Viewed on the monitor in the Baltimore Ravens' videotape room, Carolina Panthers linebacker Lamar Lathon looks as if he is out for a brisk Sunday walk. As Ravens quarterback Vinny Testaverde barks signals, Lathon shifts from the right side of the defense to the left, settling next to outside linebacker Kevin Greene and behind end Shawn King.
Testaverde turns to lone back Bam Morris and, motioning his head toward Lathon, yells, "He's yours!" The ball is snapped, and Testaverde drops to pass. King is blocked by the right tackle. Because the calculating Lathon does not immediately rush the passer, Morris locks onto Greene. But as soon as Testaverde sets up, Lathon bursts through a gap, and Morris can only flail at him. Testaverde sees Lathon just in time to curl into a fetal position before the jarring hit is delivered. It wouldn't have mattered had Testaverde been able to look downfield, anyway. The six Panthers in pass coverage—including right defensive end Gerald Williams, who dropped into a short coverage zone—had the Ravens receivers blanketed.
The play, which resulted in a six-yard loss, unfolded last December in the second quarter of a 27-16 Panthers win over the Ravens in Charlotte, but similar scenes were played out in stadiums around the league. The zone blitz is the rage in the NFL these days. Carolina and the Pittsburgh Steelers are winning with it—not only were they in the top live in scoring defense in '96, but they also finished one-two in sacks—and more teams are following suit. The scheme's designer, 59-year-old Dick LeBeau, has rejoined the Cincinnati Bengals for his second tour as defensive coordinator, and the zone blitz will be the Bengals' primary defense in '97. The Ravens, Denver Broncos, St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers have incorporated chunks of it into their defensive game plans.
On the play against the Panthers, Testaverde was foiled by a classic zone blitz: four rushers (the fourth being strong safety Brett Maxie, trailing the play) streaming over left end, with six players covering zones stretching 20 yards downfield. Sometimes at least one of the players dropping into coverage is a defensive lineman—Carolina nosetackle Greg Kragen even covered Jerry Rice on two plays last year—while a linebacker or a defensive back shoots through the same gap as one or two of his teammates.
It is summertime in Baltimore now, and Testaverde, who has been reviewing the play time and again to determine how this could have happened after exhaustive preparation in practice, puts down the remote. He shrugs. His expression is a resigned one. "When you face the zone blitz—against a team that plays it well—sometimes it looks like nobody's open and everybody's rushing," he says. "You'd think with everybody on defense moving around so much it wouldn't be sound, but on paper it's as sound a defense as you'll see."
Just as the West Coast offense energized pro football in the '80s, so has the zone blitz given defense a catch-up tool in the '90s. Here is how it was born.
The Chicago Bears' 46 defense, which was at the heart of their 1985 Super Bowl season, was based on six to eight players' rushing the quarterback, who theoretically would be buried before he had time to find a receiver. But cat-quick and powerful players like Bears defensive end Richard Dent and linebackers Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson didn't grow on trees. So 46 copycats struggled to execute the scheme effectively, exposing smallish cornerbacks to the ravages of pinpoint passers and tall receivers who took advantage of single coverage.
Chicago was still a year away from its impressive Super Bowl run when, in 1984, LeBeau got his first coordinator's job, under Bengals coach Sam Wyche. While putting together his playbook. LeBeau analyzed why many blitzes were no longer effective. Quarterbacks, he concluded, were becoming adept at hitting wideouts on short routes or dumping the ball before the rush got to them. LeBeau wondered how he could counter.
He found the answer after a visit with LSU coach Bill Arnsparger in the spring of '84. LeBeau complimented Arnsparger on the overachieving units he built during his days as the Miami Dolphins' defensive mastermind from 1970 to '74 and 1976 to '84. "I was just trying to create pressure without exposing the secondary," Arnsparger recalls telling LeBeau.
Among the schemes used by Arnsparger in 1980 was one in which Dolphins end Kim Bokamper dropped into coverage while two linebackers stormed the backfield. It was unusual, but it had been done before: The Philadelphia Eagles occasionally covered running backs with linemen during the '60s, and UCLA coach Dick Vermeil dropped a nosetackle into short cover zones in the '76 Rose Bowl. Those are just two examples.