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Stout Assessments: the zone blitz and the Chiefs

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What is a zone blitz and how does it fit into Bob Sutton’s pass rush scheme?

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Quick. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Justin Houston dropping into coverage?

Is it pure anger at Bob Sutton? Is it a lack of a pass rush? Is it Houston running 40 yards downfield in an attempt to cover a really good wide receiver in a very important game with a blitz that didn’t get home and a safety who may or may not have been in the wrong spot leading to a giant play that was especially backbreaking and now you have to take a walk to calm down?

**Many days pass, and our families are concerned about our well-being**

Good. Now that we’re all calm, let’s put our reasonable hats on and continue. A few weeks back, I showed one way that Bob Sutton likes to bring pressure while not blitzing, but still dropping an outside linebacker. This week, we’re going to take a look at an example of Bob bringing extra rushers while maintaining adequate, yet unexpected zone coverage: the zone blitz.

Most (if not all) readers of this site will be somewhat familiar with the term “zone blitz,” so this might be a refresher for some, but let’s dive into the history of the scheme.

Many fans were first exposed to the zone blitz through the “Blitzburgh” Pittsburgh Steelers defenses of the ‘90s and ‘00s run by Hall of Famer and an all-time favorite of mine, Dick LeBeau. LeBeau retooled and popularized a blitz scheme by former Miami Dolphins head coach Bill Arnsparger that put linebackers on the line of scrimmage and then dropped them into coverage to confuse the blocking schemes of the opposition’s offensive linemen.

LeBeau took that scheme and implemented it with his 3-4 defense that had outside linebackers that were capable of both rushing the passer and dropping into coverage. Since then, every team in the league has incorporated some form of zone blitz into their repertoire.

So what is it, exactly, and how is it used?

Well, it turns a strength out of every Chiefs fan’s biggest complaint: taking one of your best pass rushers and dropping them into coverage. If you recall my earlier post highlighting how Bob likes to use stunts, you’ll know that many times, Sutton will drop a rusher and bring a second or third level defender through openings left by confusion in the offensive line.

The version of the zone blitz Sutton likes to bring (also identified as a “fire zone”) brings two extra defenders in the rush while dropping one of his pass rushers into a 3-under zone with two other defenders. The boundary corners drop into a cover-3 shell and cover the deep thirds of the field with the free safety. The blitzing players will typically attack from the opposite side of the field from the pass rusher that drops into coverage, and they will stunt with the defensive line to add even more for the offensive line to have to make adjustments to and pick up on the fly.

Let’s take a look at one example from a couple different angles to see what’s happening on this particular zone blitz:

This gives a pretty good look at what the Chiefs like to do in their secondary during a zone blitz. Justin Houston drops into coverage in the flat to take away any potential hot route or throwing lanes, then gains depth as the play develops to take away the crosser.

Dan Sorensen shows blitz initially, then scrambles to the middle of the field to take the middle third zone and becomes the “hook” in this coverage. The slot cornerback also drops into the zone next to Sorensen. Both Boundary cornerbacks drop into deeper zones to split with Ron Parker, playing the deep middle third of the field.

Watching this play exhibits how important it is for each player to get into their zone drops as quickly as possible to take away throws before the blitz gets home. You can spot that the running back slips into the opposite flat from Justin Houston right as Eric Murray gets to Philip Rivers for the sack. If the blitz is mistimed, that player is open for a completion. However, if the running back stays in for protection, the Chiefs still have good coverage in the secondary (Marcus Peters would have collapsed on the crossing route behind Houston if the play wasn’t dead).

From the secondary’s standpoint, your bases are covered if the quarterback changes the play and has the running back stay in to help pick up the blitz.

Now let’s look at what the guys up front were doing:

Jarvis Jenkins gets out in front of this thing with a long scoop that ends up occupying the Chargers’ left guard. Pre-snap, the left guard actually identifies the stunt and communicates with the center to pick up the blitzing player in the A-gap, which ends up being Derrick Johnson. Chris Jones knifes to the B-gap and the right guard is forced to take him, as the right tackle is still focused on Justin Houston in coverage and not able to fully commit to helping block Jones.

This gives the Chiefs advantageous rush math on the opposite side of the line. Frank Zombo gets vertical up the field and forces the left tackle wide, creating a bigger gap for the blitzer. Finally, Eric Murray gets little and gets lost in the traffic to explode through the C-gap for an untouched run at Rivers for the sack.

First of all, it’s awesome execution by the defense on this one. Johnson really does a good job of making sure to work the stunt with Jenkins, waiting until the last possible moment to cross behind the defensive tackle and making sure the left guard has to keep his eyes on him until the last possible moment—at which point, Murray is already home free in the gap.

Murray really does a great job of staying small, as well. I think the first offensive lineman for the Chargers to see him is their right guard after Rivers is already on the ground.

Second of all, this blitz call has so many layers to give the Chiefs advantageous blitzing lanes. Obviously, the path that Murray got really worked, but what if the right guard had identified that Murray was coming and shifted his protection to that blitzer? In that instance, the center would have had to continue to block Jenkins on the scoop, and now DJ would have been the free blitzer in the A-gap with a shot at Rivers.

The offense can’t shift protections on the line any more than that because even though Houston is dropping into coverage, they still have to account for him as a rusher pre-snap. The only real way to block it would be to keep the running back in as a blocker, and as we showed in the previous GIF, the coverage was good enough to where the defense would have had an advantage in the secondary, ideally long enough for one of the rushers to get home for a sack or to force an incompletion.

Sutton likes to bring his safeties on these blitzes in combination with the inside linebackers, and when executed well, they get home, even without having one of his best pass rushers getting after the quarterback.

So the next time someone tells you that nothing good happens with Justin Houston in coverage, you can point ‘em this way for an example.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my wife and kid need to know that seven-day anger walk I just took was simply from watching the Steelers playoff game from a couple years back. It happens often enough at this point that they probably didn’t even realize I was gone.