In life, as actor Oscar Levant so wisely put it, there is “a thin line between genius and insanity.”
I’ll take that quote a step further, and say that nothing accents genius better than insanity. In fact, they coexist beautifully.
To compare that philosophy to football, nothing accents aggressiveness better than conservativeness. The reckless abandon of a heavy blitz sits perfectly underneath a carefully constructed three-deep zone coverage scheme.
No part of the zone blitz is more genius than the insanity it brings to opposing offenses. The pre-snap read is most likely wrong, and suddenly the quarterback doesn’t know who’s in coverage and the offensive line doesn’t know who they have to block.
That is the beauty of the zone blitz.
“Necessity [is] the mother of invention” – Dick LeBeau, hall of fame cornerback and inventor of the zone blitz
The passing game is key to football. It has been that way for years, and the obsession with an elite aerial attack is still growing.
Just look at the numbers. Quarterbacks are the most highly paid position in football. Second highest-paid? The left tackle, because he protects the quarterback.
More numbers. Eight of 2009’s top ten passing teams made the playoffs, two of the top five reached the Super Bowl.
Only three of the top ten rushing teams made the playoffs. The Colts, who nearly went undefeated, had (statistically) the league’s worst run game.
So how do you stop the machine that is the NFL quarterback? The Peyton Manning’s and Tom Brady’s of the league who can carry teams on their shoulders, make reads in half a second and weave a football in between eight defenders. How do you beat that guy?
That’s where the zone blitz comes in.
When newly inducted hall of famer Dick LeBeau played cornerback—from 1959 to 1972—the run game was dominant. As LeBeau himself said, “offenses ran [the ball] probably 65 percent of the plays.” That philosophy slowly reversed and developed into the quarterback-centered league that is today’s NFL.
LeBeau first began dreaming up a way of pressuring the quarterback without sacrificing coverage in 1984, while he prepared for his first coordinator job with the Cincinnati Bengals. While scouting the 1984 draft, LeBeau had a conversation with LSU coach Bill Arnsparger about bringing the blitz while still adequately covering receivers.
He began to think: what if he dropped a defensive lineman into coverage and in turn blitzed a linebacker, or even a defensive back? Three of the six underneath zones could be manned, and you could still play under a cover-three shell.
By the time the quarterback found an open man, the intricate blitz would have ideally done its job.
The Zone Blitz was born.
Below is a diagram of a fire zone blitz, the most common type of zone blitz, being run from a 3-4 defense. The diagram—albeit poorly drawn—actually looks quite simple from this perspective. The problems occur when one tries to read it while under center.
The vast majority of zone blitzes feature the same properties—three deep defenders, three under defenders, and five pass rushers. Contrary to popular belief, a defensive lineman does not have to drop back in coverage for the play to be considered a zone blitz.
In the case of the above diagram, no linemen need to drop back into coverage. There lies one bonus of running the zone blitz from a 3-4. In most 3-4 plays, all three linemen and one linebacker rush the passer. Here, both strong side linebackers are rushing, but the strong safety fills in for the inside backer. Also, the linemen typically stunt away from the blitz.
Advantage number one is the fact that the linemen can’t determine who to block pre-snap. Once they make their reads, it becomes a mad scramble to pick up the overloaded right side. On the other side of the line, three men are left to block only two rushers.
The offense is now in a position where it has to rely on its running backs for pass protection, not just as a last resort.
Advantage number two lies in the basics of quarterbacking. When facing the blitz, quarterbacks are taught to throw into the zone left unoccupied by the blitzer. In this case, if a quarterback tries to follow his instincts and “throw into the blitz,” there is a strong safety sitting and waiting for the ball.
Below is an example of a zone blitz being run from a 4-3 defense.
In this instance, the pass rushers consist of the middle and strong side linebackers, while the weak side defensive end drops back into coverage.
Basically, the coverage “rolls” to the strong side. What this means is that the weak side end takes place of the weak side backer, who takes the place of the blitzing middle linebacker. The strong safety again bumps down and replaces the strong side backer.
Unlike the 3-4 zone blitz, here a lineman drops back into coverage. For obvious reasons it is preferable to have a linebacker in coverage over a lineman. The defensive end is a typically a liability in coverage, especially if forced to cover a speedy receiver.
Essentially, the philosophy in dropping the end into coverage revolves around the hope that the quarterback makes an uneducated throw under the face of intense pressure, right to the end. It’s better than having no one there at all.
In my opinion, a zone blitz is more effective when run from a 3-4.
Once you get the basics down, there are limitless possibilities on how to adjust and morph the zone blitz (i.e. different blitzers, gaps, coverage schemes, etc.).
Two-deep zone, WLB and DE exchange:
In a normal cover two, the weak side linebacker would have had an under zone and the DE would be rushing. In the diagram, the two essentially “exchange” responsibilities, leaving the tackle without a man to block.
Three-deep zone, MLB and WLB cross:
Here, the defense cross blitzes both the weak-side linebacker and the middle linebacker. Notice also that the free safety has under coverage while the strong safety is covering a deep third. The worst kind of pressure an offense can let up comes from the inside, and that’s exactly what this blitz achieves.
Two-deep zone, MLB and NT cross:
Here, the middle linebacker attacks the strong side A gap, and the zero-technique (a DT lined up over center, usually seen in a 3-4) stunts to rush through the B gap. Again, the coverage “rolls” over, with the weak-side end taking the weak backer’s spot and the weak backer replacing the blitzing MLB.
Three-deep zone, SS and MLB blitz:
In this blitz, the strong safety rushes the B gap and the middle linebacker rushes the A gap. The coverage is similar to the fire zone, except with a linebacker filling in for the strong safety.
Here's my personal favorite, Rex Ryan’s three-deep LB triple-cross run out of a 2-5 formation (2 d-linemen, 5 linebackers):
Rex Ryan dialed up this blitz against the Browns during his tenure with the Ravens. The Ravens’ linebackers dance around pre-snap and show blitz, back off, etc., before rushing as shown in the diagram. The Ravens get an untouched rusher to the quarterback, and the play ends with an interception by CB Chris McAlister. And no, I could not think of a better name for this one.
When It’s Effective
The great thing about the zone blitz is the way it combines a normally risky blitz with a relatively conservative coverage scheme.
It’s the perfect call on an obvious passing down, especially of longer distances. The coverage men are normally coached to keep the play in front of them, not bite on short routes, and to fly to the ball once it’s thrown.
When well executed, the pressure and deep coverage makes it extremely difficult to complete a deep or even medium length pass.
When It’s Ineffective
Zone blitzes are typically weak against short, quick routes. There is usually no coverage in the flats, and a quick throw by the quarterback can negate even the best of pass rushes.
If a team manages to effectively pick up the blitz, a significant problem is posed to the defense. The quarterback can now make his reads, and treat the defense like any other zone coverage scheme. If in a cover three for example, the hard drop back of the corners makes the defense especially susceptible to hooks and curls by the receivers. Also, a flat or flood type route can effectively pick apart this defense.
The Zone Blitz at Work
After hyping up the zone blitz so much, it's only fitting that I conclude with a few examples of it in action.
You have probably seen this one, dialed up by Dick LeBeau himself:
Yup, that was a zone blitz that resulted in the longest play in Super Bowl history. As you can see, practically the entire Steelers front-seven shows blitz pre-snap. However, only four came and Kurt Warner, under pressure and presumably confused, throws the ball right to James Harrison.
Here's the one I mentioned previously, the "three-deep LB triple-cross out of a 2-5":
By the way, I would like the thank Chris Brown of Smart Football for breaking down and diagramming the above blitz. If you haven't seen his blog, it's certainly worth a look*. I would also like to congratulate Dick LeBeau on his long-awaited Hall of Fame induction.