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Summer School: Getting pressure with the man blitz

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We tie the front and the back of the defense together with man-coverage blitzes.

Throughout our Summer School series, we've tried to present concepts in the context of their place in the history of football. But for now I'm going to turn off the NFL Network and switch over to the History Channel.

For centuries wars were fought with lines of battle. From the phalanxes of Alexander the great or legions of Rome to the armies of Great Britain, France, and Prussia in the 18th and 19th centuries, battles were decided by great formations of soldiers lined up across from each other. That came to an end in the horrors of World War I and industrial war. Armies ground to a halt, resorting to trench warfare, and the so-called "Great War" resulted in nothing so much as waste, ruin, and anger.

During the all-to-brief lull between 1918 and 1939, military minds on all sides grappled with the problem of how to deal with the new realities of warfare. The world learned the horrible cost of industrial warfare, and that the old strategies used by the empires of Europe simply wouldn't work in a world of machine guns, tanks, and air power. In France they settled on the idea of fortification, a (theoretically) impenetrable line to protect their borders. In Germany, the Nazi generals hit upon the idea of the "Blitzkrieg" or "Lightning War." The doctrine of Blitzkrieg is of a combined arms assault, using armored cavalry (tanks) alongside mechanized infantry in a high-speed, aggressive attack at their opponents' weak points. The concentrated firepower, speed, and maneuverability of the German blitzkrieg was too much for opposing armies to handle and they were left outmaneuvered, unbalanced, and defeated. However, the German Blitzkrieg came with the inherent dangers of over-extending supply lines, and coming up against an enemy that could weather the shock of their attack and mount a counter-attack.

And here we return to the much lighter world of football.

For years, a football game was, and to a large extent still is, decided in the trenches. An offensive and defensive line would smash into each other, and whichever unit could impose its will on the other won the play. But as the passing game grew in importance and defenses evolved and became increasingly nuanced in response, coaches started looking for new ways to bring pressure and disrupt quarterbacks. Their answer was to bring players from elsewhere on the defense to attack the quarterback.

The first blitzers were linebackers in what was called a "Red Dog" blitz named after Don "Red" Ettinger, a former New York Giants' linebacker, around 1950. Later on, defensive coordinators would use safeties or even cornerbacks as blitzers to generate pressure from an unexpected angle or create an athletic mismatch.

Like the German blitz, a blitz in football is an all-out attack that uses linebackers, safeties, or corners to bring more pressure on an offense than it can protect against, or in places where blockers aren't. There is a natural risk when it comes to blitzing, as a blitz takes a defender out of coverage, and if an offense is able to stop or "pick up" the blitz, they can exploit the weakness and make a big gain.

Man Coverage Blitz Concepts

At its most basic, a man coverage blitz sends one, or more, extra pass rushers while the remaining players are in man coverage. Generally, a basic man coverage blitz will send a linebacker, to avoid having an athletic mismatch that the offense can easily exploit. The blitzer can attack any of the offensive line gaps, and will often be referred to as an "A-gap", "B-gap", or "C-gap" blitzer. However, simply sending an extra rusher to attack a gap is simple and easily countered by an offense. In order to get the most out of a blitz, it needs at least some element of strategy to force an offense into doing something it doesn't want to do.

This is one of the most common blitzes at both the college and NFL levels, and is in defensive playbooks from Nick Saban to Dick Lebeau and Rex Ryan.

It has the advantages of being both simple and effective. First, it can be run from just about any defensive front, under any coverage scheme. Because of that I chose to use it as an example of a potential blitz for the Giants from a 4-3 Under front, with a Cover 1 shell.

Note: In practice, the Giants would likely use a nickel package, likely with three corners (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Janoris Jenkins, and Eli Apple) on the field, substituting out a linebacker. That would let them more effectively cover the slot receiver, while Landon Collins covers the running back. In that case, Devon Kennard would likely move to middle linebacker while a better coverage linebacker like J.T. Thomas or Keenan Robinson covers the tight end.

Secondly, it is effective.

In this blitz the middle linebacker attacks the right B-gap, while the left defensive end slants inside to rush the right A-gap. On the other side of the line, the right defensive end attacks the left C-gap, while the 3-technique (John Hankins, Jay Bromley, or Owamagbe Odighizuwa) and 1-technique (Damon Harrison or John Hankins) attack the B and A gaps respectively. The strong safety covers the slot receiver while the weak and strong side outside linebackers are responsible for the running back and tight end respectively.

If we examine the offensive formation by halves, we can see why this blitz is effective. On the right side of the offensive line, the twist between the defensive end and middle linebacker has the potential to create confusion among the blockers. The right tackle would be expecting to have to block the DE, either on an inside or outside move. The guard would likely be dealing with the 1 technique, possibly with help from the center. Instead, the RG has to deal with the defensive end, which is usually an athletic mismatch, while the RT has to decide whether he is blocking the MLB, the OLB, or is left looking for work. After the DE clears the MLBs gap, he is free to attack, hopefully creating pressure, but certainly occupying that side of the line.

On the left side of the line, each of the defenders is met with a one-on-one matchup, however if there is a communication breakdown, they could get a free rusher. The OC would likely be forced to handle the 1T, while the LG would have to deal with the 3T, and the left tackle is on an island with the RDE. If the center decides to help the right guard with the stunting defensive end, that could create a 3-on-2 advantage for the defense, with one of the defenders getting a free run at the quarterback.

It's easiest to talk about blitzes in generalities rather than specifics. There is a chess match before every snap -- the mind games between Peyton Manning and Ray Lewis were legendary -- as offenses adjust to opposing pressure schemes, and pressure schemes are adjusted to beat offense's wrinkles. Because of that, there are as many different blitzes and coverage adjustments are there are ways for offenses to beat a blitz.

So, for instance, what would happen if the quarterback identified the above blitz and called for the running back or tight end to pass protect instead of running a route?

Well, the defensive coordinator, or middle linebacker if he has the autonomy like Antonio Pierce, could add a "Green Dog" to the blitz.

Green Dog

If the linebacker in charge of covering the tight end or running back finds himself without a player to cover because that player stayed back to help pick up the blitz, what is the linebacker to do?

He could drop into a zone coverage and help a teammate. A safety on a slot receiver or linebacker on an athletic tight end or running back could certainly use the help. It wouldn't be a bad play, as anything that helps keep the ball in the quarterback's hands increases the likelihood of a sack.

But there's another option: The Green Dog Blitz.

Put simply a Green Dog has a defender do whatever his assignment does. If the tight end releases into a route, then the linebacker would cover him. However, if the tight end pass protects, the linebacker is then free to rush the passer. In this case, it is a way of keeping the defense's numbers advantage on the pass rush and preventing the offense from being able to double-team any defenders. In our example blitz, both outside linebackers could be Green Dogs, and have the ability to rush if their assignment stays in pass protection.

Doing that is an aggressive and gutsy call, however. It would be all too easy for a tight end or running back to pass block, then slip behind the blitzing linebacker and catch a check-down pass with nothing but open field and maybe a free safety in front of them. As I said before, that is the inherent risk in any blitz: It takes a defender out of coverage, weakening the defense in the hopes that the pass rush will end the play before something bad happens. But when it works, a good blitz can leave offenses gasping and searching for answers.

Discussion Points

  • Is blitzing "worth it"? - Do the potential rewards of blitzing outweigh the inherent risks of a blitz?
  • Should the Giants blitz more? - Steve Spagnuolo has been known as a blitzing defensive coordinator, but should the Giants feature blitz packages as a major part of their defensive scheme?
  • When not to blitz - Are there situations, players, teams, etc. in, or against, which a defense should show restraint when blitzing?