Scheme session: the zone blitz

In today's scheme session, let's take a look at one of the most common strong side zone blitzes in the NFL. I learned this blitz back in 2001 when Lovie Smith came to the Rams and introduced our defense to the Tampa 2, and this exact blitz, which we called "Storm," was the first pressure scheme that we installed. It is now part of the defensive playbook of the Chicago Bears. I diagrammed the blitz below against your basic pro set offense. Take a look and then we will get into the details.

The zone blitz is exactly what it means—pressure with zone aspects in the coverage. In this case, using the “Storm blitz” as an example, the defense rushes five and drops six into coverage.

<p> Let’s start with the backend and move our way up…

Since we are talking about a Tampa 2 defense, I used a Cover 2 shell in the backend, with the corners aligned in a press look, along with the two safeties lining up at their pre-snap Cover 2 depth. Just before the snap of the ball, the Free Safety will begin to move towards the middle of the field to get to his drop, while the Strong Safety will begin to creep towards the line of scrimmage—anticipating the blitz.

Why do this? The key to any blitz is the disguise. In this diagram, the defense is showing Cover 2 to the quarterback, and only seconds before the snap do they move (during the week of practice, players will time the quarterback once he gets under center to prepare for this). By moving at the snap, the quarterback doesn’t have the option of checking out of the play, or adjusting the protection scheme to turn toward the pressure side.

The corners, who are shown here in a press look, will bail (turn their hips and keep their backs to the sidelines) and take their drops at the snap. They are playing what is commonly known as a “Fire Zone 1/3,” which consists of man principles, as they will match up to any vertical release in their zone. It looks like Cover 3 and acts like man coverage.

As I said above, the zone blitz consists of dropping six, and to do that, we must recruit three underneath zone defenders. In this blitz, the Will Backer (or weak side backer) plays the “middle hook,” matching to the No.3 receiver to his side. The Sam Backer (or strong side linebacker), steps to the line of scrimmage and then drops to the flat, matching any vertical release by No.2 to his side (which is usually the tight end) and then passing the route to the Will Backer once he is threatened in the flat. The last underneath zone defender is the weak side Defensive End, who comes out of his three-point stance and plays the exact same way as the Sam Backer.

This is the weakness of the blitz, as the scheme calls for the Defensive End to match No.2 down the field, which could happen if the Running Back releases out of the backfield. It is the common mismatch of this scheme, but the hope is that the pressure arrives before the QB can make the play.

Now, the blitz aspects…

The strong side defensive end does what is called a “long scoop,” slanting inside hard to the front side “A Gap.” The Nose slants hard to the weak side “A Gap,” while the weak side defensive tackle will rush with contain principles—attacking the outside arm of the offensive tackle.
The two blitzers—the Strong Safety and the Mike Backer—will cross behind the defensive end on the “long scoop.” The Strong Safety hits the strong side “C Gap,” while the Mike Backer hits the strong side “B Gap.” In Chicago, Bears Mike Backer, Brian Urlacher, made plenty of plays over the years in this exact scheme.

On paper, it looks perfect—and it often results in major problems for the offense. But, just like any defense, it is beatable.

So, when you are watching the games this Sunday, and you hear the announcers talking about the zone blitz, the scheme may be slightly different, but the principals are the same. Rush the passer and play zone coverage in the backend.

Click here to view my previous "Scheme Session," where I talk Peyton Manning and the Colts.

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