Building a Better [Zone] Blitz

Evolving the age old Zone Blitz.

America’s Blitz

Walk into most defensive staff rooms, ask what their #1 blitz is, and it will most likely be some variation of this:


The image above 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). Other variations, like the one below, drop the safety into the box and have the DE sink to the curl/flat.

The emphasis for a defense in this type of blitz package is sending more players than an offense can handle to a certain side. Most offenses have hot routes to counteract a blitzing LB. To counter this, defenses started to drop D-lineman, or exchange the LBs responsibilities, into the vacated spots or rolling secondary players to the hot receivers. Here is an example of a Cross-Dog blitz (the term “dog” = LBs) with the DE to the boundary replacing the Will’s coverage responsibility.

Bill Arnsprarger is considered by football historians as the Godfather of the Zone Blitz. In 1971, Arnsparger began using a hybrid DE named Bill Matheson in coverage. This created a de-facto 3-4 and would eventually lead to a new era of defensive football in the NFL. The schemes relevance was solidified in ’72 with the only undefeated season in NFL history. The “No Name” defense ushered in the “Zone Blitz Era.”

The reason Fire Zones are so prevalent is they are easy to run and can use any player on the field. They are also considered a “safe” way to blitz. Arnsparger, considered the blitz safe because he was still playing zone behind a pressure. Legendary DC Dick LeBeau visited Arnsparger early in his career to gain knowledge about the scheme. The words “safe pressure” resonated:

Bill’s catchphrase was that he wanted to get ‘safe pressure,’ on the quarterback, and that expression stuck with me because that was a very succinct way to summarize exactly what I was looking for. Safe pressure. I walked out the door saying those words to myself.” – Dick LeBeau

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 because the blitzers can come from anywhere on the field. 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 dropping D-lineman assists in the overload by trying to bait the nearest O-lineman into taking him, only to drop and leave a gaping hole for an oncoming rusher.

The Next Step in Evolution

What if a defense could make the same “cross-dog” blitz shown above by Texas more efficient by eliminating the low hole player completely? The video above shows the Texas defense running a Cross-Dog Fire Zone. The QB feels the pressure and is able to work towards the boundary. The right Guard and Tackle easily clamp down on the 3 technique as the DE vacates the edge. This “soft” area is exploited by the QB and he 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 DE inserting himself up the field, creating a wall, or even rushing the passer. The right Tackle would have to deal with the DE leaving the Guard to handle the 3 tech. That’s two one-on-one blocks and a DE containing the QB. The blitz also just became six on five. The only adjustment the defense has to make is to roll the boundary safety over top the #2 WR (in this case the RB). This puts a faster safety on a speedy RB. A much better match-up for the defense.

The QB, who had to step to his right to avoid the rush, would be have been blocked by the boundary DE and the interior push would probably have sacked him. If the QB was able to get the ball off to the RB, the dropping boundary safety would easily have been able to tackle him or even break the pass up. In reality, the middle hole player, the safety, in this case, is essentially a wasted player. The saying, “Don’t just cover grass,” comes to mind. Here is the same cross-dog blitz, but with Dantonio/Narduzzi’s principles of two under-three deep:

In the video above, the field DE doesn’t do his job, but the pressure still hit home. It did exactly what it was supposed to do. The QB had to work out of the box and look downfield. The OLB to the field held the curl and worked to the flat. The CB to that side stayed over top the curl route ran by #1. The blitz could have been better, yes, but it forced the QB to make a throw on the move, buying time for the CB to break the pass up. It’s now 4th down and the vaunted Oregon offense is off the field.

One thing that Dantonio and Narduzzi do is create “hybrid” schemes. Mush like Solo coverage is a pseudo-kick coverage, their six-man zone pressures have checks within them to keep the defense safe. In the video below, the boundary DE peels with the RB. This is a safeguard put into the scheme. If the DE were to just insert and work to the QB, the RB would be wide open. Though the DE ends up stopping to secure the QB, it forces the QB to make a tough throw and the overhang to the boundary collects the RB at the line of scrimmage (LOS) for no gain. This is a designed RB flare screen, but the pressure still hits home forcing the QB to move.

Here is another example against Baylor. The DE to the boundary side (#85) reads out of his fit and cuts to the sideline. The DE to the RB is allowed to read out because he is the “peel” player. The 3 tech., like the DE in the Oregon film, works to the outside shoulder of the QB. The “peel” DE is allowed the read out of his fit, or insert to add pressure.

The Theory

Narduzzi’s train of thought is a defense doesn’t need to waste a lineman in coverage if it doesn’t have to. Let the D-lineman do what he does naturally, rush the passer. The two curl/flat players absorb the “hot” routes and protect the seam, while the CBs and deep safety protect against verticals. America’s blitz, under the Narduzzi principles, would look similar to the image below. The Mike would become the “peel” player to the RB.

.02 AM Fixed

The issue with any Cover 3 Zone 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 formation, shown below, the high-hole safety has a dilemma if both #2 WRs run verticals. In the video below, the seam player works inside of the slot and never reroutes the WR. This allows the slot to go unabated down the field. The safety who is coming from the opposite hash doesn’t have time get to the opposite slot. The result is an easy pass and catch for the Oregon Ducks offense.

In this particular scheme, it is important for the seam players to relate and match the slot. They must hold the inside because there is no low hole player. Unlike Saban’s Rip/Liz scheme that has the seam players work outside in, the Dantonio/Narduzzi scheme makes the slot work out, or “run-the-hump.” This elongates the route and forces the slot to the overhangs help in the CB. This issue is demonstrated below. The Michigan St. seam player (#5) doesn’t hold the inside and allows the Oregon slot to work into the middle of the field. This creates a high-percentage throw situation for the Oregon Ducks. The result is a 1st and 10. Oregon will score two plays later.

The Split

The videos above demonstrate 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 by having zone defenders. 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 or his seam players can protect the “hot” zones. Many teams will not risk not having a low hole player, but over time Michigan St. and the Dantonio/Narduzzi principle have proven to work. 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 blitz scheme, every eligible offensive player on the field is accounted for. “Zero” blitzes can afford to send an extra man (seven-man blitz) and peel the edge rusher to a RB if he flares. No matter what, a “zero” blitz has a plus-one advantage on the offense. Max or “zero” blitzes can come with a price though.

If any man is beat off the line it can be an automatic touchdown for the offense. 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.

Blitzing 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 a defenses main blitzing principles should be to never blitz from depth. That means, don’t blitz from far out or too deep off the line. One, the player will never get there and two, if it allows the offense to see what is coming and react. Some DCs will call blitzes to a TE, and the extra blocker absorbs the rush wasting the blitz (the pressure should have checked to the other side). Blitzing an Ace/Diamond formation with max protection can also lead to no results and isolated CBs.

By formationing a defense’s blitzes, a defense puts its players in better position to be successful. When designing a 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, Rex 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 set by the DC. 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 about the game? 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, automatics, and most importantly there must be quality control.

5 Tips to Build a Better Blitz

  1. Don’t blitz from depth. Even if a defense shows a blitz early, it just adds to its bluff call. Versus check-with-me offenses, a DC can go back and forth between blitzing and bluffing or stays with the call. The offense never knows for sure.
  2. Formation, formation, formation. By formationing a defense’s blitz calls, a DC ensure they are right 100% of the time according to the rules established by the defensive coaches (even when to “Omaha!”). A defense doesn’t want a LB covered down in Trips coming from the hash to the “A” gap, or even off the edge (See tip #1).
  3. Use that extra lineman. A defense wouldn’t put a LB at CB, or a Safety at Nose if they couldn’t get the job done. A DC should ask himself if that lineman can cover a slot up the seam or is it better to let him rush the passer. Use the Dantonio/Narduzzi principle and have the LB and dropping safety absorb the seam/hot routes, plus it sets the box and contains the QB.
  4. If you can, play man. Zero blitzes give a defense a plus-one in the pass protection. Using Tip #1 a defense can wreak havoc on an opposing QBs as well. There is nothing worse to a QB than having a defender in his face seconds after the snap.
  5. Cover all the gaps. When drawing up a blitz a DC needs to make sure every gap is accounted for. He should never assume the open “A” gap is never going to be attacked because it will.


Blitz Design Resources from MQ:

  1. 5 Tips for Developing a Blitz
  2. How to Packaging Blitz Calls
  3. Blitzing the Formation (BTF)
  4. Dog Check (Single-Dog Pressure)
  5. 5 Tips For Blitzing From The Secondary


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Author: MatchQuarters


13 thoughts on “Building a Better [Zone] Blitz”

  1. So my big question with Narduzzi’s 3 deep 2 under scheme. How do you apply a similar principle to trips (3×1 10 personnel or 11 with closed trips)? Do you push to the trips side, killing the solo side curl flat player and have that player Rob up to 14 yards or so? What do you do with the middle deep third player? Just curious. I have ideas but always curious what others think.

    1. You have to do one of two things: 1) Spin to the Trips letting the field safety absorb #3 and lock the b/s CB (boundary safety spies the vert. of #3); or 2) Spin the boundary safety into the middle of the formation and have him work to #3 (low hole). I would prefer #1 because it gets hands on #3 much quicker and is more natural for the defense. Either choice, you are locking up the b/s CB with very little help. The added rusher should force a quick throw, so the b/s CB can play with inside leverage and expect a slant or hitch.

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