Changes in the FSU Defense, Part 3: Fire Zone

Much of the talk swirling around the Florida State camp this fall centers on the way Jeremy Pruitt's defense will be more aggressive than his predecessor's. We discuss what exactly that will mean and why it's a misconception to expect heavy blitzing and more risk-taking from FSU's new defensive coordinator.

As we have previously discussed, Mark Stoops took an increasingly vanilla approach as talent levels on the defense increased, spending the vast majority of snaps rushing four down linemen from a cover-2 shell, usually with a man-under look. Offenses could typically line up with a good idea of what they were facing, but Stoops banked on his athletes and execution being so much better than the offense that it simply wouldn't matter. Stoops' approach was therefore to force offenses to execute perfectly all the way down the field in small chunks, assuming that the defense would ultimately make a play (or the offense a mistake) to end the drive.

This is fundamentally different from traditional blitz approaches, which commit more players to the pass rush at the expense of pass coverage, hoping the pressure will get there before the offense can burn the secondary. Traditional blitzing defenses take risks to force quick decisions through additional pressure. This is what most onlookers are expecting from Pruitt's more aggressive defense in 2013, leading to big plays on both sides, hopefully many more on the defensive side.

This isn't quite right, however. Pruitt is taking a different approach from both of the above, an approach that is indeed more aggressive than Stoops' defense but is better characterized as multiple and confusing. Where Stoops was willing to tell the offense, "This is what we're doing, good luck," and a traditional blitz attack, "We're coming, and one of us is about to make a big play," the fundamental aim of Pruitt's scheme is to cause the offensive players to have to think just an instant longer, slowing the quarterback down just enough for pressure to get to him.

This will be done through the use of very different defensive alignments using the same defensive personnel (both even and odd fronts), through the use of disguised and mixed coverages, and through blitzes from different angles. But most of the blitzes you'll see from FSU in 2013 will not in fact involve more risk than Stoops' approach. Instead, Pruitt will most often use various forms of the "fire zone" package, a defensive look that rushes five and drops six, maintaining three deep defenders and three underneath coverage defenders,

Below are a few examples of fire zone blitzes, followed by a series of cut-ups of fire zone packages in action. The first picture is one of Nick Saban's favorites, taken from his defensive playbook; FSU fans can expect a lot of this particular blitz this year.

Safe Pressure

The basic concept behind the fire zone is for the defense to be able to apply safe pressure, to apply pressure without taking the big risks associated with all-out blitzes. The defense still has three deep defenders, so it is difficult for the offense to gash the defense downfield against the blitz. Instead, the fire zone forces the offense to beat the defense in the short and intermediate zones, making throws and decisions that require precision and timing—the kinds of throws that can also create turnovers.

Because there are many possible combinations of five rushers, fire zone schemes can cause a lot of confusion for the offense. One play might involve a rush from four defensive linemen and a corner, another three defensive linemen and two linebackers, another four defensive linemen and a safety, etc.

Because there are so many rush and coverage combinations, it's much more difficult for the offense to know where the pressure is coming from or where the coverage will be—especially since the defense will try to disguise the blitz by showing cover-2 or other alignments before the snap. This can lead to hesitation and sometimes to throws directly into coverage, as the defense may drop an expected rusher right into the offense's "hot" route versus a specific blitzer.

Fire zone blitz packages also tend to use overload blitz schemes, where the defense attempts to use alignment and surprise to outnumber the offensive blockers on one side of the line, bringing three rushers against two blockers, four against three, etc. Florida State's dominant defensive tackles (Timmy Jernigan in particular) will offer more opportunity to do this, as they will often draw double teams, forcing the opposing offense to block the four remaining rushers with three offensive linemen. The usual offensive response will obviously be to keep an additional back or tight end in pass protection—a net win for the defense as that's an additional threat neutralized.

One other benefit of the fire zone is that many modern offenses want the quarterback to progress from long to short in his reads. The fire zone aims to take away that first read right away with the three deep, giving just a split second more time for the pressure to arrive. The shifting, less predictable underneath coverage makes the second read a bit more complicated as well—again designed to create hesitation. If the pressure hasn't arrived by the third read in the progression, the positive is that more often than not that will be a short outlet pass, allowing the defense to run to the football and tackle with little threat of a big play.

Playing Offense on Defense

TCU head coach Gary Patterson has said, "I believe that you coach defense like offense. Offenses have gotten so good … that you've got to be able to play plays. … If you don't do that in this day and age, it's hard to keep people down." That is, defenses had better be able to aggressively take away what offenses do best and demand that the offense do something else to win. Instead of simply lining up in one look or coverage and daring the offense to beat that, Patterson specifically aims to make defensive calls designed to take away what the offense most likes to do from specific looks in specific situations. He calls plays against plays, in effect playing offense against the offense.

Pruitt's FSU defense will take exactly the same approach. By using a combination of multiple alignments, multiple blitzes, and safe but less predictable coverage, Pruitt aims to put the offense on its heels, not allowing it to simply line up and run its base packages. Instead, Pruitt wants to create confusion tailored to take away what the offense does best, all while minimizing the chances of giving up the big play. The multiple fire zone packages we'll see throughout the fall are one primary way the 2013 Florida State defense will do this.

One additional benefit to Pruitt's approach is that going against this kind of variation and disguise in practice is extremely helpful for the quicker development of Florida State's young quarterbacks, who have had some difficulty recognizing blitzes so far but are growing from facing Pruitt's defense every day. There's very little they won't have seen before by the end of the fall.

In our next piece in this series, we'll talk about pattern reading and how that fits into this safe-aggressive scheme.

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