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The 1-2-3's of the exotic 3-3-5 defense

The 1-2-3's of the exotic 3-3-5 defense

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) Wanting a defense to match the unpredictability of his innovative offense, former West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez decided on a scheme that would employ three linemen and five players in the secondary.

To get an idea of how it might work, he took his staff on a tour of the South.

The first stop was Wake Forest to get a look at defensive coordinator Dean Hood's 3-3-5 formation. Next, they went to South Carolina to talk with Gamecocks coordinator Charlie Strong, also using five defensive backs in his base defense.

After that, it was on to Mississippi State to see Joe Lee Dunn, widely credited as being the father of the 3-3-5.

Rodriguez and his coaches then headed back to Morgantown and started working on their own version of the defense.

``We started studying it, took what we wanted from everyone else's ideas and it evolved from there,'' said Tony Gibson, a member of Rodriguez's staff at West Virginia from 2001-07. ``We just kept building it.''

Rodriguez stuck with the 3-3-5 defense, bringing it with him to Arizona, where he's in his first year and Gibson is his assistant head coach.

They're not alone.

A handful of teams across the country are using the 3-3-5, a version of the more familiar nickel defense designed to keep up with the influx of spread offenses in college football.

Jeff Casteel, Rodriguez's former defensive coordinator at West Virginia, is in charge of running the five-defensive-backs system at Arizona.

Rocky Long used the 3-3-5 in two years as San Diego State's defensive coordinator and kept the scheme when he became the Aztecs' head coach in 2011.

The Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks have had success with it this year, beating Arkansas in Little Rock and playing close games against Auburn and Baylor.

Western Michigan also switched to the 3-3-5 this season, Arizona State coach Todd Graham has used it at times in his hybrid, multi-formation defense, and Wisconsin goes to it about 30 snaps per game.

``You can show people different looks,'' said Strong, now the head coach at Louisville. ``Because it's a balanced defense, they don't know where to attack you from and they don't know where you're attacking from.''

Unpredictability is part of the 3-3-5's appeal.

The defensive linemen in the 3-3-5 tend to be smaller and more mobile, their main objective not to rush up the field, but to tie up blockers so the linebackers and safeties can fill the gaps and make tackles.

The secondary typically features a pair of cornerbacks and a free safety with two other safeties - Arizona calls them spur and bandit - who are often hybrid strong safeties/outside linebackers who can stop the run, play the flats or cover tight ends in man coverage.

The point of it all is to make the defense difficult to decipher.

With so many skilled players lining up in a multitude of spots on the field, it can be hard for offensive players to keep track of their assignments, particularly on zone-blocking schemes and pass protection.

The 3-3-5 also allows for a seemingly unlimited number of blitz options, whether it's a linebacker on a stunt, safety up the middle or a cornerback charging in from the edge.

``That was kind of the whole intent of this thing when people started: Where are they going to bring their fourth or fifth guy from?'' Gibson said. ``Everybody in our defense, we have a blitz for them at some point, with the field corner being the exception. Everyone else could come.''

Part of what makes the 3-3-5 such a good fit against the spread is that adjustments from the sideline, whether in personnel or play-calling, are often quick and easy because there are so many athletic, interchangeable players on the field.

Where it can get into trouble is against power-running teams with big offensive lines that can push the smaller linemen of the 3-3-5 back.

If the linemen get knocked off their spots, the gaps, which are already bigger than usual because there are only three down linemen, can become larger or filled with 300-pound behemoths, which smaller linebackers and defensive backs certainly don't want to see.

The 3-3-5 also puts a lot of pressure on defensive players to think on their feet.

The defense is designed to allow athletic players to charge around the field and make plays, but it doesn't do any good if they're going fast without a purpose. The players have to know what their assignments are and the tendencies of the offense out of each formation or they'll end up getting burned for a big play.

``You have to be intelligent because even though it makes it hard on the offense, it's more complicated for us as a defense,'' Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland said. ``You have to be keyed in to your assignments and your adjustments with what the offense shows.''

The defense isn't for everyone.

West Virginia ditched it when Casteel left for Arizona, Strong didn't take it with him to Louisville and Dunn, now coaching at McMurray, never turned it into a big-time success.

San Diego State gave up 90 combined points in losses to San Jose State and Fresno State, and Arizona has struggled defensively in Rodriguez's first season - 111th in total defense at 480.50 yards allowed per game - though that may have as much to do with the Wildcats' lack of depth as their scheme.

Still, the 3-3-5 can be effective when it's clicking, a novel approach that's tough to prepare for and keeps the opposition off-balance.

In an era when offenses have had the upper hand, anything that keeps teams guessing is worth trying.

---

AP Sports Writer Gary Graves in Louisville, Ky., and freelancer Benjamin Worgull in Madison, Wisc., contributed to this story.

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Interested teams have begun reaching out to John Carlson

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Interested teams have begun reaching out to John Carlson

Free agency does not start until July 1, but John Carlson's agent is already taking calls from other interested teams.

The interview period began at 12 a.m. on Sunday morning, which means teams are now able to reach out to any potential free agents, but no contracts can be signed until July 1. While Brian MacLellan said Friday that a new deal with Carlson to keep him in Washington was "really close," Carlson's agent, Rick Curran, has made it clear there was no deal in place yet as of Sunday.

So does this mean Carlson now has one foot out the door?

Not necessarily.

At this point in the negotiation, Carlson has a major advantage and that advantage is time. Sunday's interview period is just another way to hold the Caps' feet to the fire. The closer we get to July 1, the more pressure the team is under to get a deal done.

But the Caps still have some leverage too.

“I love it here and all that,” Carlson said during on breakdown day. “I want to stay here, but there's more to it than that.”

By rule, as his current team, the Caps are the only team that can offer Carlson an eight-year deal.

So Carlson may have turned up the heat a few degrees on the Caps, but it's not time for fans to worry just yet.

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Nationals look to avoid sweep against Phillies on Sunday night

Nationals look to avoid sweep against Phillies on Sunday night

WASHINGTON -- Having already won their first series at Nationals Park since April 2016, the Philadelphia Phillies will go for the sweep of Washington on Sunday night.

Phillies right-hander Nick Pivetta (4-6, 4.08 ERA) faces Nationals right-hander Jefry Rodriguez (0-0, 4.66).

Pivetta was drafted by the Nationals in 2013 and went to the Phillies in 2015 as part of the Jonathan Papelbon trade.

After struggling for three straight starts -- giving up 13 runs in 14 innings -- Pivetta allowed two runs and four hits in 7 1/3 innings of a no-decision against the St. Louis Cardinals last time out, striking out a career-high 13 batters.

"That's some of the best stuff I've seen him have all year," catcher Andrew Knapp told mlb.com. "The curveball was electric."

Pivetta got 11 swings and misses with the curveball.

"It was nice to have it back," Pivetta told mlb.com. "It all started with my delivery. I was staying up through it, not trying to rush too much and it worked out."

It his first start -- and second big-league appearance -- the 24-year-old Rodriguez picked up a win against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday. He allowed five runs, four hits and three walks in five innings.

Rodriguez and Satuday's losing pitcher, Erick Fedde, are filling in for injured starters Stephen Strasburg and Jeremy Hellickson.

The Phillies have outscored the Nationals 17-5 in the fist two games of the series. On Saturday, Maikel Franco had four hits and Carlos Santana homered to back Aaron Nola in a 5-3 victory.

"That was just a tremendous all-around baseball game," Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said of Franco. "It's so interesting how we've been looking for him to be not just a hitter but a defender and a baserunner and an all-around athlete."

Franco drove in a run and scored twice, including the go-ahead run when he scored just ahead of the tag on Jesmuel Valentin's sacrifice fly.

The Phillies, who have won six of seven, pounded out double-digit hits for the second day in a row in Washington.

"They have a lot of patient hitters," Fedde said of the Phillies. "I think that's what makes it tough. Guys aren't swinging at bunch of junk, so you have to attack them."

The Phillies have now won four straight series for the first time since May 2016 and are 2-0 in what will be a stretch of 10 games against the Nationals and the New York Yankees.

Anthony Rendon homered and Daniel Murphy had a two-run single for Washington, which has lost three of four while scoring nine runs.

"Look, I've got all the confidence in the world we're going to start hitting," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "We'll start scoring some runs. Right now, the bullpen is a little beat up. We've got to get them going again."

Rendon is doing his part. In his las 15 games, he is batting .382 with seven doubles, two homers and 12 RBIs.

Hellickson (right groin strain) will make a rehab start Sunday for Class A Potomac and then is expected to rejoin the Nationals' rotation.

Hernandez said first baseman Ryan Zimmerman (right oblique strain) is about a week from beginning a rehab assignment.