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The Art of the Blitz

The blitz in the National Football League is truly an art form and must be executed to perfection in order to be successful.

The design continues to change in this copycat league also known as the NFL, as success breeds clones of attack, with the latest rage on defense also known as the zone blitz – popularized by the Super Bowl XL champion Pittsburgh Steelers.


Julian Peterson

Then again, when a defensive coordinator has his best pass-rushing defensive end drop back into pass coverage and blitzes the cornerback and safety, it had better work. Otherwise, you'll have one very livid and confused head coach.

"(If it doesn't work) this would just blister every head coach," Seahawks defensive coordinator John Marshall said. "To see a Charles Haley dropping out of the rush, or Julian Peterson dropping out of the rush, yeah, it does (get to a head coach)."

But as the Seahawks prepare for the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday, they'll be facing one of the most effective blitzing teams in the NFL, a manner of defense that has made Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson one of the best in the business.

And it will be more than enough for Seahawks backup quarterback Seneca Wallace to handle, with Pro Bowl starter Matt Hasselbeck still sidelined with a bulging disk.

"They got a lot of different fronts and different things they do," Wallace said. "We have to really be on point as far as picking up the blitzes this week. We know them. We've played them several times in the past, so we're really confident about it."

Yes they know them. Yes they've seen it all before. That also doesn't mean they'll know what's coming. There are so many overloads, fakes and games on the way to the often mind-blowing scenario of what you see isn't always what you get. The zone is the latest innovation, dropping the big boys back if only to confuse the blocking assignments.

"Of course I always want to get to the quarterback" said Peterson, the Seahawks top sacker over the past three seasons. "But sometimes I'm just a decoy to take up two blockers to open a free run for somebody else to get there. And there aren't a lot of things more fun than when I see the quarterback pointing at me and all the linemen on my side point and looking at me, and then see their faces when I drop back into coverage."

That leaves the unknown for the offense. Particularly since the league has tightened up the rules with how physical the defensive backs can get with receivers down field before the ball is thrown, it is imperative to get the quarterback out of his comfort zone as quickly as possible … or else.

It wasn't always this way, with the early looks begin with Buddy Ryan's "46 defense" that featured blitzing from defensive back Doug Plank in Super Bowl XX in the mid-1980's. It has evolved considerably since then, and even since Seahawks coach became a quarterbacks coach in the NFL 22 years ago or a head coach in 1992.

"I think just two things, generally speaking," Holmgren said. "One is the zone blitzing schemes that teams use now. Almost everybody uses it. Everybody does use it. Back then, there were only a couple teams that did stuff like that, dropped the big guys out and overload a side. It gives the appearance of man coverage, but it's really zone, and it disrupted people's hot throws and different things, the way you used to traditionally handle a man blitz. The second thing is, teams are more likely now to empty the post. Everybody comes, and there's no free safety in the middle of the field. You can still have a blitzing package and have a free safety in the middle of the field to back up on long throws.

"Often times, we've done it too, and we've been hurt this year a couple times by it. Teams are willing to come after you with the ranch. If you get home, it's a wonderful play. If you don't get home, usually it works the other way."

As the Seahawks free safety and defensive co-captain, Deon Grant has certainly seen it go both ways this season. As the last line of defense, he has the best view of what's going on, and also has suffered the negative result when he has blitzed and not gotten to the quarterback.

Unquestionably, it can leave the middle of the field too vulnerable.

"If you're NFL, all your T's have to be crossed and I's dotted when you run a blitz or they're going to make you pay," Grant said. "If everybody isn't in the right position, you're setting the secondary up to get hurt. Everybody has to be on cue for it to work.

"One thing about a blitz, if you have good cover guys, even if they pick it up, you're still going to have pressure on the quarterback. He's not going to have much time to get comfortable because the pocket is going to be closing much faster than it would if it was just a three or four-man rush. The main thing is preventing the quarterback from getting comfortable and when you do blitz, you hope there is a missed assignment so you have a wide-open guy getting to the quarterback."

It comes more easily from the outside, with Peterson and Leroy Hill exceptional athletes and pass rushers off the edge or if they pull a stunt with the defensive end cutting between gaps. Coming on the blitz is a completely different deal if you're middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu.

Besides calling the defensive signals, Tatupu knows the heart of the defense is open if he comes, so the perennial Pro-Bowler is always cognizant of the ramifications.

"A lot of times it becomes a mind game where we'll show them something, but we're not going to run that way," Tatupu said. "Maybe we'll be lined up to go through the A-gap in the middle, so they'll slide the protection, and that sets up a smart player to just go around the slide.

"There aren't many tackles that can close down the defensive end and then kick out to you. Most of the time that allows you to come free, but it's not that simple. Like I said, it's a lot of mind games and everybody is reacting quickly on both sides of the ball. It's really a game within the game. There's an art as you watch guys like Leroy Hill and Julian Peterson and what they do. I don't get to come off the edge like they do, mine's more of those games inside. But I really do marvel the way they handle their business."

That's the whole idea for Marshall specifically as he calls the defensive plays, while Holmgren is just counting on results. Holmgren and Wallace are just two of the pieces on offense that must be cognizant of what Johnson and the Eagles defense will offer up on Sunday.

Everybody on the offensive line, the backfield, receivers and offensive line – plus the corresponding coaches – must be nearly perfect on Sunday. Otherwise, the Johnson and his defense could make it a long day for the Seahawks offense.

The incessant blitzing will wear down an offense if it doesn't make the defense pay early.

"Well, they do a nice job of disguising," Holmgren said. "Is the overload coming this way, or this way? (If the) quarterback sends protection one way, and he guesses wrong, or sees it wrong, he's going to get hit. And then they get you thinking so much about all that stuff, your concentration level on actually executing the play, you lose some of that.

"I've said it before: if a team gets you on your heels that way, they might not even come. They might drop out, but you're thinking. Your mind's not right. You don't execute the play the way you should, and then they've done their job without blitzing. They're good at it."

And if the offensive line doesn't adjust, you'll understand why 40 years ago, Green Bay Packers Jerry Kramer created the lookout block … try to catch the linebacker as best you can, and if you miss, turn quickly to the quarterback and yell, "Look out!"

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