The Redskins made a big effort to boost their defense in the offseason, drafting David Amerson, Phillip Thomas and Bacarri Rambo back in April to bolster a poor secondary unit. Thomas saw an unfortunate injury in preseason cut his rookie season short, but Amerson and Rambo look set to play a big role for a defense that struggled to contain quarterback’s.
One of the concepts they will have been taught early on in training camp 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 hang up.
The six defenders dropping back into zone coverage will effectively make two banks of three zones, one that covers the intermediate routes, and the other covering deeper routes. As you can see in the diagram above, the corners drop back to cover a deep third of the field. The free safety covers the deep middle third of the field. This will stay the same on almost all zone blitz plays to ensure that you don’t 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 covering intermediate routes and reacting to anything short. Their job is to keep the play in front of them, so that they are in position to make a tackle and keep the gain to a minimum should the quarterback manage to throw to his hot receiver.
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. Another common look is to send both inside linebackers on a “double A gap blitz”. Both inside linebackers will attack the gap between the center and the guards.
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. But the fun doesn’t stop there. If the defense really wants to get creative, they can send a safety blitz as well.
So as you can see, there are a large number of possibilities for the zone blitz concept. While the defense is only rushing five defenders, the offense doesn’t know where those five blitzers 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. As one of their favorite zone coverage concepts, look for the Redskins to use the zone blitz heavily throughout the season as a way to bring pressure while still helping their rookie defensive backs adjust to life in the NFL.