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Monday, February 06, 2006

The Zone Blitz, Max Pro, and the Super Bowl

ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli wrote:

"Fooling opposing passers is a strong suit for [Steeler's Defensive coordinator Dick] LeBeau, of course, and there were some occasions, especially in the second half, when Hasselbeck appeared flummoxed. The surprising part is that LeBeau called only a handful of standard zone-blitz defenses against Seattle's passing game.

Pittsburgh blitzed early but, as LeBeau pointed out, the Seahawks were using "max" protection blocking schemes, and "we didn't see anything good that could come from just constantly banging our heads against a wall."

Typical of LeBeau, though, he saved one gambit, one of the most basic zone blitzes, for a critical moment. It came on Seattle's penultimate possession of the game, with Seattle scrambling to scrape back into the contest. On a third-and-8 play from the Pittsburgh 47-yard line, LeBeau called for a "corner fire," and Deshea Townsend roared through a gaping hole to dump Hasselbeck for a five-yard loss, forcing a punt.

On the zone-blitz, linebacker Joey Porter dropped into coverage rather than rushing, and that forced Hasselbeck to hold the ball a count longer than he normally might. Townsend was into the backfield like a heat-seeking missile.

"A great call, perfect timing, one of the oldest zone blitzes we've got, but still a goody," Townsend said after the game. "That's the thing about [LeBeau], he knows when to spring something we haven't used on an opponent. But he also knows he can trust us to deliver. I mean, there we were Saturday night in the hotel, walking through a new coverage that he just drops on us at our team meeting. And we work on it for four or five hours and, for something we've never played before, we get it hashed out. I guess he kind of figured 'better late than never,' and I'm glad he did, because it worked great for us tonight."


I noticed that the Steelers were very selective about their zone blitzes and that Seattle was determined not to go to the Indianapolis route and get trammeled by unblocked Joey Porters on every other play. This corroborates my theory and the Bruce Arians article I quoted saying that you have to max pro vs. the zone blitz, contrary to all the guys recently who keep saying that the Colts and others should have gone five wide. This results in simply more hits on the QB. You can just as easily--if not more easily--let 2-3 receivers find the zone voids and let the other 2-3 guys check out underneath after you've protected your QB. A perfect example was this year's bowl game between Oklahoma and Oregon. Oklahoma had a very mediocre year, Oregon a great one, but Oregon could NOT move the ball and lost because they were obsessed with going 5-wide vs. Oklahoma's man and zone blitzes where their young QBs took shot after shot and they never broke anyone free.

In the article LeBeau, who practically invented the zone blitz, flatly admitted that max (7 and 8 man) protection got them out of zone blitzing. Remember, this is how the Steelers got to the Super Bowl in the first place. It took a further great defensive effort and excellent calls by LeBeau to keep pace, and this was against a Seattle offense scared to death of the zone blitz. Earlier in the article Hasselbeck said:


"You know, it got to the point where I was taking chances, and that was just a poor decision," Hasselbeck said. "It was a chance I shouldn't have taken. I kind of got fooled by the move one guy made [in the secondary], and it was a bad play."

Fooling opposing passers is a strong suit for LeBeau, of course, and there were some occasions, especially in the second half, when Hasselbeck appeared flummoxed. The surprising part is that LeBeau called only a handful of standard zone-blitz defenses against Seattle's passing game. "


This is the strength of the zone-blitz. It is weak against max-pro because there are large zone voids and weaker defenders in pass coverage. Yet, the QB gets impatient, even an NFL guy like Hasselbeck. Instead of hitting his check-downs when they kept him protected he forced too many throws. Sometimes the strength of the scheme is not that it confuses the opponent but merely that it frustrates them. To defeat it you must be both sound and patient.

4 comments:

Zennie Abraham said...

Hi Chris,
I just returned from Detroit and my 4th Super Bowl. I had a great mid-level end-zone seat at a fantastic place to watch football -- and schemes.

I have to disagree with you about max protection getting the Steelers out of the zone-blitz. If that was Dick La Beau's statement, I think he misdianosed the game.

The Seahawks had a terrific game plan that essentially left the Steelers defense "unbalanced" and used an innovative series of four-wide plays that featured play-action dives to the halfback before throwing hook and seam passes to the slot flanker, Darryl Jackson.

These plays served to paralyze the blitzing outside linebackers, and get the ball away before the coverage could converge.

To open the game, the Seahawks ran an interesting gadget: they ran a sideline pass out of max-protection -- there you go -- in the I formation twice in a row. The total gain was 17 yards.

To close, the Seahawks had a masterful game plan but they didn't take one of the five different base approaches and hammer the Steelers with it. They were too varied. I didn't think it was possible to be just that, but they were.

More later.

Zennie Abraham said...

Oh...the basic approach the Seahawks used was to vary their formations as well. They also moved the quarterback around using play action, and even a rare sprint-action pass from the four-wide set.

They used that four-wide set about 30 percent of the time, so I can't agree with you about max-protection getting the Steelers out of the zone-blitz. It was the variation of formations, shifting, and movement that did it.

Anonymous said...

Chris,

i was hoping in one of your next batch of posts, you could explain former St. Louis Rams Coach Mike Martz's,"Deep-in route","Vertical Strech" pass play.If could with the great detail and in-dept anaylsis that we are always graced with by you.Thanks for your time Chris.

Zennie Abraham said...

Is this blog DOA?