The Zone Blitz

Washington Commanders Washington Redskins

The big focus on the Redskins this off-season (bar Robert Griffin III‘s knee, of course) has been on the defensive side of the ball. They spent four draft picks on defense, three in the secondary, to go along with free agent signing EJ Biggers. David Amerson, Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo will have plenty of learning to do before they see the field this season. One of the first concepts they’ll be taught is the zone blitz.

Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau coined the concept back in their days together in Pittsburgh with the Steelers. It has since spread around the NFL as one of the more moderately safe ways to send five pass rushers. When Mike Shanahan took the job as Head Coach of the Washington Redskins, he hired Jim Haslett to be his defensive coordinator and install the same defense used by the Steelers. With that decision, the 3-4 defense and the zone blitz was brought to the Redskins.

The basic concept of the zone blitz is to be able to rush five defenders while still being able to drop six into zone coverage behind it. Lets take a look:

That is a base 3-4 defense look against a base offense. Now the most obvious zone blitz look would involve sending both outside linebackers, your best pass rushers, to rush the quarterback. The inside linebackers would then have to drop back into coverage. Here’s how that would look drawn up.

As you can see there, the corners drop back to cover a deep third of the field. The free safety covers the deep middle third of the field, making the secondary coverage effectively cover 3. This will stay the same on almost all zone blitz plays to ensure that you wont get beat deep if the blitz gets picked up.

The remaining linebackers and the strong safety will drop to their zone coverage landmarks, each covering a third of the field. They’ll be responsible for keeping the play in front of them. Should the offense manage to complete a pass despite the efforts of the blitz, these three defenders will have to break on the ball quickly and wrap-up to keep the gain to a minimum.

Now the interesting thing with the zone blitz is that you can send the blitz from basically anywhere you like. Your only restrictions are having two banks of three defenders in zone coverage and having five rushers. The best teams, like the Steelers, will disguise where they are blitzing from. You could decide to send both inside linebackers instead of the outside backers.

In that situation, the outside backers drop into coverage and the strong safety comes down to play the middle third. It forces your best pass rushers to drop into coverage instead of getting after the quarterback, but it brings heavy concentrated pressure up the middle of the offensive line, which isn’t easy to block. But you could get more creative than that. How about one inside and outside backer from the same side?

That blitz would put stress on the offensive line, with heavy pressure coming from one side. They’d have to work quickly to be able to pick everyone up. Still not satisfied? Here’s a safety blitz.

So as you can see, there are a number of possibilities for the zone blitz concept. While the defense is only rushing five defenders, the offense doesn’t know where those five guys will come from and won’t until after the snap. If used creatively, it can be incredibly hard to block while still having a safe zone defense behind it. With talent now on the Redskins defense, guys like London Fletcher, Perry Riley, Brandon Meriweather and rookie Phillip Thomas are all effective blitzers. Those are the type of guys that could be utilized with Brian Orakpo and Ryan Kerrigan to bring pressure on the quarterback and generate turnovers.

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