Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is one of the most innovative defensive minds in the National Football League. He is credited with the invention of the zone blitz, a concept that has become common place in today’s NFL and upper tier of college programs. He is consistently able to confuse quarterbacks and offensive lines, resulting in the Steelers having the best defense in the league this year. His defense will constantly crowd the line of scrimmage making the offense guess as to who will be rushing the passer and who will be dropping into pass coverage. The defense is also in constant movement before the ball is snapped. Linebackers walk to the line, back up, jump over two gaps, anything to keep the offense on their toes. They don’t stand still until right before the ball is snapped making it very difficult for an offensive line to adjust their blocking schemes to account for all the potential rushers. Here is a modified example of a zone blitz the Steelers used against Cincinnati last week. Here the cornerback will blitz from the outside through a designed gap in the offensive line:
The idea behind this play is to confuse the offensive line, and overload one side. Since the offensive left tackle has a defensive end outside of him, he has to be ready to drop back in his pass blocking steps. The left guard sees the linebacker up on the line, ready to blitz, and has to be ready to pick him up. The center is responsible for blocking the nose guard. The defense will show blitz with the inside linebacker over the right guard. This means the guard has to pick up the blitzing linebacker and the right tackle is responsible for the defensive end over his face. Here, the nose guard is going to go to the A gap on the center’s left side, and the linebacker will blitz the A gap on the center’s right. The offensive line believes that there will be a five man rush, which they should be able to handle with five offensive linemen. The running backs can chip block rushers on the ends and get into the flats.
The defensive end on the offense’s right side is going to make sure he comes with a speed rush up field, getting on the outside shoulder of the tackle; this will do two things. First, it will cause the tackle to go up field with him and start to clear a lane for the blitzing cornerback. Second, if he does the speed rush effectively, the running back will feel he has to help block the defensive end slowing down the running back’s route and leaving a great lane for the corner to make the sack, untouched.
Since the corner back is going to be blitzing, the safety will take a few steps closer to the line and take the wide receiver in man coverage. The defensive end on the offensive left side is going to drop back into pass coverage and will have the hook-to-curl zone along with the middle linebacker that stayed back in pass coverage. Since the left tackle was accounting for the defensive end in front of him to rush the passer, the tackle has dropped back in pass blocking steps but has found himself standing alone. For a defense, an offensive lineman that is not blocking anyone is a great scenario because he is effectively occupied by no one. This play practically gives the defense six pass rushers (since the left tackle is standing alone and occupied by a phantom defender) and six men in pass coverage, twelve on eleven is a great matchup anytime you can get it.
This is the play as it develops. It shows the lane that is created for the cornerback to fly untouched at the quarterback. The linebacker and defensive end are sitting in pass coverage, and once they see their corner come through this lane, their attention is going to focus on the running backs coming out of the backfield because the running backs are the quarterback’s check down options for when he gets in trouble. The defensive end that dropped back will be a little more hesitant to abandon his zone because he has a slot receiver coming though, but once he sees the quarterback panic he will come up to take away the check down. On this play, Bengals quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick wasn’t even able to get the ball up ready to throw before he was taken down by the cornerback.
The Steelers do not always have to bring five rushers to get pressure on the quarterback. Here they will bring four pass rushers and still get a quick sack. They will do this by creating favorable match-ups. On this play the Steelers have a nickel package in the game (5 defensive backs). The defense will be playing a Nickel Cover 2 Man Under OLB Blitz with a Spy.
The nickel back on this play is going to start in the inside linebacker position lined up over the right guard. But, he is going to switch places with the actual inside linebacker just before the play starts. A defensive back on the slot receiver is a much more effective matchup for the defense than a linebacker on the slot receiver. The Steelers are, instead, going to put a linebacker man-to-man on a tight end, this is still an advantage for the offense but it is less of an advantage. At first glance, the offensive line should be able to handle this blitz. Ideally, the center would account for the nose guard, even though he is not going to rush, the left guard will block the defensive end and the left tackle will take the blitzing outside linebacker. However, the inside linebacker over the guard is going to show blitz, this means that the guard has to account for him. When he drops back to cover the tight end the guard will be left blocking air, once again an advantage for the defense. This means that the running back will be responsible for picking up the blitzing outside linebacker, a huge advantage for the defense. There are only a few running backs in the league that can handle a blitzing linebacker on their own. It is even more difficult when the linebacker comes off the edge and is untouched before he gets to the running back.
On the other side the defense is going to create a favorable matchup by putting their best rush linebacker up against the offensive right tackle. For a right-handed quarterback, the best offensive lineman is put at left tackle to protect the quarterbacks blind side. This means the defense has their best rush linebacker against, at best, the offense’s second best lineman. Since the running back is occupied on the other side and the inside linebacker is blitzing over the guard, the tackle has the blitzing linebacker man-on-man with no help. Because this play is designed to get a quick up field rush, the nose guard is going to sit back and spy the backfield watching for a screen pass (since that is typically how you beat blitz happy defenses).
Here is the situation as the play develops. The offense is running a post, vertical combination on the right side. They want the safety on their right(in cover 2) to pick a receiver to help on and leave the other receiver in man coverage. The problem is it takes a few seconds to develop, that gives the Steelers enough time to get to the quarterback. The quarterback’s pre-snap reads should have told him to make the tight end a priority since he is man-to-man with a linebacker (green circle). The problem is the quarterback doesn’t know until the snap if the outside linebacker or middle linebacker will be covering the tight end. If he tries to guess and guesses wrong, an interception is very likely. The match-ups the defense has created are circled in red. These represent the running back trying to handle an untouched outside linebacker and the right tackle trying to handle the linebacker’s speed rush on the other side. In this play, against the Ravens, the two linebackers easily blew past their blockers and hit the quarterback from either side at the same time.