Playbook Profile: Defense in the Zone

The Chargers utilized one of the NFL's most effective arrays of blitzes last season, propelling the team to rank in the top five in sacks (42) while leading the League in interceptions (30). Team expert Michael Lombardo takes a closer look at one blitz package in particular, which plays off the versatility of Shaun Phillips and Jacques Cesaire.

Because the Chargers feature a number of athletic pass-rushers in the defensive front seven, the Bolts are among the NFL's most apt teams in regards to running the zone blitz. The pass-rushing ploy involves dropping a defensive lineman into coverage while sending an additional pass-rusher on the opposite side of the play.

The premise behind the zone blitz is simple: An extra pass-rusher comes from one side of the play to overwhelm that side of the offensive line. A defensive lineman from the opposite side of the action drops back into coverage to confuse the quarterback and disrupt passing lanes.

When the Chargers run the zone blitz, it often comes with the extra pass-rusher coming from the defense's left. Shaun Phillips functions as a defensive end in this package, with Stephen Cooper coming behind his as the additional blitzer. Jacques Cesaire typically subs for Igor Olshansky and is the lineman to drop into coverage.


LB Stephen Cooper
Harry How/Getty

With Phillips and Cooper coming off the left side, opposing quarterbacks are often forced to take the sack or rush a quick pass. Since it's almost impossible to throw over the outstretched arms of the 6-foot-3 Phillips, quarterbacks will typically throw to the defense's right, where Cesaire lies in wait.

There are certainly some drawbacks to the zone blitz. For one thing, although there are still seven players in coverage, Cesaire cannot be expected to do much more than occupy a passing lane. Additionally, the zone blitz is far less effective against mobile quarterbacks, as they can scramble away from the rush and buy time to find receivers downfield.

It's not often that a 3-4 defense can run the zone blitz with as much effectiveness as San Diego. It's the versatility of San Diego's players that makes it possible.

Cesaire is a 295-lb. tackle who has the athleticism to play in space and read the quarterback, as evidenced by his three pass breakups last season. Phillips is a pass-rushing force off the edge, having recorded 20 sacks over the last two seasons. And Cooper can get to the quarterback on occasion, as well, having posted at least two sacks each of the last two seasons.

Ted Cottrell is among the NFL's best when it comes to confusing and attacking offenses. Look for the zone blitz to be a key cog in his defensive machine when he goes back to work this season.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the Scout.com network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports. He has followed the Chargers for more than 15 years and covered the team since 2003.


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