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Sylvester Williams: Loaded For 'Bear'

There's an additional wrinkle to the defense Wade Phillips calls and it involves the big fella Sly Williams. Doc Bear breaks it down.

When the Bear defense is called in Denver, Sylvester Williams smiles into his facemask. We’re not talking about the old Bear ‘46’ defense. In Denver, the ‘Bear’ defense has Sly dropping into coverage to handle the running back.

What is a 313-pound nose guard doing in coverage? It’s simple, really. This play mirrors a long-time approach in the NFL that has commonly been known as a ‘zone blitz’. It sends one lineman back into coverage and sends another player, generally a linebacker, after the quarterback.

There’s a problem with this nomenclature, though. It’s not a blitz at all.

It can be, of course. You can drop Sly back, bring four rushers and then send an additional secondary player or linebacker after the quarterback, for what is usually called a ‘green dog’ (5 rushing, 6 in coverage, with 1 rusher delayed. Without the delay, it’s just a ‘dog’). Add another rusher and it becomes a true blitz, which is called a red dog in some parts of the country. The terminology gets confusing.

The zone blitz is a heralded NFL tradition. Bill Arnsparger used it (many say that he developed it) when he was the defensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins during their back-to-back, two seasons of Championship football, including their undefeated 1972 campagin.

That was the time of the ‘No Name Defense’, a collection of veterans who could run something they’d never seen before. Arnsparger generally dropped a DE into coverage, though, since they tend to be more fleet afoot than nose guards. But that’s one thing you can count on with Wade Phillips’ scheme. He never does what you’d expect.

There’s also a variation called the ‘fire zone’ blitz. It drops one DE into coverage (often from an even front) and brings overload pressure from the opposite side of the line. It’s a 5-rusher, 6-coverage approach to the scheme. The personnel are usually arranged in a 5-3-3 grouping.

The zone blitz was used on and off by various coaches for some years, until Dick LeBeau brought it to an art-form for the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers. LeBeau had been one of the greatest cornerbacks for the Detroit Lions in that team’s history, playing there from 1959 to 1972. His experience as a DB helped him to have seen the trenches from a different vantage point. His brand of the zone blitz came from that background.

LeBeau also coached special teams for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1973-1975, coached DBs for the Green Bay Packers from 1976-1979, then was promoted to defensive coordinator for the Bengals from 1980-1991. He then spent time with the Steelers.

LeBeau returned to Cincinnati from 1997-2002, spent a year in Buffalo as assistant head coach and then became the Steelers DC from 2004-2014. He was highly effective with it in the 90’s, but it was in the 10 years in Pittsburgh that his usage of the zone blitz really peaked.

He’s now with the Tennessee Titans, who are trying to get their team over the top and into the elite. DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry give them the kind of running game that Denver is hoping to depend on. Dick LeBeau is responsible for a hostile defense. Like the Steelers or hate them, I never missed a chance to watch LeBeau at defensive coordinator. He was a maestro of the scheme, dropping DEs and sending players (usually linebackers) from all over. It had a major positive impact on the Steelers record for many years.

The zone blitz is usually used with Cover 1, Cover 2 and Cover 3. Cover 0, in which no player covers deep, is nearly the same as Cover 1. Cover 1 has the advantage of using a single-high safety who can roam at will.

If he’s making good decisions—as Darian Stewart did last season—it frees up another player (often T.J. Ward, the strong safety) to fill the box or cover at need. Ward also used that freedom to blitz the QB or the RB. It’s a great scheme for him.

Cover 2 is the most popular scheme for using the zone blitz. It’s a simple defense, employing two deep safeties and two cornerbacks, who often cover the area called the ‘flat’ (from the LOS to about 15 yards deep, on both sides). It usually uses three linebackers to cover the middle as well.

Cover 3 also uses a single-high safety, but the other players’ responsibilities are different. The cornerbacks cover a third of the field on either side. The middle coverage obligations are filled by the linebackers, while the strong safety takes the final quarter of the middle field.

Obviously, playing a 3-4 or ‘odd front’ defense permits you to use your fourth LB in coverage, rushing or as a run stopper. If he goes into coverage, your SS now has the same ability to roam. Ward has made it clear that he enjoys that aspect of the scheme.

The zone blitz is effective at defeating the screen pass as well. When the QB expects to draw in bigger, slower linemen, he is often caught off-balance when linebackers and DBs come flying in—it throws off his timing, causing errant passes. If the offense is running a draw play, it’s likely to rush into the teeth of the zone blitzing linebackers, with linemen behind them. That usually minimizes the yardage gained. Denver doesn’t read and react. They attack and confuse.

Although both Arnsparger and LeBeau tended to drop the DE into coverage, identifying the RB as the nose guard’s assignment makes a lot of sense. Since you’re sending 4-5 people, Sly is able to quickly see if the RB is going to rush the ball, stay in to block or swing out as an outlet receiver.

Williams may have run the 40-yard dash in 5.03 seconds, but his short-area burst is more than sufficient to move sideways to stop the RB, regardless of the gap chosen. If the play goes as an outlet pass, he can get to the short flat and help whoever’s setting the edge to slow or stop the receiving RB.

Since it’s the NG that’s dropping into coverage, the tip-off that existed when the zone blitz was run by dropping the DE on one side and overloading the other is gone. Sly’s right in the middle—the pressure can come from anywhere. If the RB stays in to block, Sly gets to join the attack.

“We’re a play-making defense,” Williams said. “We’re designed to get up the field. We’re not holding up blocks. We’re not two-gap. We’re making plays. I love this defense.”

So do the fans. It’s one more tweak from the Master of Disaster, Wade Phillips. They seem to be endless—yet the scheme itself is fairly simple. Small wonder that the players love to play in it.

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

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