With sleek and sophisticated offenses, cunning and confident quarterbacks and recent rule changes designed for player safety, defense in the NFL has never been more difficult.
Blitzing might be the best way to do it.
This is football’s ultimate risk-reward strategy, from recess pickup games with one blitz allowed per four downs to the game’s highest level where masterminds like Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer and Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips devise complex versions to disrupt a quarterback’s rhythm, get a sack or grab a turnover.
“When you blitz, the band plays,” Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly said. “It’s either our band or their band.”
According to STATS research, an average of 21.9 blitzes per game have been used this season, up only slightly from 2014 and lower than each average annual figure from 2009 through 2013. Many of the league’s best defenses, though, have built a scheme fueled by sending extra pass rushers effectively and often.
Gone is the decade-ago heyday of the conservative zone coverages that put a safety in each deep half of the field to prevent the long pass and relied on the front four to pressure the quarterback. Good ones learned how to pick those schemes apart.
So that’s part of why the New York Jets under first-year coach Todd Bowles have blitzed—defined as bringing a defensive player not on the line of scrimmage or using four-or-more pass rushers—on an NFL-leading 48.3 percent of passing plays. The Arizona Cardinals (43.1) and St. Louis Rams (39.6) are next.
“We just try to mix it up and keep the offense off balance,” Jets defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers said.
During a 27-14 victory over Miami in London on Oct. 4, the Jets used 22 blitzes just by their defensive backs, the most in any game in the league in the last five years, according to ESPN research. They had three sacks and two interceptions in that game.
Blitzes have worked against Kelly’s Eagles, too. Sam Bradford’s 53.0 passer rating in such situations is the worst among NFL starters this season. Detroit’s Matthew Stafford has been another frequent victim.
With a mix of preparation, anticipation and poise, quarterbacks can certainly beat the blitz. Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, who’s yet to be intercepted in a blitz situation this year, is second in the league with a 122.5 passer rating.
“We pride ourselves on it. It’s knowing when you’re protected and knowing when you’re not, and when you can hold onto the ball and when you can’t,” Dalton said. “So however we can get them blocked, we’ll do it.”
The best quarterback against the blitz this season? Oakland’s Derek Carr, just halfway through his second year in the league, with a 126.4 passer rating, 719 yards and seven touchdowns on 71 attempts.
Carr has credited this situational savviness to film sessions with his older brother, David, who took his share of sacks over an 11-year NFL career. Well, that and the blockers in front of him.
“My job is the easy part. Those guys are the ones doing all the hard work trying pick all that stuff up,” Carr said.
Here are three snapshots of a meaningful, successful blitz used in the NFL this season:
— Arizona sent six rushers at Baltimore’s Joe Flacco on third-and-2 midway through the fourth quarter, leading 26-10 on Oct. 26.
Safety Tyrann Mathieu, lined up on the edge to Flacco’s left, crouched slightly before the snap and sprinted into the backfield untouched for a blind-side sack that forced a punt. Running back Justin Forsett was on Flacco’s right for protection. But none of the Ravens, who lost 26-18, noticed Mathieu coming.
“When he’s hitting it as hard as he is and I’m being unprotected, it’s really a good design by them, and it’s a good play by him,” Flacco said.
— Denver led Oakland 9-7 on Oct. 11 when Phillips sent six rushers at Carr on third-and-5 midway through the fourth quarter.
With linebackers Brandon Marshall and Shane Ray adding heat, Carr threw to the middle where wide receivers Amari Cooper and Seth Roberts were running crossing routes. Neither of them looked for the ball, and cornerback Chris Harris intercepted it on his way to a 74-yard return for a touchdown. The Broncos won 16-10.
— Minnesota sent five rushers at Stafford on third-and-11 late in the third quarter, leading 25-17 on Oct. 25.
Linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks loomed on each side of the center in the “A” gaps. Safety Harrison Smith lined up to blitz from the left edge but bailed out before the snap. Kendricks retreated into coverage as Stafford dropped into the pocket, as did defensive end Danielle Hunter into the left flat. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn crept to the line from the slot and raced into the backfield. Theo Riddick blocked Munnerlyn, but Barr beat his man and shared a sack with defensive end Everson Griffen. The Vikings won 28-19.
Even the best blitzing teams can find trouble, of course. Consider the Vikings, leading Kansas City 13-3 midway through the fourth quarter on Oct. 18 with the Chiefs facing third-and-10.
Zimmer sent seven rushers including Smith, Barr and Kendricks. Quarterback Alex Smith threw left to Albert Wilson for a short screen pass that quickly turned into a 42-yard touchdown, with six blockers for Wilson and only three Vikings left on that side of the field. That pulled the Chiefs within three points, but the Vikings held on to win 16-10.
“If I’m going to die,” an unapologetic Zimmer said, “I’m going to die with my guns.”