Zone blitz

Last updated

In American football, a zone blitz is a defensive tactic that sends additional players to rush the opposing team's quarterback, whilst also unexpectedly redirecting a supposed pass rushing player into pass coverage instead. [1] [2] This tactic also likely includes zone coverage (rather than man-to-man coverage). [3] [4]


Like a conventional blitz, the zone blitz tactic assigns five or more players to rush the quarterback in a single down, rather than the usual four players. However, unlike a conventional blitz, the zone blitz uses players who are initially positioned to rush (for example, the defensive ends) to instead give pass coverage. [2] For example, a zone blitz may involve two linebackers adding to the rush of three defensive linemen, while a fourth lineman unexpectedly moves into pass coverage. [4]

As in other blitzes, using additional rushers is intended to hurry the quarterback, and potentially cause an incomplete pass, sack, fumble or interception. [5] Redirecting a player who was expected to rush is intended to confuse the pass protection assignments of the offensive line, tight ends and backs, who may now be unsure of which rusher to block. [3] [4] Although blitzing leaves fewer defenders in pass coverage, the relatively safer zone coverage system reduces the risk of conceding a long touchdown pass. [3] [4]


Miami Dolphins defensive coach Bill Arnsparger developed the zone blitz in 1971. [6] He started by placing linebackers on the defensive line and having them drop back into coverage, and eventually included regular defensive linemen as well. The scheme did not gain widespread use in professional football until Dick LeBeau refined it with the Cincinnati Bengals and popularized the zone blitz in the early '90s, while being the defensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, earning Pittsburgh the title of "Blitzburgh". Though the zone blitz has become common throughout the NFL, the 3–4 defense—3 defensive linemen, 4 linebackers—lends itself particularly well to this style of play, [7] and LeBeau has continued to utilize it as the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans as recently as the 2017 season.

Base formations

The zone blitz is usually executed from one of three zone coverage formations.

Cover One

Cover one is identical to cover zero (where there is no man covering deep into the field, making the coverage mostly man-to-man) with one major exception. One player, typically the weakside or "free" safety is left with no man responsibilities, and can instead roam the intermediate to deep zones.

Cover Two

In cover two, each safety (free and strong) covers a deep half of the field, while the two cornerbacks cover the flats (from the line of scrimmage to about 15 yards deep on each sideline). Three linebackers (weak side, middle, and strong side) drop into coverage, with each patrolling 1/5 of the middle field. A variant of this, the Tampa 2, has been used by the Buccaneers for years and helped[ clarification needed ] them on their way to their first Super Bowl win. This coverage is also the most popular[ by whom? ] when zone blitzing.

Cover Three

Cover three relies on the same basic principles as cover two. The basic difference lies in the responsibilities of the secondary. The free safety plays "center field" while each of the cornerbacks covers a deep third, or one third of the field on each side. The middle of the zone is once again covered by the three linebackers, with the strong safety covering the remaining, far fourth of the middle field.

The blitz

The blitz itself relies upon confusion among the offensive linemen. The linemen assume that the defensive ends and defensive tackles will rush the passer. By using a zone blitz, the defense throws off the blocking assignments of the offensive line by switching the responsibilities of a defensive lineman with those of a linebacker or defensive back. While most regular blitzes do not identify one of the pass rushers, zone blitzes don't identify any of the rushers, or how many will come.

For example, in one of the most common zone blitzes, a defensive end will drop back into coverage, playing one-fourth of the middle zone, while the weak side linebacker, who would normally cover that area, rushes the quarterback in place of the end.

Fire zone

A fire zone blitz is a specific zone blitz in which the defense rushes 5 with a 3–3 coverage behind it—three deep defenders and three underneath defenders. Although the fire zone can be run out of many fronts and alignments, the main points are the weakside defensive end or end man on the line of scrimmage away from the blitz dropping off into coverage, and pressure coming from the opposite side of the field.

For example, in a 4–3 front, the backside defensive end will drop off to the curl and then the flat, while the strong safety will drop down and cover the frontside curl to the flat. The non-blitzing linebacker will take the middle hole and the other two linebackers will stunt with the defensive line to try to pressure the passer.

Typically the other three defensive linemen will slant away from the linebacker blitz.

This type of blitz can be effective because the defensive line may draw some of the protection away from the rushing linebackers, and the defensive end may drop into a passing lane as the quarterback notices the non-blitzing linebacker drift towards the middle of the field.

There are many variants of this blitz from many different looks, but the base concept is a 3-deep, 3-underneath coverage, 5 rushers, and a player up front dropping back into coverage away from the blitz side.


The zone blitz is also an effective scheme when defending the screen pass. In a zone blitz especially designed to defend the screen pass, defensive linemen initially identify the running back or other potential recipients of a screen pass in order to cover them specifically rather than dropping into a zone. Covering a specific player is much easier for a defensive lineman who does not normally play in the open field. The blitzing linebackers are at an advantage in screen situations because they are more likely to actually pressure the quarterback who is trying to lure slower defensive linemen upfield and not expecting the significantly more athletic linebackers. The combination of the hurried quarterback and the quickly-covered screen receiver often results in a sack, an interception by a defensive lineman, a tackle for loss of yardage, or an incompletion. A very good example of this defensive scheme by LeBeau is the 100-yard interception return for a TD by James Harrison in Super Bowl XLIII. Prior to the play, on the first down and goal from the Pittsburgh 2, the Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner apparently expected Harrison to rush the passer as the latter usually does, thus designing Anquan Boldin running a slant. But as Warner was dropping back to pass, the inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons blitzed from the inside instead, and Harrison quickly dropped back to cover the slant route by Boldin making an easy interception which he eventually returned for a touchdown.


The last advantage highlighted above is also perhaps the principal disadvantage to a zone blitz, in that one or more defensive linemen may be required to drop back into coverage while linebackers take their place in rushing the quarterback. Linemen, by design, are the biggest, heaviest, and slowest members of the defense on the field. Asking them to cover a speedy slot receiver or an athletic, pass-catching tight end is often a losing proposition. Most, if not all, linemen, simply do not possess the speed to legitimately cover wide receivers for more than a few yards. These kinds of personnel mismatches can lead to easy completions if the quarterback can correctly identify them.

An additional disadvantage is that a zone blitz is less likely to be effective against the running game than a traditional blitz, since the linemen, often the best defenders against the run, have dropped off of the line of scrimmage in order to participate in pass coverage. For this reason, the zone blitz is most likely to be effective in down and distance situations that dictate a passing play (i.e. third down and more than six yards).


  1. "Zone Blitz Definition - Sporting Charts". Retrieved 2017-11-15.
  2. 1 2 Brown, Chris B. (2012-09-26). "Controlled Chaos". Grantland. Retrieved 2017-11-15.
  3. 1 2 3 "Let's get zone blitzed!". Retrieved 2017-11-15.
  4. 1 2 3 4 " NCF - Football 101: The zone blitz". Retrieved 2017-11-15.
  5. "Blitz Definition - Sporting Charts". Retrieved 2017-11-15.
  6. "WITH THE SECONDARY BOLSTERING THE PASS RUSH AND LINEMEN - 09.01.97 - SI Vault". Archived from the original on 2009-12-05.
  7. "- Steelers' LeBeau deserves spot in Hall of Fame". Archived from the original on 2009-06-04. Retrieved 2009-06-13.

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lineman (gridiron football)</span> Player in American or Canadian football who specializes in play at the line of scrimmage

In gridiron football, a lineman is a player who specializes in play at the line of scrimmage. The linemen of the team currently in possession of the ball are the offensive line, while linemen on the opposing team are the defensive line. A number of NFL rules specifically address restrictions and requirements for the offensive line, whose job is to help protect the quarterback from getting sacked for a loss, or worse, fumbling. The defensive line is covered by the same rules that apply to all defensive players. Linemen are usually the largest players on the field in both height and weight, since their positions usually require less running and more strength than skill positions.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Cornerback</span> Position in gridiron football

A cornerback (CB) is a member of the defensive backfield or secondary in gridiron football. Cornerbacks cover receivers most of the time, but also blitz and defend against such offensive running plays as sweeps and reverses. They create turnovers through hard tackles, interceptions, and deflecting forward passes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Linebacker</span> Defensive position in American football

Linebacker (LB) is a playing position in gridiron football. Linebackers are members of the defensive team, and line up three to five yards behind the line of scrimmage and the defensive linemen. They are the "middle ground" of defenders, playing closer to the line of scrimmage than the defensive backs (secondary), but farther back than the defensive linemen.

A screen pass is a play in gridiron football consisting of a short pass to a receiver who is protected by a screen of blockers. During a screen pass, a number of things happen concurrently in order to fool the defense into thinking a long pass is being thrown, when in fact the pass is merely a short one, just beyond the defensive linemen. Screens are usually deployed against aggressive defenses that rush the passer. Because screens invite the defense to rush the quarterback, they are designed to leave fewer defensemen behind the rushers to stop the play.

In gridiron football, blitzing is a tactic used by the defense to disrupt pass attempts by the offense. During a blitz, a higher than usual number of defensive players will rush the opposing quarterback, in an attempt either to tackle him or force him to hurry his pass attempt.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Defensive end</span> Defensive position in the sport of American and Canadian football

Defensive end (DE) is a defensive position in the sport of gridiron football.

Strategy forms a major part of American football. Both teams plan many aspects of their plays (offense) and response to plays (defense), such as what formations they take, who they put on the field, and the roles and instructions each player are given. Throughout a game, each team adapts to the other's apparent strengths and weaknesses, trying various approaches to outmaneuver or overpower their opponent in order to win the game.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">46 defense</span> American football defensive formation

The 46 defense is an American football defensive formation, an eight men in the box defense, with six players along the line of scrimmage. There are two players at linebacker depth playing linebacker technique, and then three defensive backs. The 46 defense was originally developed and popularized with the Chicago Bears by their defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, who later became head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tampa 2</span> American football defensive scheme

The Tampa 2 is an American football defensive scheme popularized by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers National Football League (NFL) team in the mid-1990s–early 2000s. The Tampa 2 is typically employed out of a 4–3 defensive alignment, which consists of four linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks, and two safeties. The defense is similar to a Cover 2 defense, except the middle linebacker drops into a deep middle coverage for a Cover 3 when he reads a pass play.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">American football positions</span> Specific roles that players take in American football

In American football, the specific role that a player takes on the field is referred to as their "position". Under the modern rules of American football, both teams are allowed 11 players on the field at one time and have "unlimited free substitutions", meaning that they may change any number of players during any "dead ball" situation. This has resulted in the development of three task-specific "platoons" of players within any single team: the offense, the defense, and the so-called 'special teams'. Within these three separate "platoons", various positions exist depending on the jobs that the players are doing.

There are several defensive formations commonly used in eight-man football. Defensive formations are classified by the total number of linemen and linebackers in the formation. The three basic types of formations in eight-man football are seven-man fronts, six-man fronts and five-man fronts.

In American football, a play is a close-to-the-ground plan of action or strategy used to move the ball down the field. A play begins at either the snap from the center or at kickoff. Most commonly, plays occur at the snap during a down. These plays range from basic to very intricate. Football players keep a record of these plays in a playbook.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">3–4 defense</span> American football defensive formation

In American football, the 3–4 defense is a common defensive alignment consisting of three down linemen and four linebackers. It is a called a "base defense" because it is the default defensive alignment used on "base downs". However, defenses will readily switch to other defensive alignments as circumstances change. Alternatively, some defenses use a 4–3 defense.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Zone defense in American football</span>

Zone coverage is a defense scheme in gridiron football used to protect against the pass.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">4–3 defense</span> American football defensive formation

In American football, a 4–3 defense is a defensive alignment consisting of four down linemen and three linebackers. It is called a "base defense" because it is the default defensive alignment used on "base downs". However, defenses will readily switch to other defensive alignments as circumstances change. Alternatively, some defenses use a 3–4 defense.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">3–3–5 defense</span> American football defensive formation

In American football, the 3–3–5 defense is a defensive alignment consisting of three down linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs. The 3–3–5 defense can also be referred to as the 3–3 stack or the spread defense. It is one form of the nickel defense, a generic term for a formation with five defensive backs. Veteran college football defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn is widely credited with being the main innovator of the 3–3–5 scheme.

The following terms are used in American football, both conventional and indoor. Some of these terms are also in use in Canadian football; for a list of terms unique to that code, see Glossary of Canadian football.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Defensive tackle</span> Position in American football

A defensive tackle (DT) is a position in American football that will typically line up on the line of scrimmage, opposite one of the offensive guards; however, he may also line up opposite one of the tackles. Defensive tackles are typically the largest and strongest of the defensive players. Depending on a team's individual defensive scheme, a defensive tackle may be called upon to fill several different roles. These roles may include merely holding the point of attack by refusing to be moved, or penetrating a certain gap between offensive linemen to break up a play in the opponent's backfield. If a defensive tackle reads a pass play, his primary responsibility is to pursue the quarterback, or simply knock the pass down at the line if it is within arm's reach. Other responsibilities of the defensive tackle may be to pursue the screen pass or drop into coverage in a zone blitz scheme. In a traditional 4–3 defense, there is no nose tackle. Instead there is a left and right defensive tackle. Some teams, especially in the National Football League (NFL), have a nose tackle in this scheme, but most of them do not.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Route (gridiron football)</span> Pattern or path run by receivers in American football

A route is a pattern or path that a receiver in gridiron football runs to get open for a forward pass. Routes are usually run by wide receivers, running backs and tight ends, but other positions can act as a receiver given the play.