Super Bowl XLVII Preview: Breaking Down How Both Defenses Use the Zone Blitz

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJanuary 29, 2013

November 13, 2011; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis (52) is congratulated by defensive end Justin Smith (top, third from right) and inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman (53) after Willis sacked New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (bottom) during the third quarter at Candlestick Park. The 49ers defeated the Giants 27-20. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Super Bowl XLVII will boast two fearsome defenses that are each equipped with smart zone-blitz schemes. Neither the Baltimore Ravens nor the San Francisco 49ers are heavy blitz teams. However, when they do send additional rushers after the quarterback, they both rely on a sophisticated blend of pressures.

Here's a look at how both defenses will blitz in the Super Bowl, beginning with the Ravens.

Zone Blitz

When the Ravens do turn to the blitz, they favour zone-pressure concepts. Savvy coordinator Dean Pees has refined Baltimore's blitz schemes into simple, yet devilishly smart designs.

The first two playoff victories of the Ravens' Super Bowl run provide perfect examples. The first is taken from the AFC Wild Card Round against the Indianapolis Colts.

In the screen shot below, the Ravens have reorganised their nickel personnel. They are presenting rookie passer Andrew Luck with a confusing and equally threatening alignment.

The first highlighted portion shows inside linebacker Ray Lewis (52) creeping up to the line, showing blitz. The second highlighted portion shows free safety Ed Reed doing the same, also indicating pressure.

Lewis' fellow inside linebacker, Dannell Ellerbe, has shifted to the outside, next to weak-side defensive end Terrell Suggs. Ellerbe's alignment is shown in the red box.

The Ravens are essentially showing Luck a seven-man blitz. However, they will actually only rush five. The screen shot below shows how they will do it.

Lewis and Reed's antics at the line are no feint. They will both blitz, indicated by the red arrows. Ellerbe will come off the edge, with his rush path also shown by a red arrow.

To supplement the coverage, Pees drops both rush ends, Suggs and Paul Kruger, into underneath zones. Their coverage drops are indicated by the black arrows.

This exchange of blitz and coverage responsibilities creates immediate confusion for Luck. The screen shot below shows how this pressure design limits his options.

Both of Luck's underneath slant lanes have been taken away by Suggs (55) and Kruger (99). The play resulted in an incompletion after Suggs tipped the ball to the ground and the Colts were forced to punt.

Luck did the right thing throwing to the side where the blitz came from. He was aiming for his "hot read," who is the receiver behind the blitz. However, that's just where Suggs was waiting.

The Ravens' zone pressure forced Luck to throw exactly where they wanted him to, into coverage he didn't expect.

However, it's not just young quarterbacks who can be manipulated by the Ravens' zone blitz. Peyton Manning found that out in the divisional round.

The screen shot below shows the Ravens setting up a simple-looking blitz concept. They will execute a four-man rush with a basic exchange.

Ellerbe will blitz, indicated by the red arrow. On the other side of the formation, Kruger will drop out, shown by the black line.

The key to the play is how the Ravens have again realigned their nickel front. They are trying to show the quarterback something different and also create a favourable blitz matchup. The screen shot below shows they do it.

The first highlighted portion shows rush end Kruger (99) moved over to the weak side, next to Suggs. This creates a major dilemma for the offensive line.

The Broncos must now decide how to deal with having Baltimore's two best pass-rushers on the same side. The Ravens are banking on the Broncos O-line sliding towards Suggs and Kruger.

This will create an open blitz lane for Ellerbe, shown in the second highlighted portion. The real target of the pressure is Denver running back Jacob Hester (40).

He will have a nightmare choice, indicated by the blue lines. Either he stays where he is to help chip on Suggs or Kruger, or he slides across to pick up Ellerbe. That's precisely what the Ravens want: a blitzing linebacker against a running back.

The screen shot below shows how both members of the zone blitz make the play a success for the Ravens.

First, Ellerbe easily beats the outmatched Hester and pressures Manning into a quick throw. That pass is held to a minimal gain thanks to Kruger's position in the underneath coverage, shown in the highlighted portion.

The brilliant simplicity of this play reveals the essence of Baltimore's zone-blitz schemes. The Ravens are using exchanges of coverage and blitz roles to determine where quarterbacks have to go with the ball.

The Broncos faced 3rd-and-10 on this play. All the Ravens really wanted was a quick pass. By pressuring Manning into a quick and inevitably short throw, their underneath coverage can deny the receiver first-down yardage.

Of course, the 49ers are capable of doling out punishment with some zone blitzes of their own.

Vic Fangio and the Cornerback Blitz

The 49ers don't blitz often. However, if there's one pressure defensive coordinator Vic Fangio loves and trusts, it's the cornerback blitz.

He used it to rattle Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC divisional round. The screen shot below shows how.

Notice first how Fangio has positioned two slot corners on the weak side. He has aligned Carlos Rogers (22) on the edge. Next to him, Fangio has replaced outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks with backup corner Perrish Cox.

Both corners will blitz. Their pressure paths are shown by the red arrows. The next thing to notice is how only one lineman, defensive tackle Justin Smith, has his hand down.

Fellow interior lineman Ray McDonald is standing up in the middle of the formation. Behind McDonald, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman has crept towards the line of scrimmage and threatens to blitz. Bowman is shown in the highlighted portion.

The 49ers are showing a six-man pressure. However, they are using pre-snap movement to keep Rodgers and the Packers guessing.

The screen shot below shows how the Niners' zone-blitz design fools Rodgers and his blocking scheme.

Just before the snap, Bowman backs out and drops into zone coverage. At the snap, strong-side rush end Aldon Smith does the same. Their coverage drops are indicated by the blue lines.

Meanwhile, McDonald, in the highlighted portion, actually rushes the line of scrimmage. In doing so, he occupies two blockers.

This is significant because it means with two blitzers on the weak side, the 49ers have set up a free rusher. This forces running back John Kuhn (30) to stay in and block either Rogers or Cox, whose blitz paths are shown by the red arrows.

Fangio and his defense have succeeded brilliantly in confounding Rodgers. They have given him a heavy blitz look that quickly morphs into a seven-man zone-coverage shell.

The pressure from the slot takes one potential receiver away. Rodgers is left with the choice of four targets, all of whom will attract some form of coverage.

This screen shot below shows how this simply designed yet dizzying mix forces Rodgers into a key mistake.

Thanks to the help of Kuhn, the Packers manage to block the rush, but it's too late. Rodgers has already felt the pressure and misreads the coverage.

He attempts a deep pass but must beat free safety Dashon Goldson with the ball. Goldson is shown playing center fielder in the highlighted portion.

Because of Goldson's position, Rodgers was forced into an overthrow, which cornerback Tarell Brown intercepted for a critical turnover.

This is just one of many examples where the 49ers' zone-blitz looks trick and rush a quarterback into throwing into heavy coverage.


Most of the attention on the coaching matchup in Super Bowl XLVII will focus on the Harbaugh brothers. However, the scheming of the two wily defensive coordinators, Fangio and Pees, will be the big game's most fascinating aspect.

Both have honed subtle and dangerous pressure schemes based on the nuances of the zone blitz. The Ravens are more aggressive and daring, and they rely on forcing quick decisions.

The 49ers are a little more cautious, but no less threatening. They are the ultimate tricksters of the NFL. They goad quarterbacks into thinking they will be throwing against reduced coverage.

If title-game passers Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick don't stay aware, Pees and Fangio's subtle brand of zone blitzing will decide this Super Bowl.

All screen shots courtesy of CBS Sports, Fox Sports and GamePass


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