formation, you need secondary players with speed. Their roles will be running across the field against speed wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs.

Under the safeties, you need to run one stronger safety and another free safety. Both safeties have the same role of providing coverages against passes. They take the more typical zone defense positions.

Close to the line of scrimmage, safeties provide coverage to the gap. We also have the two cornerbacks taking the same roles in most defense formations. They need to keep containment and prevent being beaten by wide receivers.

In this formation, there is no safety behind a cornerback. So, they should make sure they are not beaten as there are no safeties to cover them. Secondaries are essential in a 3 3 5 formation helping support the running play.

Who invented the 3 3 5 Defense?

The 3 3 5 defense formation was invented by Joe Lee Dunn, a veteran College football defensive coordinator. He started a philosophy to help maximize the talents of his team. However, this would lead to the development of thisĀ  formation.

footbal teams at the start of a football match

By then, people referred to the formation as organized chaos. The formation has since evolved, with various formations and teams using it across the leagues.

Do Any NFL Teams Run the 3-3-5 Defense?

There are no NFL teams running this Defense. However, it’s widely used by teams in high school and youth leagues to counter spread offenses.

Teams in college football like West Virginia, Boise State, SDSU, Arizona, and BYU have also used this formation.

How Do You Beat a 3-3-5 Defense?

Teams need a comprehensive game plan to beat the Defense. Teams can beat the 335 Defense by forcing them out of their defenses. The deep sidelines in the 3 3 5 and the seams are quite vulnerable. That’s where teams need to target.

Teams can also try powering the football through the middle. You need to force the Defense to try and stop the run. Once the Defense commits out of their positions, the offense can pass the ball over.

However, teams need to look at the safety and ensure they don’t switch defenders and provide coverage.


There you go! The 335 Defense is a common defense formation that teams are using today. It’s a versatile defense and one that allows for flexibility. 

The defense formation works perfectly for both run and passes plays. The most outstanding thing about the 335 Defense is the ability to cause confusion in the Defense.

It’s a versatile formation that makes almost every player third level and second level to be a Blitzer. This simply means the blitz can come from any area of the field at any time. However, the 335 Defense can only work when players have the right personnel. 

It requires players with excellent speed and quickness. In addition, they need great vision and strength up front. The linebackers and secondary also need to know how to adjust with ease.

You need secondaries that can cover and contain receivers. Overall, the 335 Defense can work effectively when you have the right personnel. It’s a great choice to keep defenders at bay. You can have it as an alternative to other defensive approaches.

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