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Wade Phillips And The Zone Blitz: How The Broncos Dismantled The Panthers In Super Bowl 50

Doc Bear illuminates how Wade Phillips and the Broncos defense dismantled the Panthers offense in Super Bowl 50 by utilizing the zone blitz.

Among the many skills that Wade ‘Son of Bum’ Phillips has is the ability to dial up just the right blitz at the right moment. He also creates havoc by using every 'Cover' defense in the manual, but his use of zone blitzes was brilliant last season.

A simple definition of a zone blitz is one that drops a lineman into coverage. There are multiple types of zone blitzes:  it can get confusing for fans. Let’s cover the basic zone blitz, fire dog and green dog blitzes. Some of the information here came from an article by Matt Bowen. It’s a good read.

A lot of folks have credited former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Dick LeBeau for the invention of the zone blitz. Like most things in football, it was used long before it was famously honed it to a razor’s edge, with Miami’s Bill Arnsparger being among those who used it.

That doesn’t take anything away from LeBeau. He didn’t create it — but he saw all kinds of new applications, using cornerbacks, safeties, linebackers and his defensive line. LeBeau had an incredible football mind. 

Zone Blitz

The use of a zone blitz (often called a fire zone, but not a fire dog blitz) dates back to at least Bill Arnsparger, who used a basic form of this attack for Miami, back in the 1970s. A basic zone blitz has 4-to-5 on the defensive front attacking with one (I’ve seen various articles disagree but having 5 men up w/ one — often a defensive end — dropping back into coverage is normal).  

While most defensive tackles aren’t efficient pass rushers, a lot of screen and draw plays have been shut down by a zone blitz. It’s confusing to the offensive line, and often to the quarterback as well. The zone blitz has drawn a lot of sacks over the years. 

If you’re still being stonewalled by the offensive line, what do you do? Simple. Drop a lineman into coverage, but bring up one or two linebackers and/or a safety. You’re then blitzing with 5 players and they’re not the players the offense expects. 

Fire Dog Blitz

The Fire Dog Blitz brings the same pressure from a specific formation. In this approach, you have a 3-3-5 coverage: 3 defensive linemen, 3 linebackers and 5 defensive backs. The defensive end or end player covering one edge drops into coverage, while the pressure comes in from the opposite side.

There are two main advantages to this particular blitz. First, the defensive lineman who drops back moves into a passing lane, taking away one of the QB’s options. Since he’s already facing 5 rushers, the QB doesn’t have much time to complete his progression.

It often ends in an incompletion because the QB must hurry a throw to a receiver who isn’t fully open. The less time you give an NFL QB, the better. 

There are a lot of variations on this blitz. There are different names for it from different coaches around the country. Inevitably, though, you’ll still see a 3-3-5 formation with five players rushing and an outside edge player dropping into coverage. 

Green Dog Blitz

The green dog blitz is generally used when the opponent is keeping their fullback and/or a tight end in to block. You commonly see it when a team is having trouble pass rushing the offense.

A green dog blitz is usually defined as having a LB or DE assigned a running back or tight end man-to-man when their assignment (TE/RB) stays in to block. The LB/DE then blitzes just later than his teammates. 

It’s essential that any DE or LB who is green dogging stay at home long enough to know whether their assignment is not going to run an outlet route. Will the TE be chipping, running the route or staying at home? The defensive player must be careful. He must snuff out a QB run, screen or draw. 

More than anything, green dogging keeps the extra blockers occupied, and away from helping out the offensive line. The best example from Super Bowl 50 was when TE Ed Dickson wasn’t able to help out the badly overmatched Mike Remmers with MVP Von Miller.

With T.J. Ward threatening, Dickson couldn’t leave to help out. The defense usually sent Marshall, who's become Denver’s go-to guy on green dogs. 

It was used frequently by Wade Phillips in Super Bowl 50. When Phillips decided how to attack the Carolina Panthers, one thing that stood out was that he was going to use man coverage. He didn’t believe that the Carolina receivers could out-play the No Fly Zone secondary. With a few plays that were outliers, he was right. 

Employing man coverage permitted Wade to use his ‘extra’ defenders — often his safeties — in creative ways to make the Panthers miserable. He sent everyone in at some point. 

“In a lot of games we saw on film, Newton was just sitting back, patting the ball,” Marshall said. “We’d see two [free defenders] in the middle of the field just not doing anything.”

Inevitably, the answer to Cam Newton’s foot speed and the Panthers running game showed up on game tape. This is why the team watches film together. They take responsibility for mistakes and they find opponents’ weaknesses. 

In Max protection, fullback Mike Tolbert and TE Dickson are often on the same side. The best solution was to green dog and send two defenders at them. Both defenders become edge rushers on the RB/TE side. 

Usually, the OL can slide away from Tolbert and Dickson. With the edge rushers coming in, it prevents the OL from a slide approach. That means the defense can run more stunts and twists.  

T.J. Ward was asked if Carolina did anything Denver didn’t expect.

“No. We read them like a book.”

“They did everything we watched on film," asserted FS Darian Stewart.

Conclusion

Each of the various zone blitzes can be used in multiple ways, and in multiple situations. One of the devastating skills of SonofBum is that he has vast experience combined with a thorough understanding of both his own players and the opposing offense.

He finds the opposing weaknesses on film, then teaches them to his players during the week’s install. Since the single-gap, penetration defense lends itself to a variety of blitzes and other attacks, the Broncos defense is impossible to predict.  

Given the level of players and coaches that John Elway has created, that’s unlikely to change in the near future.

Doc Bear is a Featured Columnist for MileHighHuddle. You can find him on Twitter @DocBearOMD.

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