NFL offenses seek a pressure valve Zone blitz: The newest toy of defensive coordinators has cut point production but sometimes boosts the number of long gainers.

September 25, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Since 1984, Dick LeBeau has been the NFL version of the mad scientist, a coach in search of a solution.

The problem? Prolific passing games.

The solution? Zone-blitz pressure.

It's as much a solution as anyone has uncovered in recent years, anyway. More than a passing fad -- it already has outlived the "46 defense" popularized by the Chicago Bears in the mid-1980s -- it has become one of the most menacing tools of defensive coordinators around the league.

And according to LeBeau, defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, it's here to stay.

"All I've ever said is, it's a better way to pressure," said LeBeau, who brings his brainchild to Baltimore for Sunday night's game against the Ravens. "The reason you're seeing it everywhere is because it's proven. It's standing the test.

"Will offenses get better against it? Sure they will. But I don't think it will ever be out of the game because it protects you a little bit. It's like putting money in the bank. It's a little safer there."

A little safer than the alternative -- blitzing constantly out of man-to-man schemes.

In the zone blitz, the defense essentially is attempting to overload an area of pass protection with blitzing linebackers and/or defensive backs, while dropping big, 350-pound linemen into zoned pass coverage.

LeBeau says he introduced zone-coverage schemes behind a blitz package in Cincinnati in 1984, borrowing the idea from former Miami Dolphins coordinator Bill Arnsparger. From there, he took the concept to Pittsburgh, where he helped refine it with head coach Bill Cowher and assistants Dom Capers and Marvin Lewis (now defensive coordinator with the Ravens). Last year, LeBeau took the scheme back to Cincinnati as coordinator under Bruce Coslet.

Today, the zone blitz appears to be at its peak. Every team uses it to some extent. And it seems reasonable to say it is at least partially responsible -- along with the proliferation of young quarterbacks -- for the surprising number of struggling offenses around the league.

In the first three weeks of the season, no less than seven teams are averaging less than two touchdowns a game. Five more teams are averaging 16 points or less a game -- this in an era inspired by offense, from the high-tech passing games down to the user-friendly rules.

"The game is pretty much an offensive game," said LeBeau, who had 62 interceptions in 14 seasons as a cornerback for the Detroit Lions. "You've got the greatest skill people ever, the way these guys throw and catch the ball. I think a person with the ability to see the field like Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith and the great tailback in Denver [Terrell Davis]. they're going to move the ball and score points."

Defense has countered the high-tech age with pass-rush pressure on the quarterback. Through three weeks, sacks continue to rise -- from a total of 206 at the corresponding point in 1996 to 220 a year ago to 226 this season. That's an average of 5.3 sacks per game this year.

But there is a risk factor and a cost.

Sacks are up, and so are big-play touchdowns.

More numbers to chew on: There were a total of 13 scoring runs or passes or 50 yards or longer after three weeks a year ago. Heading into Week 4, that figure has jumped dramatically to 20, an increase of 53 percent. There were nine such plays in Week 2, seven in Week 3.

"The zone blitz is feast or famine," Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy said. "We're now in a throwing league and people are trying to get to the quarterback to create havoc. People are doing some unsound things with blitzes, like rushing six guys from one side of the center.

"I'm not a big believer, but Monte [Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin] likes it."

Feast or famine, sack or touchdown? At times, the blitz is an all-or-nothing proposition.

"If you execute against the blitz, whether it's a zone blitz or a man blitz, the opportunity for a bigger play is there," LeBeau said. "Defenses recognize they can't sit back.

"We've really changed the philosophy of defense. I think we've forced the offense to take a look at some [better] ways of protecting the quarterback."

More teams opt for maximum pass protection these days, for one thing, sending only two receivers out on patterns. Some teams respond with multiple tight ends, others with more running plays.

"I did a study of the zone blitz on first and second down, when teams play-action a lot," said Gunther Cunningham, whose blitz schemes with the Kansas City Chiefs are perhaps the league's most exotic.

"Crossing routes cause a lot of problems for the defense. Yards per catch go up. I was disappointed with the zone-blitz schemes on first and second down. Take the play-action out on third down, spread the receivers and you can put pressure on the quarterback.

"There are some good things, but there are some holes."

The Chiefs are second in the NFL with 15 sacks this season (Seattle leads with 19). They rely, among other things, on speed at linebacker.

"Linebackers have to know how to do it, how to blitz," Cunningham said. "You need pressure and speed to do it. Carolina lost its speed last year and got hurt."

The concentration on the zone blitz can only help, LeBeau said, still seeking ways to improve the concept.

"Like anything, if two people are working on something, they'll come up with some good ideas," he said. "If 30 people are working on it, you'll get more ideas.

"Some people take your ideas and go a different direction, and actually improve on them. With more people doing it, there's more trial and error."

LeBeau won't hazard a guess at where the zone blitz is headed, saying only that it will survive.

"I don't know who's got a crystal ball," he said. "But I do see a lot of fire zones being run by everybody.

"Who's going to win in the end? Eventually, the offense is going to score points. But I do think the zone blitz gives coaches another tool, another weapon, to slow offenses down."

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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