Most of the time, a blitz is a risk / reward proposition. A defense takes an extra player or players out of coverage, creating risk on the back end, in exchange for the reward of more rushers and hopefully more pressure on the quarterback. If the rush gets home, the risk pays off; if the offense can block it up, the offense can hit a big play against the thinner coverage. It is possible, however, that a blitz can be a safe proposition: The combination of game situation, blitz design, and coverage scheme can make a blitz sounder at preventing the big play than a vanilla defense.
One such situation occurred in the waning moments of regulation in Super Bowl LI. The New England Patriots had just tied the game up at 28 after a furious comeback, but they left about a minute left on the clock for an Atlanta Falcons offense that ranked among the greatest in NFL history. After a poor kick return and a 12-yard completion, Atlanta snapped the ball at their own 23-yard line with 32 seconds left and no timeouts, needing about 45 yards for a reasonable field goal attempt. A long shot, but not unthinkable for their explosive offense. The one thing the Patriots could not do was give up a big play, so they did the safe thing: They blitzed.
Atlanta lines up in the shotgun with running back Devonta Freeman (#24) just to the left of quarterback Matt Ryan (#24) and twin receivers to each side. Tight end Austin Hooper (#81) aligns in the right slot, with slot receiver Mohamed Sanu (#12) to the left. The Patriots set defensive ends Jabaal Sheard (#93) and Chris Long (#95) outside the offensive tackles and defensive tackle Trey Flowers (#98) head up on the center as a defensive 0-technique. They also walk linebackers Kyle Van Noy (#53) and Dont’a Hightower (#54) up to the line of scrimmage, threatening a blitz. Van Noy and Hightower don’t rush, however, instead dropping back into hook / curl zones. The rush comes from safety Patrick Chung (#23) and cornerback Logan Ryan (#26), aligned as if in coverage on Hooper and Sanu, respectively.
This blitz carries the element of surprise. The Patriots are not a big blitzing team, do not blitz defensive backs often, and almost never blitz two defensive backs. Teams often slide protection one way or the other, so a single blitzer might be blocked, but they can’t slide in two directions at once. By blitzing off both edges, New England creates a strong probability that one of Chung or Ryan will get in unblocked. And by walking Van Noy and Hightower – both common blitzers and effective pass rushers – up to the line of scrimmage, the Patriots invite Atlanta to worry more about the linebackers than the defensive backs that are coming.
The blitz design also creates confusion about where the defensive ends will attack. Sheard and Long line up outside the tackles, suggesting a rush around the edge, but instead they attack the B gaps inside the tackles.
The Falcons’ protection call puts them in position to deal with the blitz on the right side. Right tackle Tom Compton (#76) passes Sheard off to right guard Chris Chester (#65) and picks up Chung. Atlanta’s left side doesn’t fare as well. Left tackle Jake Matthews (#70), who struggled much of the game, barely impedes Long as he makes a beeline for the quarterback. Left guard Andy Levitre (#67) is busy helping on Flowers, so Long gets in Matt Ryan’s face almost immediately. Freeman looks for Hightower to blitz, starts to release into a route, and then realizes Logan Ryan is coming off the edge. In desperation he grabs the slot cornerback and wrestles him to the ground, a blatant hold that somehow went uncalled. Matt Ryan, under duress, gets rid of the ball before the pass rush can get home.
Most teams run man-to-man coverage behind blitzes, and man-to-man is New England’s bread-and-butter. They do something different here, however, playing Cover 2 behind the blitz. That leaves two deep defenders with four shallow defenders. The deep safeties can prevent the big play, while the underneath players stand ready to attack any short routes. Ryan hits Hooper with a quick pass, and the rookie tight end is open since Chung blitzed. He’s surrounded, however, and cornerback Malcolm Butler (#21) and safety Devin McCourty (#32) haul him down almost immediately after only a 4-yard gain. Better still, they keep him in the middle of the field, and the clock keeps running. The Falcons are forced to spike the ball to stop the clock, leaving time for only one ineffectual 3rd-and-6 heave before the end of regulation. Atlanta’s offense would not touch the ball again.
Blitzing is usually risky, but here the blitz turned out to be the safe call. With little time left to put together a field goal drive, the situation dictated a vertical pass, but the quick pressure prevented Atlanta from developing anything downfield. The unusual double slot attack created surprise and a high likelihood of a free rusher, and the Cover 2 back end complemented the blitz design, putting the defense in good position to make a quick tackle. The Patriots are masters of situational football, and they understand that a blitz doesn’t have to be risky – at times, it can be the safest play of all.
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