College football has a particularly long and excruciating off-season, so if I can churn a few easy off-season posts out of breaking down 'core MSU football concepts' than I will.
Also, it's incredibly easy to sound stupid when discussing football strategeremisms so where I can, I'm going to cling to the work of a few smarter bloggers like a small, swimming, child clings to a inflatable floatie toy. Any time I wade out in the deeper waters of my own speculation you're trusting me at your own risk. Enjoy.
"Pat Narduzzi's greatest trick was convincing the world the cornerback blitz did not exist. And then, constantly choosing to blitz the cornerback."
There are about 30 seconds left in the half and MSU is up 7-0. The opposing offense is driving near midfield, and a 20 yard gain or so would put them squarely in field goal range. They are staring at second down and manageable, but have no timeouts, so if you can get a sack or a tackle for loss, it's likely the clock will either run out, or your opponent will let it run out. What do you, presumptive MSU defensive coordinator, do?
This isn't a hypothetical, this is a puzzle that actually came up this season, and the fact that Mark Dantonio, Pat Narduzzi and the rest of the MSU staff solved it emphatically partially explains those nice big raises they're all getting.
It's a problem as old as football: How do I get pressure on a quarterback yet play a safe coverage scheme behind it to make sure I don't get burnt for a big play?
The answer lies in the humble, powerful and flexible 'zone blitz', with a Narduzzi twist.
Follow after the jump for the breakdown...
What is a zone blitz?
What's the first thing you think of when you here the term zone blitz? I'll tell you what used to pop into my head first: A big, mean, athletic freak of a defensive lineman (think Ndamukong Suh) waiting anxiously with a hand on the line of scrimmage for the ball to be snapped, before suddenly turning and sprinting backwards into coverage. As a linebacker or a safety (or both) blitzes through where Suh used to be, the panicked and confused quarterback throws to where the blitzer vacated, expecting there to be a hole in the coverage... only to find the meaty paws of Suh snatching the ball out of the air before rumbling down the sideline for a Fat Guy Touchdown.
This is a zone blitz, but it is not all zone blitzes. Smart Football's Chris Brown explains further (emphasis mine):
"As I said, the basic concept is not new at all: confusing the offense with respect to which defenders are dropping and which are blitzing (this goes back at least fifty years), while playing relatively safe coverage behind it. It’s also not true that a defensive lineman must drop into coverage for it to be a zone blitz; plenty of effective zone blitzes don’t use that tactic. Indeed, it’s one reason why the 3-4 and the 3-3 and other multiple defensive back and linebacker formations are great with the zone blitz — you don’t have to drop the 300 pounder into space where, beyond the initial surprise, he’s a liability."
To be succinct, a zone blitz can be defined as any rush of five or more defenders (though I could be persauded that in some cases you could have a four man 'blitz') that has zone coverage played behind it. Simple right?
Now what about coverages in a zone blitz? Mr. Brown, explain (emphasis mine):
...As I said above, because you need at least six guys to play a zone defense competently, that leaves only five possible rushers. As a result, a majority — something like 80-90 percent — of zone blitzes in the N.F.L. take the same basic form: three defenders in deep pass coverage, three in underneath zones for the receivers who run intermediate and short routes, and five defenders who rush the passer and look to stop the run. This is known as a fire zone. Every N.F.L. team does this same thing.
Why call a Zone Blitz?
"Football today's about one word," said Saints coach Sean Payton... "Confusion," said Payton. "That's the word. Football has become the battle of confusion."
"Damn it!" says a disgruntled man probably posting on your favorite team's most popular message board right now, "Zone coverage is for girly men and basketball teams. I believe in tough-ass man to man coverage. I want to be aggressive, really overload 'em with blitzes. If we play a zone we're just gonna send five dudes and still give up the same dink and dunk completion every time!"
Don't be so prejudice Strawman-I-Created. Here's Brown once more (emphasis mine) explains that the zone blitz is about rushing smarter, not harder, and thus being aggressive without giving up the infuriating big gain:
The diagram above shows the basic setup. This soft, relatively passive coverage with three deep defenders is how the defense, despite being labeled a blitz, is actually quite conservative — the offense should not be able to get big-pass play down the field. This is not a gambling, go-for-broke scheme in which you dare the other team to make a big play...
Teams like the Ravens (and now the Jets) instead are confident that they can both play zone and also get pressure with only five rushers, because they will use those five rushers intelligently. This is where fire zones become multifarious and also where the action is in confusing quarterbacks. Although the basic framework of rushing five guys and dropping six almost never changes (and neither does the three-deep three-intermediate arrangement), the best defensive coordinators surgically diagnosis the other team’s protection schemes and design ways for their five guys to confuse and break free an extra rusher against six or even seven pass protectors.
In short to lay out some sort pros and cons of each general scheme:
Man to Man blitz schemes
-Can sends lots of blitzers (as many as seven, eight, maybe even nine blitzers if the right situation is present)
-no 'gaps' in coverage to be exploited by a QB hot read.
-safeties have more flexibility in coverage (can play deep zones, double team, or attack flats)
-Either your secondary will be unable to blitz or you will be forced to single cover a WR or TE or RB with a linebacker, limiting your 'pool' of potential blitzers
-Your opponent will likely be able to figure out where pressure is coming from based on how you line up
-Man to man coverage is relatively more risky, it's easier to get 'burnt'
Zone Blitz Schemes
-Confusion for offensive lineman. Anyone can blitz, anyone can drop into coverage, and if they don't block the correct people they can be just standing around letting free blitzers through.
-Confusion for quarterbacks. Defenders can pop up in places you weren't expecting leading to broken up passes or interceptions.
-Coverage is 'safe' you might give up a short gain, but are unlikely to get beat for a long one.
-Zone coverage restricts the amount of blitzers you can send (any more than 5-6 and you're likely in big trouble due to the nature of a 'sound' zone defense)
-This also limits the amount of coverages your pass defenders can play
-there will likely be a gap somewhere in your zone if the QB can find it in time.
In the situation laid out at the start, where you need to keep an offense from gaining 20-30 yards, yet still pressure the QB, the zone makes much more sense.
So why call a cornerback blitz?
"[no] I just like to bring the corner."
-Pat Narduzzi, responding to a reporter's question as to whether they saw anything in particular that made them call so many CB blitzes vs Michigan.
1. Offenses just won't expect it
Cornerbacks simply don't blitz very often. Probably because they are typically recruited for their coverage skills, and aren't the greatest tacklers, so conventional thinking is that it's better off to leave your CB on a dangerous WR where you utilize his presumed best skills, and let your better tacklers go after the quarterback/running back.
But because most people don't do it, most teams just don't check for it, or react very well when it does happen. As MSU fans know, there were a good half a dozen times this year where Johnny Adams got a free run at a quarterback, often resulting in a significant loss of yardage.
Even if teams have been reminded of the possibility, because it's relatively rare compared to other blitzes the CB usually has the advantage of surprise.
2. It utilizes the most static player on your defense and makes him dynamic
The cornerback, if you aren't blitzing him or using him to attack the run game, is almost a purely reactive position, the position on defense that is most dictated to by what the offense is doing. If he's playing man to man he has to follow his assignment. If he's playing zone, he still has to adhere to his assignment, only this time it's a space on the field. It seems every other player gets to regularly attack the line of scrimmage except the cornerback.
The CB blitz turns that reactive player into a player who, regardless of what the man in front of him does, attacks down field and becomes someone that the offense has to now account for in a new and different way. Defenses should, as much as possible, be dictating to offenses and not letting offenses dictate to them. CB blitzes let you do this.
3.It attacks the other team's weakest blockers
If you making a general list of offensive players and their proficiency at pass blocking, it would probably look something like this (from best to worst):
1. Offensive Tackles
5. Tight Ends
6. Running Backs
7. Wide Receivers
Blitzing your cornerback, if you're doing it right, lets you use angles to have your blitzing cornerback completely avoid the top four groups and directly attack the bottom four.
Whereas linebackers and safeties often have to, by virtue of their position on the field, have to attack the biggest, strongest, best pass blockers; the cornerback, from the safe angle of his 'island' gets to typically avoid all of them, increasing his chance at getting a free run at the QB.
4. It lets you easily (and safely) overload one side of the pass protection
Bringing the cornerback allows you to easily send more blitzers at one side of the offensive line than they can block, and importantly, doesn't require you to move linebackers or safeties out of the middle of the field (an easier throw that overload blitzes naturally allow anyways) in favor of ceding the sideline (a relatively tougher throw).
Why not call a corner blitz?
If it's so great, why not do it all the time?
1. It loses its unpredictability
If part of the advantage of the corner blitz is its surprise, you don't want to ruin that by doing it all the time. If you do it too much, team's will prepare for it, and it will inevitably lose its ineffectiveness. The corner blitz is a fine bourbon, not a cheap beer.
2.You need a specific cornerback
If your corner can't consistently finish the hit, don't even bother. There's a reason why MSU almost always sends Adams and not Dennard. It's because Adams is quick and a sure tackler. If you don't have the right player, that moment in the BTCCG where Russel Wilson shook off an Adams tackle to complete a pass happens too frequently for the CB blitz to make sense.
3. It's a long way
The favorable angles and surprise factor are also in part due to the positioning of the cornerback: he's, you know, way out there. He needs more time to get to the quarterback than other blitzers, so the other coverage needs to give him more time.
And if the quarterback rolls out to the opposite side of the field from which your corner blitzed, well, now you've got to go even farther still.
So if the QB is going to throw the ball after a second, you're CB is never, ever going to get home.
4. You're giving up the flat of that side of the field
If all the offense needs or wants is a short gain and they see your corner blitz they can just throw to where he isn't and it's unlikely your LBs or DE or S will be able to get that vacated spot in time like they would with zones more in the middle of the field (again, due to the corner's unique positioning).
Can we see a good example of an MSU corner blitz?
Yes we can, in fact, as I mentioned before, the example named at the top of the post came up in the OSU game this year and MSU aced it with a well timed, well executed corner zone blitz.
MSU is in their 3-3-5, 3rd down package identified in this picture by the dot marking them.
Safeties- Dark Blue
Defensive Lineman- Light Blue
I'm frankly guessing at what precisely the deep coverage is, because the camera zooms way in on this play and doesn't tell me what the safeties are doing. Given that most zone blitzes utilize cover 3 (three players split the field up into deep thirds and three split up the shallow thirds, see the above bit about fire zones) and that seems to be what MSU's safeties are doing before they disappear off screen, I think my guess is pretty good. Finally, if we remember the old maxim that 'all zones eventually become man to man', these 'boxes' are also guidelines, not strict orders.
MSU shows OSU six players who appear at first to be blitzing, all three defensive lineman, and all three linebackers. It is not unthinkable that Adams or the lowest MSU safety could blitz, but I think we can all agree OSU's attention is pretty firmly locked into figuring out which of the 6 circled players are blitzing and which aren't.
No one of the six tips whose doing what until just before the snap. We see the shallowest safety bail deep at the last second to form an cover 3 umbrella (as opposed to the pre-snap cover 2. This is a trick MSU often uses to disguise coverages and confuse QBs.) Adams at the top of your screen agitates oh so slightly, but doesn't fully commit to taking a few steps towards the QB and showing blitz until right before Miller snaps it.
After the snap MSU's intentions are revealed, as four Spartans attack the weak side of this formation and both the MLB and the SLB bail out to cover the shallow zones at the top of the screen. This means that 1. the OSU LG is caught in limbo here, blocking nobody. He ends up double teaming the MSU DT, but that does very little to neutralize the incoming blitz. OSU has four blockers (marker with pink dots) to take on four rushers (marked with light blue dots). Each of them is under a large amount of pressure to not screw up. They do.
Denicos Allen pulls a slick inside pass rush move on the OSU RT and slips by him into the backfield. Nobody impedes Adams as he sprints to the QB. Miller has just finished completing a quick play action to his running back who now must choose which of the two free blitzers he must block.
It is worth noting that Miller technically has two open receivers here (marked with question marks), but also worth noting that neither is past the first down marker, and neither is a particularly easy throw for a QB under pressure. His easiest throw (and presumably his hot read in case of blitz) over the middle is completely blanketed.
The running back chooses to block Allen, who is A. in front of him and B. the better tackler. I'll admit in this situation this is probably his best bet, but that means Adams now has a full head of steam and has gone from his corner position to the QB totally untouched. Miller tucks the ball and tries to use his legs to get out of this bad situation, something he probably got away with a lot in high school. Not here.
Miller is quickly hit.
And is sacked.for an eight yard loss. 2nd and 6 becomes 3rd and 14. 23 seconds turns to a rapidly downward ticking 19 seconds left. In this suddenly bad situation, OSU has been hurled back out of a potential scoring opportunity and kindly concedes the drive, letting time expire. They enter the locker room down seven points to the boos of their angry fans, well on their way to a rare home loss.
Is Pat Narduzzi and the rest of the staff worth that raise John Malkovich?
Is there another smart guy who I can see using a similar concept (hopefully with video?)
Yes there is. Is Gregg Williams, defensive coordinator of the 2009-2010 super bowl champion New Orleans Saints, good enough for you? Here's a post by very good football blog 'Blitzology' which talks a little about the overload concept, while showing a very similar blitz from the Saints.
Fun stuff. I'll troll around the rest of this game and the others espn3.com makes available in their replay section (which you can also check if you'd like to see video of this play) to see if I can't find anything else that piques my interest. I look forward to your comments. Thanks.
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