The Playbook Abides: Living here in Allentown; The overload blitz.

Several weeks ago, my colleague Ted Bartlett looked at what the Broncos might be doing this year as they try to incorporate Dennis Allen's aggressive style of defense into John Fox's generally non-aggressive 4-3, where pressure is generated primarily by the front four defenders.  If you haven't had a chance to read that piece, I would suggest taking another look.

Fox says he gives his coordinators free rein, so it's more than likely that Allen will bring at least some of the aggressive 46 to Denver.   As current Saints coach Sean Payton said just the other day about Allen in the Denver Post:

"He'll be aggressive, blitz. Emphasis on the takeaway. He's very bright, a great staff guy. He was very instrumental in the success we've had."

This quote should fill the hearts of every Broncos fan with glee.  That's because the system the Saints use isn't just talk.  It's probably the most aggressive system in the entire league.  

How does this aggression translate to the field?  This offseason, we'll take a look using actual plays from the Saints (and sometimes the Panthers if needed) to demonstrate what Allen will likely bring to the table.  Today, let's examine the overload blitz.

Last year we watched defensive coordinator Wink Martindale attempt to implement (on the fly) pressure out of a 3-4 zone-blitz system.  The results were mixed.  Whether we blame the injury to Elvis Dumervil (the NFL's sack leader in 2009) or not, one thing is certain: losing Dumervil was nothing less than debilitating.  A system that relies heavily on its outside linebackers to generate pressure can barely limp across the finish line when it starts with a half-empty gas tank.  Mario Haggan, Robert Ayers, and Jason Hunter--for whatever reason-- were unable to make up the difference, although 17 sacks is a lot of ground to make up.  

Under Allen, the Broncos aren't going to wait around for any one player to make up the difference, including Dumervil himself.   Further, if Fox allows Allen to follow the Gregg Williams script, this pressure could come from any position at any time.   A quick glance at last year's sack total for the Saints demonstrates this:

Player Sacks Yds
Ellis, Sedrick 6 48
Smith, Will 5.5 35
Vilma, Jonathan 4 51
Harper, Roman 3 33
Charleston, Jeff 3 28
Brown, Alex 2 13
Wilkerson, Jimmy 2 11
Torrence, Leigh 1 14
Young, Usama 1 4
Mitchell, Marvin 1 4
Jenkins, Malcolm 1 4
Dunbar, Jo-Lonn 1 2
Ayodele, Remi 1 0
Hargrove, Tony 1 0
Prioleau, Pierson 0.5 3
Total 33 250

It's not as if the Saints don't have sack artists.  Will Smith is certainly in that category; he had 13 sacks in 2009.  It's simply that given the plethora of blitzes that Williams (and for now, we'll assume Allen) can dial up, we aren't likely to see a guy like Dumervil accumulate such massive sack totals.

Which brings us to one of the system's main weapons: the overload blitz.  It's exactly what it sounds like.  A defense literally overloads one side of the formation with more defenders than the offense can block.  There are many variants of the strategy.  It can be implemented on the strong side or the weak side of the formation.   It can include both zone and man coverage behind it; as you might have guessed, as the number of blitzing defenders increases, the likelihood of man coverage also goes up.  

The best way to understand this strategy is to see it in action.  It's not hard to find examples.  The Saints run the overload blitz often.  Here is one such blitz the Saints used against the Steelers in Week 8.  The Steelers faced a 1st and 10 from their own 21-yard line with 2:31 to go in the game.  The Saints led 20-10 at this point.

Here is the overload blitz the Saints (and Williams) employed:

The play resulted in a delightful 9-yard sack of Ben Roethlisberger (7) by linebacker Jonathan Vilma.  

Without boring you with technical terminology, simply note the following:

  1. The Saints lined one of their defensive tackles heads up on the center and had him shoot the center's left gap.  This was to encourage the center (Maurkice Pouncey) to pass block to the left side of the formation.
  2. The Saints lined up three defenders off the Steelers' right tackle (overloaded, you might say) and stunted.
  3. Vilma (MLB) came on a slight delay, which added a fourth rusher to the picture.  Unfortunately for the Steelers, Pouncey didn't shift his protection to the right side of the formation.  Thus, the Steelers only had three blockers (a tackle, a guard, and a running back) to block four defenders.  This left Vilma with a clear path to the quarterback. 
  4. The coverage featured a free safety deep to prevent a big play from happening.  As we know, this coverage responsibility was accountable to secondary coach Dennis Allen.
  5. It's worth noting that the Saints could just as easily have brought the free safety down near the line of scrimmage to cover Hines Ward (82), allowing a fifth defender (the strong safety) to overload the right side of the line. 

Perhaps the best part of this play was the fact that the Saints ran it at a time in the game (up 10 points and with a little over two minutes remaining) when most teams would have retreated into a 3- or 4-deep zone.  The Saints, however, didn't stop blitzing.  The result was a rather convincing win.

Can one say definitively that Dennis Allen is going to bring this exact style of defense to the Broncos? No.  It's possible that the more conservative Fox will temper Allen's aggressive instincts.  However, it's unlikely.  Fox has seen twice a year what the Saints' defense brings to the table.  He sought out Allen for a reason--getting pressure on the quarterback.

The overload blitz certainly qualifies.

I’m glad we had this talk.  Now, vaya con Dios, Brah.

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The Playbook Abides