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Oakland Raiders coach Art Shell went 12 years between stints as coach of the Silver and Black, returning to the post in January for a second go-round. So it was natural at the NFL's annual meetings last March, shortly after Shell's hiring, for someone to ask him what the biggest change in the game is since he was last a head coach.
With the quickness he once had in getting into a pass set as a Hall of Fame tackle, Shell didn't hesitate.
"It's the blitzing," Shell said. "There is so much of it now and there are so many different blitzes. It's definitely blitzing."
Shell is not alone in his thinking. Many coaches, coordinators and players interviewed said blitzing is up as much as 25 percent in the past five years alone. What's even more daunting for offensive coordinators is that the variance of the blitz schemes has mushroomed to amazing numbers.
Not only have the fronts changed and the number of blitzers increased, but now there are so many different coverage schemes being used behind the blitz.
It's tough enough for offensive coordinators, but can you imagine being a young quarterback dealing with all that detail? You have a free linebacker bearing down on you with his 4.4 speed, ready to crash into you with all his force, but it's no longer just about finding the hot receiver, the guy in man coverage, like the quarterbacks used to do.
Now they have to wonder if the zone is rolled to the hot side, if they're disguising coverage behind the blitz or using some of many other tricky schemes that can make that free-running blitzer seem even more daunting, a bang-bang decision that could lead to a big play or a big turnover or, worse, a big knockdown of the quarterback -- for good.
"I'd say there are not only 25 percent more blitzes per game than there was five years ago, but maybe 100 percent in terms of the kinds of blitzes," Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden said. "A lot of people used to blitz and play man. Now they blitz and they're playing Cover-2. Or they're blitzing five guys and playing a three-deep, three-under zone. They're just trying to break down your protection, but confuse the quarterback while doing it. It's tough on offense and quarterbacks."
Said New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin: "The blitz is standard now. It's no longer just a surprise."
The prevalent theory as to why the blitz is increasing is that it's a result of what the offenses are doing. Teams have used more three-and four-receiver sets on early downs the past five years. That means protection is limited, which leads to the defense coming after the quarterback. It's also used as a run defense now, a way to send free runners slamming into ball carriers.
No coach, offensive coordinator or fan likes to see their quarterback hit in the mouth, so if the offenses want to play spread football, the defenses will come after the passer in a variety of ways and styles.
"They want to keep blitzing me and try to wear me down," St. Louis Rams quarterback Marc Bulger said. "They keep hitting me in the mouth, hoping I make a mistake."
The Pittsburgh Steelers won a Super Bowl last year using their 3-4, style of blitzing defense. It is a defense they've used for years, mostly with a lot of success, but a few years back there was some thinking that it had been figured out some. That's where change has helped. The Steelers have evolved in terms of how they blitz, who they blitz and how they play coverage behind it. It's still Blitzburgh, but different.
Other teams are using more and more of the 3-4 as well. Steelers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt thinks he knows why.
"It's the athletes," he said. "You see these 265-pound, 275-pound defensive ends and they aren't strong enough to anchor all the time, so they rush or they have them dropping into coverage.
"That's why the 3-4 is back the way it is."
He said his offense and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have a huge advantage facing other teams' blitzes because they work against their own every day in practice.
"It makes it easier in games to see all the blitzes we do from our guys," Whisenhunt said.
Just 10 years ago, the blitz meant bringing a player or two and then playing man behind it. That led to big plays, a receiver beating a corner in coverage and getting a big play.
Now it's more of a chess game up front. Who's coming? How are they coming? And what type of coverage will be played behind it?
"It forces you to prepare harder," Whisenhunt said.
Rams coach Scott Linehan said one chic technique involves defensive traps, which can be minefields for quarterbacks trying to figure out a coverage with a blitz in his face. The corners will squat in the flats instead of playing man, which leads to them standing there waiting for a quarterback who is trying to make a hot read.
"They see the quarterbacks trying to get it out fast, so they want you to throw it to the middle of the field, where they can make a play," Linehan said. "It's something defenses do a lot of against West Coast teams with the horizontal passing game."
'It can mean a big play,' Rams coach Scott Linehan says of facing the blitz. 'I like that.' (AP)
The key to beating any blitz is the protection. Block it, and you beat it. It's always been the philosophy against the blitz. But executing it is the hard part. When the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl in 1985, Buddy Ryan's defense attacked like no defense had ever done. Chicago played a lot of zero coverage -- which means man on all the receivers with no safety help. That's a high-risk defense, but the Bears were so good up front, it didn't matter. They knocked the daylights out of quarterbacks.
Most teams nowadays are fearful of using zero coverage. That's where the creativity has come in as far as what types of coverage is being used behind the blitz.
"They force you into 3-4 horrific plays per game," Gruden said. "They generate big plays, a sack, a turnover. And you can't just throw it to a hot guy because they're blitzing and there's single coverage. They might blitz the tight side and rotate the coverage to the side of the blitz. There are a lot of unconventional blitzes that exist now."
"They're trying to disrupt the offense," Linehan said. "They don't want the Peyton Mannings out there staring at a defense and saying, 'I'm going to run this route combination.' It speeds up the offense and makes or breaks you. You have to get the ball out."
So what's an offense to do?
"Make them pay for it," Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich said. "I love facing the blitz. It makes for big plays. You hang in there, and you'll take a hit, but you have a chance for big plays."
"It usually means you are throwing the ball against a single safety," Linehan said. "I like that. It can mean a big play. You don't have to be that patient."
In recent years, offensive line communication has become vital. When Manning does his thing at the line of scrimmage for the Colts, it's just as important for center Jeff Saturday to do his as well. Manning makes the checks, Saturday makes the line calls. They work together, which is a must against the different looks up front.
"If you protect, the opportunities for big plays will be there," Whisenhunt said.
Coughlin is astounded by the variety of blitzes he's seen the past five years. He began his NFL head-coaching career in 1995 with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Eleven years later, and the blitz has become a defensive rage, and it's changing year by year.
"It's not just a physical thing, either," Coughlin said. "There's a real intelligent factor to the way teams are blitzing now. It really does challenge an offense. There's so much of it and so many different looks behind it. It's amazing in a short time how fast it's changed."
When will it stop? If offenses catch on and start taking advantage, the defenses will readjust.
Until that happens -- and it will eventually -- the blitzing isn't about to decrease, which is really a good thing. It means big plays, big hits, big mistakes, big turnovers and loads of excitement.
Unless, of course, you're a quarterback being thrown on your butt 15 times a game.
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