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A New Way to Look at the Cowboys, NFL, and Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales

Rob Ryan’s Zone Blitzes: How Teams Attack Fire Zones and How Dallas Can Respond

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Jonathan Bales

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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17 Responses to Rob Ryan’s Zone Blitzes: How Teams Attack Fire Zones and How Dallas Can Respond

  1. Tyrone Jenkins says:

    Excellent words.

    One other mitigating action to defeating almost all blitzes is early snap counts. Whenever Romo is in gun, he often executes on “two” meaning on the 2nd snap indicator (leg lift) – often, he can be seen lifting his leg once and then reading the defense and making audibles based on alignment.

    This is good IMO, but every once in a while, he needs to go on “one” and start the play on the 1st leg lift so at to disallow the defense time to align into the desired formation (kind of like a quick count).

    I think there are far too many times, especially late in games, that Dallas uses almost all of the play clock which provides the defense more predicatibilty of when the ball will be snapped.

  2. ben24626 says:

    I was under the impression a zone blitz did not necessarily involve a DL dropping into coverage, just more than 4 rushers with zone coverage behind it.

  3. Tyrone–The “Omaha” calls are the same sort of thing. Before that call, the snap count isn’t live. You can’t use it all the time, however, or else defenses will wait for the Omaha call themselves to get in position.

    Ben–It doesn’t HAVE to, but almost all zone blitzes have a lineman (or OLB in a 3-4) dropping because the zones would be too big to play otherwise. If you send all four down linemen (in a 4-3), a LB and a safety, you’re left with just two linebackers, two cornerbacks and a safety in coverage. Let’s say you assign the secondary to deep thirds…you’re then left with only two LBs underneath…just an example, but it’s very difficult to play zone with five or less defenders.

  4. Mont Seventeen says:

    The schematics above are proof, the type of players the Cowboys have on D, are not athletic enough to execute many exotic blitzes… Asking Spears or Igor to hit that A gap, while lining up in the C gap, good luck! Sensabaugh and Ball covering a lot of ground in some of those calls..

    Granted, most of the teams resources have been dedicated to offense to make it “Romo-friendly” and more is needed, Rob Ryan will earn his pay in 2011!

  5. ben24626 says:

    I understand what you’re saying, but I thought there were alot of 5 man zone blitzes. Aren’t Pittsburgh a zone blitz team and they don’t seem to drop d-linemen into coverage often. Btw check your forum, and just an idea, but it would be helpful (IMO), if a comment was posted on an article you had already commented on.

  6. Scott says:

    great stuff, Jonathan, I love this kind of analysis.

  7. Mont–Agreed the Cowboys need some more speed/athleticism on D, but I don’t think what they have necessary precludes them from doing some unique things. Rather, one might argue, a lack of elite talent NECESSITATES “gimmicks.”

    Ben–Yeah…I know there are issues with the forum and I’m thinking of scrapping it altogether. More conversation seems to take place here anyway. And what do you mean by “it would be helpful (IMO), if a comment was posted on an article you had already commented on.” Can you word that differently for me?

    Thanks Scott.

  8. Ben says:

    I mean if for example, I comment on an article, then 3 hours later, someone else comments on the same article. The website could then send me an email telling me this has happened, so I know to check the article to see if it was a reply to me. Ideally, there would be a reply feature, and you would only receive an email if someone replied to your comment. Btw can you check the forum and the article on Amukamara as I have commented on both of those.

  9. Mont Seventeen says:

    Gimmicks with no talent… That could be ugly! The fact is the team is built around the offense and as long as Romo is the QB, Romo-lovers will blame the Defense that has far less talent.

  10. Ben–I will look into that, but I am not a programmer so those issues are difficult for me to sort out immediately.

  11. Thomas says:

    Another example of how The Boys NEED a CBA and thus OTA’s…
    1) Roster moves
    2) THIS write-up
    Great piece Jonathan…

    btw, not sure if you’ve studied the Browns/Patriots game from this past year (I may have missed some references) – was Ryan ‘exotic’ in that game or was it a case of taking away Brady’s checkdowns and crossing patterns, or was Brady simply off that day?

  12. Thomas–Thanks a lot. That’s a good question. I’m actually going to look at that film sometime today and let you know what I can find. If you have time to check out the Browns/Saints game (you can simply check out the game highlights if you don’t have access to Game Rewind or something like that), you’ll see a TON of Ryan’s exotic looks. My guess is he had a similar game plan for Brady.

  13. john coleman says:

    Maybe some of the things listed here are reasons why Spears and Sensabaugh are not being tendered.

    IMO the requirements of a DE athletically in Ryan’s blitzes would have me thinking Robert Quinn or Cameron Jordan as our 1st pick.

    I mentioned DeAndre McDaniel as a SS prospect and Sensabaugh not being tendered adds merit to that. It also could be that the Cowboys feel good about McCray, Church, and/or the last guy they added from the AFL(name alludes me right now).

    Talking Clemson guys, Marcus Gilchrist showed really good feet at the combine and could be a person of interest.

    I’m just glad to know we may have some different looks, instead of the same old same old.

  14. John- I think it was a big reason for letting Spears go, although there’s certainly other factors at play there. The Sensabaugh one surprised me a little. I REALLY think Huff is going to be a big target at FS. I can’t see the Cowboys going into the draft without filling that need.

  15. Michael Sloan says:

    Great article.

    I read a lot(other places) on how the DE’s in 3-4 defenses are nothing more than a body needed to occupy ofensive linemen, so taking a DE as a high pick in the draft is a waste. I can’t imagine just how wrong that kind of thinking is. They think because 3-4 DE’s don’t rack up the sacks, that putting anybody there will do just fine.

    I think if our DE’s, Spears and Olshansky, could penetrate and disrupt backfields, Ryan or any team, would find more value in them. This is why I think we need an elite DE. I still have hope for Sean Lissemore and Josh Brent.

    As far as Browns against the Patriots or Jets vs Patriots, I didn’t get to see the complete games. But of what I saw, it seemed to me that Ryan’s defenses weren’t trying to confuse Brady as much as the reads his receivers were making. Confusing a Brady or a Brees seems like a difficult proposition and you would have better odds doing it to the receving corps. I don’t have any stats to back that idea up, but just wondered what you guys thought about it.

    You guys are excellent and I have a lot of respect for the work and effort you put in. Thank you.

  16. Michael–Thanks a lot. That is an interesting point about confusing the WRs as opposed to the QBs. I honestly never looked at it that way and I think you’re onto something. I will need to study it a bit more, and it is definitely something to watch in the preseason (if there is one), assuming Ryan tries a unique thing or two.

  17. Pingback: FEATURED ARTICLE: The Watchtower: Lions at Cowboys « Lions Central - The Ultimate Detroit Lions Blog

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