Rob Ryan’s Zone Blitzes: How Teams Attack Fire Zones and How Dallas Can Respond
It’s no secret that new Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is more “exotic” in his play-calling than former head coach/defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The other day I posted some of Ryan’s unique defensive alignments, such as the “Psycho” (below) and “Cloud.”
What is a zone blitz?
We also know that Ryan will bring with him a vast array of zone blitzes. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LaBeau is widely credited with inventing the zone blitz, although he was really just the first coordinator to use it consistently in the NFL.
Zone blitzes generally consist of one or more pass-rushers dropping into coverage and linebackers/defensive backs blitzing. The advantages of zone blitzes are abundant, but their primary purpose is to confuse the offensive line and quarterback with “extra” rushers while still maintaining a relatively safe coverage behind the blitz (as opposed to leaving defenders on an “island” in man-to-man coverage).
As you can see above, the defensive end effectively takes the place of the linebacker in coverage. Thus, he’ll be right in the throwing lane of the quarterback’s hot read (quarterbacks will generally throw “hot” to the area vacated by a blitzer).
One specific type of zone blitz which Ryan will bring to Dallas is called the “fire zone.” A fire zone blitz is one which implements five rushers and a 3-3 coverage–three deep defenders and three underneath ones. The weakside defensive end (or linebacker in a 3-4 defense) generally drops into coverage, with pressure coming on the opposite side of the field.
How to recognize a fire zone blitz
With the Cowboys set to run plenty of fire zone concepts in the 2011 season, I thought it would be a fun to examine how opposing offenses might attack Dallas. X and O Labs recently published a few indicators which offenses use to recognize when a fire zone blitz is forthcoming:
- The five technique DE is to the field: Many zone pressure teams blitz from the field (there is more room there, obviously) and that defensive end needs to spike into the A gap. If he’s tight on that offensive tackle, you can bet he’s coming inside.
- The spin safety starts to creep: Like we mentioned earlier, he will eventually begin to spin down to take care of his pass responsibility if he’s dropping. If he’s coming, expect him to creep a lot sooner.
- The deep safety changes alignment: If the ball is on the hash and that inside safety is now inside the hash and over the center (as opposed to playing his deep half responsibility in most cases) he will be rotating to the middle of the field. QBs need to see that and expect some sort of three deep, three under pressures.
Five-technique defensive ends are the type Dallas uses in their 3-4 fronts: they’re lined up on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle, as opposed the inside shoulder of the tight end (seven-technique) or outside shoulder of the tight end (nine-technique).
When opposing quarterbacks recognize a 3-4 defensive end lining up closer to the center than usual, it’s an indication a fire zone blitz could be coming from his side.
Other fire zone indicators include one safety creeping toward the line-of-scrimmage just before the snap and the other moving toward the middle of the field, where he’ll have deep-third responsibility.
How to attack fire zone blitzes
According to X and O labs, around 50 percent of coaches attack fire zones by throwing “hot” directly into the pressure. This works because, unlike many other zone blitzes, the defensive end/rush linebacker who is dropping into coverage is doing so away from the pressure. Thus, the void created by a blitzing linebacker and/or safety isn’t immediately filled.
Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson explains how he attacks a fire zone:
I teach our quarterback playing against a field pressure to put the ball into the blitz because the void is where the blitz is coming from. I tell him to put the ball right into a three deep, three under fire zone pressure. One of our best fire zone beaters is called “Y Stick.”
You can see a diagram of “Y Stick vs. a Fire Zone Blitz” below.
Instrumental in stopping “Y Stick” will be the range and coverage intelligence of the strong safety. You can see above he has underneath responsibility on the side of the field from where the blitz is coming. With the “Z receiver” threatening the cornerback deep, the strong safety has no help in his underneath zone. If he jumps the arrow route from the slot receiver, the tight end will be open on his out. If he plays the tight end tight, the slot receiver will be open.
Does Gerald Sensabaugh (or whoever plays strong safety for the ‘Boys in 2011) have the wherewithal and coverage ability to effectively defend this route combination? It could be the key to the success of the Cowboys’ fire zones.
Another play frequently utilized to beat fire zone blitzes is the bubble screen (below)–a play which is becoming more popular in the NFL.
It’s pretty simple to see how a bubble screen can beat a fire zone. With the play-side inside linebacker and edge-rusher blitzing, the offense simply has two blocks to make for the play to spring for a big-gainer: one on the strong safety and the other on the cornerback.
How Dallas can maximize fire zone effectiveness
In my opinion, there are two keys to maximizing the potential of these fire zone concepts. The first is pre-snap alignment. Safety alignment is always something quarterbacks key on to decipher a defense’s intentions, so forcing the safeties to hold their ground until the last possible moment will be imperative. Not only will it create more confusion on the offensive side of the ball, but delayed blitzes are often just as effective as immediate ones anyway.
Second, and similarly to the first idea, Rob Ryan should make fire zones resemble his “traditional” zone blitzes as much as possible. The key to making this work is the defensive end. As we saw above, the five-technique will often line up on the inside shoulder of the offensive tackle during fire zones so that they can shoot the A gap. On other zone blitzes, he’ll frequently line up in his traditional spot so as to be able to effectively drop into coverage.
In my opinion, confusing an offense is more important than perfect defensive alignment. We’ve seen this with the success of “Psycho” and “Amoeba” looks–defenses that are, not surprisingly, used most by this year’s two Super Bowl teams.
Thus, lining the defensive end up “too far” outside on fire zones and vice versa on traditional zone blitzes will create confusion for opposing quarterbacks, forcing them to miss their hot reads or, even worse, mistakenly label a zone blitz as a fire zone and throw hot. . .right into the waiting arms of a Cowboys defender.