October 28, 2009

In depth look at the blitz: Part one

MADISON - Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien calls it "procedural." Just like waking up each and every morning and putting on a pair of socks, it's in the routine on a play-by-play basis.

When watching it on television or in person, do you know what he is talking about?

Probably not.

Simply because it seems innocuous on the surface and down right anticipatory in nature, the moment the Badgers break the huddle until the moment the ball is snapped is hardly noticed.

For the common fan, that is the one moment where both football teams look completely complacent. It's one where 300-pound men slowly strut up to the line and prepare for a physical pounding in the trenches in an attempt to move the sticks.

But for the players on the field those six to 10 seconds are what make or break a given play.

"At first I walk up and look at how many defensive linemen there are," UW freshman center Peter Konz said. "Depending on how many there are there are going to be a different amount of linebackers. That's the first thing you've got to establish."

It seems obvious that an offensive linemen would say that. Put yourself in his position and clearly you would look across the line to see what you are up against on any particular play, too.

But it goes so much deeper when it's the same offensive line that is responsible for picking up a blitz that features more defensive players than the offensive line has to protect the quarterback on the receiving end.

"The first thing you want to do is come up and look at the front line," UW junior left guard John Moffitt said. "If they're giving away with a shade technique (it's) because they need to run the blitz in a certain gap. So if they push down that nose guard into a tight shade, you look up to the linebackers and if they're pushed over you got the mike pushed and the sam locked up. (It's) something that they usually don't do.

"They can't come from their regular positions because they've got to be in the quickest position to go."

So the initial read is made. The offensive linemen take their stance and notice whether their defensive counterparts are hedging or playing to one shoulder or the other. By doing so, certain gaps along the line open up and the mike, or middle, linebacker is pointed out.

At this point, the center lineman gets to make a call. For him, it's his time to make a decision that will effect the rest of the play.

"I make sure everybody knows who he is," Konz said. "What number he is and how we're going to work on that."

And that is the procedural and most important portion before the snap for the offensive line. By pointing out where the middle linebacker is positioned the rest of the offensive line gauges where the weak and strong side backers are aligned.

Based off that read, each of the five players, the two tackles, two guards and center all know their respective responsibility for that play.

But the ball has still yet to be snapped and the next preparatory step resides in the secondary.

"I'm looking for any safeties moving because that will alert me to different kind of blitzes," Konz said. "Each team runs different schemes so depending on who it is that week, I'll look for certain things. Purdue, they like to send a field blitz. That's just a zone blitz. You have a sam locked up and a safety locked up.

"So in my mind, I'm thinking here's the guy we're working to. Then the next step when I'm looking, if there are no other blitzes, I turn back to make sure the guys haven't shifted because we like to motion. If they haven't, the call is still on. If they have, sometimes I might have to re-declare who we're working to."

Typically, the offensive line looks to see if the safeties are level. If they are, most of the time the defense is in its base set. But say one safety creeps up into the box or another safety moves to the line and the other stays back. Chances are the heat is about to be sent.

"Sometimes guys don't even make it to this and sometimes you can see it right off the bat," Moffitt said. "But the final thing you look at is the safety rotation. The safeties go from a two high to a single high to back up those two blitzing mike and sam linebackers.

"That's pretty much how it goes in most blitzes. The safeties are always going to move. You see the keys and then you have to make your calls accordingly."

Blitz in disguise:

Anyone who watches football with any regularity has seen it multiple times. In fact, in a single game, it seems like it happens each and every time the defense is on the field.

Usually a linebacker, but sometimes a safety, or a nickel or dime cornerback will act like they are ready to sprint full out at the quarterback. They line up behind the line and step forward like they are salivating for the snap.

But then when the ball is actually hiked, they drop off into coverage. How does the offensive line read that, and does it screw with them?

Firstly, they look at keys. Secondly, yes, it has the potential to force a wrong call and could lead to a blown play.

"We know tendencies and look at tendencies," Konz said. "On this down he doesn't like to do this. Sometimes they'll just walk up and back off. Some calls I won't make in shotgun versus under center because obviously the quarterback is a lot closer.

"So I need to make certain calls if the guys are locked up as compared to him (the quarterback) having time and our running back having time to pick up the backer."

But other times, defenses take less obvious means to disguise their blitz. They will refrain from blatantly faking it behind the line and actually line up like they intend to run a coverage out of the base defense.

"They'll try to not alert us by not moving over the safeties or motioning too much. That's one of the first things," Konz said. "If they're disguising it, the defensive line will stay in their regular stance. If there was a three technique, that's the guy over the guard, if he's now shifted more towards the tackle I think in my mind that he doesn't normally do that.

"If there is a guy right over me that is normally shaded on either side of me I think in my mind that that's not right either."

Blitzing from the secondary:

Though the center is in control of most major decisions on the offensive line, he doesn't really have calling out corners or safeties in his job description. That is more a duty of the running backs and tackles.

However, because this blitz is a bit more obvious to pick up, the line usually does not worry about a blitzing corner or safety as much as a linebacker because the immediacy of the threat is a bit more lax.

"They'll come from depth," Konz said. "A lot of times they'll try to disguise and the corners will just stay on the receivers instead of coming up and staying on the line.

"You have a good three or four seconds."

Still, though the primary concern is of lesser importance, when the offensive line knows a corner or safety is going to be roaring into the mix, they still have to be on the same page regardless of position.

"If we're going to be picking up the corner I have to be aware of it because that means I have to take care of the next man out," Moffitt said. "If the tackle is going out to the corner, I have to take the end that's slanting in. That all depends on what kind of scheme and how the coaches want to fit it.

"And then it's on our backs to execute it."

Where the quarterback fits in:

In the same six to 10 seconds it takes to walk from the pre-snap huddle to the line, the quarterback is busy scanning the defense in preparation for the play, much like his line protecting him is.

However, his primary concern is not so much on what is directly in front of him as it is the secondary and the way it's lined up.

"For me, it's more secondary and linebackers and the line is focused on everything within the box," Tolzien said. "They might not be as focused in on the safeties. So there's a lot that goes into it.

"It's pretty complex."

As if the quarterback doesn't already have enough on his plate, he gets the primary duty and task of checking or changing the play prior to the snap if something doesn't look like it will work.

But before he feels comfortable making the audible, he has to see a certain number of things that will give the play some success.

"Sometimes if the safety drops into the box that might be an extra run player so you're protecting the pass," Tolzien said. "That's a general one, but each week it changes. It changes from week to week, down and distance and stuff like that."

In any given game plan, the UW coaching staff has back up plays called that Tolzien can switch to if he feels a certain blitz is coming. Within each and every package, a bailout of sorts is one call away.

"Say you got the run play on but the run play isn't going to work against two linebackers locked up in the A gaps," Moffitt said. "The quarterback will go, 'Kill, kill, kill' and it will be on to the full term protection pass play.

"The protection will pick up the blitz just naturally based on the scheme of it. Every man has their gap and the quarterback will hopefully dump it off and burn them."

Big play potential for both sides:

For the defense, the blitz is an opportunity to send more people than the offensive line can pick up. If the offense fails to make the right call, the play actually favors the defense and normally works in its favor.

When that happens for the offense, not only does it set back a given play, it sets back an entire drive and even worse, could lead to a turnover. Still, though any play only has a lifespan a few seconds, some bad decisions are what derail it.

"Missed assignments and sometimes not seeing it," Moffitt said. "I think the offensive line plays best when we're all on the same page and we're all one mind and we see things together. I rarely think when it comes to blitzing that it's about getting beat one-on-one.

"Blitzers, those guys have certain responsibilities and they have to go to a certain gap and you know that. It's just about getting there and seeing it. When things break down, it's when you don't see it."

For offensive linemen, allowing a defensive player to get into the backfield and thwart a play does nothing but leave a pit in their stomach. But conversely, should the offensive line gel and pick up the blitz, chances are the offense will benefit from a big play.

"Usually when you pick up a blitz you're going to get some money on it," Moffitt said. "And also, when you pick up a blitz and you make some yards on it, it will stop them from doing it.

"Picking up blitzes stops blitzes. Not picking them up just increases them. So you're kind of digging yourself a hole or you're burying it."

Look for part two of this series on Thursday. If you would like to comment on part one, feel free to email Tom Lea at [email protected].

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