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watsonBy Mike Kuchar Senior Research Manager X&O Labs

Louisville's Offensive Coordinator Shawn Watson details his most productive blitz beaters.


By Mike Kuchar Senior Research Manager X&O Labs

watsonMost of the spread coaches that we spoke with stress the value of patience.  They want to be patient with their play calling, choosing to methodically march down the field blocks of yards at a time.  They want their quarterback to be patient with his reads – quickly diagnosing coverage before peppering defensive secondary’s with intermediate throws.  They even want their running back to be patient for gap displacement when running those zone read schemes synonymous with spread offenses.

But, often times patience can crumble – coming in the form of a speed rusher off the edge or a defensive tackle looping around for contain on zone pressures.  While offensive coordinators teach patience, defensive coordinators demand quickness – sending as many rushers to the quarterback as possible without compromising coverage.  Eventually, the offense needs to get plays off in a hurry – and in the face of the blitz.  We’ve surveyed the coaching industry to provide you a report on how to be effective in the eye of the storm, when that zone pressure comes.

Case 1: Identifying Zone Pressures When covering the topic of zone pressures, there is one common denominator amongst all defensive coaches we speak with.  They all tell us the first thing they teach is to "keep the shell" and disguise rotation.  What this means, is that pre-snap the defensive secondary should always resemble some form of a two-safety defense.  Eventually, one of those safeties will need to get to his landmark and coverage responsibility by the time the ball is snapped.  The question is when.  Good coordinators teach those safeties to disguise as much as possible – often dropping a split second before the ball is snapped.

Before we address what we discovered as some of the top defensive indicators to tip off a zone pressure, we went the extra mile for you, offensive coaches, in order to help you better disguise your snap count.  If you’re a shotgun team, the most frequent indicators seem to be some sort of hand or leg movement – such as crossing or clapping your hands so the center can see it or lifting or moving a leg (similar to the classic John Elway move).  If you’re more of an under center quaterback, we’ve found many teams will start their movement when your head comes back to the middle of the formation after looking right and left or the drop of your head immediately before the snap is delivered.

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We’ve found that defenses have their "dead giveaways" as well before they start to rotate into their fire zone coverage.  While the majority of offensive coaches will key one of the deep safeties to see who drops pre-snap (54.5 percent of our coaches say that’s the first thing they look for), we’ve found there are a few other indicators that hint at a zone pressure coming your way:

  • The 3-technique DT is in the boundary: Almost all four down teams place their 3-technique to the field or offensive strength.  If he lines up to the boundary and if he’s wide (because he becomes the contain player on pass) chances are a pressure is coming.
  • The nose guard is in a shade alignment rather than a 2i on guard: Again, most four down teams play with a 2i and not a shade.  If he’s in a shade alignment (outside shade of center) there is a good chance he will be crossing the center’s face to get into the opposite A gap.
  • The five technique DE is to the field: Many zone pressure teams blitz from the field (there is more room there, obviously) and that defensive end needs to spike into the A gap.  If he’s tight on that offensive tackle, you can bet he’s coming inside.
  • The spin safety starts to creep: Like we mentioned earlier, he will eventually begin to spin down to take care of his pass responsibility if he’s dropping.  If he’s coming, expect him to creep a lot sooner.
  • The deep safety changes alignment: If the ball is on the hash and that inside safety is now inside the hash and over the center (as opposed to playing his deep half responsibility in most cases) he will be rotating to the middle of the field.  QBs need to see that and expect some sort of three deep, three under pressures.

We were able to spend time visiting with Shawn Watson, the offensive coordinator at Nebraska, who really simplified his methodology in how he prepares to attack zone pressures.  "Really, there will only be three types of pressures you will see," says Watson.  "You have external (outside) field pressures, external boundary pressures, and finally internal (inside) pressures.  Once we identify those it’s easy to attack them.  Even at our level, rarely is there a balanced pressure team that is effective at all three of those types.  They believe in one thing or another – they won’t do all.  I see a ton of field pressure teams for the most part – where they will overload the field and bring pressure."


Case 2: Best Pass Concepts to Attack Fire Zones Most successful offensive coordinators want to stay aggressive regardless of what problems defenses present.  They want to be the cat and not the mouse – staying ahead of the chains and in control of the tempo.  So, why should it be any different when attacking a zone pressure?  Since football is always a numbers game, it’s important to note that in most zone pressures, there are five rushers, three deep defenders and three underneath defenders.  So any way you slice it, a zone is voided.  Which is probably why 49.2 percent of coaches best handle zone pressure by throwing quick game into the pressure.  It’s a coordinators job to diagnose where that zone is and attack it.  Most of the time, in those types of pressures it’s an area to the side of the blitz (since a defender there is vacated by rushing) that is voided.

"I teach our quarterback playing against a field pressure to put the ball into the blitz because the void is where the blitz is coming from," says Watson.  Watson tells his QB to put the ball right into a three deep, three under fire zone pressure but take the ball away in a two deep, four under pressure (which we will explain later).  One of his best fire zone beaters is what he calls Y Stick (Diagram 1).  Out of a trips alignment to the field, with the back set weak, he’ll have the number one receiver run an outside release protection route like a fade or go route.  The number two receiver runs a shoot or arrow route in which he will flat release and look back for the ball on this third step without coming any closer than three yards from the sideline.  Finally, number three to the trips runs a stick route, breaking off his outside foot at four yards, and ending up at six yards deep.  "We tell him to settle against zone overages and out run man coverage."

Another popular concept to beat zone pressures has been the bubble screen off zone read play action.  Among coaches surveyed, 35.5 percent claimed the bubble has been the most productive screen to attack zone pressures, more so than jailbreaks, middle or slip screens. It’s a scheme that Anthony Chidester, an assistant coach at Timpanogos High School in Utah gets a ton of miles on, more so against zone pressures – particularly odd front pressures.  Like many coaches, the staff at Timpanagos packages the zone read with the bubble concept, so it gets the ball in the voided alley quickly – right where the blitz is coming from.

According to Chidester, the zone blocking schemes up front are perfect to handle the twists and games of the zone pressure.  "To me, there is no better play than throwing that bubble to the blitz," says Chidester.  If they are a 30 front team when we zone up, we leave the 5-tech alone because he’s crashing into the B gap because the LB is coming over the top into the C gap.  If he comes free, your QB is crushed.  So, we loop the tackle (around the defensive end) for the inside LB regardless of where he is.  If they’re pinching into the B gap, there is no ride on the fake, the QB just flips his hips and throws the bubble.  When we see these blitzes we know we’re going to pull the ball and throw the bubble."

In order to generate a clear path for the QB to get the ball to the slot, Chidester lines the wide receiver up three yards off the line of scrimmage - similar to what Gus Malzahn does at Auburn.  Now, the receiver - who has his inside foot forward- takes two steps back (instead of three) and turns for the ball while heading to the sideline (Diagram 2).  The QB flips his hips and gets the ball out.

Since 18.8 percent of coaches surveyed see some two deep-four under pressures (the second highest frequency) it makes sense to cover it’s weaknesses considering it may be only a matter of time until it trickles down to your level.  When Watson sees two-deep, four under fire zones, he recommends taking the ball away from pressure and attacks the SCIFF (seam, curl, flat) player by running his Dragon concept (Diagram 3).   Watson likes to run his Dragon concept mainly to the boundary away from the pressure.  On the front side he runs his Y stick concept mentioned earlier, but he has the back-side X run the slant with the number two receiver (either a slot or a running back) on the quick shoot route.

"In that pressure, the weakness is away from that safety rotation to the field," says Watson.  "They cloud that corner to the field and start to press him by rolling the coverage to blitz.  Which means the corner on the back-side of the blitz is a half player because that safety is cheating to the other half. The SCIFF player has to play the slant and the shoot and he can’t do that.  We just gut teams on that. We tell that QB to watch the safety.  We tell him find Waldo. If they rotate to three-deep, three-under we run the stick to the field.  If they start pressing that corner to the field, we come back with the Dragon concept opposite."

Case 3: Best Run Concepts to Attack Pressures As efficient as quick pass concepts can be to attack zone pressures, apparently you can get there just as easily on the ground.  According to our research, 58.5 percent of our coaches find that running some sort of speed option is the best way to attack zone pressures on the ground.  Again, you’re attackimg the pressure directly by getting the ball pitched into the vacated alley where the defender is blitzing.  It’s a concept that Bill DeFillippo has been using at Churchill High School in Livonia, Michigan, during his entire tenure there.

DeFillippo’s likes to run the speed option out of a formation called Train (Diagram 4).  He feels a trips formation to the field gives him the best advantage, so he’ll line up with twins and H back to the field with an X receiver to the boundary.  "The number one thing is to run the speed option to the blitz. We can have our QB check to it by scanning the defense, but we call the play so much we should handle whatever the defense gives us (which is a terrific coaching point itself – repetition is the key to success).  We will pitch off the flat player coming on an outside blitz.  It’s basically an outside zone-blocking scheme for us, but we have that H back outside the tackle chip up to the play side backer who is blitzing.   The five is spiking anyway.  The spin safety is getting blocked by number two anyway.  The weak side backer has a long way to run to make that play."



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  • How the "Dragon Concept" stresses opposing defenses.

  • When to use the popular "Y Stick" to attack zone blitzes.  

  • How to formation the Speed Option to isolate the Nickle.

  • And much more...

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Concluding Report When our researchers were compiling this report – it seemed a certain underlying theme became present – that is to run your offense and take what the defense gives you.  Nobody we spoke with changed their scheme or put in a particular play to combat these fire zone pressures.  In the pass game, the key is to diagnose the voided area and attack it, while in the run game it’s essential to provide zone and gap blocking schemes to account for areas, not men.  This way you can still be patient – as long as you have a good idea when the blitz is coming (based on tendency) and where it’s coming from (based on those indicators).

You Tell Us: How does your program handle zone pressures?  Tell us in our "Comments" section below.



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