The debacle of a defense that took the field for the Chiefs under Dick Vermeil is long gone in Kansas City. As we saw last week, the boys in red and gold have taken tremendous strides on the side of the ball that matters most. Our Chiefs have scratched their way into fulfilling all 6 of the basic needs that have historically determined the team’s ability to make it to the post season.
Herman Edwards came in after Vermeil and attempted to install a cover 2 zone scheme. That system improved our squad, but not enough to turn the team into a convincing winner. The main flaw with the Chiefs cover 2 system was the lack of a true cover 2 middle linebacker (MLB or Mike). In a Tampa 2 or base cover 2 defense a huge amount of pressure is put on the Mike. You have to have a single player talented enough to both stuff the A gap runs AND play pass coverage in a zone that’s 15 yards deep and 30 or more yards wide. A well executed cover 2 defense requires a mike with immense talent and football intelligence. That player also has to be able to handle all the pre and post snap reads as well as call the coverage to both the backside of the defense and the line players. The entire scheme hinges on the football intelligence of the mike, and his ability to completely own the middle of the field. The Chiefs never found a player up to the task, and thus they never built a dominating cover 2 defense.
Romeo Crennel joined the coaching staff of the Chiefs, bringing with him a version of the 3-4 cover 3 system. Crennel’s cover 3 base is slightly different than a straight cover 3. Romeo most often utilizes half, quarter, quarter responsibilities in the backfield; where a base cover 3 would play thirds. Still, the Chiefs run a cover 3 base. Even though it’s not a classic cover 3 system, it uses cover 3 principals. It’s those defensive principals that lend themselves so well to the fire zone blitz that I want to discuss in this Tuesdays edition.
In the base cover 3 system there are 3 players each responsible for a portion of the deep field; otherwise known as playing 3 deep coverage. This leaves 3 players with shallows responsibility, and 5 players to match up with the offensive line. However, because the Chiefs play a 3-4 front instead of a 4-3, they ask their NT to take on a double team on every down. The NT’s entire job is to read the play and pick an A gap. The nose must then drag the offensive center to one side and take on the center, as well as the guard on that side. The NT’s goal is to occupy 2 blockers. On passing plays he is also asked to split the blockers and pressure the pocket by shooting the gap between the men defending him. In asking the NT to take occupy 2 players, the 3-4 has the potential to create a free rusher. Because 5 linemen are blocking only 4 rushers (NT, DE, DE, OLB) the defense has created a situation in which they may be able to rush more players than the offense has blockers on a given play (a.k.a. blitz).
In principal, a cover 3 defense will ask all 3 shallows defenders to play man coverage on whatever pass catcher moves into their zone. Don’t let that confuse you. It’s a zone system where the defender in each zone takes man responsibility for the offensive pass catcher that enters their zone. A linebacker in coverage is much more comfortable taking on responsibility for one man, than an entire zone. The cover 3 will also ask the 3 deep defenders to split the field up into 3 sections. Crennel prefers to designate one defender ½ the field and the other 2 players each take a remaining quarter of the field, but that doesn’t unduly complicate the scheme. So then, what the heck is a fire zone blitz? I’m glad you asked.
A fire zone blitz uses a cover 3 (3 deep) scheme, which the Chiefs already run, and brings 5 man pressures up front. It leaves the other 3 defenders to cover the shallows. Any time a defense blitzes they are taking a risk. The 5 rushers must bring enough pressure to rush the QB into throwing a hot route outlet pass into the shallows. Although the defense has holes in the shallows, it’s counting on confusion and blitz pressure to force a mistake. Even though there is inherent danger in bringing a 5 man blitz the fire zone blitz offsets some of that danger by being built on a 3 deep scheme. If the defense gives up a completion it will most likely be in the shallows to the area that the 5th blitzer recently vacated. Because the fire zone blitz allows holes in the shallows instead of deep down the field it’s a relatively safe blitz. If the offense reads the blitz perfectly, the slot receiver or TE break off to a hot route, and the QB can get the ball out before getting hit the completed pass will be a short one and the defenders can swarm the receiver for a quick tackle.
A standard aspect of any zone blitz is that a front line defensive player (including the OLB in a 3-4) will drop back into coverage, while some other player blitzes. This is done purely to create confusion. The defensive players must disguise their intentions all the way until the ball is snapped. Linebackers roaming around the shallows and/or crowding the line of scrimmage are common pre-snap occurrences in a zone blitz. The Chiefs are built to run the fire zone blitz. Although the same blitz scheme can be run out of a 4-3 defense, the 3-4 holds a great advantage because there are 4 linebackers on the field. The entire object of a zone blitz is to confuse the offense. Someone on the defensive front is going to drop back into coverage instead of rushing, and a safety or a linebacker or a corner is going to blitz instead. With a 4-3 on the field this would force a DE or even a DT to end up playing coverage in the shallows instead of rushing. There are some athletic DE’s that may be able to pull that off, but asking a 300lb lineman to drop back into coverage on a TE or Slot receiver requires supreme confidence in that players athleticism. With a 3-4 on the field there is one more linebacker that can drop. It may not seem like a huge difference, but it’s an advantage that exponentially increases the variants of possible blitzing players.
Another common tactic in a fire zone blitz is to bring 2 blitzers through the same gap in the offensive line. The idea is that the RB in the backfield won’t be able to block them both. Those rushers may come together or one of them may delay their pressure, but they cannot afford to delay for very long. The fire zone blitz counts on the pressure to force a mistake. As you can see in the diagram, the rushers on the line will usually try to cross the offensive linemen in to the opposite side of the coming blitz pressure. The goal is to move the O line away from the coming blitz to create pressure even more quickly. The fire zone blitz normally comes from the weak side of the offense (away from the TE), but not always. The blitz can come from the strong side. It’s just one more variant on a blitz package that is built on confusion.
The Chiefs went into the draft looking for another pass rusher. They came out with 2. Mike Vrabel’s intelligence is an advantage in reading the offense, but he’s lost a step in quickness that made him an ineffective blitzer at the end of last season. By adding youthful rushers to the squad, I believe the Chiefs were setting themselves to continue to build on their 3-4 cover 3 schemes. I’m a huge fan of defense, and really hope to see more fire zone packages on 3rd downs and other obvious passing situations. The confusion that it can cause as well as the pressure it can bring are advantages that I believe outweigh the risks of blitzing.
There’s someone else that leads me to believe the Chiefs are setting up to run more fire zone blitzes. His name is Eric Berry. The fire zone removes some of the pressure that the old cover 2 used to place on the MLB, and shifts it squarely onto a safety. There is a reason that the Raven’s use fire zone principals so often and so successfully. That reason is named Ed Reed. When a safety is tasked with handling a shallow zone during a zone blitz they are often assigned the zone that will match them up against either the most athletic shallows receiver, or in a zone that will force them to make a decision about which receiver to cover. A talented athletic safety that can make an accurate read is a must have in a successful fire zone blitz. Ed Reed and Troy Palamalu were not brought onto their respective teams by chance. They were brought in for their athleticism and ability to take on the additional responsibility of a fire zone safety. Eric Berry has the potential to be the same kind of player. And if the fire zone blitz becomes a staple of the Chiefs defense, Berry may become the dominating force that we all think of whenever the name Reed is uttered. In the following diagram the safety has to make a quick choice of which player to cover as the SILB vacates the middle on a blitz.
Last year’s Super bowl pitted two masters of the fire zone blitz against one another. The Packers and the Steelers are both heavy users of the cover 3 zone blitz. They bring pressure from all over the field, and both do a masterful job of disguising which defenders will blitz and which will drop into coverage. I would love to be sitting on my couch with a beer watching the Chiefs game this year and see our combination of linebackers, ends, and safeties roaming around the field preparing to crush a QB.
I don’t want to get too complex in highlighting all the stunts and variant possibilities available in a fire zone blitz, but I will mention a few tricks of the trade. A DE, LB, or a S may drop back into coverage, but that’s not enough to cause confusion. Having that player crowd the line of scrimmage pre-snap is just 1 tool in the bag of the scheme. Taking it further, the defender that is going to drop out may also start by taking a step forward into an O lineman at the snap, and then drop back into coverage. This can cause a guard or a tackle to move the wrong direction and open an even bigger hole for the true blitzers. Rushing LB’s or S’s may also hold back away from the line of scrimmage at the snap (showing coverage) and then blitz from that position once the ball is snapped while the DE drops back into coverage. Blitzers can come from any angle or side of the field. Defenders can criss-cross one another on the way to the line to further confuse the blocking scheme for the O line. My favorite thing to watch is a gaggle of linebackers and safeties roaming around, crossing paths, changing places, and wandering the middle of the front. No one stands in a spot on the field, and the O line has no clue who is supposed to block which defender .
Here we see another option in the fire zone blitz. This is a cover 3 scheme, but not a 3-4. In order to add even more confusion the defense has removed a down lineman and inserted another LB. They are effectively lined up in a 2-5, but there’s no rules defining who they send in as the 5th backer. It could be a big DE, a third safety, a rush linebacker, or even the nickel corner that comes out on the field. This is the kind of third down and long defense that would give me goose bumps to watch the Chiefs play. With all the additional linebacker and safety talent on the team there’s nothing stopping us from diving head first into the fire zone blitz packages.
KC already runs a cover 3 defense. We already have the 3-4 in place to add so many options to the fire zone. We already do some zone blitzing, and we already have a talented and athletic safety on the field that can handle the pressure. Taking our defense from 2010 ‘good’ to Super Bowl champion GREAT is the next step in the teams evolution. I believe that greatness will come sooner with the implementation of the fire zone blitz.