The Defense of the Nineties has been brewing for a while now, like a high-pressure system on the horizon, waiting to rain on somebody's parade.
This season, NFL quarterbacks are getting drenched.
Pressure defense these days means more exotic blitzes, more drive-sapping sacks, and more quarterbacks going down. The difference is the pressure often comes disguised in a zone-blitz package that suddenly is the rage of the league.
"Every film I watch, I see some of it," Gunther Cunningham, defensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, said of the NFL's latest defensive trend. "A year ago, we weren't into it."
But now, after an off-season of retooling their defense with quicker, more athletic players, the Chiefs are on the cutting edge of the blitz craze. Cunningham estimates he has in his playbook up to 40 zone and man blitzes from seven different looks. And that doesn't include the 15 blitzes he can call from his regular defense.
"We're probably the forerunner, more than anybody," he said. "We're hitting 30, 35 percent [blitzes]."
Through four weeks of the season, blitzing is up around the league and so are sacks. There have been 291 sacks in 56 games, an average of 5.2 a game. That's the most sacks after four weeks in a non-strike season since 1985, when defenses dumped quarterbacks an astonishing 351 times.
In an era when rules favor the offense, blitzing is perhaps the last resort for defenses trying to keep up. And it seems to be an almost automatic element in the defensive game plan when facing the league's best quarterbacks.
For instance, when the Philadelphia Eagles upset the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers and quarterback Brett Favre in Week 2, the critical factor was a pass rush that sacked Favre only once, but knocked him down a dozen times.
The Eagles blitzed Favre 33 times. Not coincidentally, for only the second time in his previous 50 starts, he completed less than 50 percent of his passes (19 for 41). Six times, the Eagles sent seven rushers after Favre.
"You have to credit Emmitt Thomas for that," Eagles coach Ray Rhodes said of his defensive coordinator. "He did a great job of studying Green Bay's offense and what Favre was doing. He spent a lot of hours and late nights."
The Chicago Bears had the same thing in mind when they loosened a steady stream of pass rushers against New England's Drew Bledsoe on Sunday. The Bears sent from five to eight rushers and sacked him twice, yet lost, 31-3, when he threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns.
Obviously, some game plans work better than others.
"I think the majority of teams are trying to be more aggressive," Rhodes said. "You look around the league, people are not having success with four-man pressure. So most teams are trying to get more pressure.
"Teams like Pittsburgh and Carolina brought a lot of pressure last year. Everybody's a copycat around the league."
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Carolina Panthers have been the two leading proponents of the zone-blitz scheme in recent years. It is a scheme in which a defensive lineman will drop into zone pass coverage while a varying number of blitzers -- linebackers and/or defensive backs -- will charge the quarterback from almost any angle. The intent is to overload pass protection, create a mismatch and affect the play, either with a sack or a poor throw.
The Panthers led the NFL with 60 sacks last season, and the Steelers were second with 51. They were both in the top five in scoring defense and the top 10 in total defense. That was enough to send defensive coordinators scrambling to get in on the zone-blitz feast.
Called "firezones" by coaches, the ultimate goal is to reach the quarterback before he can get off the play.
"All the firezones are intended to disrupt the timing of the passing game and put doubt in the quarterback's mind," said Don Strock, quarterback coach for the Ravens. "Keep in mind, defensive linemen have to be athletic to drop into coverage. They are usually 300-pounders covering the tight end.
"Obviously, there are only so many things you can do, and you do it to the strength of your personnel."
Although different coaches had dropped defensive linemen into pass coverage through the years, it wasn't until the mid-1980s that the zone blitz took shape. That's when Dick LeBeau, then-defensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals, was looking for a way to stem the tide that NFL offense had become.
His search took him to LSU, where Bill Arnsparger, the former architect of the Miami Dolphins' great defenses, was head coach. The seed of dropping a defensive lineman was planted and LeBeau nurtured it from a concept into a scheme.
"I've been doing [firezones] 12 years," LeBeau said. "The more you do it, the more you learn about it, also. A few of them crashed and burned in Cincinnati. But there weren't very many in Pittsburgh that did that."
When the Bengals fired Sam Wyche after the 1991 season, LeBeau was a casualty of the shake-up. He wound up an assistant with the Steelers under Bill Cowher and defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Together, the three men unleashed the first successful zone-blitz defense.
"It was a project I believed in that didn't always go smoothly," LeBeau said. "I really think if I didn't stay in coaching after the '91 season, there wouldn't be any firezone. Because of the success we had in Pittsburgh, that's what has spawned this proliferation."
Super Bowl XXX may have given it the stamp of approval, as well. The Steelers nearly upset the Dallas Cowboys in that game, losing, 27-17.
"If you look at the defensive stats the last several years, it has held up," LeBeau said. "In the Super Bowl game, they had the second-lowest total yardage by a team. I think that substantiated that it was sound."
Sound, but like any pressure defense, vulnerable to big plays. That vulnerability is showing this season. In four weeks, there have been 11 touchdown runs of 50 yards or longer. A year ago, there were a season total of nine 50-yard scoring runs, and only five at this juncture.
Long touchdown passes are up over last season. There have been 13 covering 50 yards or longer so far, compared to 11 at this point in 1996.
"When teams are crowding the line, blitzing and leaving gaps open, it leaves you vulnerable to the long run like that," Rhodes said. "Those guys can find a crease there and take it to the house [end zone]."
Not everybody is bothered by the zone blitz, either.
"Our style of offense has been very good against zone-blitz teams," Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman said. "We have not had a lot of problems in terms of not picking up the different stunts against us. It kind of plays into what we want to do.
"A lot of it is that we don't run a lot of crossing patterns to where linemen get into things. We hit the backs in the flat, throw to the outside guys. And our linemen do an outstanding job picking up the other blitzers."
The Steelers, meanwhile, have struggled mightily on defense this season. They had the second-ranked defense a year ago, but after losing their top two cornerbacks, Willie Williams and Rod Woodson, have plummeted to 24th with no pass rush (only three sacks) and blown coverages in the secondary.
It figures that the more zone-blitz schemes offenses see, the better able they will be to handle the pressure. It still comes down to execution in the chess game of defense vs. offense. For the most part, offense still appears to be winning a good number of the battles.
"Hopefully, we'll win our share," Strock said. "But sometimes they get you, too."
Beating the blitz
Because teams are blitzing more in 1997, sacks are up. But big plays are also up. Here's a four-week comparison to last season's big plays.
Big play ................ '96 ... '97
50-yard-plus TD runs .... 5 .... 11
50-yard-plus TD passes.. 11 .... 13
Defensive TDs .......... 16 .... 19
:. The best and worst blitzing teams of 1996:
.............. Efficiency ... No. of
Team .......... pct. ........ blitzes
Chiefs ........ 44.2 ........... 147
Raiders ....... 35.5 ........... 152
Chargers ...... 33.4 ........... 296
Broncos ....... 33.2 ........... 193
Rams .......... 20.9 ........... 196
Ravens ........ 21.6 ........... 328
Jets .......... 23.7 ........... 186
Seahawks ...... 24.5 ........... 192
Note: Blitz efficiency is based not only on sacks, but includes passes batted down and thrown away, poor throws and quarterback hits among other categories.
Source: Pro Football Revealed, STATS Inc.
Pub Date: 9/26/97