ASK A FREAKIN' GENIUS: SMART FOOTBALL ON ZONE/MAN BLITZES

Stand back and be touched by the whoopin' stick of greatness: Chris Brown of Smart Football has foolishly agreed to take one user-submitted question a week and give it the full Smart Football treatment for your general football edification. This week's topic comes from R is for Ramius, who wanted to hear the detailed schpiel about common man and zone blitz schemes. You got it.

Question from R is for Ramius:

Common man-coverage blitz schemes vs zone-coverage blitz schemes...advantages, disadvantages, offensive plays to counter them, etc?

This is one of those simple questions that get to the very core of how defense is played. The blitz -- which I'll define here as any defense that rushes five or more defenders -- is where the action is in modern football. Defenses can't sit back and wait, because offenses are too good, whether it is a run-first spread, a true triple-option squad, or a pass-happy spread (or even, you know, a a pro-style offense).

Moreover, coverage can really only be man-to-man or zone. And teams that focus on one tend not to be so good at the other. So how do they work and what should teams focus on?

Man up. The man-to-man blitz is one of the oldest defenses in football. The defense keeps nobody deep, assigns five-guys in man coverage to the offense's five eligible receivers, and blitzes the rest. If any of the eligible receivers stay in to block, the defender assigned to them goes ahead and rushes the QB.

Cover0

Now, the defense isn't just going to always announce that this is what it is doing.

Typically, defenses keep a safety or two deep. But when they want to go to a man blitz, the linebackers (or cornerbacks, or whomever) will try to slide inside to get better path to the quarterback close to when he thinks the ball will be snapped, while the safeties will slide down to put themselves in position to cover the slot receivers. It is up to a good quarterback -- and often good receivers or linemen who must also make adjustments on the fly -- to see this.

This defense's allure is arithmetic: the defense can always blitz one more guy than the offense can block because they have a counterpart for the ballcarrier. As a result it forces the offense to be proactive. On the other hand, it's aggressive, so an offense that gains a slight advantage can get a touchdown. For example, for the run game, coaches often try to dial-up inside trap plays where linemen can use the defense's aggressiveness against it. Relatedly, quick runs to the outside, like a speed option play where if a defender commits to the quarterback he can pitch it to the perimeter. If the offense can design the blocks to get everybody but the last outside defender, and it can then option off him, then the offense is off to the races. Everyone from Urban Meyer to Paul Johnson rely on this tactic.

From a passing perspective, the name of the game is to get the ball off before the defense can get to your quarterback. And, although it's true the defense can always bring one more than the offense can block, more blockers can force the extra pass rusher to come from further outside. In those cases, the offense can get a deep post or corner route. Nevertheless, the best tactic against an all-out blitz with safeties back is still a skilled quarterback and a quick pass. As I recently detailed, in the Fiesta Bowl last year Ohio State played Texas with soft coverage almost the entire night -- almost. At the end they decided to blitz Colt McCoy, and even though OSU had a guy break unblocked with a free path to McCoy, the Heisman hopeful got the ball off and the rest is well, history.

Fire me. Zone-blitzing is awash in contradictions: vanilla and endlessly complex; aggressive but conservative. It is vanilla and conservative because it takes a minimum number of guys to competently defend a football field in zone coverage -- no one tries to play zone with one safety deep and two guys in underneath zones. Instead, 90-95% of the zone-blitzes you'll see involve three elements: (1) three guys in "deep" zone coverage; (2) three guys in "underneath" or intermediate to short coverage; and (3) five pass rushers. The complexity comes in how these guys are arranged. The basic version is diagrammed below. (Ht Brophy.)

firezone

This basic alignment is known as a "fire zone." The reigning king of fire zones is, of course, Nick Saban. This is not because his coverages are better, however, but it's because of how he teaches it. I've discussed many of these principles before, but a few of those can be summarized briefly. He is big on technique for his secondary. Specifically, he often aligns them in a "press-bail" technique, meaning that they do all they can to make it look like press man coverage before the snap, but then bail deep into a deep coverage. If they are fast, they can do this. Next, he really stresses "pattern reading" with his undercoverage guys. This is what makes the coverage work: he drills into them the pass patterns they are most likely to face, and although they are in zone, they guard receivers, not empty areas of the field. The basic idea is to make the absolute most of only three guys in underneath coverage. Last, Saban puts a lot of thought into who will blitz and where they will come from. It's not enough to rush five, you want those five to cause confusion up front, and further to stil be in position to stop a run play. This is not simple to do either, but the devil's in the details.

Of course, football is a copycat game, and these techniques are not limited to Saban. Every team runs plenty of fire zone these days, and some, like Penn State, focus on it even more than he does and use a wider variety of looks. Among the options are to blitz a corner instead of a linebacker, and therefore rotate the coverage over for the three deep look -- i.e. use two safeties and a corner as the deep coverage rather than two corners and a safety. Or to not drop a defensive linemen at all, but still rush five from different areas, etc. This is where the possibilities are endless. Check out the video below for a flavor of Saban's zone blitzes, again courtesy of Brophy. When you watch the video, don't watch the ball. Instead, focus on the safeties and corners, and then focus on the linebackers. Don't worry, it's always evident where the ball goes.

As far as what works against the zone-blitz, that is still an ongoing battle between offenses and defenses. Zone-blitzes are malleable -- one reason I said they were conservative is that zone-blitzes almost always play with three deep zone defenders, which is a very conservative strategy. But overall one reason you see so many screens these days is because coaches feel that these harm zone-blitzes: with all the movement before the snap and various guys rushing (and sometimes defenders in pass coverage who aren't used to it), the offense feels like it can win if it sucks the rushers upfield while getting a receiver and blockers on a limited number of pass coverage defenders. The other issue is protection again: if you can figure out how to block the defense's five blitzers (or even figure out which five guys are blitzing), then you should be able to hit a pass downfield against the very soft and not crowded zone defense. But that's a big if.

The run game answers tend to depend on gameplan issues. Where do they blitz from? If you think you can, say, kick out the blitzing linebacker with your fullback and cut inside, then maybe you have a big play. Or maybe the linebacker or safety is actually dropping down and will stuff it. Overall though, some of the same plays that worked against the man blitz can work against the zone, if you can get to the perimeter or break through the defense's initial front by using their aggressiveness against them.

Blitzing, like much else on defense stems from some rather basic principles but, in practice, has to account for everything the offense could do on a given play. This means that once you master the basic framework outlined above, the real work is only beginning. Now you have to figure out what Bobby Petrino or Urban Meyer and Tebow or Norm Chow or whoever is actually going to do. Yet, it can't be that hard. Some of these guys are pretty good at this blitzing thing.

Chris writes for Smart Football and does it very well. We ask Twitteronia for submissions for this every Wednesday at twitter.com/edsbs. Holla and get your question the real live genius treatment there.

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