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Lasting Impact
TIM LAYDEN
December 28, 2009
Blitzing is king in the modern NFL, and the Double A Gap Blitz, a legacy of late Eagles coordinator Jim Johnson, is one big game-changer. Here's how it works
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December 28, 2009

Lasting Impact

Blitzing is king in the modern NFL, and the Double A Gap Blitz, a legacy of late Eagles coordinator Jim Johnson, is one big game-changer. Here's how it works

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Coaches leave footprints, and sometimes they're easy to spot: Cincinnati's stadium is named for Paul Brown, the Super Bowl trophy for Vince Lombardi, a chain of steak houses for Don Shula. Twenty-one coaches are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and dozens more are regulars on television, radio and the Web. And then there are the rest, whose tracks are much harder to find. Unless you know where to look.

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson died in July of complications from melanoma. He was 68 and had coached for 42 seasons at four colleges, in two professional leagues and with four NFL franchises. Except for his first job in the business, when he was hired at age 26 and spent two years as head coach at Missouri Southern, Johnson had always been an assistant on defense and never the boss. He performed exceptionally and was deeply respected by his peers. "He was hard on players and hard on coaches," says Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, who worked under Johnson for eight years in Philadelphia, "but he had a heart bigger than you can imagine. He was tough on everybody because he was trying to get us ready for Sunday."

His players were intensely loyal. "So many games it was like Jim knew what was going to happen ahead of time," says veteran Eagles safety Quintin Mikell. "He'd tell me something, and then sure enough it went just like he said it would." To the public Johnson may have been largely anonymous, but within the NFL fraternity he was a star.

And in the manner of any gifted coach, his work outlives him. Professional football has changed fundamentally in the last quarter century. Offense has shifted from the ground to the air, from conservative to daring. Defenses have become wildly creative. Among the coaches who have led that metamorphosis are former Buccaneers coordinator Monte Kiffin, who designed the Tampa Two; Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau (the zone blitz); and Jets coach Rex Ryan (the unpredictable, and as yet unnamed, movement of pass rushers).

Johnson, too, was a pioneer, using relentless blitzes (or their threat, nearly the same thing) to defend against the pass. That is the foundation of today's NFL game. "Right now in the NFL it's blitzkrieg," says Redskins offensive line coach Joe Bugel, a 33-year league coaching veteran. "If you're going to have your quarterback throw out of a seven-step drop, you better have about 12 offensive linemen."

You can see one particular stroke of Johnson's imagination in any game, on any weekend, and you'll see it in the playoffs too: the Double A Gap Blitz. Two linebackers blitz—or threaten to blitz—from positions on the left and right shoulders of the center (the A gaps), trying to get immediate pressure on the quarterback via the shortest route and forcing the offense into a series of quick and potentially dangerous decisions. "Every team in the league has a Double A Gap Blitz," says Eagles offensive tackle Winston Justice, "and it's a hard thing to block."

Like so many innovations, the Double A Gap is the product of all that came before it—mixed with one man's brainstorm. Johnson played college football at Missouri under coach Dan Devine from 1960 to '62. He was the starting safety as a junior and the starting QB in 1962 in a wing T backfield that included future NFL executive Bill Tobin and future NFL stars Andy Russell and Johnny Roland. The Tigers pounded opponents; Johnson attempted only 33 passes in the entire '62 season. "We ran the power sweep all day," says Tobin. Missouri went 8-1-2, completing a three-year run of 26-3-3, the best such stretch in Tigers history.

Johnson signed with the Bills out of Missouri, but after two years hobbled by injuries, he went into coaching. His first NFL job was from 1986 to '93 with the Cardinals, where the respected but conservative coordinator Fritz Shurmur became his mentor. When Johnson went to Indianapolis in 1994, his philosophy took a sharp turn. He was frustrated that his defense was getting nickel-and-dimed by the West Coast offense, with short passes that added up to long drives, and began conceiving unorthodox blitzes in response.

On Nov. 16, 1997, the 0--10 Colts knocked off the defending Super Bowl champion Packers 41--38 at the RCA Dome. Johnson's Colts blitzed all day and gave up 441 yards of offense, but they sacked Brett Favre three times, intercepted two passes and left a lasting impression on Green Bay assistant coach Andy Reid. "We scored a lot of points that day, but Jim destroyed our protections with his blitzes," says Reid. "I told myself if I'm ever lucky enough to get a head coaching job in this league, that guy is going to be my defensive coordinator."

Two years later Reid was named coach of the Eagles, and sure enough he hired Johnson, then 57, to run his defense. Johnson immediately installed multiple blitzes to exploit the weaknesses of pass-blocking schemes. "Jim wasn't worried about what teams did in the running game or how they ran pass routes," says Spagnuolo. "He studied protections and attacked them."

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