October 29, 2009

Putting on the blitz: Part two

MADISON - There is an old stereotype that labels the game of football as one where large men line up and run into each other over and over again.

In its defense, stereotypes like this usually come along only because there is some truth in the action being stereotyped. In this particular case that is evident, but the game of football is also one of extreme strategy and planning. And the ingredients needed to cook up a successful blitz may be the most sophisticated.

When watching a game on television or in person, the defensive blitz simply looks like a linebacker or defensive back throwing his body in the massive heap of humanity all while trying to break through and make a play on the ball.

At the same time, the offense is doing its best to prevent that from happening. Its main worry is getting rid of the ball on a pass play or running away from the blitz on a running play. But before that can happen, there has to be plenty of research and film study done on both sides.

"After you play football for a while, it's hard to talk to a common person about it because they assume one person made a mistake and (realistically), it might be somebody else," UW junior middle linebacker Culmer St. Jean said. "People that play football see it with glasses on. They see the ball with glasses because you can pick out the detains and you pick out the coverage's."

But for those players that have been through the everyday grind of practice and have seen plenty of reps in actual games, certain telltale signs begin to make a blitz more accessible and opportunistic.

Take the middle linebacker position for example. When lining up, the offense is quick to point him out because where the mike aligns himself pre-snap determines who and where the offensive line is going to attack on that particular play.

He is the epicenter of the defensive unit and one of the leaders of it. And while the offensive line analyzes his position, you can bet he is doing the same to them.

"You can tell depending on how their knees are bent or how high or low they are in their stances if it will be a run or pass," St. Jean said. "As a blitzer, if you know it's a run and they're running away from the blitz, you can abort the blitz and make a play on the backside."

If that particular blitzer fails to make the play on the ball, chances are somebody else will.

"We've got some blitzes where we might run it to the running back's side if he's offset," UW senior linebacker Jaevery McFadden said. "If he switches to the other side, I can change it. Chris Borland has got some calls. We've got some calls for Chris because he has been killing them on the edges latterly.

"We've got some calls for Chris where we might use him as a dummy and when the whole offensive line slides to him, we have somebody else come off the backside."

What else do blitzers look for?

When a backer knows he is about to be sent on a blitz, there are several things they look at. Any form of weakness or tendency can and will be picked up by watching film during the week prior to the game. St. Jean often looks at the way the linemen take their stance, but there are several other ways to get an advantage prior to the snap.

"Some teams have indicators that will let you know when you can get off on a blitz," McFadden said. "Let's say a team is in shotgun and the center's head is down. He's going to look for that quarterback to lift his leg up. As soon as he does that he'll pop his head up and he's going to hike the ball. He's not going to hold it, he's going to snap the ball.

"So you use the center's head for the indicator and it's basically like a green light. Once you see that head pop up, you go ahead and go."

On the edges, should a cornerback be sent on a blitz, he often pays more attention to his man prior to the snap.

"One of the things that I look for is what is the wide receiver paying attention to?," UW sophomore cornerback Aaron Henry said. "What is the quarterback doing pre-snap? I'm trying to get his snap cadence down so I know what to do when I do blitz. That's definitely something that I think if you learn and get throughout the game will definitely help you in getting there whenever he snaps the ball."

Though most keys are different depending on position, one thing remains constant on each and ever play the team is preparing to unload a blitz.

"A good defense wants to bluff a lot of stuff," McFadden said. "You want to act like you're coming. They might do a check and then you're not even coming. Somebody else will get free on the defensive line and make a sack or a good play. A lot of that stuff is bluffing or disguising.

"When you're not disguising, they think you're not coming and you can go ahead and blitz and you might get free. They might not have a blocker on you."

Strain on the secondary:

When looking at certain statistics across the Badger defense, there are a couple that standout. Through seven games, UW has accrued 54 tackles-for-loss and 19 sacks. By doing so, opposing teams have lost a combined 351 yards on those 73 plays. A lot of those numbers were made possible through the blitz. That is the good side.

The ugly side is the way UW's secondary allows over 210 yards passing per game, including 11 touchdowns passing. Overall, opposing quarterbacks have completed 57 percent of their passes for an average of nearly nine yards per completion.

The fact of the matter is that when UW decides to blitz, it opens an opportunity for the offense to strike the defense. When a corner or other defensive back is sent, it makes it that much more straining for the others in the secondary.

"When you're the person on the blitz, you're kind of like, 'Yes, I get to go in there,' Henry said. "But when you're the person out there covering the wide receiver and you know this guy has got to get home, if he misses him, the quarterback has all day to scramble and do what he wants to do.

"The main thing, when you're the person on those blitzes is that you've got to definitely let your team know that they can trust in you."

In UW's most recent loss to Iowa, the Badger secondary got burned on an attempted blitz. Early in the third quarter, the Hawkeyes were facing a third down inside the UW 25 yard line. When Ricky Stanzi snapped the ball, UW corner Devin Smith came off the edge.

However, he lost contain and allowed Stanzi to roll to his right, exactly what Henry was describing. As a result of the blown blitz, Stanzi was able to roll out and lob a touchdown pass to Tony Moeaki in the back corner of the end zone. With the score, Iowa evened the score at 10 and rolled on to a 20-10 win.

The play is also a prime example of how a big play is usually had on when the defense sends a blitz one way or the other.

"However you look at it, you really don't see too many stalemates in those plays," UW senior Chris Maragos said. "There are some plays where you just go, 'Wow, that was a good football play.' It was executed well by the offense, by the defense and it was just a good football play.

"Somebody has got to win and somebody has got to lose on any given play. So obviously that's when you see us having big plays and them scheming because they know what we're doing and hitting us with them."

Blitzing is fun:

As a defensive lineman, your main task is to get in on the play and make a tackle. Whether that means breaking into the backfield and sacking the quarterback or stopping the running back for a short gain, it really doesn't matter because that is the job that needs to be done.

For linebackers and cornerbacks, a lot of the time is spent in coverage. So when the opportunity to blitz arises, obviously excitement shoots through the body like a jolt of electricity.

"It's fun," St. Jean said. "Sometimes you get the worse end of the stick, but it's always fun. The opportunity of getting the sack, us as linebackers, we don't usually get that opportunity. So it's always fun to play a little (like) a defensive end or defensive tackle."

But blitzing still remains so much more intricate than it seems on the surface.

"It gets tough and puts a lot of strain on you," Maragos said. "You don't want to be in those positions too well, but again, you got to make sure you're really keyed into what you are doing because you can get burned easily."

If you would like to comment on either part of the series, feel free to email Tom Lea at thomasmlea@gmail.com.

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