The Moron’s Guide to Football – Episode 6: The Blitz

1. The Basics

One of the most exciting words in the entire football lexicon is blitz. And, unlike pretty much every other topic we’ve covered so far, the blitz is actually a simple concept. At its most basic, the blitz is when the defense rushes one or more additional players on a given play.

In practice, this means that when a team rushes 5 or more players, it’s a blitz. Even though 3-4 defenses only have 3 defensive linemen (and 4 linebackers), it’s standard for one of the linebackers to rush the QB on most plays. Even stalwart and longtime 3-4 teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers usually bring a 4th rusher on passing downs, evidenced by Bud Dupree’s 8 sacks on the season.

Now, like everything else in the Moron’s Guide, the basic concept is easy to understand, but the blitz is one of the most intriguing and complex elements of the game at the NFL level. It functions as a microcosm of all the mind games, misdirection, and back-and-forth one-upmanship of the league over all.

The term blitz is a reference to the German military expression blitzkrieg meaning “lightning war” and that’s exactly what it is. The goal of a blitz is usually to tackle the opposing QB before the offensive play has time to develop and materialize, though there are also run blitzes and certain pass rush blitzes designed to force a QB into a specific throw. Bringing an extra pass rusher means you have one fewer player on the back-end, traditionally this has meant that teams end up in a Cover-1 look (only one deep safety to defend the entire deep part of the field), but teams are constantly innovating ways to bring extra rushers without leaving themselves exposed. It’s a gamble. You’re betting that you can get to the QB and either sack him or disrupt him enough to throw the ball away before a play downfield can develop. If, however, the QB is able to escape the blitz or the pressure doesn’t make it to the QB, the defending team is vulnerable downfield. It’s a high-risk, high-reward play.

Patrick Mahomes is an excellent example of the risk associated with blitzing. Throughout his young career, the elusive, mega-talented QB has posted a higher passer rating against the blitz than against normal pass coverage (116.5 vs. 109). His TD:INT ratio against the blitz? 23 touchdowns to a lone interception. This is why it was so vital that the Bucs were able to get consistent pressure with just 4 rushers in the recent Super Bowl rout (as I predicted). As we’ll see a bit later, though, defenses are always working on ways to bring additional rushers without leaving themselves completely exposed on the backend.

Don Ettinger
Don Ettinger in 1951 as a member of the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

When did the blitz originate? Well, according to semi-verifiable football lore, it started with Don “Red” Ettinger who was a linebacker for the New York Giants from 1948-1950. This seems likely, since before the term blitz was adopted, rushing an LB at the QB was called a “Red Dog.” As a 1979 edition of the Reading Eagle reported:

Once during a game he left his position and rushed the quarterback. After the game, his coach, Steve Owen, read him the riot act for daring to make such a play on third-and-long.
“Fortunately, Owen’s anger subsided somewhat after the game films showed I had tackled the quarterback,” Ettinger recalled.
“I had red hair,” he said, “and I was just doggin’ the quarterback a little.”

2. The NFL Today

The same way Kubiak’s name kept popping up in our last piece about zone blocking, so does legendary coach Dick LeBeau’s when researching the blitz. In the 1990’s, LeBeau revolutionized the zone blitz and created the Fire Zone blitz, which every team in the NFL still runs to some extent.

The original zone blitz was developed in 1971 by Miami Dolphins coach Bill Arnsparger who began placing linebackers on the defensive line and then having them drop back into coverage. The scheme didn’t gain widespread use until LeBeau’s innovations in the 90’s. Here’s how Pat Kirwan describes the Fire Zone blitz in his book:1

On a Fire Zone call, one of the rushers jumps at the tackle as if he were a blitzer. Simultaneously, another linebacker or a defensive back blitzes from somewhere else. Then, that first rusher suddenly stops his forward progress and drops back into coverage. As a result, the tackle – often the left tackle and the team’s best pass blocker – is left with no one to block. […] It’s a system that paralyzes an offense’s best blocker, gets hits on the quarterback, and, because it is played under a three-deep zone, doesn’t allow the deep ball.

Take a look at the above play from 2015 and note how well Za’Darius Smith (#90) for the Ravens sells his rush on the above play. He actually takes up a double team before dropping into coverage. The Ravens rush 4 against a 5-man front and end up with Elvis Dumervil completely unblocked off the edge.

The Fire Zone insulates against deep plays, but can be beaten on underneath routes, as the LB who initially fakes the rush before dropping into coverage will be late getting to his spot (notice how late in the play Smith actually gets to his zone). The other LBs also have a lot of ground to cover and it can be dinked-and-dunked to death, but its unpredictability, ability to neutralize the offense’s best lineman, and its versatility make it one of the go-to blitz packages in today’s NFL.

The other form of blitzing that has been around for a while, but is starting to make waves in the NFL is the Wildcat Blitz. Named after legendary safety Larry “Wildcat” Wilson (or perhaps his success with the play garnered him the nickname), the safety blitz or DB blitz (teams can bring a cornerback instead of a safety in some instances) has seen a recent uptick in usage across the league.

In 2019, the Baltimore Ravens rushed a DB on 28.4% of opposing QB’s dropbacks. This is the highest rate ESPN Stats & Information has on record, shattering the previous record of 21.8%. Keep an eye on the Wildcat Blitz to find its way back into more playbooks over the next few seasons.

So what does the NFL look like today? Well, as mentioned above, a 4-man pass rush is still by far the most common form of pass rush in the league. According to Football Outsiders, NFL defenses brought 4 rushers on 65% of opponent dropbacks in 2019. The Los Angeles Chargers, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Dallas Cowboys used four pass rushers the most, each bringing four rushers on more than 75% of opponent dropbacks. The Ravens, Dolphins, Cardinals, Patriots, Jets, and Buccaneers used four-man rushes the least, each at a rate of 55% or lower. The Ravens were the only team in the league who used four-man rushes on less than half of their opponent’s dropbacks (46%).

On average, NFL defenses blitzed (brought 5 or more rushers) on 26% of the opposing team’s dropbacks in 2019. 8 teams blitzed on 30% or more of their opponent’s pass attempts: the Ravens, Bucs, Cards, Browns, Steelers, Bengals, Jets, and Patriots.

As an aside, the Pats being on this list is extra interesting, because Bill Belichick’s defensive scheme is often characterized as relying on bringing only 3 pass rushers. While it’s true that the Pats only bring 3 rushers fairly frequently (16% of the time in 2019, 5th most in the league), they’re far from a one-trick pony. Like all good defenses they employ a number of looks, rushes, and blitzes to keep opposing offense’s guessing. All the teams who rushed 3 or fewer pass-rushers more frequently than the Pats have some connection to the BB coaching tree, but seem to be missing the forest for the trees as none other than the Pats had any success with it. Exhibit A: The Lions 3-man pass rush under Matt Patricia:

The vaunted 3-man “rush” from the Lions.

Returning to the blitz-happy teams, of those 8 teams, only the Pats and Ravens had success with the blitz in 2019. And both were amazingly successful. They each posted a DVOA of less than -40% (a negative DVOA is good for defensive numbers), while no other team in the top 8 was below 0. This general trend holds true for the teams that brought 3 or fewer rushers or exactly four rushers most frequently: there’s almost no correlation between usage and success.

The Pats had the best defense in the NFL in 2019  and were also the most successful team when blitzing, but blitzed on only 30% of opponent dropbacks, just a bit above league average. Half the teams in the league blitz in some form between 20 and 30% of the time, but it’s not all about balance as the Ravens blitzed nearly half the time (48%!!!) and had a top-5 blitzing DVOA. Teams that blitzed least frequently also didn’t see much success with their change-up, as both the Oakland Raiders and Detroit Lions blitzed on their opponent’s dropbacks less than 15% of the time and had 2 of the 3 worst blitzing DVOAs in the league.

3. Skol!

As we’ve discussed in this series in the past, the Vikes didn’t exactly have a great year on defense in 2020. The d-line for the Vikes was not good and got absolutely shredded by the run, while merely being garden variety bad against the pass. Here’s a fun fact (spoiler alert: this is not a fun fact): the Vikings sack leader for the season in 2020 was Yannick Ngakoue. Despite only playing 6 games for the Vikes, and being considered a poor scheme fit and traded away in-season, he led the team in sacks for the season with 5.

The halcyon days of 2019 and a top-10 Vikings defense feel like forever ago, but some folks here at TVG think they’re poised to bounce back next year. I’m not sure if the Vikings defense will crack the top 10 next year, but this year was a perfect storm of bad luck with COVID limiting practice time, a low-budget horror film number of serious injuries, and young players being forced into roles where both they and the coaching staff knew they were in over their heads. I would say there’s no way this could happen again next year, but this is the Vikings we’re talking about.

In 2019 (again, the most recent year we have full data for), the Vikings were a really good blitz team. Like most things in a Zimmer-coached team, the Vikes were well-balanced on defense, blitzing on a league-average 25% of opponent dropbacks. They almost never sold out and brought more than 5 rushers (5% of the time, again, almost exactly the league average) and they very sparingly used DB blitzes.

As we can see, Zimmer doesn’t dial up the blitz a tonne, but when he does he really makes it count. The Vikings were the 5th-best blitzing team in the league in 2019, and though they were a ways behind the top teams (Pats, Bills, 49ers, Ravens), they were well ahead of the 6th place Chiefs. The Vikings managed to get home or pressure the QB on 48% of their blitz attempts, and posted a truly impressive -28% DVOA on their blitzes. For comparison, the league average was +3.5%. Unfortunately, due to injuries, player turnover, and a seemingly endless string of bad luck, the Vikes didn’t reach those heights in 2020, but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t at least get back on the right track in 2021.

This is a common refrain in this section by now, but Zimmer’s coaching philosophy, on both sides of the ball, thrives on misdirection. I quoted from an interview with Bill Belichick a couple weeks ago, where he described Zimmer’s scheme: “they disguise well, including the linebackers […] all those guys do a good job of blitzing and covering and faking and man, zone- that’s really the scheme that Coach Zimmer runs.”

Pat Kirwan sums it up perfectly when he says, “It’s not about creating chaos. It’s about creating confusion.” And this is what the Vikes strive to do, as we’ve seen in the piece in this series on defensive fronts. In that article I looked at a few superhuman plays by superhuman Eric Kendricks and the way in which the defensive scheme created confusion for the opposing QB.

What I want to look at specifically from a blitzing perspective for the Vikes is the blitz that Zimmer is most famous for: the double A-gap blitz. As a reminder, the A-gap on any given play is the space between players to the left and right of the centre. The double A-gap blitz lines up one LB in each A-gap, creating a guessing game for the centre and necessitating communication down the line (to make sure everyone is blocked). Coupled with this, Zimmer will line up all 7 members of the Vikings front wide across the line of scrimmage (rather than having the 3 linebackers 5 or so yards back from the line). This leaves the offense with 5 blockers, but up to 7 pass rushers to try and block. This necessitates keeping the TE and often the RB in to block, rather than having them run routes. In some cases, the QB will acknowledge that there will be a free rusher and so must get rid of the ball before that rusher can get home.

In true Mike Zimmer style though, the Vikings almost never rush all 7 guys. Earlier on in his tenure with the Vikings, Zimmer would dial up 7-man blitzes a bit more frequently, but these days they almost never bring more than 5, though which 5 they’re going to bring remains the mystery. This play from 2017 shows the cumulative effect of running multiple pressures and blitzes out of an almost identical pre-snap look.

Matthew Stafford here really doesn’t think the Vikes are going to bring all 7 guys, and so he initially tries to go through his progressions rather than immediately looking for the hot-read. He quickly realizes his mistake, and it quickly dawns on him that his centre just had 3 guys rush him, two of which got past, and tries to make the hot-read late, but misses a difficult throw because he’s off balance and two giant purple guys are trying to send him to Valhalla.

You can see Stafford look to the sky after the play because he knows the offense made a call that theoretically should’ve beat the all-out blitz from the Vikes (the RB somehow sneaks through the mass of humanity and is wiiiiiiide open for the easiest touchdown you’ll ever see), but Stafford just didn’t read it quite early enough. This isn’t Stafford being a bad QB, this is Zimmer’s defensive philosophy thriving. The Vikes showed this exact same front 12 times in this Lions game and they blitzed on 9 of them, but they only brought the house this one time.

via Pro Football Focus

In this play from 2018 (also against the Lions), the Vikings line up in a similar formation, but this time they have eight players up near the line of scrimmage. They still have to LBs over the centre though, and then the linemen spread out along the whole formation. There’s no world where the Vikings bring all 8 potential rushers here, but who they’re going to bring and from where is what makes these blitzes out of a similar pre-snap look so difficult to protect against. The Lions anticipate the blitz and keep in 7 blockers (the TE and the RB both stay in to help block). The Vikings end up only rushing 5 players, but still end up with a rusher unblocked and Stafford gets absolutely obliterated.

What’s extra fun about this play is that in the end it isn’t even a double A-gap blitz, it just looks like one pre-snap. And as Stafford learned the season before, you have to respect the possibility that they will actually blitz the A-gap with both LBs even if they don’t always bring it. The Lions OL can’t get their protections right and end up with 4 players blocking only 2 Vikings rushers. This leaves the poor RB for the Lions with two angry Vikings bearing down on him. He throws an admirable block on one of them but the 5th rusher is completely untouched and Stafford gets ragdolled.

To end this piece, I just want to illustrate one last time (because who doesn’t love watching smart defensive football and blitzers getting home) how similar so many different post-snap coverages look pre-snap. Here’s a GIF from a Washington Post article:

Via the Washington Post

Pre-snap the Vikes have 7 guys lined up right on the line of scrimmage in their patented double A-gap blitz look (there are actually 8 Vikes right near the line but one is a CB on the Eagles slot receiver). After the snap the Vikings are in cover-2 man-to-man coverage and bring 6 rushers. Harrison Smith sprints off the line of scrimmage to cover the outside receiver, which allows the outside corner to drop back into his half of the deep zone.

What I particularly love about this play is that the Eagles initially do a great job of picking up the pressure from the 6-man blitz, but the coverage downfield is so good that Wentz still has nowhere to go with the football. When you rush 6 guys, they’ll eventually get there so Wentz feels the need to make a play and tries to force a throw into a non-existent window and gets picked off. Great example of how to bring the blitz without leaving yourself completely vulnerable on the back end of the play.

Via the Washington Post

Here’s another snap from the same game. It’s not a replay, I assure you. Again, 7 Vikings defenders line up wide across the line of scrimmage. This time, however, the Vikings don’t blitz at all and instead drop into a Cover-3 defense (3 deep zones with 4 underneath zones) and only bring 4 rushers. The Eagles are clearly expecting a blitz and all 3 receivers run short curl routes. Because the Vikings aren’t actually blitzing – they just look like they are – the Eagles receivers all end up double-covered and the Vikes still have an extra safety over the top just in case.

Zimmer’s system was and remains sound. This season was a matter of personnel and understanding what your players can do. Hopefully with some upgrades on the DL, with players coming back from injury, and with another year for the young pups in the system, the Vikes will be able to give us more plays like this in 2021.

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  1. Pat Kirwan’s book is excellent. It’s worth the read.
  2. Fritz Shurmer does a really nice job in his books. Those looking for a good overview of defensive football should read Shurmur’s Coaching Team Defense. There is some good discussion of blitzing in there. Shurmur’s Coaching The Defensive Line might also be helpful.