Multiple Rush Options Out of the 3-3 Stack

Running a 3-3 stack or any other Odd Front defense allows for many advantages that offenses must contend with each week. On the most basic level, 3-Down fronts demand that the offense prepare for multiple pressure threats that could come from different sides of the defense. One of the reasons we like the 3-3 Stack is that against many formations, we can present five pressure threats in the form of the three inside (stack) linebackers along with our two outside linebackers. Despite having only three defensive linemen, most of our base coverages and change-ups involve bringing a fourth rusher in the form of one of our linebackers, which essentially puts us in a 4-Down scheme after the snap.

There are a number of ways in which we can do this, and the variety of options creates an element of deception, because the offense will rarely know where the rush is coming from until just before the ball is snapped. One of the other advantages this creates is that while the odd front invites certain blocking schemes (such as double teams), the addition of the fourth rusher at the snap may cause the offense to abandon their desired blocking scheme in order to ensure that our linebackers can’t run through gaps unblocked. In keeping with 4-down philosophy which involves setting the “3-Technique” to the desired side of the offensive formation, most of our rush variations are about doing just that, setting a 3-Technique post-snap to get us in the desired front.

Our base teaching out of the 3-3 Front is to add the Mike, who is our middle-stack linebacker, as an inside rusher who will fit off of our Nose. While not the most potent four-man rush, this is a good starting point for base teaching progression and our first change-up rush ties nicely into that. There are times where we will break the stack by lining up the Mike as a 7-Technique to one side of the offensive formation and rushing him off the edge. This is an easy adjustment for us, because it fits our base coverage schemes so the teaching will be exactly the same for the secondary and the other two inside linebackers, aside from adjusting their alignments over the guards rather than over the tackles. The adjustment for the D-Line involves the Defensive End to the rush being instructed to step inside to the B-Gap. He will make his reads off the guard, and will serve as the 3-Technique on the play. Examples of the base rush from the 3-3 Stack, as well as the Mike edge rush can be seen in the following diagrams.

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It should be noted that we can give this same exact look by walking up one of our inside-stack linebackers to the edge and sliding the Mike over to replace him in coverage. This is not our most deceptive rush option, because walking up the linebacker gives it away pre-snap. However, balancing this look out with the threat of sending pressure from the opposite side (which we do often) helps keep the offense from exploiting the transparency of our alignment. Still, all we are really giving the offense is the knowledge that they should block the rush side as though there is a 3-Technique present, which is no more information than they would get if we were a four-man front and set the front strength to that side.

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One of the more potent and deceptive rush options (particularly vs. the run game) is to plug one of the inside-stack linebackers to the B-Gap, setting our 3-Technique with him, rather than with a Defensive End. One of the things we really like about this change-up rush is that we can do it without breaking the stack, which adds to the deception of the rush. With proper timing, we can make it so that offenses will not know where the rush is coming from until the ball is being snapped, and will have to adjust their blocking schemes on the fly in order to keep us from making plays in the backfield. We can still run base coverage concepts behind this plug, with the Mike replacing the role of the rush backer in the coverage called. This particular rush variation can be very disruptive vs. traditional run plays such as iso, power, and even the read-option. When plugging the linebacker to a designated side, we will always defend the C-Gap with the Defensive End to that side. Though his gap assignment and rush lane will always be the same, we can tweak his coaching against the read-option to fit our game-plan each week.

Though we don’t see Iso very often, this plug is effective vs. teams who do run it, particularly when they favor running the play to a certain side of the formation. For example, teams who run Iso to the tight end will have a hard time blocking this plug when we run it to the closed side. Since we are hitting the B-Gap in the direction of the play, a down-block by the guard will allow our linebacker to be in the backfield before the fullback can make contact with him. This will sometimes result in a tackle for loss if the fullback can’t adjust to what is happening in time to make the block, and the worst case scenario should be that the play gets spilled to the Mike, who should be waiting in the open gap to make the tackle. This fits our base teaching, since we typically spill Iso with the linebackers, and when we run the plug the spill is assured to happen in the backfield. We can apply this principle to when teams run power as well. When running power against our 3-3 look, most teams will double-team the Defensive End back to the Mike and attempt to hit the play downhill in the B-Gap, with the pulling guard leading up on the inside linebacker. When we plug that inside linebacker, the pulling guard must make this block immediately in the backfield to prevent a TFL. This problem can be avoided by the offensive tackle coming off the double team to block the plugging linebacker; however that still results in the play being spilled to the outside where our linebackers can flow freely, rather than hitting downhill in the desired gap. (See Diagram)

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The B-Gap plug is also effective when teams run power away from it as well. Again, this has to do with us inviting certain blocking schemes with our alignment, since most teams will double the Nose back to the away-side linebacker when running power against our 3-3. However, when we plug the linebacker in that B-Gap, he will be running through the wide open gap left by the pulling guard, which forces the center to come off the double-team immediately or allow our linebacker to easily run the play down from behind. This makes life easier on our Nose, who is now facing a single block, and our Mike can flow inside-out to the ball and fit the next open gap. (See Diagram)

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When run to the off-set RB, the inside linebacker plug is also effective against read-option teams. Against the typical zone-read play, plugging the B-Gap to the off-set RB puts the offensive tackle under stress, as he will be responsible for blocking the B-Gap when the offense runs inside zone away from him. Typically we coach the linebacker to be “heavy” on the guard when he plugs, so that when the play goes away, he can run down the line and avoid being scooped by the offensive tackle. When the zone goes away, we expect the linebacker to crash down the line and tackle the RB. When facing read-option teams, we can coach the Defensive End on the side of the rush to play the read a couple of different ways. Typically, we teach him to sit and play the QB, so the ball will be handed off and the plugging linebacker has a chance to tackle the RB in the backfield. The Mike LB should fall back against the zone, and be ready to tackle the dive if the rush linebacker gets blocked in the B-Gap and the RB rolls off the edge in an attempt to cut-back. A potential change-up for the Defensive End is to coach him to bend down the line and tackle the RB, which is actually his base teaching in our odd fronts with no predetermined rush. When this happens, the only other thing that changes is for the Mike, who should understand that when he falls back against the zone, he will probably be doing so to tackle the QB, rather than the RB cutting back. (See Diagram)

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Yet another available option is to add one of the outside linebackers as fourth rusher. This will require some tweaking on the coverage end of things, since many 3-3 Stack teams use one or both of their outside linebackers as safeties in some coverages. Based on our personnel, we prefer to rush the outside backer to the strong side, and treat the weak-side outside backer as a safety, turning the defense into a 4-3. This allows a lot of flexibility in coverage, and can also create match-up problems for the offense, since the rushing outside linebacker will typically be a difficult player for offensive tackles to block in passing situations. Though there are many options for the Defensive Line, it’s typical to move them all one gap away from the side of the rush.

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The possibilities for adding a fourth rusher in a 3-3 Stack extend far beyond the options I’ve mentioned, but those change-ups are a good starting point to force offenses to be more creative with their run game and exhaust their resources to figure out where we might bring a fourth rusher and why. For us, the change-up rushes are easy and allow us to keep coverage concepts simple while being able to rush our linebackers in different gaps to different sides of the offensive formation. That, coupled with our tendency to bring multiple linebackers in our zone pressures, gives us the ability to be unpredictable when we need to be, without sacrificing the basic principles of our defense.