"That's a misnomer. You don't have to have a defensive lineman drop back for it to be a zone blitz. There's all kinds of zone blitzes." -- Rod Woodson.
The Hall of fame defensive back should know. He played under both Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau, who are attributed with creating and defining the zone-blitz scheme. Each of those men will be running opposing defenses in the Super Bowl, and presumably every time you see a defensive lineman drop in coverage, you'll hear the broadcast wax poetic about the zone blitz.
There's much more to the scheme than big dudes backpedaling, however. That said, how did we get to the point where nose tackles are dropping back and covering someone in the first place? Where did the zone blitz come from? And when did it become the West Coast offense version of a defense, well-known enough that doormen at cheesy Hollywood clubs drop it like they drop Kevin Sorbo's name?
To know the zone blitz is to get to know the 3-4. Using three down linemen and four linebackers as a base defense was introduced to the NFL around 1974. Some believe Bum Phillips and the Oilers brought it to pro football, while others believe the Patriots under Chuck Fairbanks and defensive coordinator Hank Bullough were the first.
"John Madden even experimented with it early on. (He) called it the 'Orange' defense," said former Raiders linebacker Matt Millen, who played in the 3-4 under Tom Flores.
Either way, by the back half of '74, two teams were playing a defense that had only been utilized in certain situations by the Dolphins in the early part of the decade, and not much else. New England and Houston were running it every down, and with great success.
"We had gone through a tough season in '73 and our defensive line wasn't very good," Bullough told the Boston Globe. "We had drafted Steve Nelson and Sam Hunt and they were two good-looking kids at linebacker, and I said to Chuck, 'Let's go to the 3-4,' and that's what we did."
Though it took a while to acquire the right personnel, by 1976 the Patriots were having great success with it, enough to go 11-3. In Houston, the Oilers became one of the best teams in pro football, eventually making it to back-to-back AFC Championship Games in '78 and '79.
Despite the fact that the Patriots and Oilers played slightly different versions of the 3-4, the new scheme caused trouble for offenses. The center now had a guy right on top of him, altering his responsibilities. The guards were forced to get out in space often and block agile inside linebackers, not burly, immobile defensive tackles. And most importantly, with more 'backers, defensive coordinators had more options on who to send to rush the passer, and who to drop into coverage.
"I love the 3-4," said Shawne Merriman, who has made his name in the scheme. "With four athletic linebackers able to make plays, it's harder for an offense to prepare for you. Our coaches can do different things to disrupt them."
Teams used the newly-minted defense like your dad used duct tape, finding unique ways to take advantage of having more guys behind the line and moving around.
"It's the flexibility of the scheme because you can do different things," Millen said. "You can hide guys, create matchups ... it's the versatility of what you can do."
While teams were experiencing success outside of the 4-3, the NFL's version of the brat pack was learning and assimilating. Bill Parcells embraced the 3-4 as an assistant in New England in 1980. Bill Belichick worked for Broncos head coach Red Miller, and saw firsthand how dominating the "Orange Crush" defense was with this different alignment. Parcells and Belichick would build one of the best 3-4 units in history with Lawrence Taylor and the 1986 Giants. LT won the NFL MVP that season.
Invention out of necessity
The Bengals had also converted to the four-linebacker package, and in 1984 their new defensive coordinator (LeBeau) began tweaking it in an effort to stop the emerging West Coast offense. The timing-based attack was centered around quick drops to reduce how long a quarterback held the ball, while hitting receivers in stride to rack up yards after the catch. Unfortunately, LeBeau had the machinery, but not the parts, to counter. There was no LT or Carl Banks residing in Cincinnati.
It was time to start using his four linebackers as chess pieces. Heck, he could use everybody as queens on the board -- confuse the defense as far as who was blitzing and who was dropping, rather than send the kitchen sink on every play. Yet, as a former cornerback himself, LeBeau was trying to create a "safe way to blitz" as Woodson refers to it, without exposing the secondary. Could LeBeau send three linebackers without leaving the defense vulnerable on slants and hooks? Yes, by dropping a lineman, or two, in coverage. Or he could cover with his linebackers, and blitz not one, but two, corners.
LeBeau met with former Dolphins defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger, who had tinkered with different blitzes and zone-based defenses in the late '70s and early '80s, to discuss his ideas. He then had a meeting of the minds with open-minded head coach Sam Wyche. Within months, the "zone blitz" was born, although its current incarnation was a ways off.
Meanwhile, in Baltimore and Philadelphia, Jim Mora (the elder) was winning championships in the USFL as head coach of the Stars. Capers coached the secondary in Mora's defense, a 3-4 unit good enough to stop the ill-fated league's best offenses. When the USFL folded, Mora took his defense and Capers with him to the Saints. New Orleans also signed the best player on the Stars, linebacker Sam Mills, to lead what would become the NFL's best linebacking corps. It was there that Capers would develop his career and pressure philosophy.
As the Falcons' young center at the time, Jamie Dukes took notice of just how disruptive those Saints defenses could be, playing them twice a year in the old NFC West. "They ran the 3-4, but with those linebackers, they didn't have to do all that exotic blitz stuff," Dukes recalled. "They would just bring Rickey Jackson and Pat Swilling up ... Swilling sometimes would put his hand on the ground, and they'd rush that way. But they had the guys to do that."
LeBeau couldn't do what the Saints were doing for the same reason he couldn't replicate the Parcells-Belichick-LT gauntlet: He didn't have the personnel. So he made the already flexible 3-4 even more multi-faceted.
In studying the zone blitz, I watched three Bengals games from 1985, 1987 and 1988. LeBeau was constantly altering his blitzes and coverage. On one drive against the Oilers in '88, he played a base 3-4 on first down and covered with everyone but the linemen. Then on second down he played a 4-1-6, with linebacker Reggie Williams lined up directly over the right guard. Sack.
With a third-and-long looming, and the Oilers going four-wide in their "Red Gun" offense, LeBeau gave the Oilers a Jack and Coke with amaretto and lime. Cincinnati lined up two corners on the slot receiver to quarterback Warren Moon's left, and a safety and corner over the right slot receiver. One of the corners on each side blitzed, while defensive end Jason Buck stunted, creating pressure from three angles. Houston might have well as just punted right then.
The stars align in 'Blitzburgh'
After Wyche's staff was fired following the '91 season, the football universe manifested some synchronicity, when LeBeau was hired in Pittsburgh to coach the defensive backs under Capers. The latter was interested in unique ways to apply pressure on the quarterback, while LeBeau had pretty much been thinking stuff up for the last eight years. It was at that time and place where the zone blitz would officially arrive in league consciousness.
"The defensive staff would come in, and Dick would have a blitz package for the week that he liked," Woodson said. "He would give it to (Capers) and say, 'Use what you want to use, call it what you want to call it, etc."
Unlike the '80s Bengals, the Steelers -- aka "Blitzburgh" -- had parts that fit. Despite there being talent all over the joint, Capers would implement some of LeBeau's brilliant zone-blitz concoctions to create confusion. It was like having a power hitter that was astute enough that he could also hit .400. It wasn't fair. Playing out of the 3-4, Capers would drop linemen in coverage and blitz whoever ... Kevin Greene, Greg Lloyd, or corners like Woodson.
"I liked blitzing; I had 13 and a half sacks in my career," said Woodson. But he also noted that when LeBeau developed the zone blitz, he was trying to create pressure in the safest manner.
"The good thing about Dick (is) he tries to envision what's the less stress put on the DB's, because a lot of times when you see a lot of these exotic blitzes, they're unsound in the secondary ... they can get beat. I think the one thing Dick tries to do is to eliminate that as best possible."
In fact, Woodson's favorite zone scheme didn't involve any linemen dropping. "Smoke" as it was called, involved strong safety Carnell Lake walking up and rushing the quarterback, with free safety Darren Perry moving over to cover that half of the field. The right corner would cover the deep half that Perry just vacated.
Meanwhile, Woodson, the left corner, would take a step back, baiting the quarterback into throwing a curl where there presumably would be a hole left behind by the blitzers. After taking that false step, Woodson would commit full speed to jumping the route.
"I'd look at Darren like this (gives a subtle head nod) ... that meant I was gonna jump anything," Woodson said.
That play resulted in a few pick-six's, and was the zone blitz at its finest -- despite the fact there were no linemen dropping (like B.J. Raji in the NFC Championship Game last week.)
Capers would translate the Steelers' early '90s run into a head-coaching job, where he led the Panthers to the NFC Championship Game in 1996. Now he's the front man for the Packers second-ranked scoring defense. LeBeau's path took him back to Pittsburgh, this time as his own defensive coordinator, where his invention has helped the Steelers win two Super Bowls. Now he's going for three.
Neither would be where he is without an idea LeBeau originally drew up on napkins to stop the Joe Montanas and Warren Moons of the world. Like the 3-4, and because of it, the zone blitz is here to stay.
Elliot Harrison is the research analyst for NFL RedZone on NFL Network.