5-3 Defense: How to Use & Run?

Youth football coaches often seek simplified methods for teaching players who lack much experience playing the game.

These coaches aim to instill the fundamental principles of both offense and defense early on, so their players can gain a comprehensive understanding of the sport’s fundamental strategies.

Defensive coaches often seek simple one-gap schemes or defenses that don’t demand their players to handle multiple responsibilities.

That’s why the 5-3 defense has become one of the more popular alignments for youth football teams.

It’s a defense that piles defenders at the line of scrimmage to stop the running game…

While still providing some flexibility in blitzing and coverage packages.

Who Should Use the 5-3 Defense?

The 5-3 defensive formation is ideal for youth football teams as it’s a simplified setup that doesn’t burden any player with too many responsibilities.

It’s an ideal defense to teach containment, gap coverage, and primary duties on the field.

But the 5-3 defense isn’t just for football rookies…

It’s also an alignment that players can utilize as they grow older and more experienced, since it offers flexibility in look, coverage and pressure.

The 5-3 defense is designed to stack the line of scrimmage with many bodies, switching a defender in the secondary for another up front.

It is often employed in opposition to “jumbo” offense packages that feature two tight ends and possibly even a fullback.

It’s an effective strategy for stopping the run, as it makes it more difficult for the offensive line to block all defenders who are lined up near the ball.

Zone coverage in the passing game and applying pressure to the quarterback are both beneficial.


Stacks the Line – The 5-3 defense utilizes five down linemen at the snap of the ball, making it difficult for offensive linemen to have vision downfield.

Extra Pressure at Point of Attack – Clogging at the line of scrimmage allows linebackers to remain hidden behind defensive linemen, giving them opportunities to create pressure with a blitz.

Great Against the Run – Eight defenders in the box make it difficult for offense to establish a consistent running game, as there’s not much room for running backs to move the football even when their offensive line does an excellent job blocking.

Can be Effective Against Passes – The three linebackers provide coverage against receivers over middle of field, and one of the defensive ends could even drop back in coverage due to its abundance of linemen in this formation.

Reduces Reaction Time – Quarterbacks and running backs have less time to make a play against the 5-3 defense when so many defenders are close to the line of scrimmage at snap of the ball.


Susceptible to Short Passes – Offenses often attempt to exploit a 5-3 defense with short passing routes, since there is one fewer defender in the secondary and plenty of room outside the hash marks for faster receivers to exploit.

Undersized Teams May Find It Difficult to Run the 5-3 Defense Effective – If your team lacks adequate size along the line of scrimmage, then this alignment might not be ideal for you. This alignment necessitates more weight up front where smaller defenders could get easily overwhelmed.

Simplifies Things for the Offense – While your 5-3 defense offers some wrinkles you can run, it can often be challenging to disguise blitzes from the quarterback. That may allow the offense to take advantage of simple routes for receivers and runs toward the outside.

Secondary Needs Discipline – It is critical that the secondary plays with discipline and adheres to their responsibilities, especially with one fewer defender at that level.

Learning How to Run the 5-3 Defense

Stage 1: Construct a Defensive Line

A 5-3 defense is composed of stacked front players.

The line will feature a big-bodied nose tackle, two defensive tackles and two defensive ends.

This defense’s nose tackle can line up in three positions:

Either directly over the head of the center or shaded toward his left or right shoulder.

No tackler should not neglect this primary responsibility…

Attack either A gap and take over as much space in the middle of the field.

The other two defensive tackles will typically line up over the offensive guard’s head or outside shoulder.

On base defensive plays, defensive tackles will either need to fill in the B gap or could even stunt out wide towards C gap on blitzing plays (more on this topic later).

A 5-3 defense will usually line up in what’s referred to as a wide 9 technique, meaning on either side of the last man on the line of scrimmage.

If the offense runs a jumbo package, this player would be both tight ends on each side. Conversely, if there is only one tight end, running back, and fullback in the lineup then that player could serve as an offensive tackle.

On every play (either one of the A gaps), the nose tackle has nearly identical duties to their defensive tackle or end counterparts; however, their duties may differ slightly depending on which play is being called upon.

On base plays, the tackles will be responsible for covering the B gap while the ends must take care of covering the C gap and outside containment.

However, the 5-3 defense also permits stunts and curls along the line of scrimmage.

In either scenario, defensive ends might drop back into coverage as either of the outside linebackers initiates a blitz.

The ends may also attempt a stunt, where they curl around the back of a defensive tackle and attack the B gap to catch their opponents off guard.

In both scenarios, defensive tackles would step outside to the C gap with outside containment responsibilities, filling any void left by ends who curled or dropped into pass coverage.

Stage 2: Linebackers

In a 5-3 defensive alignment, three linebackers make up the traditional middle linebacker (Mike), strong-side linebacker (Sam) and weak-side linebacker (Will).

Each play, the positions on the field prior to snap are identical for all three players at this level of defense, as are their responsibilities in a base defense.

Mike will typically line up near the nose tackle or with one shoulder shaded over.

On run plays, the Mike is responsible for filling any A gaps left by the nose tackle. So if the nose tackle is covering the left-side A gap, then the Mike must fill in for him on his right side.

On passing plays, the Mike is typically responsible for dropping into cover over the middle of the field.

Mike will occasionally, but rarely, blitz on a passing play.

Will and Sam will take similar positions and have similar responsibilities on their side of the field.

On their side of the field, both outside linebackers will stand between defensive tackle and defensive end.

When facing off against a running play, the outside linebackers have primary responsibility for covering the B and C gaps.

At the snap of the ball, both defensive tackle and defensive end positions on their side will shift their responsibilities accordingly.

In a basic man-to-man defense against passing plays, both outside linebackers will have coverage responsibilities on the tight end on their side of the field if that player chooses to run a route.

A base zone defense facing a passing play requires the outside linebackers to cover any player who runs a route inside an imaginary box that extends from their line of scrimmage up several yards behind where they lined up initially.

Sam and Will are often the two players who will blitz out of a 5-3 defensive alignment.

These players can easily be overlooked behind a thick defensive line.

On any given play, Sam or Will linebacker (or both) could be asked to blitz through either B or C gaps on their side of the field; if necessary, that defensive end can drop back into pass coverage.

Stage 3: The Secondary

In a 5-3 defense, the secondary is composed of only three players as its back line.

In this formation, there are two cornerbacks and a free safety, forgoing the traditional strong safety in favor of an extra player along the defensive line.

Due to the small secondary, cornerbacks and free safety must provide superior coverage on pass plays in order to direct all ball carriers towards the middle of the field, where linebackers can help tackle.

As is customary, cornerbacks will line up on the outside of the field opposite wide receivers.

Typically, the free safety will line up in the middle of the field, a few yards behind Mike linebacker.

When the defense employs a man-to-man scheme against a pass play, the cornerbacks will stay with the wide receivers in single coverage while the free safety has coverage responsibilities over either running backs or tight ends.

In this scenario, it is critical for the secondary not to allow any of the opposing route runners to get behind them as there is no help over the top.

Zone coverage schemes from a 5-3 defense involve each player taking responsibility for covering an area of the field.

Cornerbacks will cover from the hash marks to a certain depth on the field, while free safety has over-the-top responsibility on both sides of the ball.

The free safety will naturally shade to where the ball is thrown, helping to close in and tackle if a completion has been made.


Running a 5-3 defense is an ideal way to teach youth football players the fundamentals of the game, as its principles are straightforward and uncomplicated.

Though there can be numerous variations to this scheme, a defense can run mostly base plays every time on the field and still be very successful.

Youth football tends to emphasize running game tactics, as most offenses lack the strength and speed to throw the football far downfield.

However, as players age and their bodies enlarge, the 5-3 defense doesn’t have to become obsolete…

Here, the flexibility of an alignment can be put to the test.

A 5-3 defense can put the offensive line through a variety of challenges with its stunts along the defensive line and blitzes from outside linebackers, as they attempt to determine where pressure will come from on any given play.

Running a 5-3 defense could potentially have its disadvantages against an offense that has the ability to throw the ball frequently.

A spread offense would benefit from such an alignment, as their extra speed on the field can easily exploit any weaknesses in defense.

Additionally, with only three players in the secondary, there could be a big play waiting to happen at any moment.

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