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Summer School: Creating chaos with the zone blitz

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The zone blitz has been used by some of the best defenses in NFL history, but what makes it so effective?

Last week we introduced the concept of blitzing with the man coverage blitz. In a simple and quick review, the man coverage blitz puts the defense in man coverage (usually under a Cover 0 or Cover 1 shell) while one, or more, linebackers attack into the backfield.

It’s a relatively simple way to increase pressure by adding athletic pass rushers. In a successful man coverage blitz, the coverage keeps the ball in the quarterback’s hands while the additional pressure attacks the offenses’ weak points and disrupts the play. It isn’t, however, without its faults or hazards. The first is that a corner, safety, or linebacker could easily find himself in a one-on-one situation with an offensive player who is simply too athletic to cover. It also has the inherent weakness of intentionally weakening the pass coverage by taking a player out of coverage. If the offense can protect the quarterback, he can attack that weakness for a big gain.

In one of the enduring themes we’ve seen as we have taken a look at the nuts, bolts, and history of defensive football is that as weaknesses are discovered and exploited, defensive coordinators invent new ways to attack offenses and disguise their intentions. In this case, the solution is fusing zone coverages with blitz schemes.

Zone blitzing got its start when the Miami Dolphins adopted the 3-4 defense out of necessity. Their defensive coordinator, Bill Arnsparger, would walk his linebackers up to the line of scrimmage to disguise which defenders would be rushing and which would be dropping into coverage.

However it wasn’t until Dick LeBeau began experimenting with zone blitz schemes in Cincinnati, and perfected them with the Pittsburgh Steelers, that they became popular league-wide.

The Zone Blitz

At it’s absolute simplest, a zone blitz can be the same as a man-coverage blitz, with the secondary in zone coverage, such as in a Cover 2 or Cover 3 shell. However, a zone blitz has the potential to be so much more.

This is a "simple" zone blitz from a Cover 4 shell, but it has a pair of elements to confuse and disrupt an offense’s blocking scheme. First is the replacement blitz on the left side of the defense.

The right tackle is expecting to deal with the left defensive end, but instead finds himself having to block the outside linebacker. Not only is he at a more significant athletic disadvantage, but the linebacker is coming from a different angle.

The other effect of having the linebacker replace the defensive end, is that there is no void in coverage that would happen in a man coverage blitz. While having a defensive end play coverage is far from ideal, if the blitz is disguised well, it could pay off. In Super Bowl 43, Kurt Warner was baited into a similar situation, expecting James Harrison to rush. However, Harrison backed off into coverage on Anquan Boldin while Lawrence Timmons — who was supposed to be covering Boldin -- rushed. The result was a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown by Harrison.

On the other side of the formation, there is a tackle/end stunt to create confusion between the left tackle and left guard. The more athletic right defensive end attacks the LG, rushing through the B-gap, adding an athletic mismatch to the confusion. On the outside, the 3-technique forces the left tackle to deal with power he isn’t used to, and keep him from double-teaming the defensive end.

But while this blitz adds confusion — particularly when combined with MOD or MEG concepts in the Cover 4 — and athleticism to the pass rush, it doesn’t add any extra rushers. Let’s take a look at how zone blitzing can get that done, too.

Fire Zone Blitz

The Fire Zone Blitz is arguably one of the most well-known blitzes in football. The brain child of LeBeau, the Fire Zone Blitz is at once conservative and aggressive, and helped fuel some of the most ferocious defensive play in recent football memory.

At its core, the Fire Zone is a simple concept. It turns any defensive front into a 5-3-3 defense, featuring deep and shallow zone coverage behind five pass rushers.

This is a variation on a blitz used by the Baltimore Ravens, Steve Spagnuolo’s previous employers. If there is any team that could rival the Steelers in their "Blitzburgh" heyday using the Fire Zone blitz, it was the Ravens. With Ray Lewis quarterbacking the defense, Ed Reed terrorizing defensive secondaries, and Rex Ryan designing the scheme, to say they were formidable is almost an insulting understatement.

This blitz is a simplified version of the Ravens’ blitz, which featured five linebackers, two down linemen and multiple twists and stunts, all designed to confuse offenses.

— You can view the original blitz HERE, from the New York Times —

For our purposes, this is a Fire Zone blitz from a 4-3 Under front, with a Cover 3 shell. At the snap it appears to be a fairly typical 4-3 under, Cover 2 defense. But at the snap the corners and free safety drop into their deep coverage zones while the nickel corner, strong safety, and middle linebacker play shallow coverage zones.

For the Giants’ purposes that could be a weak-side linebacker like J.T. Thomas or Keenan Robinson, who are athletic enough to play in space, but have experience in the middle.

The strong-side linebacker, Devon Kennard, would then be the blitzer. In order to help create confusion and establish an athletic mismatch, the linebacker blitzes through the B-gap, stunting behind the left defensive end. In this case, the nose tackle is likely taking on a double team from the center and right guard, which could either give the linebacker a free run at the quarterback, or one-on-one matchups for most of the defenders if the tight end or running back pass protect.

By adding two layers of zone coverage behind a five-man rush, LeBeau was able to call a conservative pass defense to frustrate passing attacks, keep eight players near the line in case of a run play, and get increased pressure on the quarterback.

But while the Steelers and Ravens were perfecting the Fire Zone blitz in the aptly named "Black and Blue" division of the AFC North, Jim Johnson’s zone blitzing defenses were the bane of the Giants’ existence in the NFC East.

The Legacy of Jim Johnson

It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator was one of the most influential coaches of the last 20 years. Not only were his schemes vital to the Eagles success before his passing, but the coaches who learned from him, John Harbaugh, Sean McDermott, Ron Rivera and Spagnuolo, all went on to success in the NFL.

Johnson was a master architect of blitzes, able to create havoc from a seemingly simple play call. Johnson did use an exotic scheme like Rex Ryan, or an unusual personnel grouping like the Seattle Seahawks. His base defense was a relatively bland 4-3 Under, with a Cover 2 (zone) or Cover 4 shell, but it was what he did with his personnel that was special. Johnson’s scheme was built on blitzing linebackers, with rushing lanes opened up by the defensive line while the secondary would prevent the offense from capitalizing on blitzes with big plays.

At the same time, he used zone drops, fake rushes, and stunts from his defensive linemen to create confusion on the offense while sending blitzers from unexpected angles.

(via AmericanFootballMonthly)

Johnson’s use of deceit in the front seven allowed him to conjure pressure from seemingly nowhere, or everywhere, at will. Johnson was also adept at adapting to his opponents’ strategy and making mid-game adjustments. The balance of conservative coverage, an aggressive pass rush, and adjustments gave offenses fits (to say the least).

Though he generally favors more aggressive coverages than Johnson, Spagnuolo brought Johnson’s aggressive and creative blitzes with him from Philadelphia to the Giants, as well as the ability to adapt and frustrate offenses with mid-game adjustments. What Spagnuolo learned from Johnson, as well as a dominant defensive line — a common theme among the best defenses of Johnson, Harbaugh, Rivera and McDermott, and Spagnuolo — let the Giants stymie the best offense the NFL had ever seen in Super Bowl 42.

Tying It All Together

Ultimately any scheme can, and will get beaten, even if it is coherent and innovative enough to get its own name, such as the West Coast Offense or the Tampa 2 defense. That’s what drives innovation in the NFL; football isn’t so much a game of rock, paper, scissors (lizard, Spock), as it is a giant game of chess where the pieces are constantly learning new ways to move. Good coaches see what works and add their own ideas, changing it to fit their personnel. Or they scheme new ways to beat effective tactics on the other side of the ball.

With the rise of fast moving spread offenses in college and the NFL, defenses have have evolved to bring man coverage back into zone blitzes.

You can play coverages in three ways. You can play zone, man, or pattern-match man. Pattern-match man is a coverage that plays the pattern after the pattern distribution. That means you pick up in man coverage after the receivers make their initial breaks and cuts. We number receivers from the outside going inside. If the number-one receiver crosses with the number-two receiver, we do not pick up the man coverage until they define where they are going.

(-Nick Saban, 2010 Coach Of The Year Clinics Football Manuel)

It’s a relatively simple concept. Defenders show zone coverage, then defend the receivers and routes after they’ve defined themselves. It requires confidence in the secondary players, and good communication, but pattern matching has a number of advantages. First it helps to disguise the defense’s intentions, adding to the surprise aspect of the blitz. Second, pattern matching lets the secondary adapt their coverage to the routes being run by the offense. A Fire Zone Blitz is still, essentially, a Cover 3 defense. And as such, it’s vulnerable to the same route combinations as a Cover 3, particularly flooding the secondary with vertical routes. pattern matching allows the defense to account for that, matching one of the vertical routes with man coverage, preventing a breakdown in coverage.

Pattern matching isn’t a perfect solution, it isn’t a silver bullet to bring down monstrous offenses. There will always be quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, or Eli Manning who can decipher blitzes and make defenses pay, or brilliant offensive coordinators who can come up with new schemes to attack the latest defensive ideas. But like the blitz, the fire zone and everything else we’ve covered in our Summer School Series builds on what came before it, adding and re-combining ideas to try to win the game.

Discussion Points

  1. Zone blitzes have gotten a bad name among Giants fans, but are they an inherently bad strategy?
  2. Would you like to see the Giants incorporate more, or less, zone blitzing into their defense?
  3. Do you think the Giants have invested enough in their secondary to make blitzing effective?
  4. Looking back on our entire Summer School Series, what would you like to see from the Giants’ defense? 4-3? 3-4? Cover 1? Cover 6? Blitzing?