What is a Zone Blitz?

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Zone blitzes are a newer style of blitz, which was created to confuse the quarterback.

What’s a zone blitz? 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.

The Zone Blitz

The zone blitz is broken into two parts:

  • Zone Coverage
  • A four or five man pressure

Before the zone blitz was introduces, 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 field waiting to cover a receiver.

Man coverage is a bit more stressful for defensive back’s, 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 quick 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 in to 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 not only linebackers to pressure the quarterback, but corners and safeties to get into the blitz game as well.

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

History Of The Zone Blitz

As mentioned, the zone blitz is when the defense is using 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.

How it Looks

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:

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

Why would you run a Zone Blitz?

A zone blitz is meant to do one thing: cause confusion for an offense. The ability to not show the blitz until just before the ball is snapped is the first element of surprise. By using zone coverage, it will likely cause further confusion since normally 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

Disadvantages Of The Zone Blitz

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

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

Defensive lineman (typically in a 3-4 scheme) are often bigger defenders that are 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 it is 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 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 lineman aren’t used to dropping into coverage, safeties and corners aren’t used to playing inside the box.

Down & Distance + Field Position

Zone blitzes are most effective on down and distance situations ( 2nd/3rd and 7+). The key to get to these situations is to win first down 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 to not 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.

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!

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