The blitz is a hit NFL: More teams are employing the zone-blitz defense, which has boosted the league's sack totals by putting an emphasis on pressuring the quarterback.

September 26, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The Defense of the Nineties has been brewing for a while now, like a high-pressure system on the horizon, waiting to rain on somebody's parade.

This season, NFL quarterbacks are getting drenched.

Pressure defense these days means more exotic blitzes, more drive-sapping sacks, and more quarterbacks going down. The difference is the pressure often comes disguised in a zone-blitz package that suddenly is the rage of the league.

"Every film I watch, I see some of it," Gunther Cunningham, defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, said of the NFL's latest defensive trend. "A year ago, we weren't into it."

But now, after an off-season of retooling their defense with quicker, more athletic players, the Chiefs are on the cutting edge of the blitz craze. Cunningham estimates he has in his playbook up to 40 zone and man blitzes from seven different looks. And that doesn't include the 15 blitzes he can call from his regular defense.

"We're probably the forerunner, more than anybody," he said. "We're hitting 30, 35 percent [blitzes]."

Through four weeks of the season, blitzing is up around the league and so are sacks. There have been 291 sacks in 56 games, an average of 5.2 a game. That's the most sacks after four weeks in a non-strike season since 1985, when defenses dumped quarterbacks an astonishing 351 times.

In an era when rules favor the offense, blitzing is perhaps the last resort for defenses trying to keep up. And it seems to be an almost automatic element in the defensive game plan when facing the league's best quarterbacks.

For instance, when the Philadelphia Eagles upset the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers and quarterback Brett Favre in Week 2, the critical factor was a pass rush that sacked Favre only once, but knocked him down a dozen times.

The Eagles blitzed Favre 33 times. Not coincidentally, for only the second time in his previous 50 starts, he completed less than 50 percent of his passes (19 for 41). Six times, the Eagles sent seven rushers after Favre.

"You have to credit Emmitt Thomas for that," Eagles coach Ray Rhodes said of his defensive coordinator. "He did a great job of studying Green Bay's offense and what Favre was doing. He spent a lot of hours and late nights."

The Chicago Bears had the same thing in mind when they loosened a steady stream of pass rushers against New England's Drew Bledsoe on Sunday. The Bears sent from five to eight rushers and sacked him twice, yet lost, 31-3, when he threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns.

Obviously, some game plans work better than others.

"I think the majority of teams are trying to be more aggressive," Rhodes said. "You look around the league, people are not having success with four-man pressure. So most teams are trying to get more pressure.

"Teams like Pittsburgh and Carolina brought a lot of pressure last year. Everybody's a copycat around the league."

The Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers have been the two leading proponents of the zone-blitz scheme in recent years. It is a scheme in which a defensive lineman will drop into zone pass coverage while a varying number of blitzers -- linebackers and/or defensive backs -- will charge the quarterback from almost any angle. The intent is to overload pass protection, create a mismatch and affect the play, either with a sack or a poor throw.

The Panthers led the NFL with 60 sacks last season, and the Steelers were second with 51. They were both in the top five in scoring defense and the top 10 in total defense. That was enough to send defensive coordinators scrambling to get in on the zone-blitz feast.

Called "firezones" by coaches, the ultimate goal is to reach the quarterback before he can get off the play.

"All the firezones are intended to disrupt the timing of the passing game and put doubt in the quarterback's mind," said Don Strock, quarterback coach for the Ravens. "Keep in mind, defensive linemen have to be athletic to drop into coverage. They are usually 300-pounders covering the tight end.

"Obviously, there are only so many things you can do, and you do it to the strength of your personnel."

Although different coaches had dropped defensive linemen into pass coverage through the years, it wasn't until the mid-1980s that the zone blitz took shape. That's when Dick LeBeau, then-defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, was looking for a way to stem the tide that NFL offense had become.

His search took him to LSU, where Bill Arnsparger, the former architect of the Miami Dolphins' great defenses, was head coach. The seed of dropping a defensive lineman was planted and LeBeau nurtured it from a concept into a scheme.

"I've been doing [firezones] 12 years," LeBeau said. "The more you do it, the more you learn about it, also. A few of them crashed and burned in Cincinnati. But there weren't very many in Pittsburgh that did that."

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