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ASU Football Film: A glimpse inside Rocky Long’s defensive masterpiece at San Diego State

All-out blitzes, quick defensive backs and deception. Welcome to the Aztecs’ 3-3-5 defense.

UC Davis v San Diego State Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

As we venture into week two of the 2017 college football season, it’s time to take a trip to the film room to take a look at the Sun Devils next opponent: Mountain West powerhouse San Diego State.

SDSU head coach Rocky Long has been employing one of the more unique defensive schemes in the country for over two decades now in the 3-3-5. This formation is often utilized by programs that have a difficult time recruiting the players sought-after for their immense physical gifts. If you don’t have the size to stack defensive lineman and quick middle linebackers in a traditional 4-3, 3-4 or even something like ASU defensive coordinator Phil Bennett’s 4-2-5, filling a 3-3-5 scheme with athletic defensive backs is often your best option.

Demonstrated in the graphic above is the defensive versatility of the 3-3-5. Having only three defensive lineman at the line of scrimmage allows an additional defensive back spot. On any given play, one of or both outside linebackers can either join the defensive line or wait and hover over the middle to stop the intermediate passing game. Because Long frees up that DB slot, he can also have one of his corners face the quarterback and collapse on the run or stay in the slot and defend the pass. If he blitzes, both safeties can come down and eliminate any throw that attempts to go over the top.

While it often lacks the ability to stop a dominant run game from marching straight between the hashes, it has proven effective against the read-option and the spread. That’s because of the number of defensive backs you clan place around the outside of the line. By stacking athletic backs around the line, the defense allows itself to collapse either way on the read-option and makes the quarterback’s decision to hand it off or pull it himself much tougher.

In this situation against Fresno State, SDSU puts an extra DB on the defensive line and then as soon as they pick up that the option is coming, the Aztecs rush two extra defensive backs and stuff the run.

The 3-3-5 is also extremely effective against the spread for multiple reasons, the first of which being the added element of deception.

There are two obvious ways to limit a great passing offense: solid coverage and/or effective blitzing. What’s less obvious to understand is which one Rocky Long will look to use on any given play. Take this first down from last year’s Mountain West Championship for example.

What Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen initially sees is a three man front, five DBs and two or three safeties sitting back. The Cowboys counter this with six blockers - although the tight end peels off to run a route - which seems overzealous until you understand that Long forced Wyoming’s hand. Leading up to the snap, multiple Aztec defenders collapse on the line of scrimmage and what seemed to be a zone/ quarterback spy, conservative play-call turns into a blitz.

This level of deception is crippling for a spread offense, as it forces the unit to put extra blockers on the line and a blocking tailback next to the quarterback - two less options to give the ball to - which doesn’t always pay off. The Aztecs could’ve just sat back in the zone like they originally presented and easily covered Allen’s wideouts, like they did earlier in the season after giving the Cowboys the same look.

As with every defensive scheme, the 3-3-5 is not impenetrable. If you consider the two formations/plays that it excels against you see some common ground. Both the read option and the spread are about getting the ball moving laterally beyond the line. While Long doesn’t allow much side-to-side movement, his blitzes often expose the middle of the field. With Wyoming pinned to its own goal line on this second and very long, the Aztecs go for the home run play and try to stuff the Cowboys for a dangerous loss in the backfield. However, the defensive backs are too slow to get around the outside and stop the run in time, opening a massive hole for the running back to exploit.

Another way to take advantage of Long’s 3-3-5 is by undercutting his defensive backs with short, intermediate routes and decisive quarterback play. During this third and seven, Long allows his DBs to sit back in coverage and wait for the throw to make a play. However, they end up giving the receivers far too much green in front of them and Allen has three clear options to dump the ball off to.

So, what does all of this mean for Arizona State?

As I mentioned before, there are a couple key ways to beat the Aztec’s defense. We saw the Devils get away from pounding the ball up the middle last game and rely heavily on outside screens and option runs to the sideline. When SDSU lines up five defensive backs across the field, that’s not going to work.

With tailbacks as powerful as Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage, the key will be getting them the ball quickly and letting them expose the Aztecs’ outside blitzes with runs between the tackles.

Beating this defense will also require quick decision making from Manny Wilkins. With the added combination of a blitz-happy defensive coordinator and a poor offensive line working against the Sun Devils, Wilkins will not have the luxury of waiting for his speed receivers to get separation downfield. Slant routes to receivers in the slot like John Humphrey and Ryan Newsome will be key, as well as finding N’Keal Harry on out routes near the sideline.

The bottom line is: this defense should be considered extremely dangerous. Rocky Long has guided the Aztecs to three top-20 finishes in terms of yards allowed in the last three years, including a top-five finish in 2015 and top-12 last year. They’ve allowed just 178.5 yards per game through the air in both 2015 and 2016, good for a top-10 finish each time. SDSU also nearly led the nation in interceptions last year with 23, falling just three short of Arkansas State.

If the Sun Devils will have a chance to move the ball downfield against this stout Aztec defense, they had better hope the offensive line has a massive improvement during practice this week and Manny Wilkins understands how to make quick decisions with a shrinking pocket.

If not, Arizona State will be in big trouble come Saturday night.