The 3-3 Defense is one of the hottest defenses in football. It is a defense that is built to counter today’s popular spread offenses while still remaining sound against the traditional run heavy offenses. The strength of the 3-3 defense is it’s simplicity. This simplicity allows players to have very narrow skill sets that they can focus on mastering. Here is complete insight into the 3-3 Stack Defense Base Rules and Blitzes.
3-3 Stack Defense Base Rules and Blitzes
The simplicity of the 3-3 defense is one of the reason more teams are moving towards using it as their base package. The concept is very simple, there are three down linemen and three linebackers who are responsible for defending the box. There are two Spurs who are the force players, meaning they are responsible for containing any outside run. The Free Safety is a downhill run player who acts as an extra defender in the box while also still being able to flow and make tackles on the outside. The Cornerbacks are then free to be the deep defensive players.
The alignment of the box in the 3-3 is one of the reasons why it is so hard to block. In the 3-3 defense the defensive linemen will line up head up with the linebackers stacked 1.5 to 2 yards behind them. The base alignment for the linemen is a 4-0-4 alignment. This means that the nose guard will line up directly in front of the Center and the two Ends will line up directly in front of the Tackles. The defensive linemen are slanting to their gap at the snap of the ball. This allows smaller linemen to be effective.
The linebackers are lined up directly behind them and are filling in the gap opposite of where the lineman in front of them goes. Again because this is such a quick blitz and they are coming from so shallow smaller players can cause havoc for offenses that are not ready to deal with the pressure. We will cover more of the specific blitzes by linebackers and the defensive linemen stunts that go with them in later articles.
The Spur players should be some of the most dynamic players on the defense. These players are responsible for containing any outside run as well as defending the flat on any passing play. Their alignment depends on the formation the offense is in. If the offense is lined up with a Tight End they should come on to the line with an outside shade but if there is no tight end they will apex the Tackle and the next receiver. This allows them to get under any route to the flat while still maintaining their leverage on any outside run. In the event that there is a Tight End trips formation the Spur will apex the Tight End and the number two receiver. In this scenario the stacked backer to the the trips side will step down and play over the Tight End.
The Free Safety should be the best football player on the defense. Depending on his skill this is the player you can give a free run to go and find the football and make a play. He should align 7 yards deep between the Guards. His alignment can vary depending on the formation or the width of the field. His job is to find the football and make plays. He should be reading the Guards and on any run play he serves as the extra defender who the offense doesn’t account for. On any passing plays he should read the Quarterback’s eyes and look to rob any deep route to the middle of the field.
The Cornerbacks are the deep defenders in this defense. Many times these can be athletes who are not strong tacklers but can still defend and break up pass plays. Their job is to have the deep half of the field. While they will get help from the Free Safety on deep passes down the middle they shouldn’t expect it and must know that he might be gone. The Cornerbacks do not need to be skilled in man coverage which makes the position much easier to fill.
The strength of the 3-3 is the simple rules and jobs of each player. By refining the necessary skills for each player the defense can spend it’s time mastering the specific skills they must develop which puts them at a huge advantage on game day.
Linebacker and Defensive Line Play in the 3-3 Defense
The Linebackers and Defensive Line are responsible for handling C Gap to C Gap in the 3-3 defense. This defense allows both the Linebackers and Defensive Line to play very aggressively and make limited reads. This limits the amount of teaching time for linebackers and lets the coach get the best players on the field quickly.
The basic premise behind linebacker and defensive line play in the 3-3 defense is that all gaps must be filled. There are 6 defenders and 6 gaps to fill which means that either a lineman or a linebacker should be stunting to every gap on every play. The linemen will start with a head up alignment on both Tackles and the Center with the linebackers stacked directly behind them. Each pair will be responsible for the two gaps that are closest to them. This means that the Nose and the Mike must fill up both A gaps. If the Nose goes to the right A gap then the Mike will need to go to the left A gap.
Spur Play in the 3-3 Stack Defense
The Spur is one of the most dynamic players in the 3-3 defense. In order to effectively play Spur an athlete must be able to stop both the run and the pass. Sometimes this means the Spur needs to be able to line up against a Tight End and control the D gap, while other times it might mean that he needs to be able to apex the #2 or #3 receiver and make a play to shut down the quick passing game in the flats.
The key job of the Spur is to control the D gap and force everything inside to the box players (linebackers and line) and the Safety. This all starts with his stance. He should aim to keep his inside foot in front. This will give him outside leverage on any perimeter play by the offense. In the event that the offense tries to send a blocker at him he must keep his outside leverage by taking on the block with his inside hand and forcing the blocker back in.
The Spur allows the defense to adjust to multiple different formations while still keeping the linebackers and the defensive line simple. Against any down linemen, whether it’s a Tight End or a Tackle Over the Spur is going to play with an outside leverage on the offensive player. He must harass this player while still maintaining his outside leverage. If the blocker steps down the Spur will jam him while closing down tight to the C Gap. This stops the blocker from getting a free release onto a Linebacker or a Safety while also making any attempt at a kickout block by the offense difficult. If the 3rd linemen tries to reach him it’s critical that the Spur maintains his leverage and doesn’t get reached. Instead he must fight the block and force everything back into the box players and the Safety who is coming downhill to be the extra defender at the point of attack.
If there is a two receiver look the Spur becomes the dual responsibility player. He is responsible for the flats in pass defense but is also responsible for any D gap run. While this can be a difficult responsibility he can rely on the Safety coming downhill from inside out for support. If he gets both a pass threat and a run threat to the D gap (like a Quarterback pull off an Inside Zone read and a bubble route from #2) he will use a feather technique to delay the Quarterback’s decision. This will give the Free Safety time to come down in support and let the rest of the defense rally to the play.
One of the major strengths of the 3-3 defense is the limited roles of each player, this is especially true for the Spurs. They are not asked to do many different things. On any play they are either maintaining D Gap integrity or playing the flats. While these can be difficult assignments, they are the only one’s the Spurs need to focus on. This allows them to specialize in these two jobs and become great at their assignment.
3-3 Stack Defense Blitzes
When it comes to calling these blitzes there are two approaches. The first is to let the players pick the gap they want to blitz to. In this method the linebacker will tap the hip of the defensive tackle to tell him which gap he is going in so the defensive lineman knows to go to the other gap. This is effective as long as the players do not develop a routine of going to the exact same gaps.
Right and Left Call
The other option is to have the coordinator call the blitz. In this scenario the coordinator will tell the line which way they are stunting and the linebackers are responsible for going opposite. If you want all linemen to go right or left it’s as easy as making a left or right call.
In and Out Call
It gets a little more tricky when you want the defensive linemen to go different ways. The fix is to make simple In or Out calls. On an In call the defensive tackles will both stunt to the B gap and the Sam and Will backers will go to the C gap. On an Out call this will be reversed and the defensive tackles will go to the C gaps and the Sam and Will will go to the B gaps.
On the In and Out calls there are three different ways of telling the Mike and Nose where to go. The first and most obvious way is to give a second call for the Nose and the Mike knows to go opposite. The second way would be for them to make a choice on the field. The third way is probably the most troublesome to an offense if you have the personnel to do it.
The third way would be to give a Rock call. On a Rock call the Nose will fire off directly into the Center and play both A gaps so that the Mike can read the play and scrape over the top to make the tackle. This requires a dominant nose tackle who is capable of handling not only a single block from the Center but also being able to not get moved by a double team.
While the basic blitz patterns are effective it’s also important to have a call to stop the linebackers from blitzing. In this defense the default is that each linebacker will be blitzing so by tagging the call with a Mike, Will or Sam call it will tell the linebacker that is called that he is not blitzing.
The basic blitzes are enough to confuse an average offensive line but it’s important to have a second phase of blitzes that have backers looping more than one gap to battle the Zone Read schemes that have become so popular. I am a big believer in the kids coming up with calls for each of the blitzes but it’s important that as a coordinator you have some type of scrape exchange blitz in your package. The idea behind a Scrape Exchange is to give the Quarterback a pull read and then stunt a linebacker to him. When run effectively, it can shut down the Zone Read scheme and get the offense out of read plays.
Coverages in the 3-3 Defense
Due to the single high Safety the 3-3 Defense bases out of primarily single high safety looks. There are multiple ways to get into different coverage looks but the defense is most sound when it is in some form of single high coverage.
The coverage that the base alignment lends itself to best is a simple Cover 3. In Cover 3 pretty much all of the defensive personnel are in the position that they need to be. The Spurs are already positioned in their coverage responsibility in the flat. The Cornerbacks are aligned off the ball and will have the deep ⅓ to their side while the Safety is in the middle of the field and can play the deep middle ⅓. One primary concern is the tendency of the Safety. Normally he is a downhill run player but when the defense is running a Cover 3 look it’s critical that he doesn’t come downhill as quickly and takes time to ensure that it is a run play.
The other coverage that the defense is aligned for is a simple Cover 1. In this coverage the Cornerbacks will be man to man with the #1 receiver and the Spurs will be man to man with the #2 receiver. This allows the Free Safety to play free and come down and make a play on a run or rob any in breaking routes from #2. The weakness with this coverage is that because the Spurs now are in man coverage the defense has lost its primary force players if the #2 receivers go out for a pass. This means that the Safety has to come down and, along with the linebackers and defensive line, make any play in the D gap.
The final base coverage that the 3-3 best fits is the Inverted Cover 2. In the Inverted Cover 2 the Cornerbacks are now responsible for the deep half of the field and the Spurs have the flats. While this is similar to Cover 3 the major difference comes from the play of the Safety. In Cover 3 he has to be a slow player but in Inverted Cover 2 he can continue to play the run aggressively and will play the middle of the field on any passing plays.
In the event of an obvious passing down or a situation where the defense would like to present a two high Safety look the 3-3 can be adapted to be a traditional Cover 2. The solution is to roll the boundary (short side of the field) spur back into a deep Safety position. From here the defense will run a normal Cover 2 look by having the Safety move over to the field side. The obvious downside of this is that now the Cornerback has flats with little to no help because the stacked linebacker to his side more than likely has some sort of run or blitz responsibility.
The 3-3 is not the greatest passing defense in football. Because there are 6 people rushing on most plays, their are only 5 players left to defend the pass. While the rush will force the offense to make a quick decision, it’s critical that the coordinator works to present multiple different looks to help confuse the Quarterback and slow down his progressions.
(See Also) 3-5-3 Stack Defense Playbook
(See Also) Overload Blitz out of the 3-3-5 Defense