For a long time, defensive coordinators have had to make a choice: do I play coverage, or do I bring pressure?
If you wanted to maximize the number of players in coverage, the quarterback may have a lot of time to sit back and pick it apart. If you want to bring a lot of pressure, you often must leave your defensive backs on an island, making you susceptible to the big play.
New trends and schematic wrinkles are helping to solve this dilemma. Wisconsin’s defense, led by former Badger and NFL player Jim Leonhard, has found ways to get defenders unblocked not through overwhelming force, but controlled aggression.
The zone blitz has been around for a long time. It was really made famous in the 90’s by Dick Labeau and some of his Pittsburgh Steelers defenses. The basics of the zone blitz involve five players rushing the passer and six players dropping into coverage. You often hear it referred to as “three deep, three under” and one of the players dropping into coverage is a defensive lineman. (For further reading, Matt Bowen gives a great Breakdown here).
The zone blitz allows the defense to get pressure with the safety in coverage of playing zone. Wisconsin takes the zone blitz principles and makes it even safer. The Badgers defense is often able to get a free rusher on the QB while only rushing FOUR players. This allows them to drop seven players into coverage, just as if there was no blitz called at all.
Last season in the Pinstripe Bowl against Miami, Wisconsin runs their four-man version of the zone blitz. UW was leading 14-3 with 9:41 left in the second quarter. Miami needed to convert a third-and-four from their own 29 yard line. The Hurricanes come out in 11 personnel (1 back, 1 TE) with two receivers to the left of the formation and a tight end and receiver split out to the right. The backfield is in a pistol alignment with the back behind the QB.
Wisconsin has four men on the line of scrimmage, two linebackers in the box, and five defensive backs with the single-high safety just out of frame in the middle of the field. The Badgers are looking to create an opening on the right side of the Miami OL. They will do this through movement by the interior players on the DL and a well timed blitz by the boundary LB.
The stand-up end up top will rush the passer on a path outside the tackle to either pull him away or get an easy path to the QB. The down lineman between the right tackle and right guard will cross the guards face again to pull his attention or get an easy path to the QB. The down lineman over the center will cross his face hoping to occupy the center and left guard. The blitzing LB will attack the hole created by all this movement and come free. The end on the bottom drop into coverage.
You can see the hole that is being formed by the movement. You can also see that the center is beginning to see what is happening, but its too late. The QB is forced to retreat as if he’s throwing a screen pass and the ball gets batted away for an incompletion.
Wisconsin has three players here with a chance to hit the QB and they also dropped their end right to where Miami wanted to throw the ball. And it was all done with a four-man rush.
One of the hottest trends in college football over the past couple of seasons has been a new wrinkle to the zone blitz formula: the “Simulated Pressure”.
In a “Simulated Pressure” the defense will often show the looks of an all-out blitz, only to drop players back and rush four. It’s obviously not the number of rushers that makes the difference in these schemes. The difference is how they are being used to identify and attack specific pass protection schemes. You can see these schemes weekly at Texas, LSU, and even in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens. Wisconsin is also in this group.
The 2017 Orange Bowl against Miami provides a great example of Wisconsin running a “Simulated Pressure”. Miami has the ball on a third-and-eight from the 36-yard line driving in. Miami comes out in 11 Personnel (1 back, 1 TE) but in an empty formation. Wisconsin lines up a four-man front with defensive tackles head up on the guards and stand up ends outside the offensive tackles. There also another stand-up defender on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the formation. The linebackers have spread out to cover the empty formation seemingly leaving the middle of the field open.
Pre-snap Wisconsin has six potential rushers on the line of scrimmage. Miami must account for all of them. Being in Empty, the QB knows that he only has five men in protection.
Most offense will have “hot reads” built into their protection schemes. “Hot Reads” allow the QB to both take advantage of the blitz and get the ball out of his hands quickly before the extra rusher gets to him. In this example, the Miami QB will be looking to possibly throw hot, and in this look the hot will likely be a slant into this big void in the middle.
In actuality, the QB will not be hot. Wisconsin will only rush four. Below is a diagram, of the play.
Just by alignment, Wisconsin is able to get the end wrapping free to the QB. The end at the top drops to the middle. The defensive tackle head up on the right guard attacks the space between the guard and tackle, basically occupying both players. The defensive tackle over the left guard does the same to the center and right guard. The stand-up end at the bottom wraps around into the space created by the defensive tackles. The walk-up linebacker at the bottom rushes off the edge occupying the left tackle.
You can see the end up top dropping to the middle with the QB looking in the window he is occupying. The other end (32) is looping and will be coming free.
By dropping the stand-up end to the middle, the Badgers almost bait the QB into an interception. He doesn’t take the bait, but it forces him to throw the ball late to his next read allowing the defensive back to break on the ball and bat it away. And he must do all this getting ready to eat a shot from a free rusher.
We can see another great example of Wisconsin’s controlled aggression from a play in the BIG 10 title game from 2017. It was a 7-7 game late in the first quarter and Ohio State was driving. The Buckeyes come out in an 11 personnel (1 back, 1 TE) formation with two receivers on the left and one receiver with the tight end as a wing to the right. They will be running a play-action pass with seven-man protection.
Wisconsin is in an odd front look with three down lineman, two linebackers in the box, and two more linebackers standing up on the edges. The stand-up LB to the two-receiver side is somewhat displaced in this picture as to not leave the slot on the left entirely uncovered. He will creep up a little closer to the line of scrimmage, as seen on the broadcast angle below.
JT Barrett sees this and you can see him make some type of check. My guess based on the resulting play is that Barrett made a “Fan Call”, which is exactly what Wisconsin wanted him to do.
In pass protection schemes, defensive players on the line of scrimmage are given priority. You would not want to bypass blocking a down lineman to block a linebacker that may never come. When there are threats from wide rushers walked up onto the line of scrimmage outside the down linemen, the QB or line (depending on who the coach gives this authority) may make a “Fan Call” this tells the lineman to “fan out”. So when Barrett makes the call on this play, he is telling his left guard (1) and left tackle (2) that they will fan out to the down lineman (1) and the walk-up outside linebacker (2).
The play involves the back coming across the formation in front of Barrett and carrying out his fake. This coupled with the #2 receiver on the right side (the wing TE) showing run by blocking is supposed to entice the safety to that side to fill leaving a big hole behind him. The safety does take the bait, and a large hole does appear in the coverage. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, the halfback also left a hole in protection when carrying out his fake. Below is a picture of just after the snap. The play with the fan call included is diagrammed.
With the DB’s at the top of the picture occupied by the two receivers to that side you can see the big hole that is being generated by the fake. You can also see the big hole on the left side of the line generated by the fan call. The outside linebacker that Barrett was so worried about has dropped off the ball and the inside backer is blitzing untouched through the line of scrimmage. Below is the same picture from the endzone view. From this angle you can see how large the holes in the offensive and defensive backfields are.
The play ends in Wisconsin’s favor, as Barrett is hit right as he releases the pass.
The receiver ends up falling down a little later but the ball would have sailed long regardless. The arrow shows the result of the fan call caused by the Wisconsin bluff.
Wisconsin does a great job getting pressure on the QB without compromising their coverage. They understand how to attack pass protection schemes.
USF OC Kerwin Bell mentioned during his excellent appearance on The Bulluminati Podcast that the Bulls were a little behind in protection after the spring game. Installing and perfecting new protections always takes time. It really involves every position on offense, but especially quarterbacks and the offensive line.
Fortunately for USF, Coach Bell was able to bring his OL coach Jeremy Darveau with him to Tampa. Coach Darveau is well thought of in coaching circles, and his experience with Coach Bell should allow them to fix any issues quickly. The Bulls’ protections will be tested by Wisconsin and in three weeks, we will find out if they pass the test.