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Zone pressure: defensive football's hottest package!

The zone pressure package has become one of the hottest concepts in defensive football. Most NFL teams are running some form of it, and it is starting to show up at both the small-college and high school levels.

Since some coaches do not fully understand it or feel that it is too difficult to teach at their level, they are reluctant to install it. We believe that a little knowledge could allay their fears.

By zone pressure, we mean a 3, 4, or 5-man pressure front coupled with a zone coverage behind. It's a defense that can be used in all situations (except short yardage and goal line), with any kind of personnel groupings.

The "five zone" is a special category of the zone-pressure package that brings in a coverage defender and drops a defensive lineman into the under-coverage. It confuses the protection by attacking it with someone who has not been accounted for while dropping a player who has been accounted for.

As you can see, it combines the 4 best elements of the pressure game with the benefits of zone coverage -- thus disrupting the timing of the plays while: (1) furnishing the security of the deep zone coverage, (2) enabling you to destroy blocking schemes while (3) retaining the benefits of the run support provided by zone coverage.

The type of pressure to use -- "run pressure" or "pass pressure" -- will be dictated by the situation. The coverage behind it -- 3 under 3-deep or 4-under 2-deep -- will be also determined by the situation, but with consideration also to the make-up of the opponents.

The effectiveness of this defensive concept may force you to ask: "How does this fit into my defensive philosophy?" If you believe in it, it can become a core part of your package. If you do not believe in it, don't put it into your package.


Against the running game, zone pressure can be effective for a number of reasons:

1. The pressure disrupts the blocking scheme and could destroy the timing of the play, usually forcing the opponents to accelerate their execution.

2. The penetration into the backfield can eliminate the pulling and trapping lanes.

3. The other great advantage of the 5-man fire-zone pressure with 3-under 3-deep is that you will get a rolled-up safety and wind up with essentially 8-man front principles on the side that the safety drops (Diags. 1-2).


It should be noted that in a "fire zone" the defensive lineman will not drop if he reads run from his key -- the offensive lineman, meaning that you will end up with a 6-man pressure vs the run.

Technically, "5-man" pressure becomes a "6-man" pressure vs the run and "5-man" pressure vs the pass.


The benefits of the zone pressure vs the pass are better known. This kind of pressure is designed primarily to cause confusion. Ideally, it will limit the number of pass protections and, thus, the scope of the overall passing game.


It will, in short, confuse the protectors and create doubt on pressure pick-ups.

The concept will also create indecision in the receiver's mind. He may see a blitz and run the hot breakoff route, or sec a zone rotation and run his route while the QB throws to the spot he expects the receiver to be vs a blitz.

The greatest benefit lies in how much you befuddle the quarterbacks. You are giving them non-traditional coverage reads, pressuring within off-the-line defenders while possibly dropping defensive linemen into the hot throwing lanes. This becomes even more problematic when you add disguise and bluff concepts.


Like all other parts of your pressure package, you must understand what you want out of the concept, as that can affect the design of the package and the kind of pressure and coverage you want in each situation.

Note: These pressures are gameplanned, based on the same considerations as the rest of the blitz package.

Vs. run. These pressures must maintain proper run support while doing one or a combination of the following things:

* Overload the point of attack.

* Isolate a blocker.

* Affect the rhythm or timing of a play, speed up a slow developing play.

* Attack or eliminate by penetration the pulling or trapping lanes in an offense.

Vs pass. Zone pressures must maintain the integrity of the deep coverage, while attacking the protection in one or a combination of the following ways. The pressure should also disrupt the rhythm and timing of the passing game by attacking the launch point. The situation will determine the pass action we attack:

* Overload a certain area in the protection (3-on-2).

* Isolate a specific protector (2-on-1 or mismatch).

* Try to create a missed assignment by exchanging rush lanes.

* Try to create a missed assignment by disguising or bluffing the pressure.

* Try to get a free rusher by a technique error in passing off or picking up a stunt or by setting to a dropping defender and allowing a (LB, DB) rusher to come free.

Down and Distance: The situation and tendencies will always determine the pressure used.

Normal Down (run and play-pass action threat). Zone pressures will be designed to stop the run and attack the launch points in the play-action. The pressures will not be designed to attack the pocket pass unless the tendencies dictate it. Primarily packaged with a 3-under 3-deep safety down gives you 8-man front principles and also better run support. The pass to the hot is less of a consideration vs the play-action pass; they are rarely built in and the plays take longer to develop.

Medium Downs (equal run or pass threats):

These pressure will be designed to attack the ran and pass equally, with special emphasis on play action and draw-action passes. The pressure will attack the pocket pass and attempt to disrupt the timing and rhythm of the run blocking as it develops.

The design of these pressures will be dictated by tendency. It is important to know if the time for the pressure to develop is longer than the play to develop. You must know the misdirection threat as well as the best type of run support based on the scouting. Tendencies will dictate the coverage.


The goal on these downs is to find a way to get in the QB's face. These pressures will all be designed to attack the pass protection. The coverage, especially the under coverage, requires us to force a faster throw.

Understanding and controlling the hot, both who and where, is an important element of the design and use of these pressures. These pressures will be usually packaged with 4-under 2-deep and 3-under 3-deep.

The benefits of zone pressure forced us to review this part of the package in the off-season. We decided that we needed the ability to run the package in all situations and all parts of the field, and the ability to use all of our fronts.

The biggest problem that we had was finding a way to call the fire zones in the huddle. The players now know when we run a 5-man pressure and hear a zone pressure coverage, it is from that family of pressures.

The staff was happy with the pressure package and the flexibility that it provided. It did not make sense for us to develop a new way to call pressures to just run them in the fire zone package.

We decided that the best way to do this was by calling the pressure normally and to just add a "tag" to the call to designate who was to drop and where. This allowed us to use our base pressures in this package.


The concept of tagging who is to drop really makes the fire-zone package accessible to the small college and high school coach because you are only changing base pressures for one player. It eliminates the need to teach new pressure names and builds on what your players already know. It adds a great deal of flexibility to this package and makes your regular pressure package more effective.

We decided to use names. For example, "Tom" is a tackle drop outside. So anytime the tackle hears "Tom" at the end of the pressure call, he knows that he has to drop (Diag. 3).



The defensive line techniques used in the fire zone have the player taking a number of steps upfield and then dropping out by crossing over. We use both one- and three-step upfield rushes before dropping out.

The ends are only taught the one-step drop because they get better key reads and they have to get out faster to help on the hots.

It is important for the linemen to read the normal run key progression and always play run to pass -- play all run blocks the same as in regular defense and drop only after reading pass block.

The one-step allows them to get out into coverage faster, but can be problematic vs the draw. The three-step drop allows a truer read, but may not allow the time to work to the ideal 12-yard depth.

The players must know whether their foot is up or back to the drop side, as this will determine their footwork. All we ask them to do when they get to their drop spot is play football and react to the ball.


The emphasis on the fire-zone techniques and footwork should reflect your philosophy on this part of your package.

If you use it a great deal, you should consider teaching both the three- and one-step drop techniques from both right- and left-handed stances.

If you use it just occasionally, you won't have to work as hard on it.

Coaching point: Avoid overcoaching your players on the drop technique and playing in space. You could wind up getting nothing out of them.

In teaching the fire-zone technique, we felt obliged to simplify the drop for the linemen. We limited them to three drops:(1) the hole or middle vertical, which is 12 yards deep directly over the original position of the center; (2) the hook/curl or seam/curl/flat (3-under/3-deep) that is 12 yards deep directly over the original (imaginary) position of a tight end; and (3) in rare cases, a flat drop for the end, putting him 12 yards deep at the top (inside) of the numbers on the hash.


We use a number of coverages to exploit the package, and we allow the pressure to dictate the coverage, especially rotation. Our coverage will roll to the side from which the off-the-line defender comes.

2 Zorro: Used only when sending a LB; cannot be used when sending a DB. Also used vs outs (Diag. 4).


2 Zorro Press: Same as 2 Zorro; used more to control out and hots by #1's.

3 Zorro: Used when sending the SS (Diag. 5), or if we want SS in the hole (middle vertical Diag. 2).


3 Smoke: Used when sending pressure from the strong side, especially from the perimeter (Diag. 1).

3 Fire: Used when sending pressure from the weak side, especially from the perimeter, or when sending the FS.

In our "2 Zorro zone" (zone pressure), we play the under coverage the same as we would in classic Cover 3, and play the 1/2 defenders as we would in Cover 2. We also have the corners carry #1 deeper to keep the safeties on the hash longer. It should be noted that "2 Zorro" cannot be run if you are pressuring with a defensive back.

In the Cover 3 variations, we play the top of the coverage as we would in regular Cover 3, except for the corners. They are told to let the receivers push the top off the coverage so that they (corners) can pedal out slowly at the start, giving them a chance to help on the quick out.

The middle vertical player is the same as both hook players in Cover 3. He must carry any vertical 15 yards deep and wall all crossers.

The seam/curl/flat players work inside out and relate to the #2 and #3 receivers to a depth of 15 yards, holding the curl until the flat is threatened. If we get full flow away, we will stay in the seam and look for crossers. The s/c/f players are the primary support players on run.

The package does not contain any special formational adjustments. The pressure will adjust or convert the same as if the stunt were run with man coverage behind it. The majority of adjustments will be changes in the cover from 4-under 2-deep to 3-under 3-deep, especially vs trips or trey formations.

Ideally, our adjustments to motion will not tip the fact we are in a zone pressure. Smart teams will do this (use motion.) to see how we react or handle zone pressures. For the most part, this will not pose a problem, as we start in the Cover 2 shell and all that will usually be required is to invert or revert the safeties will be the direction in which the coverage rotates.

Although the coverage asks fewer people to defend the same area, it works because the pressure forces the ball to be thrown sooner. Even if you end up by rushing only four, you'll be able to run all your base zone coverage.

If you are going to include this concept in the defensive package, you must have an answer for controlling the hot to the tight end or #2 receiver.

If the first offensive adjustment to these zone pressures is to throw the out, we can easily counter by playing the Cover 2 variation (2 Zorro, 4-under 2-deep).

The answers for the tight ends are as easy as using the defensive ends' alignment to force a specific release or using pressures that fill the throwing lanes to the TE side.

Against a detached #2, you have to find a way to get a collision on him and reroute him. You probably have many answers in your package, enabling you to use something your players are already comfortable with.

One of the final things that defensive coaches learn is that certain schemes lend themselves to certain types of zone pressures. A traditional 50 defense (3-4), for example, allows greater flexibility in the use of combinations of rushers. For this reason and because of the type of defensive linemen traditionally used in the 50, the fire zone concept doesn't have to be used as much.

Schemes with four down linemen may require the use of more fire zone due to the fact that the scheme is designed to commit four rushers on every snap and the protection is designed to handle this.

We strongly believe that you would do well to add some form of zone pressure to your defensive package. It will provide an excellent complement to the man package and enable you to apply pressure in all positions and situations while affording great run support and the security of solid and deep coverage.
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Author:Kitchen, Robert
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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