Walk into most defensive staff rooms, ask what their #1 blitz is, and it will likely be some variation of this:
This is America’s fire zone blitz. A Sam/Mike edge blitz with full line movement, and the defensive end to the boundary dropping to the low hole (replacing the Mike). A fire zone is simply a blitz that sends five men and plays three under-three deep behind it (Cover 3). Many times a defensive lineman is used to drop to the low hole (MOF), or to replace a blitzing linebacker (curl/flat). The emphasis for a defense in this blitz package is sending more players than an offense can handle to a certain side. Most offenses have hot routes to counteract a blitzing ‘backer. To counter this (football is a game of chess), defenses started to drop d-lineman, or exchange the LBs responsibilities, into vacated spots or rolling secondary players to the hot receivers. Here is an example of a cross-dog blitz (dog=LBs) with the end to the boundary replacing the Will.
The reason fire zones are so prevalent is they are easy to run, and can use any player on the field. To run a fire zone, a defense has to have two curl/flat players (or seam players), a low hole player (MOF), and three deep third players. This allows a defensive coordinator to get creative. If looked at as a numbers game, the offense should be able to handle the rush. Where fire zones work is by overloading a side, forcing the quarterback to move, and creating short, inaccurate throws to hot WRs.
The Next Step in Evolution
What if you could make the same cross-dog blitz better by eliminating the low hole player? The video above shows the Texas defense running a cross-dog fire zone. The QB feels the pressure and easily checks down to the running back to the boundary. Easy four yards. It’s now 3rd and goal. Now, imagine that same play with the boundary end inserting himself up the field, creating a wall, or even rushing the passer. The blitz just became six on five. The only adjustment the defense has to make is to roll the boundary safety over the #2 WR (in this case the RB). The QB, who stepped to his right, would be blocked by the boundary end and the interior push would probably have sacked him. If the QB was able to get the ball off, the dropping safety would easily have been able to tackle him or break the pass up. In reality, the middle hole player, the safety, in this case, is wasted. The saying, “Don’t just cover grass,” comes to mind. Here is the same cross-dog blitz, but with Narduzzi’s principles of two under-three deep:
Narduzzi’s train of thought is a defense doesn’t need to waste a lineman. Let the d-lineman do what he does naturally, rush the passer. The two curl/flat players absorb the hot routes, while the CBs and deep safety protect the verticals. America’s blitz, under the Narduzzi principles, would look like this:
The issue with any Cover 3 blitz is the vertical route up the seam. If the curl/flat player doesn’t sink with the slot and collision and carry, it could be fatal. The spinning safety is at the mercy of the QB. The high-hole player kicks to the center of the formation and reads the QBs shoulders, weaving in the direction the shoulders are facing. In a 2×2 set, shown below, the high-hole safety has a dilemma if both #2 WRs run verticals. See video below:
The video above demonstrates why there is a split in how to divide the pass distribution behind a blitz. The two sides, fire zone and man, both have good arguments. The fire zone is the “safer” of the two in theory because the defense is protecting deep. Narduzzi takes it a step further by adding another lineman and playing the averages that the offense won’t throw the ball in the middle of the field short. Many teams will not risk this, but over time Michigan St. has proven it works. Adding the extra lineman could be the difference in a sack or an escape (Note: Teams can also run a Cover 1 scheme behind fire zones).
In a man scheme, every player on the field is accounted for. “Zero” blitzes can afford to send an extra man and peel the edge rusher to a RB if there is a flare. No matter what, a “zero” blitz has a plus-1 on the offense. Max or “zero” blitzes can come with a price. If any man is beat off the line it is an automatic touchdown. The theory behind zero blitzing is there are too many men attacking the offensive line for the QB to get a deep ball off. By not pressing the WRs, a defense can absorb any vertical route and drive on a short hot route (Don’t press = Don’t give the offense a quick hit deep). In the end, it is really a matter of preference for the defensive coordinator.
Blitz the Formation (BTF)
The next step in creating a sound blitz package is to formation the blitzes. It never fails, a defensive coordinator will call a field blitz into a 3×1 set and watch the Sam go all the way from the #2 WR to the “A” gap. Needless to say, it’s not sound and the Sam will never get there. One of the main blitzing principles is to never blitz from depth. That means, don’t blitz from far out, the player will never get there. Some coordinators will call blitzes to a TE, the extra blocker absorbs the rush and is wasted (should have checked to the other side). Blitzing an Ace/Diamond set with max protection can also lead to no results.
By formationing your blitzes, a defense puts its players in a better position to be successful. When designing your blitz package a coach must ask himself the “what ifs”. What if I call a fire zone to the field, but the formation calls for a boundary blitz. Against a tempo team, a defense is done. Bilechek, Saban, Ryan, and Phil Bennett, are all BTF disciples. It puts a defense in the correct blitz 100% of the time because it has established rules. By formationing blitzes, players get smarter too. They learn to recognize formations and how to attack them. What DC wouldn’t want his players to be more knowledgeable? None. The adage, “can’t fit a square peg in a round hole,” is true. Not every blitz works to every formation. There must be checks, there must be automatics, and most importantly there must be quality control.
5 Tips to Build a Better Blitz
- Don’t blitz from depth. Even if you show it early, it just adds to your bluff call.
- Formation, formation, formation. Formation your blitz calls to ensure they are right 100% of the time. You don’t want a LB covered down in trips coming from the hash to the “A” gap, or even the edge (See tip #1).
- Use that extra lineman. You wouldn’t put a LB at CB, or a Safety at Nose, so don’t ask your lineman to cover a slot up the seam. It just doesn’t make sense. Use the Narduzzi principle and have your LB and dropping safety absorb the seam/hot routes, plus it sets the box and contains the QB.
- If you can, play man. Zero blitzes give a defense a plus-1 in the pass protection. But using Tip #1 a defense can wreck havoc on an opposing QB. Nothing worse to a QB than having a defender in his face seconds after the snap.
- Cover the gaps. When drawing up a blitz make sure every gap is accounted for. Never assume the open “A” gap is never going to be attacked. Next thing you know the RB is scampering untouched up the middle of your defense