Under Pressure: Blitz Design Clinic
by J.J. Cooper
The game ended up being a 43-13 blowout, but well before Texans-Ravens got out of hand, the Texans defense got its first points of the game on a well-designed blitz. Thanks to the talent of guys like J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith and Connor Barwin, Wade Phillips’ defense doesn’t always need to blitz to generate pressure. But when they do send the house, good things often happen.
On the play before, the Texans had gotten a sack when linebacker Whitney Mercilus came unblocked off the Ravens’ right edge. That set up a third-and-10 from the Ravens 6. Baltimore lined up in a bunch formation with three wideouts flanked out to the right. The one back, Ray Rice, was split to Joe Flacco’s left in a shotgun formation. Wideout Torrey Smith was the Ravens only wide receiver to the left of the formation.
The Texans lined up in a four-man front with two defensive backs up tight at the line to cover the bunch, with an additional defensive back five yards behind them and another defensive back shifted over just to the inside of the bunch.
With only one lineman to the left side of the Ravens’ formation, the Texans appeared to be ready to run either a simple four-man rush or to try an overload blitz with the defensive backs coming from the the right of the formation. The additional help on that side could wind up playing zone behind the blitz to force Baltimore into a quick pass that wouldn't be enough to get the first down.
To attempt to handle the potential overload blitz, the Ravens decided to slant their line to their right, with every lineman blocking to his right-side gap. It appeared to be the right call for the defense they were facing.
But just before the snap, defensive tackle Smith shifted from center Matt Birk’s right shoulder to his left and linebacker Barwin shifted from lining up behind defensive end in a shade alignment to come up to the line outside of linebacker/defensive end Bradie James’ shoulder. What a second before looked like an overload blitz from the Ravens’ right had now shifted. The Texans still had two defensive linemen and two defensive backs on the line to the Ravens right -- all lined up outside of right tackle Kelechi Osemele -- but they now also had three defenders at the line to the Ravens’ left.
Baltimore still had a chance to handle this with their protection scheme. But all of a sudden Rice became the man with a tough decision to make. If the Texans came with the overload blitz to the right side of the line, Rice would have to come across the formation and pick up a defensive back coming off the edge -- not an easy block for any back to make.
If the Texans sent all three rushers lined up to the left side of the Ravens formation, Rice would need to stay home and pick up the furthest rusher coming from the outside -- tackle Michael Oher and guard Bobbie Williams would handle the inside two rushers. And if the Texans decided to send all three rushers from the left as well as a defensive back from the right, well then there would be nothing Rice could do to prevent at least one rusher from coming free.
Of course, the Texans sent a defensive back from Rice’s right and the linebacker from Rice’s left -- nice work by defensive coordinator Wade Phillips there -- then they played man coverage on all four receivers going out into their patterns. That's something that can be tough to do against a bunch formation, but something that the Texans pulled off excellently here.
With rushers coming from both edges, Rice was left with no perfect answer, but he ended up making the worst of the two possible decisions. Rice came across the formation to try to pick up strong safety Danieal Manning, coming from well outside of the hashmarks. When he did that, it left Barwin unblocked even though Barwin had less distance to cover to reach quarterback Flacco than Manning did. It also meant that Rice was picking up a blitzer that Flacco could see during his drop, while leaving unblocked a blitzer that was coming from Flacco’s blind side. Flacco was looking to his right the whole time, because with three wideouts to that side, almost all of his progressions were to his right. By the time Flacco saw Barwin coming unblocked, all he could do was brace himself for the sack and the safety.
What had been a 3-0 Ravens lead turned into a 3-2 game. The Texans then got the ball after the free kick and scored again to take a 9-3 lead.
Every Sunday, you can count on seeing the X-blitz run multiple times across the league. One linebacker hits an A gap, and another is following right behind him. The first linebacker draws the blocker while the second linebacker, crossing into the A gap behind him, usually has only a running back to beat.
The Browns added an interesting wrinkle on Sunday by throwing a third linebacker into the blitz while both defensive ends in the four-man front dropped into coverage -- that allowed the Browns to send all three linebackers while still rushing only five.
It didn’t wind up as a pure X-blitz, as the first two linebackers blitzing didn’t cross, but the goal was the same: get a linebacker matched up on a running back trying to pick up the blitz.
Linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and James-Michael Johnson were picked up by center Samson Satele and guard Jeff Linkenbach. But that gave Kaluka Maiava, the third linebacker to hit the A gap, a free run. Running back Vick Ballard tried to pick Maiava up, but with Maiava at full speed, he was able to run through the block for a sack.
QUICKEST SACK OF THE WEEK
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The Cardinals linebacker picked up his fifth sack of the season by timing the snap count perfectly. Washington hit the A gap just as the ball was being snapped. He was hitting Ponder just 1.2 seconds later, sacking him before tailback Toby Gerhart ever had a chance to pick up his blitz.
Washington appears to have a knack for anticipating snap counts: With this and a 1.3-second sack earlier this season, he now has the two fastest sacks in the NFL this year.
LONGEST SACK OF THE WEEK
The Cardinals lead the world in sacks allowed because D’Anthony Batiste and Bobby Massie are the league’s worst pass-blocking tackles. But against the Vikings, fill-in starting quarterback John Skelton was playing with fate. When you have two tackles who are getting beaten repeatedly, it’s a good idea to get rid of the ball quickly. Instead, Skelton showed a tendency to hold the ball longer than necessary.
Skelton had the longest sack allowed this week as he dropped back, then rolled to the sideline before being run out of bounds 7.4 seconds after the snap. The Cardinals quarterback also had two other sacks that took 3.4 seconds or longer, one of them being the puzzling rollout where he was asked to try to throw to fullback Reagan Maui'a on fourth-and-2. When Maui’a was covered, Skelton had no choice but to try to run for it. Cornerback Antoine Winfield laid him out at the line of scrimmage, 4.2 seconds after the snap.
This week the Cardinals and Skelton will face the 49ers defense. The thought of Arizona trying to block Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks with Batiste and Massie is frightening to comprehend, especially since Skelton isn’t good at getting rid of the ball on time.