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Tackling Two-High: Spags' Blitz Packages
Finishing up an offseason full of two-high defensive structures.
The final piece of this offseason's two-high breakdown will feature one of Steve Spagnuolo's favorites: bringing pressure. Since Spagnuolo has arrived in Kansas City, the Chiefs have been one of the most blitz-heavy teams in the league. It's not a surprise – Spagnuolo has always had an extensive pressure package built in to his defense – but it may be a surprise to see it as often out if two-high alignments.
A lot of coordinators that base out of two-high tend to lean heavily on their four-man rush to get home. Vic Fangio’s defenses – and his disciples – typically ranked in the lower half of the league in blitz percentage. The idea is that if the defense is "keeping a lid" on the offense and forcing a checkdown, sending extra rushers won't find enough success to warrant heavy blitzing.
Spagnuolo's philosophy won't be changing – as indicated by his installs in camp – so today we'll wrap up the series with a look into some of the two-high pressure packages we can expect to see out of the Chiefs this season.
The Concept: Zone Blitz
Spagnuolo loves to play zone-match coverages almost as much as he loves to blitz, so it only makes sense that he would marry the two together as much as possible.
Developed by Bill Arnspager and mastered by Dick Lebeau, the zone blitz sends five or more defenders to rush the passer while dropping one of the players the offense expects to rush the passer into coverage. For example, a linebacker and a slot defender may add to the rush on one side of the line while the opposite defensive end may drop into coverage.
The goal is simple: try to force the offensive line to dedicate blockers to a player dropping into coverage while overwhelming other blockers with extra rushers. Since the offensive line has to allocate resources to stop the defensive lineman dropping into coverage, they can't slide protection easily to the blitz.
Zone blitzes are typically married best with a 3-4 alignment. The pass rushers are typically smaller and more agile, giving them a leg up on their 4-3 brethren. However, that doesn't stop Spagnuolo from routinely calling these blitzes. He will drop his 265 pound defensive ends – and even his 320+ nose tackles! – into shallow zone coverages to take away a hot route and allow the rush to get home.
These blitzes marry well with the two-high alignments Spagnuolo implements, spinning safeties down in quarters coverage or rotating over the top to create a 3-deep, 3-under fire zone to protect against deep shots. The Chiefs were working these very same blitzes early in camp installs, so don't be surprised when you see them continue with this new group of defenders.
The Concept: Secondary Blitzes
Steve Spagnuolo loves sending members of his secondary on blitzes. Where other defensive coordinators would rely on their linebackers to add to their pressure packages, Spagnuolo puts his cornerbacks and safeties in positions to bring down the quarterback. In fact, the only members of the Chiefs secondary to get significant snaps and not come up with a sack in Spagnuolo’s tenure are Bashaud Breeland and Juan Thornhill. Even Armani Watts and Deandre Baker lodged sacks in limited snaps for the Chiefs defense over the last three years.
While Spagnuolo has always had a propensity to send his secondary in the rush, he’s ramped it up as offenses have adopted more condensed formations on passing downs. NFL offenses have tried to create more space for the receivers and quarterback, and that has naturally created more instances of receivers tight to the formation – especially out of 3x1 alignments. It’s in these situations that Spagnuolo relies on members of his secondary to explode off the edge and into the backfield for quick pressure on the quarterback.
Blitzing the slot (or apex) defender has two distinct elements that fit in Spagnuolo’s scheme. The first comes in how often his defensive ends utilize power to rush through the tackle. Since they’re not always trying to speed rush up the arc, the offensive line is none the wiser when the defensive end tries to bull rush through a tackle. This gives the slot defender to that side of the field the opportunity to take an advantageous angle to the quarterback, less impeded by the pass rusher than in some other schemes.
The second element that fits in well with Spagnuolo’s scheme is how regularly he “tops” the slot defender with a safety from a two-high coverage. From a condensed formation, it is unlikely that the inside receiver is running a quick slant or a hot route (other than a bubble screen) into the teeth of the defense. That makes the route more likely for the deep safety to that side of the field to come up and cover the route – or stay over the top of something deep. If the slot defender blitzes, it doesn’t “break” the coverage call and still gives Spagnuolo the ability to keep a lid on the top of the defense.
The Concept: Zero Blitz
When football fans think of Cover 0 blitzes, they largely think of the defense aggressively pressing the line of scrimmage with ample space in the middle of the field. Many defensive coordinators only utilize zero blitzes in the red zone where the back of the endzone can be a natural “lid” on the top of the defense – thereby limiting the danger of an easy pass into space over the top. Spagnuolo – and other coordinators like Wink Martindale and Brian Flores – will utilize it all over the field, at any down or distance, and will make it look significantly different than the standard fare.
First of all, a zero blitz is defined as man-to-man coverage across the board with everyone else rushing the passer. It is one of the riskiest calls a defensive coordinator can make, because a singular error in coverage by any defender in coverage could result in an explosive play. In order to relieve the pressure put upon the secondary, the blitz must get home – and quickly.
By its very nature, zero blitzes don’t seem like they fit inside a two-high structure. And yet, Spagnuolo will utilize them often – especially against empty formations. The general rule of thumb against empty is to either drop eight into coverage to clog up the field or to bring the heat and force a quick throw or a mistake. Spagnuolo typically leans on the latter, but with a caveat. Rather than send a linebacker out to match up with a running back one-on-one, Spags will kick a cornerback out, leave two deep safeties, and give the impression that he’s going to drop eight into coverage. Instead, he’ll send the linebackers on a blitz and pick up the two interior routes with his deep safeties.
These pressure packages are all run out of two-high structures, which – as I’ve covered all offseason – give a defensive coordinator an arsenal of coverage options for all different circumstances and against all sorts of offenses. With everything that’s been created over the last decade-plus, it’s no wonder defenses are turning to two-high alignments to try to slow down elite NFL offenses. Inevitably there will be an offensive shift to beat these looks and make it fade by the wayside once again, but for now, two-high defenses are king – and they’re only growing more prevalent.
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