Have you noticed the evolution in defenses? I can remember way back in the 1960’s that five, six, and seven man defensive lines were common. The 5-2, 5-3, 6-2, and 7-1 were all utilized. Heck, I can remember a few EIGHT man lines! The NFL had been using the 4-3 for about ten years, but of course, they passed the ball more than colleges did and certainly way more than high schools. The idea of defense in high school football ( and college) was to load up on the line of scrimmage (LOS) and stop the run. The mantra for offensive coaches was, “Three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad.” Well, that has all changed in today’s football and the ball is being thrown all over the place. It is often said that necessity is the mother of all invention. Such has been the case with the trend of the 3-5-3. This defense’s roots are based off of the 5-3 defense of the old days, but has been modernized with the evolution of the spread offenses. The idea is to get more speed on the field by using more linebackers (LB’s) and defensive backs (DB’s). In addition to that, at least two of those LB’s will be DB type kids. FAST, but hard hitting. The 3-5-3 defense football playbook features three down defensive linemen, five linebackers, and three defensive backs.

So, what are the strengths of the defense; why do coaches run it?

  • Confusion – The offensive line never knows who is going to blitz or slant or from where.
  • Flexibility – With eight players at linebacker and DB, it will give any defensive coach a lot of flexibility in creating a defensive personality that will fit his philosophy and personnel.
  • Blitzing/Stunting – Five linebackers can work many combinations of stunts and blitzes with the D linemen.
  • Speed –Fewer linemen means more smaller, faster athletes.
  • 8 Man Front With 5 Speed Guys – This goes with Speed.
  • Creative Blitz Packages – With 5 Backers, blitzing can come from all angles and several different players.
  • Need Only 3 Down Linemen – These big strong kids can be hard to find at times.
  • Fun – This is what coaches say. But aren’t all defenses fun?

Perceived weaknesses in the 3-5-3 are:

  • Weak vs Tight Ends – Tight ends get a free release off the LOS since they’re not covered by a D lineman.
  • Limited Coverage Package – Unless major changes are made in personnel assignments, it is primarily a 3 deep coverage (cover 3).
  • Easy to Run at Core – Since there only 3 down linemen, some believe you can run right at this defense.

Many schemes are gap control, which means the front eight have a predetermined gap they are responsible for depending on the call. In that case there will be a lot of slanting from the D line and possible blitzing from the linebackers. This can be confusing for the offensive line since they never know who is going to blitz or slant – or from where. Some coaches play a gap exchange which is a “reading” defense. But first, let’s identify the gaps. Below is a typical way to identify gaps. D gap and Alley are the same.

Gap Identification


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GAP CONTROL – An example of gap control is shown below. Notice how the Defensive Tackles are  slanting to C gap at the snap. This is a predetermined call. The LB’s know they will be responsible for gaps the Defensive Line leave open. In this case, the Tackles are on a slant to C gap. The Sam and Will linebackers can be on a blitz to B gap or simply know they are responsible for B gap.

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 GAP EXCHANGE – In a gap exchange, the D Linemen are working in tandem with the LB behind them on a “READ”. What they do depends on what they see from the O line. In the below left diagram, the Offensive Tackle is trying to “reach” block the D Tackle. As the D Tackle fights the reach, C gap is closed, creating an open window for the LB in B gap.  In the below right diagram the Offensive Tackle blocks down (toward the center) which “closes” B gap as the D Tackle squeezes down. The LB goes to the open window in C gap.

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Alignment Numbering System

The alignment numbering system, commonly known as alignment technique, is very important for quick communication between coaches and coaches to players. This tells the players where to align. There are many numbering systems and all coaches are free to use their own method.  For our purposes we will use the most common system shown below.

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 3-5-3 Defense

Shown below is a diagram of the basic 3-5-3 defense. The defensive backfield is in a “Cover 3” which means the DB’s each have 1/3 deep coverage. The two Corners have the deep outside 1/3 and the Safety has middle 1/3. Below the diagram will be alignment and assignment responsibilities along with recommendations for player capabilities.


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Alignment, Assignment, & Personnel vs Run

Ends – Align in a 4 technique, head up Offensive Tackle. B or C gap responsible. Best combo of power and mobility. Hard nosed kids with a high motor.

Nose Guard – Align in a 0 technique, head up the Center. A gap responsible. Biggest , strongest, most mobile player.

Sam and Will ( Inside LB’s) – Align stacked behind the Ends. 3 yards deep. B or C gap responsible. Linebacker/D Lineman Hybrid. Must be willing to fill for the run and athletic enough to drop into pass coverage.

Mike – Heels at 5 yards directly over the ball.  A to B to C gap responsible. One of your top two defenders. Good head for the game with ability to read guards.

Lion and Ram (Outside LB’s) –  Align 3×3 outside of TE to head up of #2 receiver depending on formation. Force everything inside. If the runner bounces outside, chase it down. Most athletic, rangy LB’s you have or the toughest DB’s you have. Fast and play making ability.

Safety – Heels at 7-10 yards over strong side Offensive Guard. However, width of alignment varies depending on formation or game plan. If run play, A gap to alley. One of your top two defenders. Good head for the game, ability to read guards, disciplined, ability to roam in coverage.

Corners – Align 7-10 yards deep (depending on speed). 2-3 yards inside of #1 receiver. If 2 split receivers, align closer to #2. Secondary force if run to – do not attack until ball past LOS. Touchdown saver if play away. Best pass defenders on the team. Strength, speed, good tackler in the open field all help.


Alignment and Assignment vs the Pass

Next, is pass assignment responsibilities (shown below). These are the pass assignments for “cover 3″ which, as you remember, means the corners and safety are responsible for the 3 deep zones. There are many different coverages  that can be played and there are many resources on Chiefpigskin.


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 Pass Assignments

Defensive Line – Get into pass rush technique. Ends outside rush, maintain outside leverage. Nose, inside rush.

Mike – Middle hole.

Sam and Will – Hook/Curl.

Lion and Ram – Flat.

Safety – Middle 1/3.

Corners – Outside 1/3.


Covering Spread Formations

We would be remiss if we didn’t show at least one coverage for a typical Spread Offense. It is a common belief that Cover 3 is weak vs 4 vertical routes. If the offense has two receivers split out each side – 2 x 2 – the Safety has two receivers to cover (one on each hash). He is really under stress and will have a difficult time covering both. In fact, he may not be able to do it. So, to get him help, we are showing the option below. The Lion and Ram linebackers have moved out to align head up the #2 receiver. They will collision that receiver to delay his route, then cover flat. Notice that Sam and Will are dropping deep and trailing the #2 receiver. This gives the Safety some underneath help which forces the QB to throw over the LB’s. This makes it not only a tougher pass to make but the QB must get more air under the ball, thus giving the Safety more time to get to the #2 receiver.

Cover 3 vs 4 Verticals

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More on the 3-5-3

Learning the Basic 3-5-3 front with a three deep coverage is a great starting place for the 3-5-3 defense. But let’s face it, you’ve really got to have more fronts and coverages to be effective. Today’s defenses must have the capability of being multiple. For example, what if its 3rd and less than a yard? Do you have a front or plan for that? Or what about 3rd and 12 and your opponents have a play that they’ve been having success with? Many times your opponent might have a star player that requires special attention and a different coverage, or maybe you are facing an opponent where you need more run support.

There are several 3-5-3 resources  but two of my favorites are the Simplest 3-5-3/Nate Albaugh and Dallas’ Simplest 3-5-3. These videos are a great compliment to each other and will cover everything from Alignment, Assignment, and Personnel to Run Fits, Game Planning, and Practice Plans.

Coach Nate AlbaughChampaign Central

Coach Nate Albaugh
Champaign Central

Coach Albaugh has been running the 3-5-3 since his second year as a head coach back in 2009.  In their first year in the defense, they changed their program around, won the conference championship going 8-1 and qualified for the playoffs.  Now, he and his staff are in the middle of rebuilding a larger program in Champaign, IL.  This simple defense has been a staple in their game plan since they took over an 0-9 program in 2013.  In 2015, he led the Maroons to a school record11 wins and a trip to the state-semifinals. Coach Albaugh’s four video series covers Alignment, Assignment, Personnel, Run Fits, Blitzing, and Coverage.


Another program that is having great success running the 3-5 is Dallas High School in Oregon. In week 7 of 2015 Dallas High School (OR) made the decision to make the switch to the

Coach Andy JacksonDallas High School

Coach Andy Jackson
Dallas High School

3-5. After the switch they went 11-4 over the next two seasons and advanced all the way to the State Semi-Finals in 2016 losing to the eventual champs 10-7 in a defensive struggle. Defensive coordinator Andy Jackson has led the way to playing great defense at Dallas. He has been the defensive coordinator since 2012. Coach Jackson brings great energy and excitement to his craft and they’ve put together a great plan for playing great defense; keeping things simple for their kids in order to spend more time on the things they believe are truly critical to playing great D. This 3 video series covers their defensive package, developing the scheme in practice, and game planning for offenses.

If you’re a 3-5 guy or are thinking about switching to the 3-5, I highly recommend Coach Albaugh’s Simplest 3-5-3 and Dallas’ Simplest 3-5-3. These videos cover every phase of defense that will be required to be the most effective. As always we here at Chiefpigskin believe that all defenses are good if learned inside and out and then taught to your players inside and out. The 3-5-3 is no different and the available videos will give you that opportunity. Feel free to contact us any time to talk football. That’s what we do.

Coach L. Albaugh     DBLITY