Following up on Hash’s defense inflected post, I’d like to take a closer look at Tech’s defense. I’ve heard many people compare Wommack to Willy Martinez, which is simply unfair. If Willy Martinez gets an "F", Wommack deserves an incomplete. Wommack got his start with Southern Mississippi back when they regularly took teams like Alabama to the wall before loosing 8 to 6. During that time the defensive staff at Southern Miss developed a defense known as the 3-3-5, or "33" defense. Most people don’t realize how radical a shift Dave Wommack’s defense is from the traditional blitz happy thing John Tenuta ran while at Tech. The change has been every bit as radical as what Paul Johnson did to the offense, only CPJ didn’t lose 75% of his offensive line.
Before we start I want to make it clear that I know nothing about football, what follows is a summary of what I’ve read. Feel free to throw down mad corrections.
So What is the 33 defense? It's Three Down Lineman, three linebackers, a rover, and four defensive backs.
The Rover is often described as a “free lancer”, but really he’s a second strong safety with read/react responsibilities similar to the quarterback in an option offense. Some schools, like Penn State, have given a linebacker similar responsibilities.
Southern Miss developed the defense to offset their lack of size on the defensive line. Southern Miss linemen would be "tweeners" at other schools i.e. bigger and slower than linebackers, but smaller and faster than traditional defensive lineman. The defense also requires less linemen. There are only so many 300 plus pound men to go around in this world, and Southern Miss was not winning many of those recruiting battles. The 3-3-5 allowed them to put more of the athletes they could get - linebacker and safeties , on the field at the same time.
They could also run it with less personnel, as it allows for fluid transitions into multiple sets. That was good for a school like Southern Miss whose first team matched up well with bigger programs, but couldn’t match those other schools depth.
So how does it work?
The key to the 33 is that even though you only have three down lineman, you can rush with any combination of the 11 players on the field, though you usually rely on your defensive lineman, safeties and linebackers.
Many 33 coaches teach their players to move around a lot before the snap of the ball. This helps to disguise where the rush is actually coming from. At the snap any combination of players may attack the line of scrimmage. The defense may simply rush the three defensive lineman, or they may rush the three lineman and a linebacker. But that's just the beginning, the 33 is capable of doing lots of exotic stuff with the rush. A coach can run all kinds of zone blitzes designed to attack the rush or the pass. He can drop a defensive end into coverage and stunt the linebacker and safety behind him.
It’s this flexibility that has made the 33 the defense of choice among spread option coaches like Paul Johnson and Rich Rodriguez. For example, on a typical triple option play the end is the read, but what if at the snap the defensive tackle drops into coverage, the defensive end crashes the dive play, which is usually the defensive tackles responsibility, and the linebacker swings out behind the end to take the quarterback? In this scenario the defense has switched the player the quarterback reads mid-play. That confusion can be used to arrest control away from the offense. Most of your more traditional defenses have to be content with passively playing gap assignment football and hoping there players make plays. The 3-3-5 can actually counter scheme the triple option, confuse the offense and put it on its heals. The 33 can do similar things to a traditional offense. Zone blitzes and exotic stunts can throw off quarterback reads and blocking schemes.
An additional advantage of the 33 comes from the flexibility of its players. Every player is essentially a hybrid player, which makes it possible for the 33 to borrow concepts from other systems without changing personnel. Want to run a 3-4 look? Just walk a safety into the box. Need a 4-4 on fourth and short? Have one linebacker crowd the line of scrimmage and walk two safeties into the box. This concept of multiple formations with the same personnel can be very helpful. It’s easier for the defense to react to the no-huddle because you don’t have to swap personnel to react to down and distance, and it allows you to keep your best players on the field.
A coach can also expand this concept of multiple sets/same personnel to an entire season. If a team has a shortage of personnel at one spot, like Tech did at linebacker last year, or an over abundance of talent at a position, like Tech did at defensive line last year, they can for go all that jumping around before the snap and just line players up in their natural position.
Last year Tech appeared to be in a lot of nickel formations because they only had two linebackers on the field, but in reality Michael Johnson or Derrick Morgan was really a third linebacker who simply lined up with a hand in the dirt, instead of shifting into that spot at the snap. They still ran the same concepts. Think of two of Michael Johnson’s biggest plays from last year: the pass break-up against Boston College and the touchdown return against Miami. On both plays Johnson, who led the team in sacks last year, dropped into coverage and made huge plays. This year Tech has lined up with a lot of three down lineman. Guess what? Tech doesn’t have four top quality defensive linemen this year. Thank you, Chan Gailey! From year to year Tech can adjust its formation to fit its personnel without having to teach new techniques.
The flexibility of the 3-3-5 has become a huge part of the defense. You don’t see a lot of pure 3-3-5 alignments in college football, but there are a lot of teams (Virginia Tech, Florida State, and Florida) that run 3-3-5 systems but lineup in traditional formations.
The other unique aspect of the 3-3-5 is the Rover. If a team’s depth chart shows four down lineman, three linebacker, and some guy playing, Rover, Bandit, Wolf, Gator, Monster, or some other random thing, they are probably utilizing some 3-3-5 concepts. The Rover is essentially your best player. He has to be very athletic, able to make plays at the line of scrimmage and in coverage, and very smart. The Rover is often asked to make pre-snap reads. This not only allows the defense to get its best player involved with more plays, but it also further disguises the defensive play call. It’s a little like the spread option in that respect. An offense can’t scheme to stay away from Morgan Burnett because not even Morgan Burnett knows where he’s going to be before the snap of the ball.
The 33 defense is complex and requires players to master many skills and to work with a high level of awareness on the field. The advantages are great. It’s flexible and unpredictable.
It’s difficult to judge the job Dave Wommack has done. Think about the offensive struggles Tech had against Miami and try to imagine how much harder it would be to overcome that game if Jonathan Dwyer, Josh Nesbitt and Roddy Jones had graduated last year. That’s essentially what happened when Vance Walker, Daryl Richard, and Michael Johnson were drafted into the NFL. Tech’s defense has struggled this year but the coaching staff has repeatedly made meaningful halftime adjustments. As the year has gone on the defense has improved, which is also a credit to the coaching staff. They’ve really only played two bad quarters (the first half of the Vanderbilt game) since the Florida State game.