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Reading the Defense - Week 6

  Posted 10/14 by Jene Bramel, Exclusive for Footballguys.com

Through four weeks of play, half of the league's top ten defenses in yardage allowed (and four of the top five) had something in common. All could be considered aggressive defenses and all use the zone blitz frequently. Much has been made of the hostile takeover of the league by coordinators installing multiple front defenses in the past two seasons. But it's the zone blitz that might be driving much of the defensive renaissance in the league in recent years.

Breaking Down the Zone Blitz

Complex, yet simple. Aggressive, yet conservative and safe. Countless iterations, yet the same goal on every snap it's called. It's a study in contradiction, yet it has been one of the most successful pressure schemes in the league for decades now. It's the zone blitz.

Television broadcasts praise teams that use a lot of zone blitz as some of the most aggressive in the league. That's only half correct. The zone blitz teams aggressively. However, most consider aggression to mean bringing multiple blitzers on every play. With the zone blitz teams, the opposite is actually the case. According to 2008 play-by-play data from FootballOutsiders, the Baltimore Ravens blitzed six or more defenders only 8% of the time (15th in the league). The Arizona Cardinals ranked 16th, just behind Baltimore. Both teams heavily relied on the zone blitz when bringing pressure. The Steelers, the league's premier zone blitz team, rushed six or more defenders only 2.7% of the time, next to last among NFL defenses last year.

It seems strange to term a blitz as a safe defensive call, but that's exactly what Dick LeBeau wanted when he developed his first zone blitz playbook in the 1980s. Knowing that bringing extra defenders in pass rush left his defense vulnerable in coverage, the beauty and breakthrough of the zone blitz was that it allowed him to safely, but effectively, pressure the quarterback with fewer defenders. Though the large number of potential variations keeps the defensive looks fresh and the offense guessing, the zone blitz has stood the test of time because of how sound it is as a coverage scheme.

To illustrate its effectiveness, let's look at a series of screen caps from a first down play during the Steelers-Chargers game in Week 4.

One of the most attractive features of the zone blitz (especially when used out of the 3-4 front with versatile and athletic personnel) is that it allows your defense to match up well against nearly any offensive formation. In this pre-snap frame, the Chargers have come out of a traditional huddle (two tight ends, two wide receivers and running back) and aligned with both receivers and a tight end split to the left and motioned the back wide right. The Steelers have walked a safety down over the slot WR, but have their base 3-4 personnel in a fairly vanilla alignment.

The fun begins at the snap. At the heart of any zone blitz is the "exchange" concept. The defense "blitzes" from an unexpected spot while dropping one of its expected pass rushers back into coverage - the "fire zone". This play is a prime example. At the snap, the two inside linebackers are on the move. RILB Lawrence Timmons blitzes, while LILB James Farrior slides over to handle zone coverage responsibilities in the area Timmons vacated. Note also that NT Casey Hampton has already challenged the center and right guard, holding them for a split second, but is already dropping off the line into the zone that James Farrior is vacating to cover for Timmons.

Here's where the safe nature of the fire zone concept becomes clear. The Steelers are blitzing a linebacker up the middle. In another scheme, all three defensive linemen and both outside linebackers would often also be pass rushing, leaving only five in zone coverage behind to cover all the short and intermediate zones. Not so with the zone blitz. As the play develops above, you can see that the Steelers aren't even "blitzing" on this play - they're rushing only four players. Both NT Casey Hampton and LOLB Lamarr Woodley have dropped into coverage, giving the Steelers seven zone defenders against what has become five pass catching options (the Chargers' second TE releases when Woodley drops into coverage.

But look what the scheme has done to the Charger offensive line. The right guard is left on his heels watching Casey Hampton drop into coverage and rolls to help the right tackle block LE Aaron Smith. RE Brett Keisel is crashing down hard on an A gap, drawing a double team from the center and the left guard. The Steelers are rushing four defenders here - four - and have schemed themselves single blocking on stud edge rusher James Harrison and have Timmons flying through an open lane toward QB Philip Rivers. Four rushers on a what was a six man line at the snap and they've got two of their best pass rushers in Rivers' face as he looks to the three receiver side.

And here's the payoff. The left guard is looking for someone to block as Timmons blows by him to force Rivers to throw the ball early. Though TE Antonio Gates has correctly read the blitz (no other Charger receiving option has turned his head and none have made it deeper than five yards into their routes), the ball falls harmlessly at his feet. Even had he caught the pass, the rotating zone scheme would have held him to a very short gain.

Calculated, safe aggression. The success of this play highlights what the zone blitz tries to accomplish. A successful zone blitz with a four yard gain worst case scenario but a wide possibility of big plays - a simple sack putting the Chargers in a second and long deep in their own territory, a sack possibly associated with a forced fumble, a tipped pass that could result in an interception, etc.

To be fair, the zone blitz can be beaten. Draw plays and play action can catch the linemen dropping back in coverage and go for long gains. A mobile quarterback or max protection can allow time for deeper routes to develop against players not as adept in zone coverage. But because the coverage behind the pass rush is sound, a zone blitz coordinator with the right personnel can counter almost anything the offense tries with good timing and an understanding of tendencies.

Line Scores, Damn Line Scores and Statistics

  • DE Andre Carter (5-1, 2.5 sacks, FF, PD)
    Carter was on a number of sleeper lists this offseason, albeit with an asterisk. A healthy Carter looked like an excellent candidate to rebound after the Redskins signed Albert Haynesworth, drafted Brian Orakpo and hinted at a more aggressive front four philosophy. Through four weeks, Carter hadn't fulfilled that promise, managing only seven solos and a sack against a favorable set of matchups. Carter finally exploded this week against the Panthers, another solid matchup, despite a continually dinged Haynesworth. Recent history suggests that we should wait before assuming Carter can return to DL1 status, but it's nice to know that the talent is still there.

  • DE Jimmy Wilkerson (6-0-3, FF, PD)
    Wilkerson very quietly earned an every-down role with the Buccaneers after a strong finish in 2008 and an impressive offseason. Though we had him ranked 41st, he was an afterthought in most IDP circles as the season began. After a forgettable first week, Wilkerson has been on a four week run of 15 solos and five sacks. That run may well continue with the Panthers, Patriots and Packers on the upcoming schedule.

  • LB Aaron Curry (9-1-1, FF, PD)
    Curry was the consensus top IDP prospect before the 2009 draft, but quickly dropped down 09 redraft league rankings after the Seahawks hinted that he'd align at SLB and have a limited pass rushing only role in their nickel defense. Curry's expectation jumped after we reported that he was playing WLB during the preseason and then again when LeRoy Hill's injury allowed him an every-down role. Though some of his strong statistical production is related to Lofa Tatupu's hamstring injury and the inconsistent play from the SLB and safety positions, Curry's play should be earning him a long look as an every-down player even when Hill returns.

  • LB Keith Brooking (8-3-1, PD)
    We're one season too late on this one. Our argument last season that the RILB position in the Wade Phillips 3-4 front was favorable enough to elevate the value of Zach Thomas looked bad after Thomas wasn't healthy or rangy enough to hold his spot in the lineup. The same argument held this offseason with Keith Brooking, who had played this role to great value in 2002 in Atlanta, but it was easy to be gun-shy since Brooking wasn't likely to play in the nickel. Brooking has been very good in his role, but he's been lucky. Not many backers that don't play in the nickel have so many games with 75% of more of their team's defensive snaps. Be wary before trusting him as an every-week starter.

  • LB Keith Rivers (0-0-0)
    Rivers may have lulled his hopeful owners into a false sense of security after putting up 17 solos between weeks two and four of the season. However, as this week drove home yet again, a backer who doesn't play every down, no matter how talented, is always at risk of a very poor week. According to Profootballfocus, Rivers had played only 54% of his team's snaps through four weeks. Some weeks, the breaks will go his way and he'll have 5-6 solos. In other weeks, the aggressive run supporting play of Rey Maualuga and Roy Williams will cost him opportunity. Add in the fact that the Bengals' defensive scheme sometimes aligns him to the side of the field with more blockers and he's a very risky weekly starter.

  • CB Leigh Bodden (10-1, 2 PD)
    Bodden was a favorite of many in CB required leagues looking for a veteran rebound candidate this year. Bodden fit the usual profile - usually strong in run support with above-average ball skills in coverage - and his one year, league minimum contract suggested a motivated player looking to prove himself. Bodden, like so many corners, has been hit and miss again this year which makes last week's numbers hard to read. It's hard to overlook the well above-average number of pass completions (35) and total tackle opportunity (62), however, and expect him to repeat anything like last week's tackle output often.

  • S Gibril Wilson (11-1)
    Wilson had nearly been written off by the fantasy world after starting the season on a 65 solo pace through an up-and-down first four weeks. He's definitely earned himself a reprieve after an eleven solo Week 5. Wilson had been rumored to be on the hot seat after struggling to tackle consistently and fulfill his coverage responsibilities. Still, it's hard to see the Dolphins benching a player to whom they gave such a big contract after watching plenty of film on him without a viable option pushing him from lower on the depth chart. Wilson may remain inconsistent, but he's still got DB2 value to burn.

Stunts

The Buffalo defense is hanging on by a thread in the back seven. Two more linebackers - Kawika Mitchell and Marcus Buggs - were lost for the season with knee injuries last week. The Bills moved Keith Ellison into the middle after the injuries, their fourth MLB in five games, and put Jon Corto and Ashlee Palmer outside. It's expected that the Bills will align that way this week, but Nic Harris, recent signee Chris Draft and possible signee Matt Wilhelm may all work themselves into the picture soon. For now, Ellison has the most value, but you'll need to watch for changes through the end of the week. As we noted last week before the new developments, Paul Posluszny will eventually be the main beneficiary of the Bills' injuries and team struggles when he returns from his arm injury, which should sometime in the next 2-4 weeks.

DeAndre Levy struggled last week and worked himself right out of the starting lineup. Reports suggest that Ernie Sims will be back as a starting OLB this week, with Levy returning to the bench. Jordon Dizon continues to see extensive time in the nickel packages and could take snaps from both Larry Foote and Sims. Expect to see Levy back in the lineup as soon as the Lions officially fall out of playoff contention.

Kirk Morrison was again out of the Oakland nickel package last week before Ricky Brown was forced to leave the game with an ankle injury. Morrison was still a stud against the run-first Giants. Brown will reportedly miss at least a month with this injury, putting Morrison back in the nickel and relieving the concerns of his owners who would have had a tough decision on whether to risk starting him against the three wide receiver packages the Eagles often use. Morrison has a minor knee injury, so it's still worth monitoring his weekly status closely before inserting him in your lineup this week. Jon Alston will get first crack at the SLB job, but shouldn't be a nickel threat.

Tanard Jackson was back in the lineup for Tampa Bay at FS this week alongside starting SS Sabby Piscitelli. The Bucs warned that all three safeties could see time late last week after activating Jackson, but the starters got the vast majority of the playing time. Piscitelli's poor numbers were likely a combination of relatively poor tackle opportunity, a heavier than expected usage of Cover-2 against the Eagles and strong play against the run from the front seven. Expect him to rebound, but watch for any brewing rotational issues in future weeks.

Jeremiah Trotter moved into the base defensive packages over Omar Gaither last week and immediately made his presence felt against the run. Should the Eagles continue to jump out to big, early leads, Gaither may have enough snaps to hold LB3 value. More likely, neither Gaither nor Trotter will provide much fantasy value in future weeks.

Michael Lewis suffered his third concussion in recent months last week and could be out for an extended period (possibly four weeks or more). Mark Roman filled in for him last week and was his usual inconsistent self in run support and coverage. Roman is worth consideration in deeper leagues, but it may be DaShon Goldson who assumes some of Lewis' usually strong value. Goldson will be limited in his free safety role, but may grow into a Madieu Williams, LaRon Landry like option over the next few weeks.

Jerod Mayo returned from injury last week and played a significant number of snaps. He looked healthy and should reassume his usual every-down duty this week. With Junior Seau now officially in the fold, expect the 3-4 looks to continue to be the Pats' preferred front. You should also expect to see Gary Guyton lose snaps in the base defense. Dynasty owners can safely let Guyton go; his production against a string of solid matchups was disappointing, as is the re-signing of Seau. In the long-term, expect to see the currently injured Tyrone McKenzie play on base downs in future seasons ahead of Guyton.

Nick Roach's strong play at MLB in Chicago with Hunter Hillenmeyer struggling to get healthy may earn Roach the job for the rest of the season. Roach played in the nickel packages and could hold the every-down role for the future as well. He's likely the best bet on the free agent wire for those in deeper leagues this week.

Two seasons ago, we pimped a very impressive Kamerion Wimbley hard for big play leaguers, only to be disappointed when his regular season play looked nothing like his rookie flashes and strong sophomore preseason play. We recommended caution on Wimbley until he entered a contract year next year, but his strong two-way play against both good and not-so-good pass rush matchups so far has him firmly back on the radar a season earlier than expected. Wimbley comes with all the usual concerns relevant to rush OLBs in tackle heavy leagues (welcome back DeMarcus Ware, by the way), but he's worth consideration there as well.

Returner-Defender Guys

The only every-down defender returning kicks currently is Jim Leonhard, who continues to draw most of the punt return duty for the Jets. While Josh Wilson returned to the lineup in Seattle this week, he will apparently not be returning kicks. That may change if Marcus Trufant is healthy enough to take over a starting corner job later this month or next, but Wilson is for now just a marginal CB option. There's also been no change in the return status of Chicago S Danieal Manning; he's not expected to return to return duty. Three nickel corners are returning kicks - Chris Carr, Captain Munnerlyn and Ellis Hobbs. Unfortunately, none have been consistent enough in either phase of the game to be trustworthy as an every-week starter and none have very attractive matchups this week.

Remember to check out our weekly all-IDP podcast on the Audible on Thursdays and be sure to stop by the IDP Forum for the latest and most accurate IDP news and analysis, including our Sunday morning post and discussion of the week's inactive players. Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to bramel@footballguys.com.

Best of luck in Week 6.