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The Double A Gap arrived in 2001. The first time Johnson called it, Eagles defensive tackle Darwin Walker came in unblocked for a sack. From 2000 to 2008, Philadelphia was second in the NFL in sacks, with 390. Spagnuolo went to the Giants as defensive coordinator in 2007 and used the Double A as a foundation for the pressure defense that sacked Tom Brady five times and kept him under siege all night in New York's 17--14 upset win in Super Bowl XLII.
It has become one of the most common blitzes in the NFL, especially among teams that favor a 4--3 alignment. The Bears, Bills and Rams run it frequently, as do the Broncos and Patriots. Philadelphia runs it the most, though it is struggling with injuries and personnel this season. "The thing about the Double A," says linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who was with the Eagles when Johnson installed the scheme and rejoined them this year for his third tour, "is that it doesn't really have a major weakness."
It begins most often with the defense's nickel personnel—five defensive backs—on the field with four down linemen and two linebackers in a 4-2-5 configuration (although it can be run from various other sets). As the offense reaches the line of scrimmage, the two linebackers move menacingly into the A gaps. If the quarterback is under center, the 'backers are eye-to-eye with him. "At that point it's mental gymnastics," says Jon Gruden, the former Raiders and Bucs coach who's now an analyst on Monday Night Football. "There's no doubt there's going to be some penetration in the middle if they blitz, and it's going to mess with your blocking schemes."
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub says, "We don't want to have somebody in my face right away. So the first thing the offensive line is going to do is adjust to protect those A gaps."
There are several ways to secure the middle, but all of them create weaknesses elsewhere.
• Gap (or squeeze) protection, in which both guards block down inside toward the center, putting three big bodies on the two blitzing linebackers. This, however, forces the offensive tackles to do one of two things. They can block down as well to pick up the two defensive tackles, but that leaves some combination of running backs and tight ends to deal with edge rushers like the Colts' Dwight Freeney, the Vikings' Jared Allen or the Broncos' Elvis Dumervil. Or the tackles can stay on the outside rushers, leaving the back to block a defensive tackle, another bad deal for the offense. "They're trying to create a negative one-on-one matchup with your halfback," says Denver quarterback Kyle Orton.
• Slide protection, in which the entire offensive line slides one way, with the center picking up one blitzer and a guard picking up the other. The same problem results—a defensive end is left to rush against a running back or, at best, a tight end or H-back.
• Straight protection, in which the center takes one blitzer and the other is allowed a free release to the running back, who must make a key block in the quarterback's lap. "This blitz has changed what you need in a running back," says Bugel. "He's got to be able to pass-block, or you really can't have him on the field."
Even if the back stops the blitzing linebacker, his involvement in that block prevents him from helping out on any other pass rusher. "You like to have your running back chip the defensive end, stick an elbow in the guy's ribs off the edge," says Gruden. "But if the defense shows a Double A Gap, that running back is going to be too late to chip, so you're one-on-one with Dumervil or Freeney on the outside."
Another consideration: It's perilous to leave the quarterback under center in the face of the Double A Gap Blitz. "It's imperative that you get into shotgun, to give the quarterback some breathing room," says former Giants coach Jim Fassel. "To do that you really need to do your homework and know what situations you might see it in." Even from the shotgun formation the ball must get into the air swiftly.