Mike Pettine’s Blitzes: The 46 Fire Zone

Updated: July 30, 2013
mike pettine

Since being hired as Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine has made it clear that his defense will attack. Earlier this offseason, Pettine said “Read and react is not in our vocabulary.” This is most evident in two areas: the 46 defense that was developed by his old boss’s father, Buddy Ryan, and the fire zone blitz. Today, we’ll look at a fire zone blitz run out of a 46 alignment that Pettine dialed up in week 8 of 2012 against the Miami Dolphins.

The 46 Formation

46 defense

46 was the jersey number of strong safety Doug Plank, and is where the formation gets its name. The SS acts as an extra linebacker, and allows the front to put 6 men on the line of scrimmage. 3 defensive tackles clog the middle of the offensive line, which provides pressure up the middle. Here, the Jets are in the 46:

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Calvin Pace, the far left Jet, is standing up, but plays the same role as the RDE (on the left side) in the diagram. Yeremiah Bell, the strong safety is the pink shoed player in the 46 position. The Jets also line up three big defensive linemen over each guard and the center. This will overwhelm the middle of the Dolphins line, and free up space for the Jets linebackers.

Fire Zone Blitz

The linebackers are indeed coming, because the Jets are bringing a zone blitz made famous by Pittsburgh’s Dick LaBeau. The zone blitz is commonly thought of as play where a defensive lineman drops into coverage. This is often true, but not necessarily- all that is required is more than 4 pass rushers with zone coverage behind it.

fire zone blitz

Above is a diagram of the fire zone blitz, the most common variant of the zone blitz. The fire zone is typified by 3×3 coverage with 5 pass rushers. 3×3 means 3 deep defensive backs and 3 underneath defenders. It’s fairly basic play, but is extremely dangerous for a simple reason: the offense does not know which defenders are coming, and which are dropping into coverage. The offensive line does not know who to plan on blocking, and the quarterback can’t call a hot route behind a blitzing defender, because he does not know whether or not that defender is indeed blitzing.

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With the 46′s “TNT” front (tackle-nose-tackle) it is especially easy to bring pressure up the middle. Coincidentally, up the gut blitzes have been historically the best way to disrupt top tier quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. And that is exactly what Pettine will be dialing up here (coaches don’t call blitzes, they DIAL THEM UP).

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The Dolphins interior offensive line is overwhelmed, and Tannehill is forced to throw a limp ball to the flat to avoid a sack, which is dropped by running back Daniel Thomas (linebacker Brian Thomas was in position to tackle him if he caught it). The way the pass rush forces the ball out of Tannehill’s hand early is a great example of Pettine’s belief that sacks are overrated- a sack is just one of many positive outcomes possible when you disrupt the QB.

46 Fire Zone Vulnerabilities

As great as it all of this fire zone blitzing sounds, not everything is rainbows and unicorns and sacked Bradys. Below is the passing play the Dolphins are using on this play.

dolphins levels v fire zone blitz1

This is a version of Peyton Manning’s favorite pass play, levels. The main concept of the play is to have the flanker, who motions from the right position, and the tight end put a vertical stretch on the 46 strong safety from earlier, Yeremiah Bell. Bell, circled in red, is responsible for the shallow crossing flanker, leaving the tight end behind him wide open 20 yards down the field.

yeremiah bell

If the Dolphins had picked up the pressure, or if Tannehill had been able to avoid the rushers and step up with a throw, the Jets would be susceptible to a big gain. That’s why, as good as they were, the Buddy Ryan Bears teams that 46 defense originated with usually gave up high yards per completion numbers. West coast passing concepts are also particularly well suited to take advantage of the open space behind the massive defensive fronts.

That’s why it is imperative that the 46 fire zone blitz gets home. While the possibility of the big play exists Pettine knows this and has built a successful career as a defensive coach by betting he can disrupt the QB to prevent these plays more often than not. After years of non blitzing bend but don’t break defensive philosophies, Bills fans will welcome a defense that takes some chance.

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