When the talk about the Atlanta Falcons new defense being run under new DC Mike Nolan, one thing seems to be on the fans minds: blitzing Sean Weatherspoon. He was easily one of the most efficient pass-rushing linebackers (3-4 OLBs not included) as far as getting to the quarterback and putting pressure on him over the past three years. Granted, ‘Spoon hasn’t been in the league for three years, and during his rookie season he was injured much of the time. However, he was immensely effective for the 2011 Falcons, and figures to be a bigger part of that defense going forward. I will attempt to explain how the defense will bring pressure by blitzing Weatherspoon, but by not necessarily giving up much dropping into coverage.
Many teams rush the passer with four down lineman, and either rely on that pressure or pray that it gets there before the quarterback delivers his pass. For the past couple years, the Falcons were from this school of thought, and didn’t do a whole lot of blitzing or risk taking. When they did blitz, they didn’t do anything fancy, and they did it in obvious situations. Simply bringing an additional defender doesn’t make the blitz sure to work, especially if the offense is expecting it.
Enter Mike Nolan who is used to dialing up pressure from a multitude of sources, and has a track record of successfully generating pressure on the pocket. I have no doubt he will more freely blitz Sean Weatherspoon, William Moore, Thomas DeCoud, or others. With and improved cornerback corps, the Falcons pass rush is better without adding anything. If the quarterback has to hold onto the ball a beat longer to make the throw, the blitzing player/down lineman has that same amount of time to continue closing in on the quarterback.
Here is a very simple zone-blitz that can confuse a quarterback:
Imagine the Falcons in a 4-3 defense, or even a nickel defense (an extra cornerback instead of a linebacker). From left to right the defensive line is Abraham, Peters, Babineaux, and Edwards. Behind them we have Stephen Nicholas, Akeem Dent, and Weatherspoon. Rushing only 4 men to the quarterback might not get the pressure there in time, but blitzing an extra man may leave areas open to the pass. What can happen here is we can give all appearances of only rushing 4 men, but once the ball is snapped, out play starting going into action. Blitz Weatherspoon, and ask Edwards, Babineaux, and Peters to eat up all the blocks (or as many as possible) to allow Weatherspoon to get to the quarterback without being blocked. If those down linemen act selflessly, they can achieve the goal of disrupting the quarterback. That is goal number 1 of this blitz.
The second part is shifting the zones of the linebackers to fill the void left by Weatherspoon. If he blitzed off the weakside of the formation, then it would make sense to have Dent defend the place where Spoon initially lined up, and then have Nicholas slide over to the middle of the defense that Dent just vacated. The only trouble is that there is a void in the defense where Nicholas just left. That void can be filled by an athletic Defensive End like John Abraham or Kroy Biermann, both of whom the Falcons have asked to drop into coverage the past couple seasons, and have done a very solid job of that. While they aren’t going to play like a DB out there in coverage, a quarterback may not initially realize the DE is dropping into a zone and may try to throw to a receiver where he sees a void. However, that void will close very quickly and be filled by a defender who at the very least can get his hand on the ball and bat down the pass. If the quarterback doesn’t throw, making the decision to not throw the ball took some time, and during that time, Sean Weatherspoon is barreling down on his neck.
I hope my description of this simple zone blitz made sense. I designed the defense and posted the link to it here. The software I was using is limited, but I think you will get an actual design of what I was trying to explain above. The whole point of any zone blitz is to disguise the direction that the blitz is coming from, and behind that pass rush, to disrupt as many passing lanes as possible, hoping that A) the rush gets to the quarterback before he makes a decision, or B) that the quarterback rushes to a poor decision. The Falcons can make that kind of pressure happen with Weatherspoon at linebacker, and will need it if they are to have a better pass rush than they did in 2011.