Before the 2019 season, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables traveled to Ames, Iowa, to study Iowa State’s “3-3-3” defense. Cyclones defensive coordinator Jon Heacock devised the scheme as an antidote to the high-powered spread offenses dominating the Big 12, and programs around the country were picking up on ISU’s success. Venables is one of many defensive tacticians who have met with Heacock for a 3-3-3 crash course in recent years.
Venables hasn’t adopted Heacock’s defense as a base alignment, but he has been known to deploy it when the situation calls for it. Now the head coach at Oklahoma, one such situation arose last week when the Sooners visited the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Eschewing Venables’ standard four-down front, the Sooners lined up in the 3-3-3 almost exclusively in a 49-14 blowout win. The NU offense was supposed to be the one part of the team still functioning as the program continues its tailspin, but the Huskers failed miserably at stringing together drives for the entire game.
So what did OU’s 3-3-3 look like in execution versus the Huskers, and when might Venables and defensive coordinator Ted Roof use it again in the future?
The 3-3-3 gets its name from the fact that it generally starts with stacking three linemen, three linebackers and there high safeties up the middle of the field. They’re joined by two cornerbacks, of course.
The image above from the first quarter offers an example of how the Sooners lined up. On the defensive line, nose tackle Jeffrey Johnson has defensive ends Reggie Grimes and Ethan Downs flanking on either side of him. Inside LBs David Ugwoegbu and Danny Stutsman are playing about three yards off the ball in the gaps between the NT and the edge players. At a depth of about five yards off the line of scrimmage, the third LB, DaShaun White, lines up to the field side of the offensive formation in the alley between NU’s inline tight end and the inside receiver split wide. Additionally, OU is showing the Cornhuskers three high safeties: Billy Bowman is playing in the deep middle of the field, and Justin Broiles and Damond Harmon are setting up shop around the hash marks on opposing sides.
But why use the 3-3-3 versus Nebraska and not a team like Kent State?
It’s possible Venables decided to make a wholesale change to the ISU defense as OU’s base scheme scheme going forward. That doesn’t seem like his style, though, especially in the middle of the season. At Clemson, he used the 3-3-3 as a changeup, and we can assume that is the plan now.
Another possibility is that Venables felt confident OU could handle NU’s ground game using three-man fronts and light run boxes. That frees up a spot in the lineup for an extra defensive back instead of a fourth lineman.
One other factor worth considering: offensive tendencies. Nebraska offensive coordinator Mark Whipple seems to have a fondness for trips and bunch formations with three receivers to one side of the field. Case in point:
Such a formation usually forces the defense to address the imbalance in the passing strength in one of two ways. First, it might force a mismatch between a receiver and what is usually a weaker pass defender. An interior LB may be called upon to man up against a slot WR, for example. Also, if the defense has to overload one side of the field by shifting coverage players to defend a three-receiver look, it might be exposed on the opposite side.
The 3-3-3 set helps alleviates some of these stresses. In the image above, NU puts three receivers split wide to the field side of the formation. OU matches with three coverage players – a cornerback, a safety and a SAM LB – out wide. Meanwhile, the Sooners still have coverage help available from the middle and boundary safeties, who presumably have run keys to identify as well.
The smart bet for OU’s tilt on Saturday with Kansas State is that the 3-3-3 D will go back on the shelf. The Wildcats play rugged football, and they love 12 personnel (one running back and two tight ends). That suggests the Sooners will need a fourth DL to help in the trenches more than the extra DB in coverage.
But don’t be surprised to see the 3-3-3 re-emerge at some point in the following weeks against TCU and Texas.