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K-State Football: Enter the Cyclone 3-3-5

Iowa State is on the cutting edge of defensive schemes.

Iowa State v Oklahoma Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images

I’m excited to finally get a chance to talk about Iowa State’s defense. If you can overlook the fact that they are a bunch of corn worshiping dirt farmers with questionable morals for a moment, and just look at the defense, I think you’ll find this interesting.

Base 3-3-5

This is the base look for the ISU defense. In a moment I’ll show you another variation if the 3-3-5, but in general, this is the look they’re going to give you on most downs.

Green Box - 3 Down linemen (2 ends, 1 nose guard)

Yellow Circle - 3 linebackers

Blue Triangles - 3 safeties

Pink Box - 2 corner backs

Why run a 3-3-5?

The hardest position to recruit in college football is defensive tackle (IMO). The ready made guys get scooped up by the blue bloods, and everyone else is left squinting at guys and saying “well, in a couple years, maybe this guy add some weight and can play.”

Since it’s hard to recruit defensive tackles, often times your best 11 doesn’t include 2 defensive tackles, and yet, you’re stuck playing 2 defensive tackles. At the same point, it’s much easier to find safeties and linebackers, because anthropomorphically speaking, there’s more high school players that fit into that body type. Teams like Iowa State (and K-State for that matter) have a much easier time recruiting talented linebackers and safeties.

Iowa State looked at their roster, saw a bunch of talented linebackers and safeties and decided to get their best 11 players on the field.

3-3-5 Against the Run - Shotgun - Spread

Sometimes it’s easier to look at a couple players instead of focusing on the entire defense.

Green Box - Nose Guard

On this play, and basically every run play. The job of the nose guard is to play directly over the center, take on a double team, and hold their ground as best as they can. They’re not expected to make the play, they’re expected to clog up the A gap and make occupy a guard and a center.

Yellow Circle - Outside Linebacker

Looking at the alignment, it’s clear that the outside linebacker isn’t accounted for in the blocking scheme. Iowa State is playing zone behind this, so they don’t care that the Iowa receivers outnumber their defensive backs. Subsequently, the outside linebacker is free to either blitz the QB or get into the backfield and create chaos in the run game.

This is how Iowa State shuts down the A gap run. The nose guard holds his ground, the unblocked linebacker gets into the backfield and scrapes down the line, and you end up with a pile of bodies in front of the running back and an unblocked linebacker.

3-3-5 - Offset I - Spread

This is a look I expect the K-State offense to employ on Saturday. I like straight ahead zone blocking against a 3-3-5 much more than I like pulling guards and running power. The problem with the 3-3-5 is it’s hard to figure out where defenders are coming from (as you’ll see on this play).

Zone blocking just let’s you fire off the ball, move your guy, and let the running back pick the hole.

Purple Box - Cornerback

The question the offense has to answer in the 3-3-5 is, “where is the extra defender coming from?”

In this case, you’ve got a corner back coming off the edge on a blitz. The corner is coming, it doesn’t matter if this is a run or a pass.

Green Box - Nose Guard

On this play, Iowa does a nice job of washing the nose guard down the line and opening up space in the middle. This is how I hope K-State goes after the nose. Instead of trying to move him backwards, Iowa moves laterally, down the line.

Blue Box - Safety

This is where the 3-3-5 gets interesting. This looks like a 2 safety look, but it’s actually a 1 safety look. The safety in the blue box is functioning as a middle linebacker. This is tough for offenses, because he’s not accounted for in blocking scheme. As you’ll see on this play, Iowa does a great job of blocking this up, but still gets stuffed for a minimal gain because of the unblocked safety/linebacker.

Iowa does a good job of moving the nose guard, and blitzing corner doesn’t get into the play, but the safety in the middle of the field is crashing down at the snap. Notice the safety next to him bailing deep at the snap. This looks like it should be a big run, but because the safety is unaccounted for, he’s free to make the tackle.

3-3-5 Against the Pass

I mentioned above that ISU has another base look. This is it, and it’s my favorite look out of the 3-3-5.

Green Box - 3 Down linemen (2 ends, 1 nose guard)

Yellow Circle - 3 linebackers

Blue Triangles - 3 safeties

Pink Box - 2 corner backs

Again, there are several moving parts in this defense and it’s gets a little overwhelming. Check out my 3 highlighted players on this pass by Iowa.

Yellow Circle - Linebacker

The interesting thing about this defense is that the 3-3-5 at the snap rarely stays a 3-3-5. In this case, you’ve got the circled linebacker firing on a run blitz to essentially give you 4 down linemen as soon as the ball is snapped.

Blue Triangle - Safety

This is my favorite blitz out of this package. Clemson runs it with Isaiah Simmons and it’s absolutely devastating to blocking schemes. Iowa State doesn’t have that caliber of athlete at safety, but it’s still pretty cool. By the time the ball is snapped, this deep safety is essentially a blitzing middle linebacker with a running head start. This is tough for offenses to deal with, because you usually don’t account for a safety in your blocking scheme. If he can time it up and find the hole, he’s got a free shot at the quarterback.

Purple Box - Corner

This is more voodoo out of this defense. It looks like the corner is lined up over the receiver, but that’s not his man. He’s taking the running back out of the backfield and taking away the safety valve. This is also a good way to fool the quarterback into the throwing a pick if he doesn’t recognize the coverage and makes a blind throw to his running back.

Iowa’s H-back does a good job of picking up the blitz in pass protection. This is one of the reasons I like formation against the Iowa State defense.

I love this blitz, but if you pick it up, there are openings on the outside. Iowa has a chance to exploit this, but the quarterback doesn’t make an accurate throw. This is a throw Skylar Thompson will have to consistently make to beat beat the Cyclones.

3-3-5 Zone Blitz

I switched over to the Baylor game for the last look I want to show you. This is how Iowa State sends players from weird spots but still manages to play zone.

Green Box - Defensive Line

Notice that the line all slants right. This is an interesting because they slant right to open up the corner blitz coming off the left. The left defensive end is hoping to pull the right tackle inside, giving the corner a free run at the QB.

Yellow Circle - Linebacker

It looks the linebacker is in a normal position to play the run or drop into zone. Instead, he’s about to drop out into the flat to cover up the blitzing corner.

Purple Box - Corner

You have to find the 4th man if you want to beat Iowa State. They play a 3-3-5, but most of the time, they’re bringing 4 players. On this play, they’re bringing the corner. This looks like man, but it’s actually a mixed coverage. They’re playing man on the field receiver, and zone to the boundary behind a corner blitz. This defense messes with a quarterbacks reads.

Baylor does a good job of picking up the blitzing corner with the running back. If the back releases into the flat, the QB is dead meat. The corner is also in good shape to play the run if the QB hands it off.

Again, because this looks like man, I wonder if the receiver makes the wrong read. He needs to sit down in the hole instead of continuing to run across the field like Iowa State is in man coverage.

This is where I think you need to attack the Iowa State defense deep to the single covered boundary receiver instead of throwing into the mass of bodies playing zone. Skylar needs to be aggressive in attacking single man coverage tomorrow.


This Iowa State defense is going to be a challenge for the K-State offense. Slow developing plays don’t work well because they bring guys from all angles, messing up the power blocking scheme the Wildcats like to run. If Messingham tries to pull his guards all game, he’ll find his running backs being cut down by unaccounted for linebackers in safeties.

The best way to attack this defense is to run right at it and mash them at the point of attack. That’s not a strength of the K-State offense, but I hope they give it a go with more zone blocking and less power.

Skylar is going to need to pick his spots and be aggressive when the opportunity arises. If you can figure out where the pressure is coming from, and get it blocked up (2 difficult tasks) the Iowa State defense is susceptible to deep shots to outside receivers in man coverage with no safety help.

Mentally, this is going to be the toughest test for Skylar and the K-State offense this season.