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Searching for pressure points

Defenses try many concepts to rattle QB

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By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / September 8, 2011

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The term pressuring the quarterback really doesn’t exist in NFL jargon.

What defenses try to do is affect the quarterback in some way because so much of the game now resides in the hands of the game’s richest players.

Teams will try to do that in three ways: by disguise, pressure, or coverage. The best defenses do a combination of all three on every snap.

And forget about scheme. It doesn’t matter if it’s 3-4, 4-3, sub packages, or goal line. It’s all about concepts in the NFL. For each category, there are countless concepts within.

During game week, the first topic covered by defensive coaches will be related to all phases of the game plan. However, breaking down the offensive protection concepts is the first order of business.

“For us, that’s everything,’’ said Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. “If we had a guy that we knew could beat somebody every single play, it might not be as important. So we’re always trying to break down the protection on what our next move is in the ball game or in the course of the game. ‘OK, this is how we did this, this is how they blocked this look, so what is the answer off of this look? Where does the next step come from?’’

Once teams identify how the line will protect the quarterback, that’s when defenses begin installing a three-pronged game plan to face the quarterback (after stopping the run, first, of course).

DISGUISE ■Pre-snap looks: “If the defense can win before the snap of the ball, they are likely to win after the snap,’’ NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell said. “The brilliance of the Bradys and the other elite guys is they are so good before the snap. That has become so critical for NFL quarterbacks to win before the snap because of all these hybrid looks people give you in unconventional spots.’’

One of the biggest cat-and-mouse games today is the pre-snap looks shown by the defenses.

“We like to give the quarterback different looks before the snap and something different after the snap. We operate that way,’’ Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “If we can do that, if you give [the quarterback] any indecision at all and he holds it for a half-second longer, then we’ve just given our defensive ends and tackles a little bit more time to get to him or affect him.”

Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said defenses have improved greatly at disguising their intentions.

“There’s no question there’s great effort on defenses to camouflage what they’re doing because offenses have become so sophisticated that if they know what you’re doing, the quarterback knows what to do to put himself in an advantageous position,’’ said Gilbride. “I always liken it to a magician. They do everything they can so your attention is not where the action is taking place.’’

■Scripting plays: Bill Walsh and the West Coast offense made scripting the first 12-15 plays of a game a staple of many offenses. Well, the cleat is on the other foot now. Many defenses also script calls as a way of testing protections.

“We have certain things that we run, just like offenses do,’’ Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said. “We’re giving them a certain look to see how they protect, and the next time we’re in that look, we’ll probably blitz. Or attack where we think the weakness is. That’s kind of how everybody does it.’’

Said Zimmer: “I think it’s really important to have a look that you can do multiple things from so that you can adjust during the game to what they’re trying to do.’’

■Acting: Believe it or not, how well a player can pull off a pre-snap look goes into the evaluation of that player.

“You’ve got guys that it’s just not natural for them to do,’’ Zimmer said. “They can give a look like this, but you know they’re not doing it. But then you have some guys, they must have been trying to get away with a lot of stuff at school because they have a little bit of slyness about them in some of the things they do.’’

Rex Ryan, both as coordinator for the Ravens and now as coach of the Jets, is one of the masters at schooling his players about disguise. At the height of their 3-4 defense, the Patriots were the same with Bill Belichick and spent much practice time going over the looks.

Those hybrid, unconventional looks Ryan threw at Tom Brady in the Patriots’ playoff loss to the Jets last season are particularly effective against teams that use “Mike’’ protection – identifying the middle linebacker and stemming protection off that - like the Patriots.

“Back in the day, you had four down linemen and three linebackers,’’ Cosell said. “The line would always be responsible for the four down linemen and the guy the quarterback identified as the Mike. Then the back would take either the strong- or weak-side linebacker. If both came, then the extra guy would be on the quarterback. And everybody knew that. This is why teams fiddle with all sorts or pre-snap stuff - standing up the line, walking them around - to screw up the identification. So it’s really hard before the ball is snapped to decide which five guys are coming. Or which guy is the Mike.’’

In last year’s playoff game, the result was uncharacteristic indecision on Brady’s part.

“He had guys open and he didn’t pull the trigger where he normally does just because he wasn’t a comfortable player,’’ Cosell said. “It’s when guys don’t pull the trigger to open receivers, that’s when you know when you have a guy beaten mentally. And Brady was like that. When he’s on his game, he looks like he is out there by himself.’’

PRESSURE When teams used to have man-to-man pressure behind blitzes, their pressure packages could fit on a couple of sheets of paper. That’s no longer the case.

“We have an extremely in-depth pressure package,’’ Zimmer said. “A lot of it is stolen from other places, a lot of it is additions to looks that we have. It’s a lot of different kinds of combinations.’’

■Zone blitz: One of the more borrowed concepts is the fire zone exchange concept, which can evolve into the zone blitz. A fire zone doesn’t send a fifth rusher (blitz); it’s a way to safely bring pressure by keeping the same number of coverage players. The defense is just rushing an unexpected player (for example, a safety), and dropping another unexpected player into coverage (an end).

■One-on-one matchups: Once a defense knows how an offense will protect the quarterback, it can devise a way to get their best players away from double teams and into advantageous matchups.

Most teams, especially the zone blitz, and Cover-2 teams such as the Colts and Bears, like to do what’s called “sugaring the gaps.’’ They’ll send players into the offensive line specifically to draw attention from the intended rushers.

“A lot of the stuff you do is just to get one-on-one matchups,’’ Phillips said. “You can’t expect to come clean on a blitz every time. If you do then . . . that’s just not going to happen. Whether it’s Mario Williams [of the Texans] or DeMarcus Ware in Dallas, we want to make sure he is one-on-one. So you do that quite a bit in a few different ways. You want to get your best player one-on-one.’’

Stunts, twists, and additional linebacker blitzes are also used.

■Man pressure: This is expected to be one of the ways the Patriots try to bring pressure in their new scheme. It’s not really a blitz - you’re not leaving yourself short in coverage, which is the beauty of it - and it’s a recent wrinkle to 2-Man (two deep safeties) and man free (one), the latter of which the Patriots have used.

“Any man-coverage concept has that built-in additional rusher,’’ Cosell said. “That’s hard for an offense because that [concept has] a delayed rusher. The offensive line has, for a second, gone to their blocking responsibility and they don’t account for the fifth rusher.’’

That’s usually a linebacker coming on a “green dog’’ blitz. It’s used to counter all the chipping and extra tight ends staying in to combat the pass rush. Now, if a back stays in, then the linebacker will blitz. The Patriots showed a great interest for this in the preseason, with weak-side linebacker Jerod Mayo being turned loose. The Saints also use it with Jonathan Vilma.

“It does two things: it helps to keep the quarterback from running, it keeps him in the pocket, and then you add pressure on,’’ Zimmer said. “All quarterbacks are taught when they get pressure there’s that hot [route] that’s built into the route their running, or [the receiver] is going to route-adjust if somebody comes off [to blitz]. So if you can get, No. 1, the receiver to run the route into a two man [coverage] - so you’re basically double-covering that receiver for the most part - I think that makes it difficult for the quarterback.’’

■Inside pressure: The other big concept the Patriots will likely use to pressure the quarterback will be to let tackles Vince Wilfork and Albert Haynesworth push the pocket, which they are exquisite at doing.

Ask Giants quarterback David Carr.

“If you can get a push . . . you’ve got Wilfork and you’ve got Albert, they are going to be in the quarterback’s face, that’s very difficult for a quarterback, it’s very disconcerting because a lot of times it can get you off your read,’’ Carr said. “You see color [defender], you feel something in front of you, the natural tendency is to step up as a quarterback and when there’s nothing to step up into, that’s a tough spot for us.

■Zero blitz: The other prevalent pressure concept is the all-out, cover-zero blitz. This is another favorite of Ryan’s and Zimmer’s, and Jim Haslett of the Redskins and Gregg Williams of the Saints.

“You have to have it,’’ Zimmer said. “If they’re never worried about you bringing more than they can block, then they’ll just keep an extra guy in and get the ball out. And if you’re playing straight man-to-man, it’s like throwing 7 on 7. They’re going to win a lot of those battles because it’s just hard to cover a guy for a long amount of time.’’

COVERAGE When the Patriots shocked the football world by beating the “Greatest Show on Turf,’’ the St. Louis Rams in the 2001 Super Bowl, they did it in good measure by affecting the timing of pass routes - mostly those involving running back Marshall Faulk - and that threw off quarterback Kurt Warner.

But in general, any good pressure package is only as good as the coverage being played behind it and in concert with it.

“The down-in-the-box safeties are really going away,’’ Zimmer said. “The linebackers that are just thumpers are going away because they get too many bad matchups. I don’t think you can play zone defense all the time on first and second down anymore. I think you have to be tighter. You can’t allow them to do it because you’re going to be in third and 3 and third and 2.’’

■More press: Because teams are trying to get rid of the ball faster, it’s getting harder to just play zone behind pressures - which is something the Patriots did last season, and in their loss to the Lions in the preseason. New England didn’t press the coverage, but it will likely do so in the regular season. If the Patriots don’t, then what the Lions did will happen over and over.

“If you’re playing a soft zone, they’re going to eat you alive because the quarterback, most of them are so accurate,’’ Zimmer said. “Very rarely are you going to see a guy that isn’t completing 60-62 percent, so if you’re not tighter, if you’re not pressed, if your linebackers on their progressions are not up on those guys, then they’re just going to dink and dunk you, really. That’s kind of what I said after we played the Lions, too.’’

■Mix and rotate coverages: Ryan and the Jets were outstanding at mixing their coverages in the backend against the Patriots. They hardly ever let Brady see the same look twice. Again, another way to affect the quarterback, just like in the 2007 Super Bowl.

“We did do that,’’ said Spagnuolo, who was the Giants defensive coordinator back then. “There was a little bit of that. That helped. You’re not going to confuse Tom Brady that much. Wrinkles here and there.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard.

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