If you watch a football game for more than a few minutes at most, you're almost certainly going to hear the word "blitz" thrown around.
But what exactly does that term mean? And how does it fit in with the deeper strategy of the game?
We're going to answer these questions and a lot more in this article, so keep reading.
What is the blitz?
A blitz is a play where the defense sends five or more defenders directly into the offensive backfield to attack the ball carrier and disrupt the offense.
Typically, a football team will send an average of four players to rush the quarterback on any given play. Those include defensive tackles and defensive ends, with the primary objective of defeating the blocking offensive line and getting in the quarterback's face to disrupt the pass he’s trying to make.
An effective pass rush creates many variables. If a defender can get into the quarterback's space he can cause the QB to throw a bad pass, to miss his intended target, or he can bring him to the ground before he can throw the football, known as a sack.
Football teams can effectively do those things with four players, but a blitz is designed to send more than four players to try and get to that quarterback even quicker.
How many players is a blitz?
A blitz can be anything from five to seven, sometimes even eight players ‘blitzing’, which means rushing directly for the quarterback at the snap of the football. There is an element of risk involved because blitzing means you leave less defenders behind to defend the rest of the field. The more you send towards the quarterback, the less defenders you have to cover his receivers and passing options.
Quarterbacks with great mobility can also evade blitzes with quick feet and agility, which takes those blitzing defenders out of the game. There is risk to it, but a well timed blitz can be catastrophic to a team’s opposition, and they’re used in every game of football because of that risk and reward that those plays present.
How do Coaches use the Blitz?
A great defense in football can be enough to drive a team to a championship. A great defense puts less pressure on your team's offense as they don’t need to score as many points. A great defense can win the football back for the team and therefore allow even more opportunities for that team to score points.
A football staff is composed of many coaches with many responsibilities. Because of the size of the roster, each position group will have their own coach. For example, on a defense, you will have a lead coach for the defensive line, a lead coach for the linebackers, and a lead coach for the defensive back. Each coach has a responsibility to prepare his position group for game day, but perhaps the most important job of them all lands with the defensive coordinator.
A defensive coordinator leads all of the defensive coaches. They are the one that brings it all together, and typically in football, they are the one that calls the plays for the defense.
A defensive coordinator can guide his players with many different variations of plays on each and every down of football. The idea is for the coordinator to use those plays to outsmart the offense and beat them. Whether that’s defending their run game, defending the pass or getting to the quarterback. The objective for a defense is always to get off the field as quickly as possible so that the offense can take over and have as many opportunities as possible to score.
One of the ways a defense can do that is with a blitz.
What are the types of blitzes?
A conventional blitz involves the defense sending five or more defenders to rush the passer (quarterback), while maintaining coverage with the defensive backs in man coverage on the opposition receivers and running backs.
Still, there's a lot more to it than just sending extra defenders after the quarterback. Let's discuss some more specific examples.
A zone blitz typically involves a linebacker blitzing in place of a defensive lineman or edge rusher, who will drop back into coverage to cover the space left by the linebacker.
These blitzes are often used to confuse the offensive line and their blocking assignments with the intention that a player might get through easily to pressure the quarterback.
An added benefit of the zone blitz is that they can trick the offense into thinking there are more defenders coming on the blitz than there really is. An offense who falls for this trap will sometimes keep extra players in to block a blitz that isn't coming, leaving more defenders to cover a smaller number of receivers in the pass pattern.
With a safety blitz, one of the safeties will come down and blitz with the rest of the blitzing defenders.
This is a riskier type of blitz because a safety is typically part of the last line of defense. When he rushes, he often leaves a gap open behind him, and if a quarterback is able to exploit that gap, it can result in a big play for the opposition offense.
Cornerback blitzes (or simply, a "corner blitz") are very similar to safety blitzes but a cornerback replaces the blitzing safety in this scenario. Again, the cornerback blitzing will often leave a man open, but the defense is gambling that they will be able to pressure the quarterback quickly enough so that he isn’t able to locate the open receiver.
Both corner and safety blitzes are often meant to create an element of surprise that throws off the offense.
A zero blitz is the biggest gamble of them all, as it leaves no deep safety covering the deep section of the field. Teams will run a zero blitz when they are almost certain the offense is going to run the football. For example in third and one situations. If a defense runs a zero blitz they leave themselves open to be exploited badly should the offense be able to throw the football in time.
Every professional football team runs their own versions and styles of each of these blitzes. Some of the highest paid defensive coordinators in football have earned their salaries with perfectly timed blitzes and strategies. There is nothing more disastrous to an offense than a blitz they never saw coming.
These plays can throw off the timing of an offensive play, they can cause chaos and confusion amongst offensive lines, and they can blow up the run game if used correctly.
Defensive coaches can also call a blitz with the intention of disrupting the run game, not just the pass game.
If a defense can anticipate the run play, or the direction of the run, they can dial up a blitz that gets a lot of defenders to the point of attack in a hurry. If they're successful, they'll be able to stop the runner before he gets going.
How does an offense beat the blitz?
The objective of a blitz is to get to the quarterback quickly, so to beat those plays, the offense needs to throw the football even faster.
If a quarterback can correctly identify a blitz play before he snaps the football, he should know where his open receiver is going to be. If he gets those things right, he can throw the football to an open man before the defense can get to him, and those can often result in big plays depending on how many defenders came with the blitz.
The running back is often the chosen target when beating a blitz because he’s the closest player to the quarterback at the time. Running backs can run short routes out towards the sideline or just behind the blitzing players, giving the quarterback an easy passing option if he can find him.
Another way of defeating the blitz is with the mobility of the quarterback, as mentioned earlier. If you have a mobile quarterback with good speed and movement, he can dodge oncoming defenders and wiggle out of the blitz. If he does that, he has room to run, and these broken plays can often result in big gains for a speedy quarterback.
There are also blocking schemes designed to reduce the effectiveness of a blitz. A quarterback can audible his players into a max protection scheme, which means additional players stay back to block rather than running downfield. In this scenario, the quarterback can position his running back and a tight end to block, allowing him more time by slowing down the blitz. He would then be left with man coverage down the field, which could again result in a big play if he can find a receiver who beat his man.
As mentioned, any type of blitz will often leave a weak point in the defense. It is the quarterback and his offense’s job to try and determine where that weak point is, either before the snap should he see the blitz coming, or very quickly after the snap when he’s being pressured. Some of the best quarterbacks in football are the ones who can read a blitz as it’s happening and quickly locate the open man.
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