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By Andy Merfeld

Defensive Coordinator

Edgewood High School (WI)

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Editor's Note:  Coach Merfeld has been on staff for at Edgewood High School (WI) for the past seven seasons, including the last three as the defensive coordinator. During that time, they have advanced to the state quarterfinals four times in the last seven years and set a school record in wins and advanced to the state semifinals in 2011.  Edgewood has made the state playoffs in 19 of the 21 seasons that Alan Minnaert has been the head coach.

We use our "Hawk" package almost exclusively in long-yardage situations. We are rarely in it before third down unless it is an obvious two-minute passing situation. We have three down linemen, four linebackers, and two high safeties. We usually go into a game with three calls in this package: a three-man rush, a four-man rush, and a five-man rush. These different calls complement each other by mixing coverages, varying the number of rushers, and keeping the offense off-balance. In this article I will talk about our "smack" (five-man) blitz and our three-man rush call, where we show a blitz but play maximum coverage.

We typically blitz from the wide side of the field, but it can also be called to the passing strength or another tendency (right/left, to or away from the running back, etc.). Because the front is balanced, it is relatively easy to check or call the blitz at the line of scrimmage. This blitz allows us to overload one part of the protection and play zone coverage behind it (as opposed to rushing six or seven and playing man coverage). We can still get pressure and force the ball to come out quickly, but it is safer than playing cover zero. The way we play our fire zone coverage also self-adjusts to all standard formations from 10 and 11 personnel (including empty, which isn’t the case for a lot of man blitzes).

Defensive Line Responsibilities

  • Pressure-side Defensive End - The defensive end to the blitz side will align in a five technique and execute a ‘long stick’ to the A gap. If the guard turns to him, he should get into the A gap and get vertical. He cannot be cut off by the Tackle. Sometimes we play the faster of the two ends here to make sure he gets to his gap. However, because this position doesn’t usually get much pressure, it’s better to put the lesser pass-rusher at this spot and the better rusher opposite the blitz side.
  • Noseguard -  The Nose will align head-up on the center and slant away from the blitz side to occupy the center and balance the rush. Typically we slant to the A gap, but we have also had the nose go out to the B gap if we are worried about the QB scrambling through the middle or stepping up in the B gap.
  • Weak-side Defensive End - The end opposite the blitz will align in a five technique and contain rush through the C gap. He should expect the QB to be flushed his way with blitzers coming from the opposite side. Because of our coverage structure, it is very important to contain the QB.
For detailed, player by player breakdown of position responsibilities and diagrams, click here to join the Insiders.

Coverage Overview

Our fire zone coverage looks a lot like man-free coverage. We count on getting pressure and use fairly aggressive underneath coverage. There are a lot of route combinations that could give us fits, so the pass rush is very important in limiting what the offense can run. The keys are to keep the QB contained and cover well for two full seconds. We have found that most QBs won’t stand in the pocket longer than that when there is a blitz coming.

The coverage rotates to the blitz side. One safety will roll down to replace the blitzing linebackers and the other one will rotate to the deep middle. We have one player drop off of each #2 receiver and one #3 dropper. All three underneath players will run vertically with their man, which keeps the middle-of-field (MOF) safety free. It may seem counter intuitive to have a deep third player without a specific vertical responsibility, but it makes sense for us because we want to protect the middle of the field. Playing it this way, the underneath droppers know they will always have help in the middle of the field. We rarely give up completions between the hash marks when playing this coverage.

Show Blitz, Play Coverage

The reason I use the phrase "pressure package" instead of "blitz package" in the title is that it truly is about pressure, which may or may not include rushing more than four. An essential part of our hawk package is to show blitz and then drop eight into coverage. We have found that our statistics are better and the ball comes out faster when we show blitz (even controlling for the depth of the QB’s drop). It isn’t about the number of rushers, it is about the amount of pressure, and we have found that the illusion of pressure is almost as effective as actually blitzing.

The pairing of these calls makes for a great baseball analogy: zone blitzing with five rushers is the fastball. It may be our best pitch, but if we don’t have something else the batter is eventually going to catch up to it. The maximum coverage call is the change-up. We get them thinking blitz, and then drop everyone out. The change-up isn’t great on its own, but when we combine it with our zone blitzes the whole package is more effective. Pairing these concepts puts doubt in the offensive coordinator’s mind about the coverage, what routes they can throw, and how much time they will have.

Two important notes on this:

  1. The QB’s running abilities factor into our game plan. If he is a dangerous runner, we will probably blitz more to make sure we get the ball out of his hands.
  2. When we are only sending three, we have a call that puts the defensive line in full-on pass-rush mode. We don’t want the QB sitting back there all day, and this call helps us with the rush.

What you’re missing…

X&O Labs Insider members will gain full access to Coach Merfeld’s entire clinic report on Smack Pressures including:

  • The technique of blitzing second level defenders

  • The technique of his "Scout-2" players in coverage

  • The technique of his "Mid-3" player in coverage

  • How he eliminates the quick game with his Corners and what he tells his Middle of the Field Safety.

  • Plus game film and much more.

Join X&O Labs' Insiders Website. Click Here!

Conclusion

There are almost unlimited possibilities in this blitz package. The simplest variations have the same five players rushing in different gaps. This keeps the responsibilities the same for most of the defense while presenting a new look to the offense. We want to establish the threat of the blitz and then make the QB uncomfortable and indecisive through disguising the defense.

On behalf of Head Coach Alan Minnaert and the defensive staff at Edgewood, I want to thank Kevin Cosgrove at the University of New Mexico for introducing these concepts to us and the staff at X & O Labs for allowing me to present this topic.

 

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