There are a wide variety of high-risk, high-reward plays in the game of football, but none are utilized more often than the defensive blitz. When done right, the defense gains major momentum. When done incorrectly, the offense can break free for a huge gain.
So, what is a blitz in football?
A blitz is a defensive play that aims to sack the quarterback by sending more players to rush than normal. It’s a high-risk play because it leaves offensive players open. Blitzing the quarterback can lead to sacks, resulting in a loss of down and yardage, or it can force the offense to make mistakes.
The blitz is one of the most popular defensive strategies in football, with some teams blitzing anywhere from 20-35% of the time. With that being said, the blitz is a complicated strategy that has a lot of variations.
We’ll break down everything you need to know about the strategy below.
The Different Types of Blitzes in Football
When most people watch or play football, it seems like the defense is always blitzing because there are always players rushing the quarterback (QB).
This creates a disconnect between what constitutes a blitz and what constitutes a normal pass-rush.
A pass rush is when you send your defensive line after the QB — which includes the defensive ends, defensive tackles, and nose tackles.
Whether you’re playing in a 3-4 defense or 4-3 defense, one of the defensive line’s main responsibilities is applying pressure to the QB.
A blitz, on the other hand, occurs when you increase the amount of pressure on a QB by either sending more players or tricking the offense by sending different players than expected.
As a result, we have several different types of blitzes including the conventional blitz, zone blitz, safety blitz, and cornerback blitz.
Let’s take a closer look at each one:
- Conventional Blitz – this type of blitz refers to sending five or more players after the QB, while maintaining man coverage on the sides of the field. The linebackers are key to a conventional blitz and will either blitz from the outside or inside.
- Zone Blitz – in a zone blitz, either one or two of the players on the defensive line will drop back in zone coverage and a linebacker will take their pass rush duties.
- Safety Blitz – as the name suggests, a safety blitz requires one of the safeties to rush the QB. It’ll leave a receiver open in the process.
- Cornerback Blitz – similar to the safety blitz, this type of blitz sends a cornerback (usually in the slot) after the QB. The safety takes over their coverage responsibility.
- Zero Blitz – the only type of blitz with no deep safety, the zero blitz adds an extra pass rusher to the play and further increases the pressure on the QB. It’s a popular strategy when the defense is sure the offense is running the ball.
While those are the main types of blitzes seen in football, each team has its own packages and patterns they utilize.
In fact, those packages change frequently depending on the opponent, making it more difficult to predict what the defense plans on doing.
Pros and Cons of Blitzing in Football
Blitzing in football is one of the most rewarding defensive plays when done correctly, but it’s also one of the most disappointing plays if not executed to perfection.
Since a blitz produces a wide range of different outcomes for the defense, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of sending extra players after the QB. To help you better understand the sheer magnitude of blitzing the QB, let’s discuss the pros and cons in detail.
First, we’ll look at the benefits of blitzing:
- Opens the door for sacks, which boosts team and fan morale.
- Catches the offense off-guard when a player finds a gap in the offensive line.
- The extra pressure increases the chances of forcing an incomplete pass or turnover.
- Keeps the offense honest when selecting plays throughout the game.
- Forces the offense to make quicker decisions than anticipated.
Now, let’s take a look at the pitfalls of blitzing:
- The QB and offensive line communicate with each other secretly, so they often pick up on the blitz pre-snap without the defense knowing.
- Blitzing leaves one or more offensive players left unguarded, opening the door for an easy reception.
- With little help deep down the field, the offense can break off for a huge run if the running back finds a gap through the line of scrimmage.
- If the cornerbacks play tight man coverage, the receivers generally make a quick move to get open quickly for the QB.
- Receivers and tight ends have more room to rack up yards after catches with fewer defenders covering beyond the line of scrimmage.
The benefits of a blitz are the reason why coaches and teams continue to utilize it in real games, but the various pitfalls are the reason why most teams only blitz 20-35% of the time.
In today’s NFL, some teams use it as often as 50% of the time — of course, they also give up a fair number of big plays on defense.
The History of the Blitz
Now that we understand a little more about what the blitz is and why coaches elect to utilize it on defense, let’s take a look at where the term ‘blitz’ comes from and how this strategy came to be so popular in football.
Many of you won’t know this, but the term ‘blitz’ actually comes from the German term ‘blitzkrieg’ which means ‘lightning war.’ It was used by the British in 1940 to describe the heavy airstrikes sent by German forces in WWII.
Nearly 10 years later, a New York Giants’ defensive tackle began popularizing the strategy in the NFL. Don Ettinger, also known as ‘Red Dog,’ was the first player to specialize in blitzing the quarterback, a strategy that rose to prominence very quickly.
Ettinger’s nickname became football slang itself when the players blitzing the quarterback were called ‘red dogs.’ The nickname is also used as a verb to describe when a player is blitzing the quarterback.
In commentary, it would sound like “The play broke down quickly when Don Ettinger started red-dogging the quarterback.”
It wasn’t long before the blitz became popular on running plays, in addition to passing plays. Clark Shaughnessy popularized the run blitz in the 1950s by sending 8 players at the line of scrimmage.
This makes it difficult for the running back to find a gap, while also creating pressure on the quarterback if the offense decides to pass.
A decade later, the safety blitz became popular by St. Louis Cardinals defensive coordinator Chuck Drulis. The 1970s saw the rise of the 3-4 blitz, which includes three defensive linemen and four linebackers.
The 3-4 defense has at least one linebacker blitzing each play, but the coach switches which linebacker blitzes.
In 1985, Buddy Ryan used the 46 defense to stop the run at all costs. It consisted of placing 10 defensive players inside the box and one player deep down the field.
It’s rarely used today and is easy to pick up by the offense, but still stops the run at all costs.
Finally, the zone blitz rose to prominence in 1992 with Dick LeBeau’s Pittsburgh Steelers. It was designed to stop the West Coast offense but is effective against a majority of offensive schemes.
Today, teams often use a variety of blitzes and schemes to keep the offense on their toes.
Reading a Blitz on Offense
A blitz is the offense’s worst nightmare. It forces them to make hasty and rushed decisions, increasing the chances of a turnover, and changes the way an offense reacts throughout the game.
It’s a psychological weapon for the defense, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a weakness.
There is a wide range of tactics, methods, and techniques offenses use when dealing with a blitz. Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent ways an offense can either prevent or outsmart a blitzing defense.
- Practice Makes Perfect – it sounds cliche, but it’s true. Coaches often throw different blitz packages at the offense during practice to help them see blitzes happen in real-time. When you perfect reading the blitz in practice, it’s much easier to outsmart the defense when you encounter a blitz in games.
- Throwing Hot – this is a technique used by both the O-line and quarterback. Using pre-snap adjustments, the O-line leaves one ‘red dog’ unblocked, but in the quarterback’s line of sight. This takes away the threat of being hit from behind, allowing the quarterback to feel more comfortable against a blitz.
- Sight Adjustment – this is a technique primarily used by the wide receivers and tight ends, but also the running back or fullback if they aren’t assigned to block. It requires the offensive target to spot the blitz and change their route pre-snap. The new route takes advantage of the open space left by the ‘red dog.’
- Trick Plays – tricking the defense into thinking you’re doing one thing helps turn the tides on the defense. One of the most popular trick plays is quickly throwing the ball to a receiver by the sideline (behind the line of scrimmage) and having the receiver play quarterback. Meanwhile, the QB takes off down the opposite sideline as a receiver.
- No-Huddle Offense – the no-huddle offense keeps the defense on their toes. It limits the amount of time the defense has to react to the offense and forces the defense to think twice about blitzing.
- QB Run – the QB run is much more popular in today’s NFL. With more athletic quarterbacks in the league, a quarterback can spot the blitz post-snap and quickly run outside the pocket. While on the run, they can either find a hole and continue running or find an open receiver before passing the line of scrimmage.
Football today revolves around the blitz. Even when the defense isn’t planning on blitzing, the idea is to make the offense think you’re blitzing.
It’s a constant game of give and take by both sides of the ball and it’s what makes the game of football so unpredictable to watch.
In regards to the offensive side of the ball, preventing and outsmarting the blitz comes down to practice.
You need to constantly improve your own game to give yourself the advantage over the defense — make them react to you, not the other way around.
When Should You Blitz in Football?
The defense knows how rewarding a blitz can be and it’s a large reason why they’re always eager to bring it out in a game. With that being said, it’s not wise to blitz too often because it leaves you vulnerable and predictable.
Knowing when to blitz is just as important as knowing how to blitz.
To help you make better decisions on the football field, let’s take a look at some of the most effective situations, scenarios, and moments to blitz the quarterback in a live game.
- When you have a hunch the offense is running to the strong side of your defense, a blitz crowds the line of scrimmage and makes it difficult for the running back.
- If the opposing quarterback is getting too comfortable in the pocket, a blitz creates a sense of urgency, collapses the pocket, and moves the quarterback either up the middle or to the side.
- Since a blitz increases the chances of a turnover, sack, or forced bad play, many coaches call a blitz when a momentum change is needed. In this case, it’s the defense in a state of urgency.
- In today’s digital world, analytics are used much more often than in the past. Coaches look to these analytics to keep their options open throughout the game.
Tendencies play a major role in the game of football. Studying your opponent before a game is essential to understanding how they react and what schemes they like to use in-game situations.
Watching film and studying the game plan helps you find the right moment to strike.
As a general rule of thumb, consider blitzing the quarterback when you’re at least 70% sure it will work.
You’ll be wrong from time-to-time, but there’s absolutely no way of knowing what the offense is doing every play (unless you’re cheating).
The more efficient and smart you are on the football field, the more confident you’ll be in your abilities. This confidence will drive your game to new heights and open the door for enormous improvement.
What Are the Keys to a Successful Blitz?
A successful blitz either ends in a turnover, sack, loss of yards or incomplete pass. With that being said, what exactly does the defense need to do for a blitz to be successful?
The answer boils down to two main factors — pressure on the quarterback and smart coverage everywhere else.
If the ‘red dogs’ don’t find open holes and gaps inside the O-line, the blitz won’t properly develop. The quarterback won’t feel the pressure and won’t be flustered when going through his options on offense.
On the other hand, the defensive players not blitzing are just as important as the ‘red dogs’ on the field. They need to maintain their coverage responsibility and limit the number of holes in the defense.
The sooner they give up a play on defense, the less time a blitz has to develop at the line of scrimmage.
When the defense can find a balance between the movement upfront and the movement behind, blitzing will come much more naturally to the defense. Of course, this is when defenses get labeled as ‘scary’ and ‘stingy.’
What NFL Teams Blitz the Most?
Looking at the NFL today, some teams blitz much more than others. During the 2019 season, the Baltimore Ravens blitzed more than any other team in the NFL.
They blitzed on nearly 55% of their defensive plays, with the next-closest team only blitzing 43% of the time (Tampa Bay Buccaneers).
The Ravens finished that season with a record of 14-2, but it wasn’t necessarily due to the amount they were blitzing. Several teams made it difficult on the Ravens throughout the 2019 season.
It was the Raven’s No. 1 offense that earned them their record.
The Buccaneers finished the season with a 7-9 record and had one of the worst defenses in the league, despite blitzing a hefty amount. What we’ve noticed in the NFL is that more blitzing doesn’t always lead to more wins.
In some cases, it makes it much more difficult to win. Instead, it’s blitzing at the right time that matters most.