The Baltimore Ravens have long been known for consistently applying pressure regardless of who is the play caller, whether it be Greg Mattison or Rex Ryan, or the pressure player, such as Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis or Ed Reed. This year is no different, as defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has been exceedingly aggressive in calling the defense by dialing up an abundance of blitzes. One of the blitzes that he’s used and that has been around for years in Baltimore, as well as the rest of the NFL, is the Fire Zone blitz.
As Sports Illustrated writer and author Tim Layden eloquently wrote in his book, Blood, Sweat and Chalk, the Fire Zone was initially developed in the early 1970s by Miami Dolphins defensive mastermind Bill Arnsparger. Arnsparger explained, “we were able to rush five guys and cover with six. That’s what you need to run a zone blitz. We could usually drop a linebacker in that slot zone, and that gave people a lot of problems.”
The Fire Zone Blitz developed by Arnsparger would change the way defense would be played forever. At the time of the development, defenses were primarily using man blitzes, which quarterbacks were used to as they would simply dump off the ball to their hot read. However, Arnsparger’s zone blitz made that more difficult because the typically vacated area left by the blitzer would be replaced by another defender unexpectedly dropping into coverage, which was often a backside defensive end or outside linebacker (3-4). If quarterbacks attempted to throw it to their “hot” receiver, it would often result in an incomplete pass or an interception.
Decades later, the defensive concept is still in vogue and led by Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who made it most popular by building his 1983 Bengals defense around it. The Ravens have also mastered this over the years, as evidenced against the 49ers last week.
In Baltimore, Pagano has done a marvelous job of mixing up his Fire Zone Blitzes, playing different coverages behind the five pressure players and keeping the offensive players guessing as to which player is coming after them. The Fire Zone Blitz , sometimes simply called “zone blitz,” typically has three underneath and three deep defenders splitting the field into thirds in coverage while other times having four underneath with two deep defenders splitting the field into halves.
Against the 49ers, Pagano and his defense got to San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith nine (!) times, tying a franchise record for sacks in a single game. Many times, it was simply with three or four pass rushers whilst other times getting to Smith with blitzes, such as the aforementioned Fire Zone.
Before the ball was put into play by Smith, the 49ers showed a run-centered package with their 12 personnel, which means 1 running back and 2 tight ends. To counter this, the Ravens came out in their 30 Nickel package, which suggests that there are three down lineman and five defensive backs.
In their Fire Zone Blitz look, the Ravens divided their responsibilities in several different ways. Below, I color coded the blitzers in white and the pass coverage defenders in red. The responsibilities are defined as the following:
A (between C and G) — Attack the A gap in between the Center and Right Guard (62).
C (outside the OT) — There are two C gap attackers on this play, with both being the defensive ends. To your right, defensive end Terrell Suggs attacked the C gap by rushing outside and widening the Right Tackle. On the other side, defensive end Haloti Ngata attacked C gap to the outside of the left tackle.
B (between G and OT) — The nickel back and the middle linebacker will both attack the B gap from their respective alignments. The nickel back will loop from the C gap outside into the B gap to attract the attention of the tailback while the middle linebacker will attack the B gap on a delayed blitz, which allows him to obliterate the pocket by coming in untouched.
F — The two cornerbacks are flat defenders. They are to buzz the flat in soft (5-7 yards deep) coverage.
H — Hook defenders are the backside linebacker dropping in coverage on the left of the image as well as the linebacker (51).
Deep 1/2 — The two safeties deep are responsible for dividing their coverage into two halves of the field.
The 49ers attempted to counter the Ravens’ zone blitz by using zone protection. By doing this, the uncovered offensive linemen were required to help the playside teammate out in blocking the defender while the covered offensive linemen were asked to block the man that was in front of them. Unfortunately for the 49ers, they ran into some issues.
On the left side, Ngata, who lined up in a three technique over the left guard (77), ended up long-sticking across the guard’s face and into the C gap, which forced the left guard to help out before looking elsewhere to block. Meanwhile, the center (briefly) helped out the guard to his side before releasing to the second level as the “cleanup” guy, taking out any extra blitzers. However, he missed a blitzer, which was the Ravens linebacker (53) who made a beeline for quarterback Alex Smith.
Once the blitzing inside linebacker got to Smith, it was all over, as the rest of the 49ers offensive line caved in and gave up the sack. This was one of many for the Ravens as they picked apart the 49ers offensive line with great precision.
Last but not least, the Ravens’ pressure players, led by Suggs, have done a great job over the years of getting to the quarterback. They’ve used several types of Fire Zone Blitzes to get to signal callers, and as the creator of the website Blitzology.blogspot.com explained, the Ravens used a very similar designed zone blitz last season against the Carolina Panthers. The only difference was that it ran the opposite way and out of a Dime package (six defensive backs).
For more, here’s another breakdown of the Fire Zone with Cover 2 behind it (starts at the 1:10 mark).