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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.

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

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These hidden factors could make Brandon Scherff less interested in an extension with the Redskins

These hidden factors could make Brandon Scherff less interested in an extension with the Redskins

In Brandon Scherff, the Redskins have a 27-year-old guard who has delivered on his first-round status, a lineman who has become one of the best in the league at his position and should have many more years of production and defender-mauling left.

Therefore, it's in the Redskins' best interest to extend Scherff this offseason, and the veteran confirmed on Monday there have been talks about getting that done

But during a discussion on the Redskins Talk podcast, J.I. Halsell, a salary cap expert and former agent, laid out something that could force those negotiations to stall.

"There are some things you have to take into consideration because 2020 is the final year of the collective bargaining agreement, so there are some things you have to work around when structuring the deal," Halsell said.

Not only is that deadline approaching, but another one is, too. In 2021 and 2022, the NFL's TV deals with Monday Night Football, FOX, CBS and NBC expire as well.

So, there's a very real possibility the league's salary cap could look much, much different in a few seasons. And that, according to Halsell, may make Scherff much less willing to accept an extension now.

"If you're Brandon Scherff, in 2021, with a new collective bargaining agreement, the salary cap might be $250 million or something crazy like that, with all the new revenue coming into the league," he explained. "And so why would I take a deal today and preclude myself of taking advantage of a very lucrative and larger revenue pie?"

Essentially, it comes down to whether Scherff wants to take a present risk that could pay off down the line (kind of like how Kirk Cousins did a few years back with the Burgundy and Gold). He could probably lock something in over the next few months — Halsell's projection was an agreement for five years, including $45 million guaranteed and a $14.5 million average per year — or step away from talks now and try to cash in later.

Haslell told Redskins Talk he'd probably advise the lineman to take the second route.

"You would say, 'Look, you're a former first-round pick. You've made a decent amount of money in your career thus far,'" he said. "You have the financial wherewithal to not take the bird in hand today that may not be as lucrative as what is out there in 2021. So, bet on yourself and play out the last year of your rookie deal, force them to tag you in 2020 and then see what this new NFL salary cap world looks like in 2021."

Now, who knows truly how much these factors will play into Scherff's back-and-forth with the 'Skins. Nevertheless, you can see why the Pro Bowler's next contract may not be as much of a no-brainer as previously thought.

"If the kid is willing to bet on himself," Haslell said, "then it could be very lucrative on the back end."

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Seven reasons you need to root for the Blues in the Stanley Cup Final

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Seven reasons you need to root for the Blues in the Stanley Cup Final

The St. Louis Blues defeated the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night to advance to the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Final. The champions of the Western Conference will take on the Boston Bruins, the champions of the Eastern Conference, having swept the Carolina Hurricanes in four games.

With the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins squaring off in a rematch of the 1970 Stanley Cup Final, we've dug up the seven reasons why Capitals fans, and -- well -- all NHL fans should be rooting for the Blues to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup.

1: The Blues are like the Capitals of the West

A lot of fans think that the San Jose Sharks hold that title, but the Blues present an even stronger case.

The Blues Stanley Cup drought is currently at 51 seasons. And although they made the Stanley Cup Final three consecutive seasons from 1968-1970, they have yet to win a game in the Stanley Cup Final.

That should sound familiar to Caps fans. Before they won it all in 2018, Washington's Cup drought was 42 years, and when they made the Cup Final in 1998 they were swept by the dominant Detroit Red Wings.

The similarities don't stop there. Each team has a Russian sniper, a crop of promising rookies on offense and defense, and acquired depth pieces in free agency to build a consistent contender.

In the Blues case before this season, they couldn't make it past the Conference Finals, similar to how the Caps couldn't make it out of the second round.

Call it coincidence or fate, but the Blues are looking eerily similar to the Caps that won the Stanley Cup last year.

2: No More Boston Championships

The New England Patriots just won the Super Bowl. The Red Sox just won another World Series. The city of Boston has celebrated six major professional championships since 2010 and 12 since 2000, with each parade more frustrating to watch than the last.

Does Boston really need another championship after a drought since February?

3: Brad Marchand is the worst

A lot of people will complain about Tom Wilson's play. But Brad Marchand is the king of the subtle and overtly dirty play, especially in the playoffs where the rules relax.

In last year's playoffs, Marchand was told by the league to stop licking players after he brushed his tongue across Leo Komarov's face.

This postseason, he's punched players in the back of the head after a play's been blown dead.

He also baited Justin Williams into penalty minutes when he high-sticked him across the face. No penalty was given to Marchand on the play.

Marchand's put up 18 points through three rounds in addition to his antics.

4: TJ Oshie's old stomping grounds

The Caps acquired Oshie from the Blues in 2015 in exchange for Troy Brouwer, Pheonix Copley and Washington's third-round pick in 2016, and he's now a mainstay in the Caps top six. 

Oshie played over 400 games for the Blues, recording over 300 points for the organization that drafted him. Not only did he put up stellar numbers, but he was an alternate captain for the Blues and was beloved by fans in the area.

Who better to root for than for Oshbabe's old team?

5: Vladimir Tarasenko is tearing it up

If you've got Alex Ovechkin's endorsement as a game-changer, that's a good place to start.

Ovechkin took note of Tarasenko's skill in a 2014 game the Blues played against the Rangers and told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch "He just make great jump in his career and he’s carrying the team right now.”

In these playoffs, the Russian sniper has eight goals and five assists, including points in every game of the Western Conference Finals against the San Jose Sharks.


6: Pam and Jim are facing off in an Office matchup

Actor John Krasinski, who played Jim Halpert in The Office,  is a Bruins fan. 

Jenna Fischer, who played Pam Beesly, Jim's love interest, is a Blues fan.

We have a house divided.

We tend to lean to Team Pam because if you take a closer look, Jim was a pretty awful colleague and despite his charm and boyish looks, he was kinda a bad person.

7: Washington helped St. Louis ascend the standings

On Jan. 2 the Blues were last in the league and posted a 15-18-4 record with 34 points.

But their fortunes started to turn on Jan. 3, when they faced the Caps at Enterprise Center in St. Louis. They beat the Caps 5-2, and turned their season around from that game going forward, including an 11 game winning streak.

So really, St. Louis has Washington to thank for transforming their season from one marred by losses to one where they made the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1970.

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