Inspired by the recent BAFCA convention this past weekend, I have decided to pick up my metaphorical pen and napkin and share some scrawlings from the recent flurry of research every coach undertakes at the end of a season.
Last year in college football there was a growing respect around the defence of the Michigan State Spartans. Sparty had been in or around the top five defences in college ‘ball for a number of years, but this year with an offence to match they had potential to go far. Their victories against my beloved Ohio State Buckeyes and then a Rose bowl win of the brain trust at Stanford (in what proved to be an outstanding game) cemented their reputation as one of the top defences in the country.
Many have covered the base packages that Michigan State utilise, with much made out of the fact they rarely move out from a base 4-3 Over look with quarters played behind it. What I wanted to know was what they were in when they weren’t beating people up with nine in the box. Defensive Coordinator Pat Narduzzi uses a myriad of zone blitzes (preferring them over man coverage blitzes, as he believes they lower the risk of a big play) to bring pressure. Here’s just one interesting example I have found.
Above is one of the more familiar blitz packages in American Football. This is a zone blitz run by everyone from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Alabama Crimson Tide that brings five while dropping six into three deep and three underneath coverage zones. But what if you wanted to bring even more pressure and stay sound in zone coverage? Narduzzi likes to dial up a six man pressure I’m going to call (for the sake of this article at least) a “Hot Blitz”. First of all, lets hit the tape from the Michigan State game against the state and Big 10 rivals, the Michigan Wolverines.
In the opening quarter Michigan have managed to march down the field and are knocking on the door of the Spartans red zone. Michigan State had just stuffed a run for no gain and Michigan are sat at 2nd and 10 on the 222 yard line. Pat Narduzzi has dialed up a six man pressure bringing both outside linebackers in their base 4-3 personnel package. The question is, how is he playing zone coverage behind this pressure? The answer is simpler than it seems.
The first clue for Michigan that something was coming are the corners. Usually in the base quarters coverage run by Michigan State they are rolled up in press coverage. Here though they are lined up off their man in more of a cover 3 alignment. The two corners will have deep outside third responsibility, just as they would in the NCAA blitz. The strong safety (far hash) will drop to the deep middle. It is the remaining two defenders that have the interesting role, covering “hot.”
To understand the make up of the underneath coverage, first we’ll briefly go over the “genetics” (to borrow a term) of passing offence. Usually when a blitz is dialed up the quarterback will have the option of dumping the ball off quickly on a hot read. This is usually to a short terminating route or a deeper route thrown on rhythm, and the two underneath zones in this coverage have the responsibility of picking up or disrupting these routes. Initially they will key off #2 and disrupt that pattern.
After initially playing #2 (they don’t get to that in this particular clip because of the quick sack) the two “hot” players will follow the quarterbacks eyes and look to jump routes. This last part works because of the clock that is running for the offence. As you can see in the clip, even with a 7 man protection the variety of blitzes available will bring a ton of pressure early, in this case the ends loop into the A gaps and the tackles crush the C gaps causing havoc in the protection.
The beauty of this coverage is that, just like the regular three deep and three under coverage, a multitude of players can be used to cover the zone responsibilities. On tape I have seen Michigan State use two inside linebackers to blitz both A gaps, you can bring a corner off the edge, or you could blitz a safety and a linebacker. The fun really beings in an odd front offence where the combinations extrapolate exponentially.
Is this the holy grail of defence? No, like any blitz it comes with its inherent weaknesses. However the way the pressure is built with the coverage allows the defensive coordinator to attack the quarterback while minimising risk.