Conventional football wisdom states that a defensive lineman's responsibility on passing plays is to rush the quarterback. One scenario, however, calls for that 300-pounder to drop back from the line of scrimmage and cover a shallow zone behind him. This tactic is called the "zone blitz."
The zone blitz was perfected in Pittsburgh during the early 1990s. In the beginning stages of the Bill Cowher era, many around the NFL referred to the Steelers as "Blitzburgh," which accurately described defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's penchant for blitzing on nearly every play. It was not a groundbreaking strategy, as many had attempted it before. But LeBeau's blitzes incorporated a new wrinkle that no one had seen before, especially opposing quarterbacks.
Usually against a blitz, when the quarterback sees a safety or linebacker charging at him, he makes a sight adjustment. In simpler terms, he looks for the "hot receiver" running a shorter route. If the receiver is paying attention to the blitz, he has broken off his deeper route in favor of a slant or hitch pattern. This type of "hot read" is instilled in quarterbacks and receivers from high school on up. Yet much of that thinking is based on the assumption that they will see man coverage behind a blitz. LeBeau's creation threw that conventional thinking out the window.
As its name states, the zone blitz does away with the man coverage element. It gives the defense a method to pressure the offense without the high risk of playing man-to-man coverage.
"The zone blitz is a conservative way to blitz, really," LeBeau says. "Percentage-wise, it's the safer way to blitz. That's what we were looking for all along when we started out."
In standard zone coverage, the secondary and linebackers cover a pre-determined area of the field. The defenders cover only the receivers who come into their zone before passing them on to teammates. Before the early 90s, defensive coordinators felt that blitzing a linebacker or safety would leave a wide-open zone in the secondary. Thus, the only possible coverage they could use behind a blitz was man-to-man. This way, all receivers are defended. But this also puts enormous pressure on the cornerbacks and safeties to chase receivers all over the field.
"What you're looking to do is simulate a max blitz," LeBeau says. "So often in what you call a max blitz, if one [defender] slips or if [the offense] springs a guy somewhere, there's no one left as a second line of defense to keep a 15-yard gain from becoming a 60-yard gain. So all you're trying to do is affect the pressure of a blitz but keep a player who can – if something fouls up – keep the play from going more than 15 or 18 yards. That's the concept."
A zone blitz can send any defender to the QB without relying on man coverage
The genius of LeBeau's zone blitz lies in the actions of the defensive linemen. In order to fill the open zones left by the blitzing linebacker or safety, the defensive tackle or end will drop back into the recently vacated zone. This creates mass confusion for the offensive line and quarterback, as the players they originally accounted for as rushers are now pass defenders. The offense must recognize this and make the proper adjustments to get the play blocked – all in just under two seconds.
If the quarterback sees the blitzing linebacker barreling in on him, odds are he has not noticed the defensive lineman creeping backwards. The quarterback's reaction is to then hit the hot receiver, who should be entering the supposedly empty zone. Hopefully for the defense, the QB will not notice until the ball has already been released, resulting in a rare interception for the lineman.
The overarching idea of the zone blitz is to create confusion and force the quarterback to make a throw before he is ready. He'll probably be looking to exploit a blitz that is not as heavy as it appears at first glance. While the blitz should cause confusion and force the occasional turnover, it relies heavily on being well disguised. This responsibility falls mainly on the defensive lineman who will be dropping into coverage. He cannot tip off the play by being in a different stance or lining up further from the line of scrimmage than usual. The lineman must act as if he is going to rush the passer, just like any other play, or the offensive line and quarterback will take notice.
"For us," said former Carolina Panthers head coach Dom Capers, a generous user of the zone blitz, "it's a way to put pressure on the quarterback and yet not have as much risk involved as if you're locked up with a man. It's not as defined for the quarterback to read because you're passing receivers [from defender to defender], as opposed to being clearly locked up on a receiver. We think it gives us some ability to create confusion and indecision on the part of a quarterback."
There are unlimited permutations of the zone blitz package. The defense can send any number of linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks from any part of the field while not compromising its secondary. In essence, the zone blitz was designed to bring as many different people from as many different angles as possible while keeping the integrity of the zoned secondary intact.
|Jeremy Stoltz is a graduate of the Columbia College Story Workshop program in Chicago. He is a regular contributor to Bear Report and BearReport.com.|