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A Look at West Virginia's 3-3 Odd Stack Defense

West Virginia will throw a new look at Clemson's offense that they have not faced this year. Defensive Coordinator Jeff Casteel employs a 3-3 Odd Stack defense that uses 3 down linemen who play similar to the usual 3-4 linemen, 3 quick linebackers and 5 DBs. While facing 4-2-5 or 4-1-6 defenses is pretty common when you play a set of spread formations like we do, very few teams base out of a 5 DB set with just 3 down linemen. It is not something our guys have seen, and given our demonstrated problems with picking up weird defensive looks, it could pose a problem for Clemson's front. The coverage flexibilities it allows could also pose problems for Boyd and our WRs. We felt it was necessary to give a primer on this defense because it is so different in the looks it throws at an offense, and it will enlighten those who did not understand Vic Koenning’s scheme.

What is the benefit to trying a 3-3-5 scheme? Versatility, deception, and adding speed on the field. The blitz can come from anywhere and it will come often. With 8 guys who have coverage skills, there will often be one
dropping that you do not expect to drop, and a blitzer that your OL has not accounted for. CBs playing press can blitz and the WR can be picked up fairly quickly. Safeties blitz and a speedy LB can drop immediately into that zone. It is also a defense based out of an 8-man front concept against pro personnel groupings. There is no front look that a 3-3 team can't employ to confuse. Also, adding the 5th DB in regular sets puts another guy with 4.5-4.6 speed on the field instead of a big slow lineman or moderately fast LB.

The real differences between a 3-3-5 and 3-4 are in the personnel used at LB and DB, along with the shifting used along the front. While 3-4 DL can have one-gap or two-gap alignments, Casteel's front uses a mix. The NG is nearly always aligned as a 0-technique, on the Center's head, and plays two-gap. The two DEs play either a 4i or 5 most of the time, and in pass-definite situations they'll play wider, in a 6 or more. This tells you that the DE's are not playing two-gap assignments. That means they are not trying to eat up OL to protect LBs, as two-gap 3-4 defenses do. They are trying to get pressure on the QB. These linemen do change their positions based on formation, whereas most 3-4 front teams do not. If the TE is weak/strong, they will stem the linemen so far as a 4i-0-7 alignment. Casteel also uses stunting between the DL and LBs very often.

LB positioning is not as set as 4-3 or 3-4 teams either. The LBs are almost never in the same place more than two plays in a row, and are constantly shifting positions based on call or formation. If the offense presents a power set, one will come to the LOS, either on a Guard or outside a Tackle. They have also shifted the LBs towards the strength and the DL away from it on film. However, with just 3 DL in front and only 3 LBs, these guys must be
very good tacklers. There is a method to their alignment changes, because they do remain a gap-aligned defense, and we’ll explain it below.

A 5 DB team will employ 2 Corners, 1 Free Safety, and two more safeties that adjust to the formation. In general, those two safeties do all the adjusting and are the ones that flip-flop from side to side of the field. It can be done Field/Boundary or Strong/Weak, which varies among schemes and coaches. In 5 DB schemes, it is more often Field/Boundary. One of them will be the stronger coverage guy and get matched on the slot most often. Another
will be recruited specifically as a hybrid SS/OLB and will often be moved up to present a 7-man front against teams that play with pro-personnel groups and formations. 4-2-5 defenses do the same thing. In fact, Vic Koenning did
these things with his defense here. It was 4-3 in name only. DeAndre McDaniel was the SS/OLB hybrid in that scheme.

Positional Basics

To play this defense as a base, you require a stout NG most of all. That is true of any 30-series front. He truly plays a 0-tech alignment and his job is to drive the Center back and eat blockers every time. He must be able to protect the MLB, and is the only DL in this front with that specific job. He needs to be an immovable object. When he shifts to a 1-Shade to a side of the Center, the MLB will adjust behind him to take care of the other A-gap. In most cases, I see them tweaking him to the weakside shade, if at all.

This year WVU does not have a stout NG. From my film study I took away the impression that they were very weak here. He never requires two blockers, and the Guards go directly to a LB. If you cannot protect the MLB in this front then you'll have a sorry rushing defense, which they do.

DE's primarily play a 1-gap 5-technique alignment, very occasionally lining up on the Tackle's head in 2-gap or a 4i. Their responsibilities are C-gap a majority of the time. Often the Right DE (R from the defensive perspective, usually the weak side) will align in a wider 6-stance, like Branch does for us, to get a better angle in the pass rush. I have seen them aligned as far as a 7 in 3rd & long situations. The Left DE will align in a Heavy 5, similar to Goodman, and needs to be a bit bigger and stronger. The LDE appears to be the one in Casteel's scheme who moves inside to a 4i at times, but rarely further inside. In 3rd & long situations, they'll both widen out.

3-3 Linebackers are similar to 4-3 guys. You don't need a stud at all 3 spots. They need speed and instincts, but the one thing they absolutely must be better at is tackling. If a guy gets past the fewer number of DL, then
you have to meet him instantly or he could go another 7 yards. This has been a glaring problem with West Virginia this year.

A uniqueness of this defense is that they do not flip the OLBs or DEs. They don’t have a SAM and WILL, nor do they have a SDE and WDE. The Left OLB (Lou) is always on the left side. The ROLB (Rob) is always on the right. This is intended to get them used to seeing the same things from the same angles.

The MLB in this front still needs to be a stud. He's the one true prototype LB among the three. He needs good range and size to take on blockers. He must be completely gap-sound and a good tackler. His usual alignment is a 10
to one side of the NG's butt, or 00 directly behind him. That is done to keep any OL from getting good leverage in a block. Even though the NG has a two-gap alignment, he does have a predetermined gap in this front. If he has Weak A, the MLB must cover the Strong A, for example, so you see MIKE aligned in a 10 even when the NG is head-up on the Center.

Similar to what I said above, WV does not have a stud MLB this season. The lack of a NG and MLB hurts them more than anything else defensively this season.

The OLBs move around the most of all. They can be in a base 33 STACK set, directly behind the DE, but because they must be gap sound and adjust to formations, they will tweak their alignment. Most often, one will be aligned just inside the DE in front of him. He can be aligned even with the DE's feet or back at normal depth, but Casteel likes to move them up. The one that will move up is the one on the side of the RB, usually. That helps them meet those Guards quickly and cover the B-gaps (DE has C-gap). Outside gaps against pro-personnel groups will have to be covered by the hybrid Safeties. In passing situations they often walk one of the two OLBs out and cheat a safety up from behind a bit to help in the run.


The system uses a Boundary and a Field Corner, an away-side hybrid Safety, a strongside hybrid safety, and a Free Safety who is not tied to the front.

Boundary Corners need to be more physical, while the Field guy is the better one in man-to-man coverage. West Virginia has had problems in that respect with the corner’s this year.

The two hybrid safeties make up the 8-man front concept. They are tied to the front against pro-personnel groupings (1/2 TE, 1/2 RBs), but against spread formations that kind of goes out the window. One is more like a SS, called the Spur. He will be the one to declare the strength of the formation and aligns 4x4 off the DE. In Man situations he’ll match on the TE. The away-side (weak safety) hybrid is more like a free safety, called the Bandit. He will also base his alignment 4x4 off the DE as an alley player. The Bandit and the Spur do the adjusting most of the time, while the Field and Boundary align based on the ball position on the field. The Free Safety aligns at 12 yards depth and directly between the two outermost WRs.

Here are just a few fronts that we've seen:


This is the base front, drawn just for a 1-back set and no TE. Remember that R/L are from the defense’s perspective, opposite to what I’ve drawn. The LBs are "stacked" behind the linemen, hence the name 33 Stack. DE has C-gap, the NG and MLB split the two A’s, and the OLBs have the B. The DE must be a contain player in this kind of front, so he cannot let a back get around him if at all possible. He has to force everything inside.

When the RB is set to one side, you see one LB cheat up into his gap, just off the feet of the DE.


If there were two backs in Gun, both OLBs may cheat up.

Here the DE and OLB have exchanged gaps by alignment, while the other two LBs have shifted to the strength.


The DE has the B since he’s in a 4i-technique, and the Lou has C-gap and may cheat up. The presence of the DE there would prevent him from being easily reached by the OT.

Also, it is possible to Slide the LBs over to the strength of the formation, and they do this quite often.


Shown vs our own Stack formation. In this case the NG would likely have Weak A as his primary gap, unless there is a stunt called.

Now to illustrate the 8-man front concept, we’ll show them playing a true I-formation.


The Spur would have Man coverage on the TE if Man is the coverage call, but otherwise would have Curl-Flat. He is a force player against the run, and the Bandit to the opposite side is more of a free alley player. It is fair to assume that against formations where there is an on-line TE, the 33 Stack plays like a shifted 3-4. That Spur will be there off the edge. It is necessary to be good in pass-pro if you play a power set like these, because they’ll blitz the hybrids all the time.

This brings me to the problem I have with this defensive front. Those bubbles are big and they are still there unless the OLB is cheating like hell into his gap. Because of the stack alignment, the Guards don’t have a direct line to the LBs, but a mobile Guard should be able to get there. Overloading one side, as in a Power O or Iso play, will create another gap in the front that they may not be able to account for. If the OLB isn’t on his game, he’ll get blocked and the lead blocker for the play (pulling Guard or FB) will take out another blocker.

Outside gap or zone plays (like the bucksweep) would put a TE or OL on the Spur defender (unless the DE slants outside, which is why he always plays a 5 and not always a 4i), and if Spur can’t squeeze the blocker then a power offense would have a field day. To defeat that, I think it would be necessary to shift the OLB up to an on-line position (i.e., a 9-tech, like our SAM) and have the Spur/Bandit stack behind the DE. If they can stop the Power O or Buck, then I bet they can’t stop the Counter without bringing up both the Bandit and Spur. If the DE slants out, then the OT-TE would have to double, and so you’d only need a stout DE to absorb two blockers without getting moved. But he can’t slant all the time.

Also, bringing up LBs or the hybrids to the LOS, who aren’t used to taking on blockers, is really just playing into the offense’s hands. OL aren’t scared of linebackers, they’re more scared of looking stupid by missing a guy quicker than they are (well except McClain, who misses either way). If you bring the LB up, the OL knows he ain’t getting away without contact.


This will not be new to Clemson fans. The coverage package is nearly identical to Koenning. It is not a matchup zone cover 3, they play spot drops. This means that they drop back to a spot on the field and wait, watching the QB. Our coverage is matchup, so we drop back and then match the man who comes into the zone like man-to-man.

Casteel is primarily a Cover 3 guy, which is the most natural coverage for 5-DB sets. They employ rotating coverage, so you do not know which 3 guys are playing deep 3rds. Cover 2 is another that you'll see a bit of, but Cover 4 is not a good coverage for 5-DB sets and Casteel shows it very rarely and only against primarily passing spread teams like Cincinnati.

Likewise Cover 1 is not the strongest coverage to play when you have 8 guys to play the back with. If you see it, the coverage is probably split. Most of the time, West Virginia will be in Cover 3.

In pass-definite situations, depending on the spread formation you show, Cover 4 can be a good coverage to play. It will depend on pressure, because as I stated earlier, that will be coming often. If you bring a LB, you'll have only 3 underneath to cover. The question for a 3-3 team is who to bring and still be safe. One OLB will have further to go to cover his man underneath, so you'd rather not send him and get caught by the slot. Casteel walks out a SS/WS or OLB to play the hashes. The best choice, at least to me, is to blitz the MLB and have the FS come up underneath with the SS/WS and CBs in quarters.


Similarly you could play Cover 2 with the SS/WS and bring the FS up a bit into a middle coverage like Tampa 2. Pattern reading is common (and frankly, necessary) in Cover 4, but I haven't seen Casteel do it enough this year to make a call on that detail.




But what they really want to do is play Cover 3 all the time, just like Koenning. The standard C3 will have both CBs playing off by 7-10 with outside leverage on the outside WRs, and the FS splitting the #1s. C3 can be a problem with a 4-3 group on the field because you give up so much in underneath coverage, but with that extra DB to play with it becomes really stout. Having a possible 8th guy in the 3-3, who is accustomed to playing pass, makes it even better. Boston College plays a similar 3-5-3 Defend coverage in passing downs. Cover_3_33stack_medium

After that basic set, you start rotating the coverage and playing combos. One CB will play up and the other at normal depth. This means you will often be in 1/4-1/4-1/2 with the Field side getting quarter coverage. The CB and a FS will be assigned quarters and the other CB on the Boundary will have an entire deep half. We've covered this before here, and it is a common adjustment to trips. WVU tends to bring both the Bandit and Spur to the trips side. It could also be straight M2M on the boundary and C2 to the Field, or Robber to one side with one of the hybrids as Robber, similar to what TCU does. TCU calls it Cover 2 Blue.

When blitzing 5, you'll see a smattering of Cover 1. 3-deep fire zone would not be a great call in that case. If the TE or slot gets up the seam, he's going to kill that coverage. A FS will not be able to handle Dwayne Allen or Sammy Watkins in that event, and WVU just lost their starting FS for the bowl game.

The real key to take away though is that in the 3-3-5, they can play anything and it is harder to make a pre-snap read of the true coverage.