What is a Blitz in Football? And Other Information About Blitzes

What is a Blitz?

Blitzes are a defensive play call where more than 4 rushers attempt to sack the quarterback. When a team uses 4 or fewer players to pressure the quarterback, that is generally referred to as a pass rush.

What is a Zone Blitz?

A zone blitz is when the defensive team commits more than four players to rushing the quarterback, and the remaining defensive players play a zone defense, rather than man. A zone defense means that players do not cover specific players, but instead, are responsible for specific areas on the field.

Sources are conflicted as to who invented the zone blitz. ESPN conducted an interview, in which Dick LeBeau is credited with invented the scheme. Wikipedia and Bleacher Report, however, each claim that Bill Arnsparger invented the zone blitz. From my research, it seems that Arnsparger, in fact, did invent the zone blitz. And Lebeau learned from Arnsparger, and then refined the blitz later into the force majeure it is today.

What are Some Common Blitz Schemes?

Zero Blitz

The zero blitz is sometimes referred to as the Cover-0 blitz, owing to its reliance on man-to-man defense with 0 players available to play zone and help defend deep passes. In order for this defense to work, the rushers (usually 6) must penetrate the line and disrupt the timing of the quarterback. If successful, the zero blitz results in a sack or errant throw. Otherwise, the every defender in pass coverage is left on an island to himself.

Dave Archibald over at Inside the Pylon has some good graphics in his article that can help you understand the zero blitz.

One thing Dave highlights is the risk teams take. A quarterback who can make a good read prior to the play, or immediately after, can release the ball quickly. One missed tackle and the offense could be looking at an easy touchdown.

How Well Do NFL Quarterbacks Do When Blitzed?

PFF is one of my favorite sites for NFL information that goes beyond basic stats. Unfortunately, much of their content is behind a paywall; but not this one: Ranking the NFL Quarterbacks Most Affected by Pressure in 2019.

From this article, we know that serious differences occur when quarterbacks have a clean pocket (no pressure) vs. when they are under pressure:

No Pressure Pressure
Average Passer Rating 97.3 63.5
Yards per Dropback 7.6 yds 3.6 yds

Which Quarterbacks performed the best and worst in 2019?

Combining the information from the article above with another PFF article, we can get an idea of the best and worst quarterbacks when under pressure in 2019.

In this table, I have listed both best and worst. The quarterback listed first under the best column is the quarterback who performed best when pressured in 2019, and the quarterback listed first under the worst column is the quarterback who performed worst when pressured in 2019.

Best Quarterback Under Pressure (2019) Worst Quarterback Under Pressure (2019)
Patrick Mahomes Sam Darnold
Phillip Rivers Matt Ryan
Drew Brees Ryan Fitzpatrick
Aaron Rodgers Matthew Stafford
Tom Brady
Kirk Cousins
Kirk Cousins

If you’re taking notes, you will see that Kirk Cousins appears on both lists. This is an important lesson for anyone just starting to dig into the underlying stats that explain a player’s performance. It’s all about how you look at things. And you must look at players from different angles.

The best list is based on PFF’s grade system when a quarterback is pressured.

The worst list is based on the difference in a player’s PFF grade when under pressure vs. not under pressure.

My takeaway is that Cousins performs well under pressure (tied for 5th), but performs much, much better when not under pressure. And performs so much better that he ranks as the 5th worst quarterback when looking at that difference.

Wesley Lyles

Wesley is a jack of all trades hobbyist. Though much of his spare time is spent playing board games (especially solo card games like Legendary), Hearthstone, Rocket League, and MLB The Show.e He also enjoys most sports, but pays way too much attention to baseball and football.

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