The California Golden Bears have had a consistently average decade. Since 2010, they have 4 seasons of 5-7 finishes and a best finish of 8-5. Head coach Justin Wilcox enters year two at the helm of the Golden Bears, looking to build upon their solid start last season in which they upset then #8 in the country Washington State, 37-3. The Bears were really hurt by injuries though, as Bill Connelly excellently broke down in his Cal football preview, with 2016 tackle for loss leader Cameron Saffle missing nearly the entire season, as well starting linebacker Devante Downs missing a big chunk of time.
With all the injuries, Wilcox, a former safety and defensive coordinator, turned to a zone blitzing attack to generate pressure on the opposing QB. Blitzing often times means overloading the offensive protection schemes with a more risky man to man coverage on the back end. However, a zone blitz combines a safer zone coverage with a blitz that will bring just 4 or 5 people on a pass rush. It generates confusion, though, as the blitzers often come late in the pre-snap phase and are generally coupled with a defensive lineman/edge player or two dropping into coverage underneath. This allows a more conservative and safe approach to pressuring the quarterback, with pressure looks that are designed to outsmart offenses rather than simply outnumber them.
The first example comes from Cal’s third game of the season, against Ole Miss. They’re up 11 late in the game, and are showing prevent defense with their defensive backs well off the receivers. Up front, they have just two down linemen (which will be a theme throughout this piece, Cal ran a lot of radar fronts to bring pressure) and two linebackers in two point stances on or near the line of scrimmage. Devante Downs (#1) is the lone off ball linebacker. Ole Miss has an empty set on the play, with just the 5 offensive linemen available for pass protection.
Rather than bring Downs in addition to their front four players, they’ll drop out one of the edge defenders. This doesn’t beat the Ole Miss protection with sheer numbers, it simply outsmarts them on a delayed zone blitz. Linebacker Raymond Davison III (#31) is lined up almost as a 0 technique in a 2 point stance and he’ll need to occupy the center. The two 3 techniques will be tasked with occupying the guards. This should allow Downs a free lane to rush up the middle, overloading the middle three of the OL with 4 rushers, and rendering the OTs useless.
Once the play begins the EDGE rusher at the top of the screen drops into coverage, taking away a quick throw to avoid the pressure from QB Shea Patterson (#20). Downs comes screaming in at the snap of the ball into the offense’s right A-gap while the 3 techniques occupy two rushers each.
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It was a simple call for the defense here, but it allowed a relatively easy sack for Downs without selling out their coverage late in the game. Cal used a number of zone blitz looks against Ole Miss, which not only confused the OL, but also provided flat defenders if Patterson did scramble and escape the pocket that were able to limit his rushing yards.
The next play comes from Cal’s contest against the then #8 ranked Washington State Cougars. Late in the game, with Washington State all but out of it, Cal will bring both inside linebackers on a zone blitz call, while dropping both edge players. This has a similar effect as the previous play, with the interior offensive line being overloaded while the tackles have their presumed rushers drop into coverage.
Linebacker Gerran Brown (#41) will blitz first, looking to occupy the center while the two defensive tackles take on the guards. Then, after a moment’s hesitation Jordan Kunaszyk (#59) will blitz as well, crossing behind the path Brown took.
Kunaszyk will come from starting above the offense’s right B-gap to come through the left A-gap, which is open thanks to Brown and the defensive tackle. The moment of hesitation forced the OL to commit to the first wave of rushers and allowed him a free pass up the middle.
Meanwhile, though, quarterback Luke Falk (#4) has a chance to dump the ball to a checkdown in the flats. Initially, even though Kunaszyk came unblocked, Falk’s looking to his right and seems to have time to get a quick throw off.
However, because outside linebacker Cameron Goode (#19) dropped off into the flat rather than rushing Falk, the Cal defense has three defenders in the area to pick up the three receivers of Washington State. Goode sitting over the top of the incutting route from Isaiah Johnson-Mack (#9), even just initially, forces Falk to hesitate and keep the ball.
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The delayed LB blitz certainly paid dividends for Cal when they called the zone blitz, and in general it was a key part of their design. If the linebacker had shown blitz early in the play it likely would have given the offense a chance to adjust their protection and get extra interior blocking. That would have left the QB or RB responsible for edge pressure (QB throwing a hot route if he’s responsible) and the edge would be dropping off into coverage.
The final play with an easy sack from the zone blitz comes from Cal’s game against the UCLA Bruins. Cal shows blitz on the offense’s left side with an outside linebacker and inside linebacker lined up over the tackle and guard, respectively. However, at the snap both of those linebackers will drop into underneath zone coverage, while Kunaszyk (#59), the other inside linebacker, will come on a delayed blitz call.
The running back comes across the formation to nicely pick up the outside linebacker, Raymond Davison III (#31). However, that leaves a wide gap for Kunaszyk between the back and right tackle to scream in for an untouched sack.
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This next play from Cal’s game against UCLA is similar in that there is a late linebacker blitz, but it aims more to show the coverage advantages of a zone blitz, along with the pressure it can add. On a first and ten early in the second quarter, Cal will bring a zone blitz with the MLB on a delayed rush. They’ll also drop OLB Hamilton Anoa’i (#11) into the flat.
UCLA, though, will counter with a slip screen, with RB Soso Jamabo (#1) showing pass block for a moment before slipping into the right flat behind his blockers on a screen pass. The left guard, center, and right guard will all show pass blocking sets to slow down the rushers initially before getting in front of Jamabo to block.
This play call should counteract a blitz well, as it penalizes a blitzing defense’s aggressiveness by allowing them upfield before flipping the ball over their head to the RB. However, because the MLB came on a delayed blitz he doesn’t get blocked at all up front, and he gets to Rosen a little before the offense planned.
The real key to this play though, is Anoa’i dropping into coverage. When UCLA QB Josh Rosen (#3) lobs the ball over the defense’s head, Jamabo has blockers in front of him. However, because Anoa’i dropped into coverage in the flat, he is able to read screen, drive forward, and pressure Jamabo into a dropped ball.
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This play is a great example of the two biggest advantages of the zone blitz. Yes, it brought pressure on the QB as designed, but it didn’t sell out the coverage scheme to do so. If this were a man scheme like Cover 1 or Cover 0 on a blitz call, the screen likely connects with few defenders in the way of a big gain. However, since the defense did buzz a defender into coverage underneath, they were able to sniff out the screen and force an incompletion.
Finally, there are obviously some downsides to zone blitzing, otherwise every team would do it on nearly every play. While dropping edge defenders like outside linebackers and defensive ends into coverage can certainly help defend pass plays, they’re often less agile and athletic than defenders who normally sit in coverage.
A good example of coverage downsides comes from the Washington State game (though there were plenty of examples of successful zone blitz in Cal’s blowout upset over the Cougars). Cal will bring their two inside linebackers on a twist blitz, while dropping their two outside linebackers into coverage. However, the key to a successful zone blitz is that the edge rushers sell that they are rushing by taking a step or two forward at the snap before dropping off into coverage. That would be Cal’s downfall here.
With trips to the right, Washington State runs a quick slant from the innermost slot receiver, Kyle Sweet (#11). Obviously I’m not privy to the actual play call, but I would bet that when the two inside linebackers blitzed this was a hot route adjustment from the receiver to get into the vacated middle of the field.
Outside linebackers Cameron Goode (#19) and Raymond Davison III (#31) both drop into coverage, with Goode especially selling his rush at the top of the screen. Sweet sees this and cuts inside just behind Goode. Falk is able to fit the ball into the alley between the two linebackers, and the athleticism difference between wide receivers and linebackers shows after the catch. Sweet accelerates after the catch and gets away from the two defenders with ease, all in en route to a gain of 20 and a first down.
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Cal’s entire team struggled with injuries in 2017, but should they stay healthy they certainly looked poised to get over the hump. With some really solid wins last year (Washington State, Ole Miss, North Carolina) and a handful of losses within 3 points (Stanford, Arizona, UCLA), the 2018 Cal Bears looked poised to get over the hump and hopefully get back to some bowl games in year two of the Justin Wilcox era. The zone blitz on defense should be a key part of that mission.