When I started my coaching career at Fallbrook High School in San Diego, it was vogue to pressure with five-man zone blitzes (either three under three deep or four under two deep in coverage).
The advantages appeared obvious. It gave defenses the ability to send five rushers, two from non-traditional rush positions such as linebacker or defensive back, while not having to play man coverage on the back end if your skill didn’t match your opponent’s.
The scheme was productive at the high school level, because quarterbacks struggled to exploit the weakness of the coverage, which is one fewer underneath zone defender. We could use the scheme in the run game to create negative yardage plays on first and second downs and then attack opposing offensive protections on third down with ease, because at the time we were ahead of the curve at the high school level.
As I transitioned to coaching at the college level, I began to see less use of zone pressure and more use of man pressure. It appeared to have come full circle. The reason is that quarterbacks at the college level are both talented and coached well enough to take advantage of the weaknesses of fire-zone coverage. Man coverage proved to be a better option as your coverage was at least tighter to the routes and forced the quarterback to be more exact.
However, the same issue always resurfaced. What if your skill doesn’t match theirs? How can your defense pressure the quarterback when your front four can’t?
The answer was simple: Replace Blitzes, a.k.a., creepers.
Replace Blitzes, or “creepers” as they’re affectionately known, are four-man rushes that attack an aspect of the protection or blocking scheme by overloading a player or side. By only sending four in the rush, coverage isn’t compromised like a traditional fire zone. See an example of the differences in Diagrams 1 and 2.
Diagram 1 – Traditional Nickel Blitz Fire Zone
Diagram 2 – Nickel Blitz Creeper
The benefits of creepers are:
- You don’t sacrifice coverage for rush.
- They give 10 of your 11 defenders the legitimate threat of rushing on any down. The only one who can’t is the field corner.
- They present multiple post-snap coverage variables for the quarterback to determine.
- They can be run with both one-high and two-high zone coverages.
When running a creeper, you are still playing traditional coverage. In our case, we are playing either four under three deep zone (Cover 3) or five under two deep zone (Quarter, Quarter, Half). Playing traditional coverage while still bringing pressure maximizes your time coaching. Since you are running the same coverage you play on base downs, there is minimal new learning for your players, which allows them to rep and become proficient at the techniques, pattern reads and matches of the coverage.
The other added benefit is that the presentation of the coverage looks drastically different to the opposing quarterback, because different defenders are dropping into the underneath zones and different rushers are coming. So, while simple for us, it’s still difficult for the opposition.
Creepers give all 11 of your players a legitimate role as a rusher and makes all but the field corner a real threat on every snap. This is a key point to our defensive system, because the illusion of pressure can be as productive as pressure in certain situations.
By rushing all of our 11 defenders at some point in the season, the offense has to legitimately account for each defender when they “bluff” or show pressure early. In turn, this allows you to dictate protection in one area and rush from another. This wouldn’t be possible if the offense was able to identify “known” rushers on your defense.
For example, if your free safety never rushes, but shows pressure at some point, that isn’t as threatening as if he had rushed 15 times in the previous six games. We use this principal when basing out of an odd front. We are always looking for a way to create one-on-ones with running backs and linebackers.
We bluff the nickel to the field to get the offense to “fan” their protection to our nickel, which allows a one-on-one with the running back on the linebacker in the A gap (See Diagram 3).
Diagram 3 – Bluff Influences
The next key advantage of creepers is that they allow you to vary what defender is dropping in each underneath zone.
Over the past six years of running these blitzes, this has resulted in countless “cheap” interceptions. Traditional three-deep zone isn’t very complicated to the opposing quarterback. However, it can be made very difficult when you change who drops into which zone.
For example, one of our most common creeper rotations is where we send interior pressure and populate three of the four underneath zones with players who don’t typically drop in those areas. For most teams, that forces the quarterback to make hard decisions post-snap while under pressure.
An example of this came in 2014 when I was the secondary coach at Southeastern Louisiana and we played Tulane. We recorded three interceptions in our creeper coverages. Two of those came from showing an uncovered No. 3 receiver and dropping field end to the strong hook. Former Tulane quarterback Tanner Lee tried checking Y stick twice to the look and the ball was promptly intercepted by the field end. (See Diagram 4)
Diagram 4 – Tanner Lee Interception
The next additional aspect of creepers that’s so valuable is the ability to dress up – in a multitude of ways – the same blitz to make it look very different to the opposing offense.
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In everything we do, we try to make “the same things look different and different things look the same.” We can run the same pressures from every front we carry into a game week, but we can also switch who the outside and inside rushers are, as well as a call to change the path of the two interior rushers. By having all these variables, the same pressures look drastically different week-to-week, which makes it incredibly tough for opposing offenses to prepare for. (See Diagram 5)
Diagram 5.1 — Traditional Fire Path
Diagram 5.2 — Echo Path
Diagram 5.3 — With Switch Path
Diagram 5.4 — From Heads Front
The last critical advantage to creepers is the ability to run the same pressure patterns from both one- and two-high coverages. This makes these concepts extremely beneficial for a few reasons.
First, it limits the amount of learning for your front. It doesn’t matter what the coverage is if the pressure is the same, which in turn doesn’t require any additional teaching. As a coach, it gives you the tools to match the opposing offense’s top patterns to the best of your ability.
In old zone blitzes, you could be handcuffed to run either three under three deep or four under two deep against certain formations or with certain pressures.
Comparatively, creepers are very fluid. You can call and run them however you like based upon what you are seeing. When the opposing defense breaks down your film, it looks as if you are running two different pressures, but it’s the same thing to us. Again, simple for us, yet difficult for them.
The other benefit derived from running creepers from multiple coverages is that it gives you the ability to call them in all down-and-distance ranges. For example, in third-and-medium situations, most offensive coordinators are trying to get the ball to the sticks. Defenses are mainly seeing quick-rhythm short routes in which three deep creepers wouldn’t be the answer. Yet if we want to run those pressures, we have other coverages to pair them with, so they can be used in those situations.
Conversely in long yardage situations, we like using our two deep and three deep zone creepers to protect the seams and verticals, which forces the offense to check the ball down short and outside, and allows us rally to and tackle in front of the sticks.
This versatility has allowed us to go into games running the same pressure patterns from four or more different versions of coverage. This allows you to keep your game plan simple for the front and allow the secondary to adjust to the down-and-distance situations by coverage.
This article was written by Patrick Toney, Assistant Football Coach/Safeties, University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
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