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Old 09-10-2010, 11:35 PM   #1
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Default Guide to N.F.L. Defenses, Part 5: The Zone Blitz

Guide to N.F.L. Defenses, Part 5: The Zone Blitz

( I am posting this one here since it is about the creation of the greatest defensive coordinator in the NFL and a member of the NFL hall of fame, our very own Dick LeBeau. Sections 1-4 are over in the NFL section. Note the article does have diagrams see URL below.
- mesa)

Jene Bramel writes for Footballguys.com. You can also follow him on Twitter and reach him at bramel@footballguys.com.

The true origin of the zone blitz is fuzzy.

Football historians have credited concepts resembling today’s zone blitzes to Hank Bullough in the late 1970s and the Penn State coaching staff of the early 1980s. The pressure defense used by the U.S.F.L.’s Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars in the early 1980s was known for bringing defenders from unexpected angles while those expected to rush dropped into coverage. Those schemes are sometimes attributed to John Rosenberg, a Penn State assistant who joined Jim Mora on the first Philadelphia Stars coaching staff, and may have influenced Stars successors Dom Capers and Vic Fangio.

But the architect of the zone blitz is widely considered to be Dick LeBeau, who had been tinkering with zone blitz like pressure schemes with Bullough in New England and Cincinnati for years before fleshing out the first zone blitz playbook on, of all things, an airplane napkin.

To hear 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 in 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 renowned 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 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 players 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 top personnel, the zone blitz is beatable.

1. Run the ball.

Backs with good vision who 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 counterintuitive 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.

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Old 09-11-2010, 06:27 AM   #2

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Default Re: Guide to N.F.L. Defenses, Part 5: The Zone Blitz

Great read and its because of this scheme that we dont have a lot of ints. The exchange for that is sacks and fumbles.
Another thing that hurts the zone blitz is a patient running back. If he waits and gives the blocks time to develop you will have success. Fred Taylor was great at that against us.

Thanks for the knowledge, loved it!!
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