5-3 defense

Understanding The 5-3 Defense In Football

Defenses across the leagues, from youth to NFL, utilize different schemes. Some schemes are best suited for youth football, while others work best for professionals. One such defense is the 5-3 defense.

The 5-3 defense in football is a simple defense scheme that doesn’t give players a lot of responsibilities. The defense stacks players at the scrimmage line to prevent attacks.

Looking to learn more about the 5-3 defense in football? Keep reading below.

What is 5-3 Defense in Football

A 5-3 defense is a common football defense in youth and high school games. It’s a simple defense formation where defenders are not assigned specific roles. The defense comprises eight defenders that fight against runs. There are 5 defensive linemen and three linebackers.

In complete, the formation also features three defensive backs and tackles and two defensive ends lining against the offensive tackles.

It is a basic formation defense where players are not assigned specific responsibilities. The defense provides flexibility and can even be used by adults.

The major focus for this defense formation is stacking at the line of scrimmage. It exchanges a defender in the secondary with another defender up front.

Teams also use this type of defense to apply pressure on the quarterbacks and to cover zones in the field.

Other than 5-3, there are more defense strategies that we’ve tackled including 3-4 defense, cover 3 defense, and 3-3-5 defense.

Positions Needed In 5-3 Defense

Positions in the 5 3 defense are many, with players providing coverage to prevent running and passing players. Below are the positions in a 5-3 defense.

  • A nose guard
  • Two defensive ends
  • Two defensive tackles
  • A safety
  • A middle linebacker
  • Weak side linebacker
  • Strong side linebacker
  • Two corners
football teams in position at the start of a game

It’s a strong defense with eight players in the box to play against the run of play. The formation gives teams three layers of defense. This makes it easier to pursue all ball carriers.

Who Should Use The 5-3 Defense

The 5-3 defense is widely used in college and youth leagues where teams lack powerful passing games. It is a simple defense formation; therefore, it works well for youth games.

Young players easily understand the formation since there are no specific responsibilities.

The defense helps younger players learn gap coverage, containment, and major duties in the field. But, it’s not just for the young. Big and experienced league teams can use it when necessary.

It’s a defense that provides teams with flexibility. Teams can easily adapt and provide coverage when under pressure. It works by stacking players at the scrimmage line. A defender in the secondary is exchanged with another defender up front.

The formation is ideal for stopping running plays. It becomes difficult for the offense to stop all defenders. In the passing game, the formation can also provide zone coverage. Teams can also use it to apply pressure on the quarterback.

Strengths Of The 5-3 Defense

So, what are some of the strengths of the 5-3 defense? It’s a formation that stands out in numerous areas.

First, it’s quite effective against running plays. When used effectively, a 5-3 defense is capable of stopping the running plays of the opposition.

Even with the offensive line doing a good job, the 5-3 formation makes it possible for the running backs to run with the ball.

The defense stacks the line of scrimmage with defenders reducing the vision of the offensive line. It’s a great advantage that makes it hard for your opponents to plan ahead.

This also ensures players exert pressure at the attacking point. Defenders will clog the line of scrimmage and apply pressure on a snap. It is a great way for teams to apply pressure when running a blitz. Linebackers usually remain hidden as the defensive linemen go in front.

Additionally, the defense formation works well against passing plays. Teams can effectively stop passing plays using the 5-3 defense. This is possible since linebackers provide needed coverage against wide receivers.

football teams in action

You’ll also find a defensive lineman drop in coverage. The formation features glut linemen.

Overall, this is an excellent formation that reduces the reaction time of teams. Having so many defenders close to the line of scrimmage helps teams react fast.

Weakness Of The 5-3 Defense

What about weaknesses? Yes, the defense does have a few weaknesses. 

First, it is very susceptible to short passes. Most offenses facing a 5-3 defense will always try short route passes. With more defenders on the line of scrimmage, there are fewer secondary defenders.

As a result, there is a lot of space outside the hash marks for receivers to run. At a snap of the ball, speedy wide receivers can take advantage of those hash marks.

It is also quite difficult to run the defense when you have undersized players. This formation requires players with big bodies. Small-bodied defenders get pushed around with ease. 

The 5-3 defense does require players with big bodies to play at the line of scrimmage. Additionally, the defense makes things quite easy and obvious for the offense.

For example, it is very hard to run blitzes using this formation as defenders can easily notice it. Once the offense realizes you’re playing a 5-3 formation, they can easily take advantage. This is done with runs that follow simple routes.

Lastly, the formation does require secondaries with the highest discipline. This is crucial, especially with one defender less on every level on the field. Secondaries need to understand their responsibilities and take them seriously.

How To Run The 5-3 Defense

If you’re looking to run the 5-3 defense, then follow the stages below.

Stage 1: Create a Defensive Line

The formation sees you stack a defensive line up front. Here, you’ll need big-bodied nose tackles, two-defensive ends, and two defensive tackles. You can have the nose tackle take three possible positions up front.

One position is directly overhead with the main responsibility of clogging up or taking the A gap. You can also have the other two nose tackles lining on the outside shoulder of the offensive guard or over them.

Different players from the defensive tackle will fill gap B and even support stunting gap C. for the base, and ends are responsible for outside containment and gap C. On the other hand, you’ll have tackles taking gap B.

football teams in the field at the start of a match

Depending on how the coach sets up the team, the ends might also run a stunt curling around the defensive tackles and attacking gap B.

Stage 2: Setting Up Linebackers

With the defensive line set, you need to set up three linebackers. Here, we have the three traditional linebackers as follows:

  • Sam, the strong side linebacker
  • Will the weak-side linebacker
  • Mike, the middle linebacker

In pre-snap, their positions are the same as with most defensive formations and take the same responsibilities.

Just behind the nose tackle is where Mike lines but can shade on either side of the shoulder. However, the specific role varies depending on the type of play. For example, during a running play, they can fill the gap A. But they drop to cover in passing plays.

Sam and Will line up on the opposite ends of the field and take their respective responsibilities. Linebackers fill the position between the tackles and the defensive ends.

In each play, the responsibilities of linebackers vary depending on where the defensive ends take positions.

Stage 3: The Secondary

In a 5-3 defense, a team will have only three players at the backline. Here, like most defenses, there are two cornerbacks, a free and strong safety. Here, both players provide superior coverage.

What is a 5-3 Defense Called?

A 5-3 defense is called so because it comprises five defensive linemen and three linebackers.

Who Invented 5-3 Defense?

Steve Owen is credited with inventing the 5-3 formation while coaching the New York Giants. He invented the formation to surprise their rivals, the BEARS, in 1933.

How Do You Beat a 5-3 Defense

You can beat a 5-3 defense by running short route passes. Short passing can beat the defense due to fewer defenders in the secondary.


There you go! Now you know what a 5-3 defense is and how to run it. A 5-3 defense is one of the simplest defenses for youths and college leagues to teach the basics of defense. It features five defensive linemen and three linebackers.

Unlike most defensive formations, the formation is easy to teach and does not involve players taking specific responsibilities. However, it does have its strengths and weaknesses.

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