Inside Mike Pettine’s Playbook Part Four: The Zone Blitz

When the Buffalo Bills hired former New York jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to the same position, there were rumblings among fans regarding what type of defense the team would operate in 2013.

Pettine has been coaching in the National Football League since 2005, where he joined the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coaching staff and has learned the ins and outs of Rex Ryan’s 3-4/ 4-3 “Under” defense.

Upon researching the various defensive formations that Pettine has utilized throughout his coaching career, I came across a clinic in which he delivered information on his personal defensive philosophies, plays, coverages, etc.

Over the next week or so, BillsMafia.com will be exploring Pettine’s defense in an 8-10 post series. Enjoy!

From what we’ve seen of the Baltimore Ravens’ and New York Jets’ defenses that Coach Pettine has had reign over, it’s clear that he likes to pressure opposing quarterbacks out of a variety of packages.

Pettine uses pre-snap disguises, such as a safety or cornerback cheating to the line of scrimmage, in order to confuse the opposing quarterback as much as possible before the ball is in play.

While Pettine has primarily operated out of the 3-4 defensive front, his blitzes and pressures rely on multiple coverages from the back-end of the defense, including Cover 0, Cover 1, Cover 2, and a zone blitz that utilizes some Cover 3.

These posts regarding the blitzes had a ton of help from Rich Fann II (@Fanntastic81), a must follow for all Bills fans!

The Zone Blitz

The zone blitz has been perfected by teams such as the Pittsburgh Steelers under defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and has proven to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.

The concept of the zone blitz seems pretty simple, as the premise is to rush five defenders, while dropping six into coverage. However, where it gets tricky is that it’s very difficult to tell exactly which extra defender is going to rush the passer.

No matter which five defenders are rushing the quarterback, there are six zones that need to be accounted for: three deep zones, covered by the two cornerbacks and a safety, and three underneath zones, covered primarily by a combination of linebackers, safeties or defensive linemen.

Odd Field FZ

Here we see a play called “Odd Field FZ” there is an “Odd” alignment, which we know means an odd number of defenders on the line of scrimmage. In this case, there are five: the three down linemen and the two outside linebackers.

The pressure is applied from the strong side of the offensive alignment (the side with the tight end) by one of the two inside linebackers, along with the “SAM” linebacker. However, as both the “SAM” and “WILL” linebackers are on the line of scrimmage showing blitz before the snap, the quarterback needs to determine his check-down or “hot” throw early.

The three underneath zones are covered by the strong safety and the weakside linebacker, who are responsible for the outside “flats” and the “Mike” inside linebacker drops to cover the middle “Hook” zone. The three deep zones are covered by the outside cornerbacks who really are in man coverage, and the free/weak safety who is responsible for the middle 1/3rd of the field.

This blitz presents quite a few issues for the quarterback.

  • Pre-Snap: Who is coming and what is the protection (who is responsible for who)?
  • Pre-Snap: Is the running back or tight end the check down?
  • Post-Snap: With the receiver in man-coverage, does the quarterback have time to get the ball out?
Consistent man coverage is a must when operating a zone blitz. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Consistent man coverage is a must when operating a zone blitz. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Typically, the best decision against a zone blitz would be to dump the ball off to the running back in the flat, or get a quick throw off to a tight end. The blitz is coming from the wide side of the field, meaning the passer will likely be flushed into the short, weak side of his offense, where he would only have a wide receiver as a target.

To get the ball to the tight end, the quarterback would really have to force it in because the strong safety could easily jump the route, and the “Mike” could undercut any slants/in routes.

In order to effectively operate a zone blitz, both cornerbacks must be able to consistently handle man coverage responsibilities.

The zone blitz is just one wrinkle that the Bills could utilize on defense this year under Coach Pettine, and the next post in the series will discuss the various blitzes that can be applied out of the different coverage schemes.

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