Sacks are up, but offenses are adjusting

The increase of 3-4 defenses and young starting QBs has led to a heavy emphasis on blitzing this season.

Originally Published: October 30, 2004
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

In Pittsburgh, new defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has brought "Blitzburg" back to town. Bills defensive coordinator Jerry Gray just received additional license to keep blitzing after getting a contract extension.

In Oakland, former Patriots linebacker coach Rob Ryan brought Bill Belichick's aggressive 3-4 schemes to the Bay area. And in Green Bay, new Packers defensive coordinator Bob Slowik opened the season using schemes from the Patriots' and Eagles' blitz packages.

The blitz is on in the NFL and quarterbacks have to deal with it more than ever. More teams are rushing more defenders to put pressure on the quarterback and signal callers are going down at a faster pace than last season. Teams are averaging 2.28 sacks a game, a pace that would balance out to about 37 sacks at season's end. Last year, the averages were 2.13 a game and 34 for the season.

Washington Redskins
The Redskins have blitzed on almost 50 percent of their defensive plays.
Stats Inc., the company that breaks down just about everything by watching tapes of games, charts blitzes. According to their numbers, there have been 3,667 blitzes in 12,616 plays. The result is a staggering blitz percentage rate of 29.

Think about it. Almost three out of every 10 plays is a blitz. Compare Stats Inc. numbers to past years. Last year, the percentage was 26.84 percent. In 2002, the blitz percentage jumped up to 27.2 from 26.1 in '01. When the number of blitzes goes up, more quarterbacks go down.

Increased blitzing explains a lot of the things that are happening this season. Running backs are having monster years -- more 100-yard games and increased rushing yardage -- because the antidote for frustrating zone blitzes and the like is to gash them with big running plays. Those who live by the blitz can die by the blitz, so the right draw play can catch blitzing defenses over-pursuing, leaving the back with only one or two defenders to beat for big gains.

Increased blitzing also explains the expected increase in yards per catch. Of course, the Competition Committee and NFL officials planned for that. They told officials to call illegal contact and interference penalties if defenders make contact with receivers after five yards to open up the offense. Yards per completion have stayed pretty much around the 11.7 range, .4 above last season's average. While getting almost a half yard a completion has helped stats, it hasn't translated yet into more scoring, but it's still early in the season.

Why the increased emphasis on blitzing?

"It's simple," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "Look at how many young quarterbacks there are around the league."

Young quarterbacks have been tested under fire. It surprised me two weeks ago when Cowboys coach Bill Parcells didn't blitz Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger more. Sure, Roethlisberger has shown uncanny poise under pressure in his four starts. According to Stats, Inc, he's completed 58.6 percent of his passes against blitzes and has an impressive 95.0 quarterback rating against blitzes.

Last season, the Cowboys created that confusing "zero" blitz that baits quarterbacks by leaving no safeties in the middle of the field and it drove quarterbacks crazy. During the Steelers-Cowboys game, Parcells blitzed only about a half-dozen times. In retrospect, the Cowboys' lack of aggression is more a reflection of their defensive talent than anything involving Roethlisberger. The Cowboys do poorly in man coverage. Cornerback Terence Newman has had a terrible first half of the season. The Cowboys misjudged the impact of letting Mario Edwards go without a starting replacement and used everyone on their roster at the position until they signed Tyrone Williams off the streets to start.

It's hard to blitz without having decent man coverage. The Redskins show how successful a good blitz defense can work. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams brought his Bills and Titans blitz packages to the nation's capital. According to Stats Inc, the Redskins blitzed 170 of 344 plays. In the opener against Tampa Bay, Williams said he blitzed 70 percent of the time.

Unlike the Cowboys, the Redskins have two good coverage cornerbacks -- Shawn Springs and Fred Smoot. Williams' blitzing scheme covers up for some personnel weakness. The Redskins have the league's No. 1 ranked defense, allowing 234.2 yards and only 15.8 points a game. They've survived not having their best defender, linebacker LaVar Arrington, for more than a month. They've survived not having the greatest front four in football.

It's only fitting that Williams' former team, the Bills, keeps blitzing, too. They have 180 blitzes in 348 defensive snaps, 51.7 percent of the snaps. The system has worked in the sense the Bills rank fifth in yardage allowed (275 yards a game) and are giving up 17.7 points a game.

Now, if the Bills can find a way for Drew Bledsoe to get rid of the ball quicker, they might be able to turn around their 1-5 start.

"People are finding out it's hard to put pressure on a quarterback with only your front four," Panthers general manager Marty Hurney said. "I think more offenses are keeping in extra people to block and sending less people into routes. Any quarterback with time is going to pick apart a defense, so you have to find ways to get him."

Increased blitzing explains a lot of the things that are happening this season. Running backs are having monster years -- more 100-yard games and increased rushing yardage -- because the antidote for frustrating zone blitzes and the like is to gash them with big running plays.

Last year, the Panthers were one of the few teams that could pressure quarterbacks with four defensive linemen. Kris Jenkins destroyed the pocket from his defensive tackle position. Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers pressured from the ends. Coach John Fox timed some blitzes, but he had the luxury of dropping seven defenders into coverage last year. The result was a trip to the Super Bowl.

That luxury was lost when Jenkins was lost for the season with a shoulder problem. The Panthers, believe it or not, are at the bottom of the sack chart with eight. Peppers has only two sacks. Rucker has only a half of a sack. They had 40 sacks as a team last season. Fox's scheme is still good enough to keep the Panthers ranked in the top 10 for yardage allowed but the lack of pressure is keeping them from making big defensive plays.

They have forced only six turnovers and are minus-six in takeaway/giveaway. To go along with a struggling defense, the Panthers have an injury-depleted offense and are 1-5 and out of the playoff race.

Still, it's hard to blitz if the personnel isn't right. The Packers curtailed many of their aggressive schemes because of cornerback woes. Mike McKenzie held out and was eventually traded to New Orleans. Injuries have caused Slowik to juggle cornerbacks all season. After starting the season blitzing 43 percent of the time, the Packers have used more Cover 2 zone and watched their overall blitz number drop to 34 percent.

With about a half-dozen AFC teams using the 3-4 scheme, blitz numbers were expected to grow. Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips always dismissed the complexity of the 3-4 to the 4-3 by saying the only difference is that fourth player in the 4-3 is rushing standing up instead of being in a three-point stance. The 3-4 teams such as Houston, New England, Oakland, Pittsburgh and San Diego all blitz in the 30 percent and above range. The Broncos, Bills and Redskins are among the blitz-heavy 4-3 schemes.

Many of the young quarterbacks are doing a good job of picking up those blitzes, so it makes for interesting games. Defenses know the importance of how to put heat on quarterbacks, but coaches have to watch to make sure they don't get burned.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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