The Easy Way To Break Down The 3-3-5 Defense

The 3-3-5 defense is one of the most confusing schemes in the game today. It can overwhelm you in a hurry if you’re unfamiliar with it.

Even if you’re someone who loves to watch and break down film, you may have trouble keeping up with all the variations the defense brings at you.

So here’s the basic idea we’re going to talk about in this article:

Instead of drawing up every single blitz and putting them all in a scouting report for your kids that they won’t remember and will only confuse them, start analyzing where those guys end up. » Read more

Breaking Down Bill Belichick’s Super Bowl Defense

Bill Belichick is famous for his ability to simplify things for his defensive players, figuring out the tendencies of his opponents, and presenting the scouting report in a way that allows his best players to play fast. The key is that Belichick doesn’t take away everything you do, in fact, he doesn’t even try. It would be impossible to try to predict and prepare for every little wrinkle that an opponent offensive coordinator will put into his game plan, so instead Belichick just focuses on the four or five things his opponent does best, and tries to take those away.

Bill Belichick recaptured his spot at the top of the professional coaching world last February thanks to an excellent game plan.

Bill Belichick recaptured his spot at the top of the professional coaching world last February thanks to an excellent game plan.

This is one of the reasons why I wanted to go as in-depth as I did into Bill Belichick’s game plan in my latest book Every Play Revealed Volume II: New England vs Seattle. I draw up and break down every single play of the Super Bowl, and I also write about specific adjustments made by both teams over the course of the game. (Click here to get it)

After watching the Seattle offense on tape for any length of time, the question becomes how do you stop Marshawn Lynch from running wild on the defense? That’s exactly what we’re going to talk about in this post.

Covering the Interior Offensive Linemen

A careful examination of the different defensive fronts that New England played over the course of the game reveals a pattern.

Belichick has the goal of covering the three interior linemen, and especially controlling the path of the center as he climbs to the second level in the run game. This may seem counter-intuitive, especially with the wide alignment of the two defensive tackles, leaving the two A-gap unoccupied, but if you watch the actions of the inside linebackers closely, you’ll notice the way they attack the center and keep him off of the opposite inside linebacker, especially #91 Jamie Collins.

A perfect example of how New England uses their linebackers to play against the zone read by attacking the center the same way many defenses cover up the center with a nose tackle. It's the same concept.

A perfect example of how New England uses their linebackers to play against the zone read by attacking the center the same way many defenses cover up the center with a nose tackle. It’s the same concept.

Bill Belichick’s game plan centers around stopping Marshawn Lynch, even at the expense of keeping more people back in the secondary for the pass defense. New England dedicates six men staying inside the tackle box against a one-back formation, and plays intense, press-man coverage across the board. Using giant defensive tackles like Vince Wilfork to control the guards and play a 2-gap technique frees up additional men to attack the ball carrier and lets the defense win the numbers game in the tackle box.

Alignments and Formation Games

It’s important to remember the importance of formations to both the offensive and defensive game plans.

The alignment of the inside linebackers is determined by the location of the tight end. When there is no tight end on the field, the defense sets the strength to the pass strength of the formation.

As you watch the Seattle offense come out with different formations, you’ll note that the Seahawks flex out their starter Luke Wilson all alone as the single receiver in a 3×1 formation. This is in order to test New England’s commitment to setting their strength to tight end. Will New England still set the strength to the lone tight end side where there are more bodies to the other side of the formation? Seattle begins to understand that the answer is yes.

Identifying the Backfield Set

When breaking down an offense, analyzing the different backfield sets play a huge part in developing the game plan. Obviously when you’re playing a team like Seattle, stopping the run game is a big part of your preparation, but even just speaking in general without any specific reference to this offense, the location of the back in the gun in relation to the QB is a big indicator of what the defense to anticipate.

Most defensive coordinators coach up their linebackers to recognize the backfield sets and classify them in relation to where the tight end is lined up. There are plenty of different terms used depending on what coach you’re working for, but for our sake, we’ll use the terms “gun near” and “gun far.”

The backfield sets are referred to as "gun near" and "gun far," with the "near/far" indicating where the back is lined up in relation to the tight end.

The backfield sets are referred to as “gun near” and “gun far,” with the “near/far” indicating where the back is lined up in relation to the tight end.

It’s also worth noting that this is a big motivation for a lot of coaches to move to a pistol offense, because the alignment of the back doesn’t give anything away about the intentions of the offense, and it’s also one less thing the coaches have to worry about when putting together an offensive game plan.

Now that we’ve gone over the basics of how a coach will break down the offensive backfield, we can now talk about the specific defensive assignments as it pertains to each alignment, and more importantly, why.

Gun Near Alignment

Here’s the play drawn up from the offense’s perspective. You can see that the tight end’s wide release with the defensive end lined up across from him is designed to influence the defensive end and open up a large space in case of the cutback run. The play is intended to hit inside of the A gap, but since it’s a zone play, Lynch obviously has the ability to go where he fits best. A run up the middle in the A gap allows Lynch to pick up a lot of speed and momentum in a hurry, and that’s the last thing New England wants.

Zone read with the back set to the strong side.

Seattle’s zone read with the back set to the strong side.

Here’s the overhead view of the formation, and we can see that Luke Wilson the tight end is lined up to the right on his own side, and the three receivers on the field are lined up opposite on the left.

The offense lines up early in the game in a 3x1 formation with the tight end strength to the defense's left, so Hightower lines up to the left side.

The offense lines up early in the game in a 3×1 formation with the tight end strength to the defense’s left, so Hightower lines up to the left side.

As a result, Hightower lines up to the defensive left side, while Collins lines up to the right. Patrick Chung #23 lines up with outside leverage on the tight end, which you can see from the wide view. While Chung isn’t heavily involved in run support in the interior of the tackle box, he is responsible for staying outside of the tight end Luke Wilson to play the edge support and force the play back inside in the run game.

Hightower (#54) is lined up to the strong side, with Jamie Collins (#91) lined up to the weak side. Rob Ninkovich (#50) is aligned over the top of the tight end, and has put his hand on the ground in a three-point stance since he's got a tight end lined up across from him.

Hightower (#54) is lined up to the strong side, with Jamie Collins (#91) lined up to the weak side.

Wilson releases outward to the strong safety Patrick Chung (not pictured) which forces Ninkovich to release even wider than usual. By this point, Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell knows that Ninkovich will be playing up the field to box in Russell Wilson, but he’s using the tight end’s wide release to influence Ninkovich to release wide enough to open up space for Lynch to cutback inside of him. Ninkovich stays disciplined and keeps close enough to the backside edge of the play so he has the ability to collapse on any play coming back to him.

Hightower reads the play and flies downhill right away.

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As the run play begins to develop in the backfield Hightower comes downhill into the A-gap, and Collins waits an extra count so that Hightower can get downhill and he’ll have a clear path to the opposite side.

As the play develops and Hightower comes downhill, Collins delays for a count so that he can wait until the path to the opposite side of the formation is clear. The center doesn’t get to Collins in time, and he watches as Collins moves to play the cutback. Speaking of the cutback, Lynch sees that the front side of the play is clogged up, so he begins to move side-to-side, cutting back to the offensive right side of the play- right into the paths of Collins and Ninkovich.

Since Hightower and the rest of the defensive front plug up the front side of the play, the cutback lane begins to develop to the defense's left side, which is why Collins comes over the top, and Ninkovich starts pursuit as well since it's clear that Russell Wilson didn't keep the ball.

Since Hightower and the rest of the defensive front plug up the front side of the play, the cutback lane begins to develop to the defense’s left side, which is why Collins comes over the top, and Ninkovich starts pursuit as well since it’s clear that Russell Wilson didn’t keep the ball.

Not only has the defense forced Lynch to cut the play back to an unblocked defender, moving side-to-side means that he’s not able to build up the kind of downhill momentum that makes him even more dangerous. So when Collins and Ninkovich get to him and wrap him up, he’s not bringing as much force with him as he would’ve been if he had been able to hit the frontside A gap downhill right away.

Collins and Ninkovich combine to bring down Lynch as he cuts back to the backside of the zone play.

Collins and Ninkovich combine to bring down Lynch as he cuts back to the backside of the zone play.

As we can see, the defense is designed to not only force the cutback, but get two guys to the ball carrier once he changes direction and moves side-to-side before he can pick up momentum. New England accomplishes this by using their strong side inside linebacker to attack the center, acting almost like a nose tackle who is supposed to control the center, only coming from the second level. In this case, big Vince Wilfork controls the right guard and right tackle, and Collins is left unblocked as he plays the ball bouncing back to the opposite side.

Gun Far Alignment

Now we come to the opposite alignment, where the back lines up away from the strength of the formation. With the change up in the alignment comes a change up in the defensive assignments, as now the unblocked defensive end Chandler Jones closes down the line to chase the “give” and take out the back Robert Turbin on his path of the zone read, and the Will linebacker Jamie Collins scrapes to the QB (Wilson) and exchanges responsibilities in defending the run game.

This is another situation that we talk about in the book, because Seattle has under a minute left in the 1st half, and they want to create a big play, but don’t want to throw a long incomplete pass and leave the clock stopped. If they stop the clock but aren’t picking up yards, they run the risk of having to punt and give the ball back to New England. So Seattle offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has to manufacture a big play on the ground, and he’s got a pretty good idea of how to do it.

Keep in mind that the objective behind most of New England’s adjustments in the run game is to keep Jamie Collins free to chase the ball carrier, and Belichick wants to keep him away from the clutches of those guys playing in the middle of the offensive line as much as possible. As a result, you’ve got to switch up the responsibilities when the back is lined up to Collins’ side, because if you play the responsibilities the same way to both sides, what you’ll end up having is your speedy guy (Collins) attacking the A gap, and the slower of the two inside linebackers (Hightower) having to get over to the opposite side to play the cutback lane.

On the plus side, you’d keep things extremely simple for your defenders when you’re coaching them up during the two weeks of preparation leading up to the game. Unfortunately, you’d also put Hightower in a very bad position when the back is lined up away from him, and you’re asking him to do something that he doesn’t do very well.

Seattle's zone read play after adjusting the back to line up to the weak side.

Seattle’s zone read play after adjusting the back to line up to the weak side.

There’s no tight end on the field, so the defense will line set their strength to the pass strength of the formation, meaning Hightower lines up to the defensive left and Collins to the defensive right.


Seattle originally lines up the back to the three receiver side so that there won’t be any doubt as to where the strength of the formation is. There are four skill guys to the offense’s right side of the formation.

We’ll get even more in-depth in a moment, but just look at all that space in the alley at the bottom of the picture that is available to Russell Wilson if he can get free on the edge.

Test 3

As Russell Wilson comes off the mesh point, he knows he’s got one man to beat and then he’s into the open field.

Here’s the back (Turbin) aligned to the four receiver side of the formation, to the defense’s left, and Hightower calls out and sets New England’s strength to the left. As you can see, neither the offense or defense is set at this point, so it’s very early in the pre-snap process.

Test 4

The back starts off aligned to the pass strength and Hightower is pointing out the strength.

As the back #22 Robert Turbin flips sides, you can see the right defensive end #95 Chandler Jones and #91 Jamie Collins communicating now the back is lined up to their side, so now their assignments will change.

Test 5

Seattle then flips the back’s alignment to the weak side.

Now Turbin is aligned to the weak side, and Seattle knows exactly what’s coming, which is why they flipped the back and called this play, in order to get Russell Wilson out on the edge.

Test 6

Turbin gets set to the weak side, and Russell Wilson prepares to take the snap.

Just like he’s been coached up to do, and just like Seattle expects, Chandler Jones closes down the line to chase Turbin whether he has the football or not, and Collins comes downhill on a wide angle in an attempt to box in Wilson and keep him from getting to the edge. This scheme allows Collins, the faster of the two inside linebackers, to still play out in space, instead of wasting his speed by coaching him up to stick his nose in the interior of the offensive line and letting Hightower try to come from the other side and run to take away the cutback.

Test 7

As Seattle expects, Chandler Jones closes down the line, and Collins scrapes to the QB (Wilson). Collins takes a wide angle to cut off the path of Wilson as he’s coming off the mesh point.

Now it’s nothing but a one-on-one matchup out on the edge, athlete vs athlete, and Russell Wilson is a quicker player than Collins. All he has to do is make Collins hesitate for a half-second in order to get the edge, and that’s exactly what he does.

Test 8

Now it’s a one-on-one match up on the edge between Wilson and Collins, and Wilson makes him hesitate with a nice stutter step which holds Collins in place and gives him just enough room to get the edge.

Now, the advantage that Collins originally had at the start of the play by coming at a proper angle is gone. Russell Wilson gets the edge on him, and after that it’s no contest. Collins dives at him but he’s not touching him after that.

Test 9

Wilson escapes the grasp of Collins, and gets around the edge where there’s a lot of green grass in front of him.

Now Wilson has all that green grass in front of him that you can see in the photo below, and he has the ability to get out of bounds to stop the clock before any defender can put a good hit on him.

Test 10

Thanks to the vertical release of the X receiver to the defensive right side, there are no other defenders out to the edge.

He’s able to pick up the first down by using his legs before finally being forced out by the free safety Devin McCourty. It goes without saying, but anytime your free safety is making tackles, it’s never a good thing.

Test 11

He’s eventually forced out of bounds by the free safety McCourty after a first down.


One of the great things about the way Belichick approaches defense is that his scheme doesn’t require, and doesn’t set out to, shut everything down completely. He’s betting that your offense isn’t good enough to beat him with your 4th or 5th option.

Sometimes, that’s gotten him into trouble. There are a couple of memorable (some in Boston would call them lucky) catches in the pair of Super Bowl losses to the Giants that ultimately ended up costing the Patriots the game, but Belichick’s win percentage speaks for itself. More often than not, his well-coached defense is going to take away the things you do best, and leave you with a few things that you’re either not very good at, or just haven’t practiced that much. Now you have to go out on the field and beat him.

This is what the Super Bowl ultimately came down to. Belichick played an aggressive defensive front that focused on stopping the run first, and locked up Seattle’s receivers in man-to-man coverage that forced Russell Wilson into some uncomfortable throws. Some of those throws connect, like the incredible catch Jermaine Kearse made on Seattle’s final drive. Most of the others however, like the final pass intended for Ricardo Lockette that found its way into Malcolm Butler’s hands, don’t.

This is exactly the kind of in-depth analysis you can expect from my latest book Every Play Revealed Volume II: New England vs Seattle.

With over 200 pages of diagrams and analysis on not only the plays themselves, but the adjustments in between drives and at halftime, it’s the closest you can possibly get to sitting in coaches meetings and putting on the headset to listen in on the conversations Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll have with their assistants during the game.



Click below and have it sent to your inbox instantly!

Now on Using Blitz Keys to Sniff Out Pressure

When putting together my latest breakdown of the National Championship Game, I became interested in some of the ways that both teams, particularly Oregon, picked up on whether the defense was really going to bring pressure. The book is all about the details coaches look for when they’re making adjustments over the course of an entire game, so it was important to look at the subtle changes in the defensive alignment when they’ve decided to bring pressure.

The post deals with running and passing against the blitz, as well as the structure of the blitz and the responsibilities of the players away from the pressure.

For Ohio State, the odd front look (above) has been a red flag to the offense that pressure is coming, because it allows the defensive linemen to line up head up over offensive linemen, then slant across their faces and cause disruption in the backfield. The biggest blitz indicator, however, is the alignment of the two linemen to the offense’s left side that we just talked about. Since they’re in position to funnel everything back the other way, it’s safe to assume that the defense has something planned coming from the opposite direction, and that all eleven players on defense are part of it in some way.

You can read the whole thing here.

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Download A Free Chapter from My New Book

Have you ever wondered what exactly coaches mean when they talk about halftime adjustments? What kinds of things do offensive and defensive coaches look for during a game to get an idea of what the opponent is doing? What is the strategy behind an offense’s opening drive, and where do you go from there?

Questions like these are why I put in the time to create this new book. What I wanted to do was give people a window into the thought processes of a coach on the sidelines and in the box over the course of a single football game, and I believe I’ve done that.

The book is written in chronological order, with each play diagrammed and a summary of the strategies used at the end of each drive. With almost 250 pages of diagrams and analysis of every play, this is a football fan’s dream come true, and you won’t find this level of detail anywhere else.

To give you an idea of  what to expect, here are just a few of the topics covered in this book:

  • How Urban Meyer structured his passing game to keep things simple for an inexperienced quarterback in Cardale Jones.
  • How both defenses adjusted to offenses that were designed to create easy throws, especially to the short side of the field.
  • Why Oregon struggled to run the ball consistently.
  • Why the Oregon defensive line actually played a good game
  • The progression of play calls and adjustments that led to Ohio State gashing Oregon with the counter play in the 2nd half.
  • And more!

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2015 AFCA Notes: Robert Wimberly on Defensive Playcalling

Robert Wimberly is the defensive coordinator at Liberty University, and he did a fantastic job of giving a snapshot look at how he structures his scheme, how he delegates responsibilities during the week and on game day, and also how he organizes his thoughts during the game.

Remember, if you’d like my complete set of notes from the 2015 AFCA Convention, click here to become an Insider, or click on that picture of Chip Kelly at the top right corner of the page.

Breakout Session – Robert Wimberly – Liberty University

– It’s important to build a foundation and put a lot of thought into how you structure your playbook. Know the ins and outs of your scheme. It’s never good to be a jack of all trades, but a master of none.

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– Ask yourself if your scheme is ready for something unexpected. Have answers that fit what you do. At the same time, make sure your kids understand your answers.

– Accurate analysis is crucial to a sound game plan. To be most effective, break the responsibilities up among your staff according to their expertise:

  • Receiver analysis
  • Situational pass game
  • Blitz package
  • RB/TE analysis
  • 3rd down runs/OL play
  • Field zone breakdown
  • QB analysis
  • Formations (Defensive Coordinator focuses on this himself)

» Read more

Florida State’s Favorite Run Blitzes

As most of you know already, I’m working on my next book, this time looking at Gus Malzahn’s offense, not just this past year, but over the past few seasons.

In going back and watching FSU-Auburn while researching the new book, I came away with about twenty pages of notes, and I wanted to share a few things that I found really interesting. One factor that stood out was the use of blitzing to contain the Auburn run game. » Read more

Mark Elder on Defending the Zone Read Play

This past weekend I was cleaning out several boxes of old football notes and I stumbled upon some great stuff from clinic talks that I’ve attended over the past few years.

One of my favorites were the notes I took when listening to former Central Michigan defensive coordinator and current Tennessee Special Teams Coordinator Mark Elder, and his overview of how he liked to defend the zone read. » Read more

Six Questions to ask when analyzing opponent empty Formations

Spread formations are all the rage these days, especially in the NFL and college football, and of course, the ultimate spread formation is still lining up with a QB in the gun and five eligible receivers split out wide.

If you’re in charge of breaking down the offense of your next opponent, it can be tough enough to get all of their different plays and formations and different wrinkles tagged in a way that lets you create an effective tendency report. What happens when you face a team that runs empty formations, or even several different types of empty formations?


Hopefully the questions below will help you with some of these issues, and will get you thinking about ways to break down and analyze opponents in the future. » Read more

Three New Ways to Break Down an Opponent Offense

Bill Belichick got his start in the NFL by breaking down film for Ted Marchibroda’s Baltimore Colts, and through the years he perfected his approach to the game by intense and nearly religious film study.

Coaches are always looking for that extra edge that will give them an advantage over their competition, that hidden piece of information that will allow them to get inside the head of their opponent. Obviously I can’t promise you anything like that, but I can give you a few (hopefully) new ways to look at opponent offenses.

Even if you use one or all of these, hopefully this discussion will get you thinking about new ways to look at offenses.

1. Defensive Line Techniques at the point of attack

With so much of the offense being called from the sideline or at the line of scrimmage these days, it’s obvious that offensive coaches are going to try to get themselves into the best possible call on every down. If you’re facing an opponent who doesn’t do a lot of audibling at the line, or who doesn’t have a “lookover” style of offense, then this information won’t be that useful to you. This style of offense is very popular throughout all levels of college football, but it has also been leaking down to the high school game for several years.

Against a team that is constantly changing the play, it is important to know what fronts they like for what play, so that by taking inventory of your own group of looks on defense, you can better predict what the offense will try to run against you.

There are a couple of ways to do it, but my personal preference is to list the techniques of the d-line, starting from the direction of the point of attack, and moving toward the center.

For example:


Once you begin to chart what plays an offense likes to run against what fronts, you’ll be able better anticipate what’s coming at your defense.

2. Leverage

If you’re facing a team that employs a lot of smoke, bubble, and hitch screens on the edge of their run concepts, it’s always a good idea to chart the number of times they run them, even if the QB doesn’t decide to throw it.

One of the more recent trends that may or may not have made it down to your level of play is for the offense to align in a 3×1 set and have the receivers make the call on who is going to run the route and who will be blocking, depending on what kind of leverage they get.

Check out the graphic below for an example:

Hitch Screen vs Bubble Screen

Create a column in whatever scouting program you use and chart what the leverage used by the defenders is when the offense runs their different screens, and when the QB decides to throw them. To simplify, the only man you usually need to chart is the linebacker, since the other defenders will usually play off of how he aligns. This of course is not always true, so you need to identify and name the different ways the defense lines up, then chart them when the corresponding alignment shows up on the video.

3. Watch Your Own Game Film

Depending on the league or conference you’re coaching in, you may find that opponents like to steal, err, borrow pages out of other teams playbooks if they’ve been successful. A good self scout is important for defensive coaches too, and often times that extra hour or so spent charting and breaking down your last game is time well spent, since your weak points are not always visible during the postgame grading sessions. It doesn’t have to be a play or formation that gashes you over and over again, but a scheme that can consistently pick up 5-6 yards is something you need to be aware of, especially if opponents have been running it against you in successive weeks.

Your next opponent is watching your game films, and you can bet they’re taking notes on what works against you and what doesn’t. If you’re a college coach, it’s likely that you’ve got all of your opponent’s games from the season, and that they have yours.

Go back through your last 3-4 games and see how many times opponents have run a play on first and ten in the open field, then go through all the different scenarios, and you may see some tendencies you didn’t know existed. Those guys on the other coaching staff have probably noticed and tried to incorporate some new wrinkles into their game plans that attack those weaknesses that you may not have even known existed.

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