Under a blitz, defense back to drawing board Strategies changing as teams scheme to cope with offensive surge

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Choose your poison.

Prefer to play your cornerbacks up close in a bump-and-run mode, or deep in a safety-net zone?

Want to come with a four-man rush line, or bring blitzes off the corners and up the middle?

When it comes to playing defense in the NFL, there are only so many options open to defensive coordinators. And only a few of them are good enough to pass the test of time.

As the NFL launches its 77th season Sunday, it is not hard to discern the direction the league is headed with its on-field product. Consider these offensive trends:

Scoring per game has increased 15 percent since the NFL began enforcing more strictly the no-bump rule on defense two years ago.

A record 23 receivers topped the 1,000-yard plateau last season.

Nine players, all in the NFC, caught 100 passes in 1995, also a record. This tripled the league's previous high of three.

Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that in the past two years, 20 teams have changed defensive coordinators -- not counting the two expansion teams a year ago.

In an age when playing defense is the football equivalent of Russian roulette, what's a defensive coach to do?

Some have junked the once-glitzy 3-4 alignment and returned to the traditional 4-3. Others opt for the latest defensive trend, the zone blitz, used by the Pittsburgh Steelers a year ago.

Still others find new careers.

The trick is to find pass rushers who can get to the quarterback regularly, and enough defensive backs who can stay with today's bigger, stronger wide receivers.

"There's more stress all the time on cover people," said Washington Redskins general manager Charley Casserly. "I think safeties have to cover better than ever. And you've got to have a quality third corner. When a team puts three wide-outs on the field, you've got to have people to cover it.

"It's hard for people to have a good third corner. Most people don't have two good corners."

The NFL's offense of the '90s -- whether it be the West Coast offense fashioned by the San Francisco 49ers or the five-receiver set employed by last year's Steelers -- depends on two critical facts.

"I think people are going after big, fast guys to play receiver," said Marvin Lewis, first-year defensive coordinator for the Ravens. "That's the No. 1 thing. They're going after bigger, faster players, which puts the advantage back to offense."

Size certainly was a common denominator among the NFL's top five receivers in 1995. Herman Moore, Detroit's 6-foot-3, 210-pound Pro Bowl receiver, led the league with 123 catches. San Francis- co's Jerry Rice (6-2, 200) and Minnesota's Cris Carter (6-3, 206) had 122 each.

Isaac Bruce of St. Louis was the only runt of the group at 6-0, 178, and Michael Irvin rounded out the top five at 6-2, 207.

As important as size is how the officials call the game. And that has changed with the seasons.

"The rules have a lot to do with it," said Gunther Cunningham, defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. "They're calling pass interference so close and people get away with pushing off on offense. What they want to do is put points on the board, and no one wants to admit it."

As far back as 1978, the league made two moves to open up the offense. It instituted the rule that prohibited defensive backs from bumping a receiver after 5 yards. At the same time, offensive linemen were allowed to extend their arms and open their hands while blocking -- a modified form of holding.

Scoring jumped 6.7 percent and all was right with the NFL. But by the early '90s, it wasn't enough. Owners, league executives and fans all wanted more offense. So, after the 1993 season, the league committed to strongly enforce the no-bump rule at 5 yards.

Offensive linemen also got another break when they were

allowed to set up a shade behind the center on the line of scrimmage. That enabled them to get a better jump and a better angle against the speedy pass rushers who were threatening havoc on the league's quarterbacks.

Games averaged 37.4 points in 1993. That figure increased to 40.5 in 1994 and 43.0 in 1995. Has the league legislated too far in promoting offense over defense?

Retired Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, a member of the league's competition committee for years, doesn't think so.

"It's a pretty good mix," said Shula, who in his new capacity will continue to help the league look at ways to improve officiating. "I think you still have some great defense, especially when you get down in the red zone. You still see big plays on defense.

"I think some restrictions on defensive players have loosened up things on offense. That's good for the game."

Those restrictions on defense have forced teams to be more innovative. The newest wrinkle to hit the NFL was the zone blitz, a gimmick defense that helped vault the Steelers into the Super Bowl last season.

The idea is to rush the quarterback with five men, often from unexpected places. The risk is that lumbering defensive linemen sometimes drop into pass coverage in this scheme.

Lewis, who was linebackers coach in Pittsburgh last year, said the Steelers stayed out of trouble by rotating linebackers into the defensive front.

"People had been bringing different guys [in blitzes] for a while," Lewis said. "What became unique to us in Pittsburgh was, we were getting guys matched up underneath in our coverage system. People around the league are still trying to figure out how exactly we were doing it."

Lewis will incorporate the zone blitz in his new 4-3 defense in Baltimore. Confusion on offense is the byproduct he wants to create.

"You're rushing a guy that's causing an overload to the offensive protection," he said. "Some [offensive] people are reading it, some aren't. A quarterback can feel the pressure, but yet he sees the [defenders] playing as though they're playing a zone defense. So it causes a little bit of confusion because not everybody is getting the same read off the defense."

L In the copycat world of the NFL, the zone blitz is in vogue.

"Everybody is doing some version of it," Lewis said.

But for how long is the question.

"We have trends in all phases of football," Casserly said. "We had the Bears' '46 defense' for a while. Eventually, offenses catch up to a defense, and defenses have to find something new."

In Kansas City, Cunningham is one of the few coaches reluctant to embrace the zone blitz.

"We looked hard at zone blitzes in the off-season because some people were having a lot of success with it," he said. "But we looked at the teams using it, and it was either feast or famine.

"I was talking to [Steelers coach] Bill Cowher and he said the No. 1 thing is to get to the quarterback. You've got to design the blitz so you're going to get there or you're in for a long day. The offensive guys are so good, that's their bread and butter [picking up blitzes]."

Under Cunningham, the Chiefs prefer to play it straight up, playing man-to-man in the secondary with a basic four-man rush up front. They were second in total defense in the NFL and third against the rush a year ago.

"We sell this to our guys: When we dominate the run, we can see them [opponents] roll over," Cunningham said. "They say they've got to throw on every down.

"You have to establish some toughness. We say if you can't run against us, you can't beat us."

When it comes to defense in the '90s, it's as good a formula as any.

What's a defense to do?

After the 1977 season in which teams averages 17.2 points per game and no player had more than 870 yards receiving, the NFL instituted the rule that prohibited defensive backs from touching a receiver 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. The rule has been in the books since the start of the 1978 season, but it has been enforced only the past two seasons. The results: a record number of 1,000-yard receivers, a record number of receivers nwith 100 or more catches in a season and the highest scoring since the 1987 season.

Pub Date: 8/30/96

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