Inside the playbook: the zone blitz

Throughout May and heading into training camp, the NFP’s Matt Bowen will take you inside the playbooks of the NFL -- basic defenses, the running game, red-zone passing, fire zones, etc. -- to give you a better understanding of what your favorite teams are doing on Sundays.

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In the last two editions of “Inside the Playbook,” we looked at some basic zone concepts on defense -- two schemes that are taught at the high school and college level yet are still prevalent in today’s NFL game.

Today, let’s take out first look at the Fire Zone, or as it’s most commonly called, the Zone Blitz. We hear those words in every pregame show and during the games on Sunday, but what is a Zone Blitz? To simplify it, think of a pressure package with zone principles in the secondary. Rush five, drop six. Force the QB to throw the ball early into coverage — where this defense turns into a matchup zone that you might see on the basketball court.

It’s a way to incorporate the secondary into the blitz, and it can have a beneficial effect if it’s disguised well from the pre-snap look — especially if you can get the O-line to turn its protection away from the blitz.

Think of Darren Sharper in New Orleans under coordinator Gregg Williams, Jim Leonhard in New York or Ed Reed in Baltimore. Free safeties that turn into pass rushers coming out of the secondary. Timing — as always with a blitz — is key. The safety and the blitzing linebacker in this situation have to hit the line of scrimmage at the right time for the scheme to work.

Let’s look at an Open (or weak-side) Zone Blitz out of 4-3 regular personnel on defense vs. pro personnel (2WR, 2RB, 1TE) on offense with a Strong I backfield set…


What I wanted to show is a defense that comes out of the huddle with a Cover 2 look — or disguise. The corners are pressed — giving the look that they will jam the No. 1 receivers to their side — and the safeties have a depth of about 10 yards off the line of scrimmage — with enough room to drop to the deep half. Just before the snap of the ball, the CBs bail (open hips and use zone technique—back to sidelines—to gain depth), the SS rotates to the middle of the field and the FS begins to move down into the box — setting up the blitz.

Let’s check out what’s happening on the chalkboard…

DE- Align in a “5” technique, long-scoop to “A” Gap.
N- Align in a “Tilt,” scoop to closed side “A” Gap.
DT- Align in “3” technique, scoop to “C” Gap with contain rush principles.
DE- Align in “9” technique, step hard to line of scrimmage, drop to Seam/Flat closed.
WB- Stem to blitz, contain rush principles.
MB- Drop to Seam/Flat to open side.
SB- Drop to Middle Hook, play No. 3 open and closed.
CBs- Fire Zone 1/3 (maintain outside leverage).
SS- Rotate to deep middle 1/3, responsible for No. 3 vertical.
FS- Stem to blitz, rush “B” Gap weak off of long-scoop by DE.

Some keys to the scheme…

The free safety hits the “B” Gap to the open side only after the DE clears underneath. That’s why timing is so key to zone pressure. The idea is simple: Force the guard to come down on the DE, the tackle to kick out on the blitzing Will linebacker and the free safety has a clear run to the QB.

Seam/Flat. The closed-side (or strong side) DE and the Mike backer are responsible for the Seam and the Flat. In reality, they take No. 2 to their side, which they will carry vertically until No. 3 threatens them in the flat. This is where the defense relies on technique and knowing the opponent. The DE and Mike will drop No. 2 to the Middle Hook player (which is the Sam in this scheme) and run to the flat. This Zone Blitz has turned into a matchup zone — where players are passed off.

If No. 1 goes vertical, the corner buys him — no questions asked. He keeps his outside leverage — using the free safety as help — and plays this defense like it is Cover 1. If the No. 1 receiver (“X” or “Z”) runs a hitch, a slant, an underneath route, it’s passed off to the Seam/Flat player, and the corner waits for a vertical by No. 2 — who becomes the new No. 1 to his side.

The DE to the closed side can get in trouble quickly if the pressure doesn’t get to the QB. He will only be able to cover a RB to the flat, or a RB up the seam for so long. If he is left out to dry, it’s an explosive play for the offense.

One way to stretch this defense is by forcing the strong safety out of the middle of the field. Above, we said that the strong safety has No. 3 vertical. Offenses that play against zone blitzing teams, will run the OVS (or Outside Vertical Stretch). It consists of a “9 ” (or fade route), a “7” (or flag route) and a flat route. The Corner buys the “9”, the DE takes the flat and the strong safety has to run inside out to a "7" route that’s breaking away from his leverage.

Plenty of opportunities for a big play on defense when the zone blitz is run and the pressure gets to the QB. And, plenty of chances to give up an explosive play is the pressure doesn't get home.

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