Meet the 3-3-5

Bo Pelini called it unusual.

Joe Ganz compared it to a video game.

Nate Swift said he's never seen it before.

"It" is the 3-3-5 defense that New Mexico State will bring to Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. While the football conversation about the Aggies usually begins and ends with their prolific passing offense, much of the conversation at Tuesday's press conference centered on the defense the Huskers will face.

What is it? Why run it? Will it work? Let's look to the Internet for answers.

What is it?
As you probably guessed, the 3-3-5 defense utilizes three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs in their base formation. With only three players in a three-point stance, the defense emphasizes athleticism in an attempt to put 8-men in or near the box without necessarily sacrificing pass coverage thanks to the speed on the field.

Of course with a new defense comes new position names and, if nothing else, the 3-3-5 (and it's brother the 3-5-3) looks cool from that point of view. While your linemen and defensive backs remain traditionally named, the five players grouped in between the two all get vaguely intimidating, American Gladiator names like Gator, Spur, Nitro, Bandit, etc. Do with that what you will but it's a flashy defense and to run it probably doesn't hurt anyone on the recruiting trail.

As proof, here is an amusing recruiting video from Delta State highlighting the defense. (Note: If you're not inspired by Jaws, Any Given Sunday, Top Gun, 300, or the ilk, you should probably just skip to the 2:00 mark.)

Why run it?
Some view the 3-3-5 defense as a response to the uber-popular spread offense. The goal in both cases is essentially the same: Get as many playmakers on the field as you can in positions where their athleticism can be put to use. According to this article from an issue of American Football Monthly, DII Harding University switched to the multiple system in 2002 to afford them the opportunity to "commit maximum personnel to the run and pass from the same basic defensive look."

That works as a basic definition, but there's more. With three linebackers and two safety/linebacker hybrids on the field, the 3-3-5 also affords the defense the opportunity to not only blitz from almost any angle from their base set but also to show blitz on nearly every play. Bo Pelini likes to preach about attacking on the defensive side of the ball and the 3-3-5 is built to attack.

That said, it's a defense that requires heady play out of the back eight. In most of the information I was able to find, the defensive calls are made on the field or dictated by personnel/field position. As the point here is to have a defense that looks largely the same from play to play, you tend to see fewer group and personnel substitutions.

Assignments wind up being everything and there are a lot of them. Every coach loves a player who is smart and athletic enough to blitz, play pass coverage and stop the run equally well, but that's a rarity. The 3-3-5 tries to put five such players on the field all the time.

Will it work?
Google "attacking the 3-3-5" and you'll find a vote of confidence for just about every offensive philosophy out there--veer, option, single wing, controlled passing game, power running game. The sheer number of potential answers seems to indicate that you're probably best off just doing what you do best. (Another of Pelini's favorite philosophies.)

With so many of them on the field, you better have good linebackers. The Aggies return two of their top three tacklers at the position but this is defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn's first season in Las Cruces, hence the team's first in this new alignment. As this is New Mexico State's first game of the season, expect the 3-3-5 to look a little strange to Nebraska--that was certainly the sentiment yesterday--but it won't be entirely familiar for the Aggies either.

All in all, if you were expecting some spectacle from NMSU on the offensive side of the ball, the 3-3-5, if not running at its ultimate effectiveness on Saturday, should provide some entertainment when Nebraska has the ball as well.

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Comments 9 comments so far

It sounds like our offense will have a field day against the Aggies D.  Against a team with overall less talent, learning a complicated defense for the first time?  Yeah, I think we will put up big numbers.


Nate Swift was saying he hasn’t seen the 3-3-5 before. Didn’t A&M run that?


I’d heard something along similar lines, that A&M was one of the first schools to sort of experiment with sets like this.

Swift probably didn’t see it because if I remember right, A&M was slamming the ball right down our throat, chewing up clock and chewing up yardage with that big back of theirs.

I just want to know why there was no link for me to sign and play Head Hunter or Diamond for the Delta State defense?

I think we could see a return to the old NEBRASKA football by just ramming the ball down their throats.  We could pile up 300+ yards on the ground on Saturday if we want to.  Run the option and watch out!!!!


I think if you just call their football offices directly and are able to name their mascot they’ll offer you straight away.

That’s recruiting at Delta State.

A Defense designed for the spread, huh?  Probably a good time to try the power running game? 

“Nate Swift was saying he hasn’t seen the 3-3-5 before. Didn’t A&M run that?â€?

No. Back in the day, A&M’s “Wrecking Crew� was a 3-4 defense, then switched to the 42 under Franchione. I haven’t really seen anyone but TCU make that 42 defense work. Both Colorado and Oklahoma State scrapped it after very short experiments.

The biggest difference between this defense and the 3-4 isn’t the personnel, it’s the scheme. The 33 is an attacking, one-gap defense. The 3-4 was a two-gap defense. These defenses are getting more popular, but this might be the first one we’ve run into

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