Bill Arnsparger: Remembering the Godfather of the Zone Blitz and Hybrid Defense

James DudkoFeatured ColumnistJuly 19, 2015

AP Images

Bill Arnsparger, the coordinator who crafted two of the most distinctive defenses in NFL history, died Friday at 88, according to an AP report (h/t ESPN.com). One of the finest defensive minds in league history, Arnsparger was the brains behind the famed "No-Name" and "Killer B's" defenses for the Miami Dolphins.

The first unit powered the only unbeaten season in NFL history in 1972. The latter took the Dolphins to the Super Bowl following the strike-shortened 1982 season.

During his other notable NFL stops, Arnsparger built a blue-collar defense that inspired the San Diego Chargers to the Super Bowl in 1994. He also fine-tuned a porous Washington Redskins unit to help the Burgundy and Gold to an NFC East title and playoff win in 1999.

That was Arnsparger's personal resume, but his lasting impact on the way defense is played in the pros goes far deeper. He was the inspiration for the famed zone-blitz schemes that defined NFL defenses for two decades starting in the mid-'90s.

Arnsparger was also a trailblazer who practically invented the dual-purpose edge-rusher that has become the backbone of every hybrid playbook in the league.

It was that creation that kick-started the zone blitz as a viable tactic in NFL circles. It began with Arnsparger using linebacker Bob Matheson at end. He could drop or rush.

Matheson (53) was the catalyst for the zone blitz.
Matheson (53) was the catalyst for the zone blitz.Ray Stubblebine/Associated Press

When he subbed in Matheson, Arnsparger was also giving the league its first taste of the 3-4 defense, per David J. Neal of the Miami Herald:

There's a direct line from the "53 defense," so named for the situational use of No. 53, linebacker Bob Matheson, as a fourth linebacker in the early 1970s to the modern 3-4 defenses teams began using later that decade.

But the impact of the 53 scheme went further than the 3-4. It was a new way to bring pressure. The foundation was a deceptive mix of rush and coverage, and defensive responsibilities were disguised until the last second.

In Blood, Sweat and Chalk (h/t Sports Illustrated), Tim Layden described the way things worked when Arnsparger deployed Matheson at end:

The scheme left the Dolphins in a de facto 3-4 and also enabled them to zone-blitz by rushing the likes of Nick Buoniconti and Doug Swift from one side, along with three down linemen, while dropping Matheson into coverage.

Layden also quoted Arnsparger lauding the flexibility this early incarnation of a hybrid defense gave the Dolphins in the '70s. "With Bob there, with linebacking skills," he said, "we were able to rush five guys and cover with six. That's what you need to run a zone blitz. We could usually drop a linebacker into that slot zone, and that gave people a lot problems."

And Layden detailed how Arnsparger soon became bolder with his innovations, using the template offered by the 53 to add wrinkles that every defense in the league still uses today:

Arnsparger became progressively more creative, at times running double blitzes from the outside and dropping tackle Manny Fernandez, a brilliant athlete, into coverage.

Watch any game today and you're bound to see a team drop a D-lineman into underneath coverage while sending a linebacker or safety on the rush. It's a formula Arnsparger made famous and men like legendary zone-blitz coordinator Dick LeBeau borrowed and adapted, according to MMQB's Peter King:

This melting pot of schemes and ultra-flexible playmakers created the No-Name Defense. It was a unit that, despite its lack of fanfare, propelled the Dolphins to a 17-0 season and consecutive Super Bowl victories over the Redskins and Minnesota Vikings.

Arnsparger continued to experiment and innovate, even as his personnel changed. By the late '70s, the No-Names had broken up and the Killer B's were being put together.

Arnsparger made another versatile pass-rusher the focal point of a chameleon-style scheme, as he told Dave Hyde, writing for the Sun-Sentinel, in 1999:

We started doing that in the late '70s. [Kim] Bokamper had been trained as a linebacker, and we began dropping him in as a defensive end. We'd have him blitz and then drop off two guys on the other side.

That was really what you call the zone blitz now. It's just become a lot more sophisticated and used a lot more now.

Bokamper and A.J. Duhe picked up where Matheson left off. The latter had established a new position, one that became the staple of modern, hybrid pro defenses.

A flexible edge player who can align with his hand down or standing up, and rush or drop, has always been the staple of multiple-front defense. They allow teams to show 4-3 looks with 3-4 personnel or vice versa.

Arnsparger started the trend, and it became the vogue in the '80s. Fred Dean was that player for the San Francisco 49ers and George Seifert's defenses. Lawrence Taylor was that player for Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick of the New York Giants.

Charles Haley eventually emerged as Dean's successor with the 49ers. He played a multiple role in the Bay Area and later, to a lesser extent, with the Dallas Cowboys.

In today's game, think of Terrell Suggs and the Baltimore Ravens. The AFC North outfit has played a hybrid defensive scheme ever since Suggs entered the league in 2003.

Suggs plays in the modern incarnation of the schemes Arnsparger devised in the '70s.
Suggs plays in the modern incarnation of the schemes Arnsparger devised in the '70s.Nick Wass/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Now, you'd be hard-pressed to find a defense that doesn't have at least one edge-rushing hybrid star. Last season's Super Bowl teams even have names for the position.

The Seattle Seahawks and head coach Pete Carroll call it the "Leo." Players such as Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin and Cliff Avril have played this vital role.

Meanwhile, Belichick has used the "Elephant" with the New England Patriots for years. Willie McGinest, Mike Vrabel, Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones have each adopted the guise.

Recall the 2015 NFL draft and first-rounders Dante Fowler Jr., Vic Beasley and Alvin Dupree, three prospects selected for their hybrid skills. Their flexibility was a badge of honor.

Dupree was one of a handful of hybrid players drafted in the first round this year.
Dupree was one of a handful of hybrid players drafted in the first round this year.Wade Payne/Associated Press/Associated Press

The hybrid edge player is no longer a fad but the norm for modern defenses. That norm started with Arnsparger, Matheson and Bokamper.

Arnsparger penned the first pages of hybrid playbooks during those days. Back then, it was routine for offenses to be baffled by the ever-changing blueprint he splashed onto a canvas with multipurpose players.

One of those players, linebacker Bob Brudzinski, described how Arnsparger was a master at creating confusion, per Sports Illustrated (h/t Richard Goldstein of the New York Times): 

Nobody else runs stuff like we do, where the defensive end comes out in coverage, the linebackers play like linemen, the linemen play like linebackers, the stunts are different on every snap.

But Arnsparger wasn't just about chic schemes and fronts. He was also adept at getting the basics right. He proved that during a three-year stint as defensive coordinator for the Chargers.

Instead of complex innovations and designer combinations of coverage and pressure, Arnsparger simplified things. He scaled back the blitz-crazed scheme of previous coordinator Ron Lynn.

Arnsparger's alternative was a buck-basic 4-3 front. He let key players like end Leslie O'Neal and nose tackle Reuben Davis do what they did best.

Behind his traditional front, Arnsparger relied on a heavy diet of zone coverage. He also gave the late, great linebacker Junior Seau the freedom to run.

The fidelity to sound fundamentals and technique yielded awesome results. In 1999, Mark Maske of the Washington Post detailed how stingy the Chargers were on Arnsparger's watch:

In '92, the Chargers had the NFL's fourth-ranked defense, and in '93 they permitted a league-low 3.2 yards per rushing attempt and led the NFL with a plus-15 turnover margin.

But the finest moment undoubtedly came in the 1994 AFC Championship Game on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Heavy underdogs, the Chargers were expected to be steamrolled by, ironically, a big-play, zone-blitzing defense and a power running game.

This vintage of the Steelers simply battered defenses with the bruising trio Barry Foster, Bam Morris and fullback John L. Williams. But the Chargers stood firm.

San Diego held Pittsburgh to just 66 yards on 26 carries. To put that figure into perspective, one week earlier, the Steelers had overrun the Cleveland Browns.

Coached by Belichick, the Browns were the owners of the top-ranked scoring defense in the NFL that year. They relied on punishing linebackers Carl Banks and Pepper Johnson, along with a formidable front four featuring Rob Burnett and Michael Dean Perry.

All Foster and the Steelers did to that high-profile group was trample their way to 238 yards in a 29-9 win. But that performance didn't intimidate Arnsparger.

He loaded his fronts for the run by stacking linebackers, including putting Seau in the D-tackle box. He also put safeties Stanley Richard and Darren Carrington in the box.

Arnsparger's defense shut down a dominant rushing game in the 1994 AFC title game.
Arnsparger's defense shut down a dominant rushing game in the 1994 AFC title game.George Widman/Associated Press

The best thing Arnsparger did was have linemen such as Davis and Shawn Lee vary their gaps so the Steelers couldn't get on them and execute hat-on-hat, drive blocking.

Shutting down Pittsburgh's powerful run game was the key to San Diego's shocking 17-13 win and the only Super Bowl berth in franchise history. Arnsparger allowed Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell to try to beat the Chargers though the air, but he couldn't.

In those days, given a choice between O'Donnell's arm and the Foster-led smashmouth ground attack, the smart defensive coordinator put the game in the hands of the former.

Arnsparger's final NFL stop was as a defensive consultant with the Redskins in 1999. He was hired during the season to refine a unit struggling mightily under the aimless direction of coordinator Mike Nolan.

Simply by tweaking a few pages in the playbook, Arnsparger inspired a subtle yet invaluable improvement from a unit guilty of too many breakdowns and missed assignments.

This version of the Washington defense became less a burden and more a useful complement to a truly explosive offense. Players such as linebacker Derek Smith, safety Sam Shade and defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson responded with perhaps the best football of their careers.

Arnsparger made vital improvements to Washington's defense in 1999.
Arnsparger made vital improvements to Washington's defense in 1999.PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

The Redskins finished 10-6 and fielded arguably the best and most balanced team since the franchise last won the Super Bowl following the 1991 season. Preparing to face Washington in the playoffs, then-Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy knew how much credit Arnsparger deserved, per Hubert Mizell of the St. Petersburg Times:

It's an unusual move, yes, but since Bill showed up, Washington has been playing better defense.

Whether it was teaching textbook techniques or designing innovations that redefined pro defenses, Arnsparger was a master of the game. He was an NFL pathfinder whose time on the sideline was filled with great moments and evolution.

Arnsparger created the template defensive gurus like LeBeau and Belichick took up. He provided the platform for the 3-4 defense to work in the pros, while also devising the formula to get "safe pressure." His inventive use of personnel birthed multiple-front schemes.

Arnsparger's fingerprints are all over modern, hybrid defenses. And his innovations will continue to be seen every week in today's NFL.

 

All historical data, including rankings, player information and game recaps via Pro-Football-Reference.com.