Guide to Defenses 5
By Jene Bramel
August 22nd, 2010

Part 5: The Zone Blitz

If you look around the internet for the origins of the zone blitz, you'll see an argument that the zone blitz got its start...

...on an airplane in 1988, when Dick LeBeau was furiously scribbling on napkins trying to draw up new ways to get pressure and confuse quarterbacks...

...in the USFL in 1987, when the staff of the Philadelphia Stars (most notably Jim Mora, Dom Capers and Vic Fangio) assisted in developing a new blitz scheme that had been devised by another Stars' staffer (John Rosenberg) who had...

...in the 1986 National Championship game, with a defensive assistant at Penn State who confused Miami's Vinny Testaverde into throwing five interceptions with a complex array of zone coverage and blitz calls.

In fact, its beginnings are much earlier than that.

To hear Dick LeBeau tell it, the fundamental concept of the zone blitz scheme has its roots in conversations he had with two pretty well known names in the sports world - Bobby Knight and Bill Arnsparger. LeBeau and Knight were friends at Ohio State as students and shared a philosophy of aggressiveness, or as Knight would put it, "pressure on the ball." LeBeau believed in a pressure style of defense and had tinkered with a few zone blitz-like concepts during the early 1980s as the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati, concepts that he'd seen tried by Hank Bullough a decade earlier. When Arnsparger, the architect of two historically good Miami Dolphin defenses (the "No-Name" squad of the undefeated 1972 season and the Killer Bs in the 1980s), mentioned his philosophy of "just trying to find a safer way to get some pressure," the fuse was lit.

Arnsparger's line cut to the fine point of pressuring the quarterback. Unless you get to the quarterback, an all-out blitz leaves too many holes in the coverage. The risk-reward of a big defensive play versus giving up a big play to the offense has a razor-thin margin. With Arnsparger's thought in mind, LeBeau began expanding the zone blitz concept to get maximum pressure on the quarterback as safely as possible from as many different angles as possible.

The result was the fire zone scheme. Confuse the offense by disguising your pass rush. Make a four man pass rush function like an all-out blitz. Play zone coverage behind the blitz so that a mistake in the secondary doesn't result in a big play. Disguise your zone coverage so that a quarterback's usual sight adjustment leads him right into an unexpectedly covered route.

The zone blitz had its moments in Cincinnati (helping lead the Bengals to SB XXIII) and New Orleans (the Dome Patrol studs), but wasn't widely hyped as a defensive strategy until LeBeau and Capers ended up as assistant coaches in Pittsburgh and refined it further in the early and mid-1990s.

The basic concept - an exchange of an expected pass rusher for an unexpected one - is relatively simple. The type of exchange and number of players involved in the rotation can become very complex.

The above diagram shows a single player exchange, defensive end for linebacker. You can see how bringing both outside linebackers at the snap looks like a five man pass rush - but it's not. The DE-OLB exchange asks the end to threaten the offensive tackle with a quick step toward the pocket, then quickly drop into coverage. If executed properly, the OLB should be able to pressure the pocket quickly off the edge, while the end drops into the zone that the quarterback would rightly read as open by sight adjustment for his hot route. The simple exchange looks like a five man "blitz", but allows the defense to generate blitz-like pressure with full zone coverage behind.

Here's a more complicated example with two exchanges and rotating underneath coverage. Eight men threaten the line at the snap, but only five players rush the passer leaving a three under, three deep zone coverage look. The Steelers will sometimes run similar looks with only two linemen in a two-point stance in their nickel package, where the OLB becomes a standup DE at the line of scrimmage and a slot corner takes the place of a blitzing OLB.

Zone blitz concepts can be run from a 4-3 front as well, if you've got the athletes to do it. Capers used the zone blitz in a 4-3 in Jacksonville, but had the luxury of studs like Tony Brackens and Bryce Paup off the edge. Both Capers and LeBeau prefer the 3-4 as a base for their fire zone schemes, as the extra linebacker adds a better athlete and a wider spectrum of potential blitzes.

Like any other defensive scheme, even with stud personnel, the zone blitz is beatable.

  1. Run the ball.
    Backs with good vision that can see the seams on a play when a blitz has been called can be successful against the exchanges. Draw plays can be particularly effective (as can screens) if the right seam is open.
  2. Plenty of play action.
    The linemen still must play the run. The extra half step gained by holding the exchange lineman from dropping into coverage can prevent the lineman from beating the receiver to the fire zone.
  3. Move the pocket.
    Mobile quarterbacks that read well have a better shot at avoiding the pass rush.
  4. Max protect on the line.
    If enough players are asked to protect the pocket, it's difficult to defeat the blocking scheme with exchanges and overload blitzes.

Though some of the copycat defenses weren't as successful as the Capers and LeBeau original, the fire zone scheme has stood the test of time. Unlike the 46, which has gone the way of the dodo as a base scheme, the zone blitz remains sound enough to use as a large part of an every-down defense. It becomes a chess game. Max protect, and LeBeau will feign the zone blitz and drop eight into coverage. Roll your quarterback out and LeBeau will bring corner blitzes from a two deep shell. All teams have some 46 and zone blitz in their playbook as an aggressive change-up call, but most offensive coordinators would choose to face the 46 rather than the zone blitz.

It seems counter-intuitive that a scheme praised for its aggressive nature was born out of a desire to be safe and protect against the big play. But it's well-planned and calculated aggression that consistently wins the day. When compared to the 46, which was meant to wreak havoc all over the field, the fire zone defense starts to look vanilla in comparison. We'll take a closer look at the 46 in the next installment of this series.

IDP COMMENTARY

There aren't any significant changes to the IDP value of the front seven of a team that runs a lot of zone blitz. An inside linebacker with good coverage and pass rush skill becomes more attractive than other 3-4 2-gap ILBs - especially in big play scoring systems. Corners see a bump in value because of the frequent Cover-2 that is played behind the front seven and the expected increase in big play chances. Outside linebackers in the fire zone get plenty of all-around opportunity and, while inconsistent on a week-to-week and year-to-year basis, can have big tackle and peripheral stat seasons - witness James Harrison in 2008, who followed Chad Brown and many other zone blitz 3-4 OLBs who topped 70 solos on their way to top twenty finishes in all scoring systems.

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to bramel@footballguys.com.

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