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Cal vs. San Diego State: Aztecs 3-3-5 defense breakdown

Week 2 pits the Golden Bears against the master of the 3-3-5 defense.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The California Golden Bears just completed a game against the 3-3-5 defense of Grambling, saw it when playing Arizona last year, will face off against one of the innovators in Charlie Strong next week, but no one has employed the 3-3-5 for as long as San Diego State Head Coach Rocky Long.  In 1991 Long had just completed his first year as defensive coordinator at Oregon State, a year in which they won just a single game.  1991 was also the year that Memphis State defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn decided to try something new when his team visited Los Angeles.

Sept. 2, 1991. Joe Lee Dunn, a mentor to Long, was defensive coordinator at Memphis State, which traveled to the Los Angeles Coliseum and stunned No. 16 USC, 24-10. It was one of the biggest wins in Memphis history, and it can be credited in large part to a change Dunn made to his 5-3 defense (five linemen, three linebackers). He dropped the two defensive ends off the line so they could act more as safeties. By starting farther back, these safety-ends could get a running start at the USC option running game.

Dunn continued to tinker and by the end of the season he had settled on 3 defensive linemen, 3 linebackers and 5 defensive backs.  Rocky Long visited Dunn in the spring of 1992 to learn how this new defense worked and has used it ever since.  Traditional 4-3 or 3-4 defenses rely upon big, strong and fast athletes playing Defensive End.  The problem, of course, is these these human beings are rare and smaller programs have a hard time recruiting them.

"There are a lot more smaller fast guys in this world than there are big strong guys who run fast," Long said. "There are a lot of big strong guys, but most are offensive linemen. Defensive guys have to run the whole field."

Built to stop the option offense, the 3-3-5 has gained popularity as a way to slow the spread attack.  With five defensive backs in its standard package the scheme is suited to match the spread.  Even though there are only 3 defensive linemen, the 3-3-5 stack uses deception and presnap movement to put pressure on the offense.  In this defensive alignment, with the linebackers directly behind the defensive linemen, it is impossible to determine who has which assignment.  With blitzes 80 percent of the time the offensive line has to be able to make split second decisions on who to block and cannot make mistakes.

"You'll see more defense in one game (against Long) than you'll see in an entire year," said (Washington State) head coach Mike Leach

"It's like Stonewall Jackson said: I don't think they take counsel of their fears," Leach said. "They're willing to stick their neck out because it can have a big payoff. The risk is calculated."

The blitz could come from anywhere...  There is almost always one linebacker blitzing, but a second linebacker or safety might blitz at any time.

"(The Aztecs) kind of walk around (pre-snap) and then come at you from every angle,"

"They're relentless. ... The 3-3 stack enables them to be very, very aggressive and come from all different angles. And I think that kind of gives people some issues."

Nevada Coach Brian Polian

To allow this unpredictability Rocky Long relies on his linebackers to be able to fill multiple rolls.

"Sometimes, he's really a linebacker, but sometimes he blitzes and becomes a defensive tackle," Long said. "Sometimes he lines up on the line of scrimmage and is a defensive end. Sometimes he rushes off the edge, like he's a 3-4 linebacker. Sometimes he's got a receiver man-to-man, so now he's a (defensive back)."

I want to show this pre-snap movement but unfortunately video of the 2014 Aztecs facing passing attacks was limited and their first game was shown on the Mountain West Network which can't really be called a network since it doesn't really connect the game to any televisions outside Root Sports Mountian (though a live stream was available).  I relied instead on Pac-12 network's Football in 60 stream replay of Oregon State and SDSU from 2014.  The result is that most of the pre-snap movement is cut out.  Here is one play where you can see that movement:

The Aztecs are lined up in a 3-3-5 without the stack

While OSU has 3 wide and 2 running backs in their 2-minute-drill formation.

SDSU motions to the following...  Notice that four players are showing blitz...

It might very well be a Fire Zone Blitz based off of the DB's position at the bottom of the screen.

But instead SDSU runs this blitz while dropping into Man-Free coverage (man to man coverage with a free safety over the top).

Oregon State has the perfect pass protection called: a Slide Left, where the Offensive Line all block to their left and both running backs pick up the last two rushers from the right side (I covered this type of pass protection in a post a few years ago - warning this link contains USC content).


I apologize for the quality of the GIFs today, it was the best I could do with the source material (an older look at the Aztec defense can be found here)

The play above illustrates how the Aztecs will disguise their pass rush and coverage.

Here is another blitz that SDSU brought against Oregon State's 2-minute-drill.  OSU is in shotgun with trips receivers to the top and one receiver to the bottom with a single back.  All three San Diego State linebackers are in position to pass rush.

Once again the SDSU pass coverage is Man-Free with the linebacker on the line of scrimmage responsible for the running back.

The two remaining linebackers blitz the right side of the offensive line while the defensive linemen slant to their right.  The OSU Right Guard blocks the Defensive Tackle in front of him leaving the OSU Right Tackle with three potential men to block: all three linebackers.


The Right Tackle blocks the linebacker blitzing to the outside.  The backer blitzing from across the formation is picked up by the running back and the Quarterback has the time he needs to complete his pass.

Cal faced the 3-3-5 last year when they played Arizona and again last week against Grambling, it is not a new defense but it is one that will test the offensive line, running back and quarterback on every play.

The Cal Pass Protection

Lets take a look at a couple of the pass protection schemes that Cal used against the Grambling pressure to get an idea of how they will protect Jared Goff this season.  We have seen the straight drop back of offensive linemen at the snap but last Saturday Cal employed these other protections as well.

Here the Bears are lined up with two receivers to the top, the Tight End next to the Left Tackle, the Running Back to the right of the Quarterback and one receiver to the bottom of the formation.

On this play the Right Guard is is going to pull (his first step will be back and to the left and he will move parallel to the line of scrimmage so he can be an additional blocker on the left).  The rest of the line will block like this is a running play and there will be a fake handoff to the running back.  This is a passing play all the way, however, and the running back will block the edge.

Goff throws a pass to Powe and since it is caught behind the line of scrimmage it is perfectly legal for the offensive linemen to be blocking down field.


Cal also used a roll out to move the quarterback to make it more difficult to get pressure on Goff.

We can see below that the Grambling defense has overloaded the right side of the Cal formation.  This is the side with three wide receivers.

To adjust to the defense the Cal linemen will execute a Slide-Step-Slide to move parallel to the line of scrimmage and essentially move the whole line to be more centered on the defense.

The last defender on the left is unblocked but Goff's movement combined with a quick throw renders that defensive end irrelevant to the play.


After watching many of the opening weekend's Pac-12 games I believe that the Golden Bears will go as far as the offensive line can carry them.  I don't know who is calling the pass protection but that player is going to have to be able to anticipate the defense  and make accurate calls.  Teams are going to come after Goff so the receivers will have to be prepared for the quick pass and generate yards after the catch.

Each of our pre-conference games will have an increasing amount of defensive prowess and athleticism,  I am looking forward to how the offensive line responds to the challenge.