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What Is A Zone Blitz In Football?

Zone blitzes are a newer style of the blitz, which was created to confuse the quarterback. Teams are starting to use the zone blitz more often now that spread offenses are common.

A zone blitz is when the team blitzes a linebacker, then drops a defensive lineman into pass coverage. Zone blitzes are run to confuse quarterbacks and blocking schemes, allowing defenses to protect against short passes.

In this article, we will show you what a zone blitz is and why teams run the popular pressure concept.

The Zone Blitz

The zone blitz is broken into two parts:

  • Zone Coverage
  • A four or five man pressure

Before the zone blitz was introduced, teams played 2 styles of defense: Zone or man coverage. Zone defenses typically required a 3 or 4 man rush and had 8 or 7 defenders covering an area of the field waiting to cover a receiver.

Man coverage is a bit more stressful for defensive backs, as they’re required to follow an athletic receiver across the field. Coaches tried to relieve the stress by adding 5 or 6 man pressures to make the quarterback throw the ball as quickly as possible.

Zone Coverage

If you’re unfamiliar with zone coverage, take a second to read our complete review of coverages.

The defense will often show a blitz, then will have a defensive lineman or a defensive end drop into coverage.

This will do 2 things – confuse the offensive lineman and confuse the quarterback. Most offenses have “Hot reads” build into their plays. When a quarterback reads blitz and sees more players blitzing than his offensive line can handle, he will throw to his hot read (often a slant or a seam route).

When the quarterback goes to throw the hot read, a defensive lineman or defensive end will drop into the window of the quarterback, influencing a bad throw.

Zone Pressure

We’ve discussed a lineman dropping off into zone coverage now. Let’s look at the other half of the play, the pressure.

The zone blitz allows linebackers to pressure the quarterback and corners and safeties to get into the blitz game.

As long as the defensive lineman/ends can bail out to the throwing windows of different receivers, the combinations for zone blitz are endless.

How The Zone Blitz Works

It is important to know that you can blitz any defender on the field and use whatever zone coverage to pair up with the blitz, and that can be used with any personnel group. This means there are easily dozens of different zone blitzes that can be run. Below is a diagram of a 4-3 defensive front rushing 5 defenders (including blitzing 2 linebackers) and dropping 6 defenders into coverage:

zone blitz in football

An important component of the zone blitz is that defensive linemen are capable of dropping into coverage. Above we see a defensive end dropping into a “Bronco” coverage, which is confusing the offense.

Why Run a Zone Blitz?

A zone blitz is meant to do one thing: confuse an offense. The ability to not show the blitz until just before the ball is snapped is the first element of surprise. Using zone coverage will likely cause further confusion since a blitz call has a man coverage scheme.

Confusion from a quarterback often leads to turnovers, bad throws, or sacks. High-pressure teams that utilize the zone blitz often live in high-risk, high-reward situations.

The zone blitz scheme has proven to be particularly effective against screen passes. A prime example of a Dick LeBeau team executing against a screen pass comes from Super Bowl XLIII (Steelers vs. Cardinals). Check it out here: Zone Blitz Pays Off

History Of The Zone Blitz

The zone blitz is when the defense uses a zone coverage scheme but still blitzes a defender. While this may seem straightforward, this play call has not existed for most of football’s history.

The zone blitz was created in 1971 by the Miami Dolphins defensive coach Bill Arnsparger. However, it was not until the early 1990’s when defensive coach Dick LeBeau popularized the scheme in professional football while coaching for the Cincinnati Bengals.

Disadvantages Of The Zone Blitz

There are two big disadvantages that we need to point out.

  • The first is the liability of a defensive lineman in coverage. A defensive lineman is not used to playing coverage and will inherently not be as effective as a Linebacker or Defensive Back that does it more frequently.

Defensive linemen (typically in a 3-4 scheme) are often bigger defenders used to either 2-gap or control the line of scrimmage. Having a bigger player drop into pass coverage (who may not be that coordinated or have the proper footwork to drop) could be more of a risk than a reward.

  • Secondly, zone blitz plays are typically poor against running plays. When a defensive lineman drops into coverage, it leaves a vacancy among the line. In most cases, the offensive line could be exploited while blocking.

Against power schemes, zone blitzing a safety or a corner off the edge and having a bigger player drop off the line of scrimmage can hurt the run fits. Just as defensive linemen aren’t used to dropping into coverage, safeties and corners aren’t used to playing inside the box.

Running A Zone Blitz On Down & Distances

Zone blitzes are most effective in down and distance situations ( 2nd/3rd and 7+). The key to getting to these situations is to win first and force the offensive coordinator to call a pass play.

Field position always plays a major factor in calling a zone blitz. If an offensive backed up in their own zone, having a zone blitz called adds even more pressure not to take a sack, thrown an interception, and ultimately be perfect.

On the flip side, zone blitzes can be run in your own zone, as the field to cover is shorter. This allows your defensive lineman & defensive ends to cover a shorter amount of field. It also closes the windows for the quarterback.

Conclusion

The zone blitz is a new innovative scheme that coaches are using to confuse quarterbacks. It allows defenses to be flexible in zone coverage but still brings the pressure that a blitz requires.

Do you have any questions about the zone blitz concept? How do you teach the zone blitz concept? Where do you like to run your zone blitzes, the opponent’s zone, or your own zone? Let us know below!