Fish Report: RB Zone Blitzes

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck Fish Reports

Remember the joy of massive discovery?  Going down the candy isle as a kid for the first time….seeing all the pretty girls at your first junior high dance…..or being thrilled to the thousands of apps available on your new cell phone?  With Zone Blitzes….I’m there baby!  Going back over Oregon’s Season revealed some wondrous new defensive strategies that I just didn’t see or understand before.  The last Fish Report was a primer on what the Oregon Defense is doing, while now we begin looking at specifics to prepare us for the 2010 season.

I’m no expert on this.  Coach Aliotti opened up to me in our meeting when he realized that I could identify when we were in a 3-4 and not a 4-3 defense, (even when we had four on the LOS) and when he could see that I knew the difference between a One-Gap 3-4 defense, and a Two-Gap 3-4.  He went to the whiteboard and began diagramming Zone Blitz packages we primarily used….but he lost me quickly, as my knowledge level is simply surface 3-4 information at this time.  Also…I do not have the computer savvy to integrate diagrams or YouTubes for you…so I will do what I have done best for the last dozen years of writing Scrimmage Reports—and that is to DESCRIBE the action to you, so that you can begin to appreciate the changes and strategies of our New Oregon 3-4 Defense.

We’ve heard Coach Kelly tell us that a good fake by the QB during the Zone-Read mesh between the RB and QB can accomplish as much as having an extra blocker or two on the field.  Nick would tell you the same about the defense creating confusion during a play; he emphasized in our interview that the Zone Blitz is meant to confuse the opposing QB and Offensive line.  Create offensive hesitancy or indecision for a second,…and it is like another defender or two on the field.

Why use the 3-4 defense?  Because to create confusion you need to Zone Blitz; to Zone Blitz you need to disguise it, and the 3-4 defense is best for flexibility and disguise.  You can run an adequate run defense from the 3-4, and even blitz to plug running plays.  The infamous Defensive Coach at the Pittsburg Steelers, Dick LeBeau, created this Zone Blitzing defense as a SAFE WAY to put pressure on the QB and create confusion.

How?  Instead of just blitzing seven defenders straight up in a “jailhouse blitz”, he could send only five and sometimes even just four rushers and yet have six or seven in pass coverage!  He stated that he didn’t have to go into a “Prevent Defense” at the end of games because he could apply pressure and yet have plenty of DBs in coverage.  (I love the sound of that!)

As I determined through my research and Coach Aliotti later confirmed…we are running a “Hybrid, Phillips, One-Gap, 3-4 Defense with LeBeau Zone Blitz Attack Packages.”  Note the first word is “HYBRID”; to a degree, EVERY coach runs a hybrid of his own offense or defense gleaned from other coaches/teams.  Nick is firm in that the 3-4 will be our base defense….but he will remain flexible dependent upon the opponent and situation.

When the game calls for a stouter running defense, (like the Rose Bowl) then you will see more 4-3 defenses. (as we did)  Yet even within the Rose Bowl game we utilized a ton of 3-4 Zone Blitz defensive packages, and even some odd defensive formations such as having only two Defensive linemen in a down stance,…or sending seven defenders on an all-out blitz.  While Coach admitted that in 2009 we were in a 3-4 defense over 50% of the time,….we were really just breaking it in. (as Mr. Clay Matthews explained at the spring scrimmage)

We were visibly better with the 3-4 in Spring Game than last fall, and I assume the progression will continue.  I charted the spring game and found us in a 3-4 alignment nearly 75% of the time, and he hinted that our usage of it this next year could be as high as that.  Why?  If our Spread Offense continues to be a national leader in scoring, then you will see teams doing a ton more passing on us, (to catch up) hence the need to apply pressure and create confusion.  The Zone-Blitzing components of the 3-4 are a natural complement to our prolific high scoring offense.  We will create more turnovers and short fields for our offense while potentially blowing open a game for us in a few minute span when things are really clicking on both sides of the ball.

It took me FIVE months to get over the pain of the loss in the Rose Bowl, and be able to view it again.  It hurt that much, yet upon examination…I see many examples of successful Zone Blitzes that created many hoots aloud and pride in what our defense was doing.  We were aggressive, taking the fight to the Buckeyes and it impressed me with how much enjoyment I could get from watching DEFENSE in a huge game that we lost.

If we can do that from a big loss….imagine the pleasure of winning while absorbing the fine points of our defensive strategies?  Next year……watch the game live for the offense, and then go home and watch it again focusing upon the defense in slow-motion.  You simply can’t see what they’re doing on defense in real-time because they do it so fast, get caught up in all the bodies, etc.

In slo-mo you watch the seconds tick off until the play begins and then as the ball is snapped you can watch the D-Line slants begin, the Dbs starting to charge as the Zone Blitz materializes and overwhelms the offense.  You also get perspective looking at the down and distance, seeing which defense was called, and then marveling at the guts taken to make that tough defensive call.  Entertainment comes in many forms!

It’s early in the second quarter as Ohio State is driving and it is second down and nine…as we line up with three D-Linemen down (in a stance) with a RDE standing up.  At the snap the RDE goes backward into pass coverage, guarding his “zone” while the two D-Linemen on the right slant inward or to their left into the offensive line tying up the Offensive Tackle, guard, and center.  The LDE (Tukuafu) steps back, and loops around to his right for a clear lane although it takes longer to get around the corner.

On the left side we see the Safety that is lined up in front of the slot receiver abandon his position at the snap and burst toward the QB in a blitz, as is the LILB blitzing.  So we have five rushing total, but the offensive line is messed up as to where they are coming from.  Prior sees the safety and the LBer blitzing on his right and with the other linemen creating a blob of bodies….he slides over to his left to avoid the momentum of the mass being shoved backward.

As he moves to his left…he now looks downfield with a better passing lane, but the Tukuafu who was looping around is now coming around the mound of players and right toward Pryor!  The Buckeye OT was helping the LOG stop Brandon Bair, but when he saw Will turn the corner….he left helping his teammate and engaged Tukuafu.  Will was driving them both into Pryor, and now that Bair had his guy one-on-one…he slides off the block and is steaming into Pryor for the sack.

Terrelle jukes and misses both tackles from our D-Linemen and then steps up to begin taking off, but Blake Ferras shucks his block and dives into Pryor’s legs for a loss of yardage and a sack!  What a sweet, sweet defensive play!  They had six blocking our five rushers, but they didn’t know where they were coming from, thus we put pressure on and get the sack with SIX defenders still in coverage. Wow.  (watch it in slow-motion…if it doesn’t make you jump out of your chair….then you haven’t a Duck pulse!)

We had five on the LOS, but at the snap we see Brandon Bair go forward and make contact with the offensive tackle in front of him, (he tags him) and then Bair moves back into a “spy” position to guard his zone, and make sure Pryor doesn’t break out of the pocket.  When Brandon steps back…the OLT (Offensive Left Tackle) in front of Bair is standing there blocking no one.

The Offensive Tackle is now in that “Plus-One” scenario I wrote about in the last report where the offensive lineman is unsure whether to leave his spot to help out teammates being blitzed on the other side, or to stay put.  On this play he did nothing and felt helpless as the play didn’t do much.  NEXT time when Brandon did this “tag-and-step-back” the OLT looked over and saw Casey Matthews blitzing from his MLB spot and he could see that a clear lane was open for Casey to make an easy sack.

So the OLT turned his shoulders and zipped over to pick up the blitzing Matthews just in time to prevent the sack, but simultaneously we see Bair charge toward Pryor the instant the OLT began to move away!  Brandon had a clear shot at Pryor, who ducked and was trying to take off, but Paysinger finished things off for another TFL.  Got him!  Oooohh baby this is fun to watch!  Clearly, this was a practiced strategy that was down to a tenth of a second timing for it to work.  That “Plus-One” scenario really sucks for Offensive Lineman…darned if you just stand there, and if you leave….someone might blitz through your open lane.  We love it!

Early in the second half I’m listening to the sportscasters talk about how Ohio State feels the pressure to score a touchdown as their on the edge of the Red Zone and it’s 2nd down and 13.  I could NOT believe my eyes as in slow-motion I count SEVEN Ducks Blitzing All-Out!  Pryor can see that he’s going to be overrun if he holds the ball a smidgeon longer so he spots his “hot” receiver and gets rid of it before the pile is pushed into him.

The pass was rushed and too high, so the WR went up to get it for a nice catch, but Boyett nailed him in mid-air knocking the ball out.  That doesn’t happen without the pressure, and I was gulping at the nerves of the coaches to call that major blitz on SECOND DOWN!  Now it’s 3rd down and 13, everyone knows that Pryor is going to throw it, and after that last blitz…what do you think Terrelle is thinking?

The ball is snapped and in the first second it looks like ANOTHER all-out blitz, and Terrelle knows he’s got to unload it quick.  He doesn’t notice that Bair stepped back again in Zone Coverage/Spy and it’s possible that the seven Buckeye blockers can now handle our six rushers.  But Pryor doesn’t know that and he goes back, sees the blitz and throws it as quick as he can.  The Ohio State WR was OPEN across the middle for a Touchdown, but the pressure Pryor felt made him throw it BEHIND the WR for an incomplete pass.  The pressure placed on Pryor, the gutsy defensive calls, and the execution SAVED four points as OSU kicked the Field Goal.  Whoa baby! It works!  (and is SO entertaining in the process)

Later in the game we see Ohio State wanting to get a score and we have 3rd down again with Prior going back to pass.  This time we show blitz, but back out of it!  Only ONE Duck on each end were rushing with Bair as a spy; Pryor began to get antsy waiting for a WR to get open, and after feeling all the pressure build up from the late first half….he decided to move leftward out of the pocket.

Once he did that we see Bair move up to challenge, and then TJ Ward charge through a lane toward him.  Prior threw to an open receiver, but in his haste to get rid of it….he lofted it a bit too much.  Boyett was lurking at Free Safety and cruised over and snagged an interception!  It was brought about by pressure from only TWO, and then later only FOUR rushers on defense!  (But it was ALL the plays before that begin to mess with the QBs heads and rushes their feet and their throws)

Watching all these Zone Blitzes….I’m like the kid going down the Candy isle for the first time.  (and it IS sweet!)

There were other examples in the RB game where Pryor was flushed out of the pocket with only FOUR Ducks rushing while the Buckeyes had SEVEN back to block.  It again comes from the confusion of the offense NOT knowing which linemen, LB, or DB or going to rush/blitz and which are popping back in coverage.  Is this defense perfect?  No.  Like all Xs and Os….it comes down to the talent and execution.

Rowe can cover RBs and TEs from his position, but on one play he identified the RB coming out of the backfield and down the sideline for a wheel route a second too late for a big 40 gain.  It happens with even superb talent like Kenny, and we WILL get burned once in awhile.   But we ARE playing the percentages and probabilities with this defense, which is why the 3-4 is becoming the leading defensive alignment in the NFL.

Haven’t we run Zone Blitzes before?  Sure….but not to this degree.  You can’t disguise your blitzes in our original 4-3 as easily as in our new 3-4 defense.  In the first half of the Spring Game, (which I charted) when most of the starters were playing…we blitzed our LBs SIXTY SIX PERCENT of the time!  Holy Crap.  That’s not your father’s defense, and baby it’s not even your older brother’s defense.  While that sounds aggressive, remember that we typically have five, six, or seven defenders back in pass coverage.  We love it!

This truly is a new era for the Oregon Defense and for those who watch and enjoy these calculated Zone Blitzes.  I wish for all of you the thrill of seeing these defensive strategies in slow-motion and screaming your own “yeah-baby!” at the plasma monitor.  I believe that we will have so many more opportunities than before to see Sacks, TFLs, Picks, and gutsy defensive calls this fall.  I can’t wait!

We love our Ducks,

Charles Fischer   (Mr. FishDuck)
Eugene, Oregon

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