Dick LeBeau is an innovator, and most in coaching circles understand that. He changed the way coaches blitz with the fire zone blitz. Well, his Mike/Will Linebacker Cross Blitz is arguably one of the two most famous zone blitzes used today, only preceded by the NCAA blitz.
What makes LeBeau’s Mike Will Linebacker cross fire zone blitz so nasty is it really can hurt tight A gap runs and off tackle power and counter plays. With two of the inside linebackers exchanging responsibilities, it is hard for many teams to use these types of plays unless their players execute it at a high level, aka they make that play their bread and butter and they really practice it a lot.
Drawing up the Mike/Will Cross Fire Zone Blitz
There are actually two popular Mike/Will cross blitz’s for LeBeau (if not more), but the two most popular are the Wide Inside Fire Zone Blitz and the Wide Cross Inside Fire Zone Blitz, at least those were the names when he was in Cincinnati.
Behind the Mike/Will Linebacker Cross Blitz, is his fire zone, or 3 deep 3 underneath coverage concept. We’ll cover that in a little bit.
As you can see above, LeBeau not only does an excellent job showing the blitz versus multiple personnel groupings and formations, but he breaks down who/what is the force to each side. This helps the defense, especially the secondary, understand how they fit in the running game.
Here is a video of one of these blitz concepts during LeBeau’s lengthy tenure with the Steelers.
Fire Zone Blitz Video
As we see from the video, which isn’t as apparent in the playbook screenshots, the A gap linebacker, or strongside linebacker, creeps up first. The weakside linebacker occasionally resets one step over to compensate before blitzing himself in the B gap or strongside A gap.
Mike Will Cross Fire Zone Blitz versus Pass Protection
This does a few things in the passing game. A lot of protections are half-slide protections, or big on big protections. We get a parting of the red sea effect here. The first linebacker declares his intentions. This gets the Back or the slide to ID that way. As offensive tackle to the blitz side is left on an island on the 5 technique defensive end, and the guard to his side picks up the first blitzer, you get a good matchup, a linebacker on a runningback. Or, if the runningback misses the key, you get a linebacker on the quarterback, something all defensive coordinators love.
On the other hand, versus big on big or BOB protection, it may sort out a number of different ways. The back might have the first linebacker that comes, and the guards maybe on a dual read, depending on the front. The back might actually be responsible for a dual read on both linebackers.
Yes, the blitz can also be easily picked up if you sense it coming. The linemen and runningback can sort it out. But that’s why you disguise these things, which is what we’ll talk about a little later.
Mike Will Cross Fire Zone Blitz versus the Running Game
Versus the running game, this blitz can be equally as nasty. For many gap run teams, and some zone teams depending on the system they use for assigning their blockers, these blitz’s present problems.
Essentially, offensive linemen in gap systems are often required to protect their inside gap. When the first linebacker comes, the second linebacker comes free, or is left one on one to outrun a guard, tackle or even a fullback that maybe pulling across the formation.
For teams that focus intently on running these gap plays, they should be able to block the adjustment, but it takes a lot of time and dedication to the play, at let’s be honest, most offensive coordinators aren’t good at that. They want to put in their new fangled gadget plays or run a play 15 times in practice they won’t ever run in a game.
Versus basic Iso or Lead plays, it can be terrific as well. Often on Iso and Lead, the most important block isn’t necessarily the fullback. It’s the combination block to the backside linebacker. If the first linebacker isn’t at the line of scrimmage, the fullback would likely still end up on the first blitzing linebacker.
If the first linebacker is at the line of scrimmage, we may eliminate that double team (the guard might block the first blitzer), leaving the defensive line one on one to compress the hole for the runningback or make a play. The fullback would likely end up on a safety dropping to the middle hole, or the second linebacker blitzing. Either way, that’s a different and unique path, and as I mentioned, the defensive line versus base blocks should eliminate many of the running lanes.
Versus zone teams, they may run into problems if they use numbering or count systems. If you count the Mike linebacker as a 1 or a 2, and he goes backside, you’re linemen better adjust on the fly or else their going to turn and wheel on a player while the other linebacker blitzes behind him.
If it’s a true zone system, where their using covered or uncovered rules, or based specifically on a playside gap, then they will likely have a little more success, but the defense will still be in a good position to defend the play. This blitz versus true zone system also gets a different matchup on the offensive linemen, so it’s still not a bad play call.
Now, you will run into problems versus outside zone or toss plays, unless the backside linebacker scrapes over to the play. Many coaches will have that player be the smart blitzer, aka he doesn’t fly in blind. He reacts to the play. However, playing the wrong type of player in that role may get them to stop their feet and that might be worse then hitting the blitz home fast and hoping for the element of surprise.
This play might have a chance versus pin and pull teams though. You’re basically using a gap system or a count system, so you might have a linebacker blitzing through the pulling gaps.
Fire Zone Pass Coverage
Okay, enough discussing matchups versus plays, let’s discuss the coverage behind it. If all else fails, you can use a man coverage variation behind this, depending on the offensive set.
However, I much prefer three deep three under, because the defense can match up to four verticals if need be, get eyes in the backfield quickly, and if four verticals doesn’t appear, the defense can settle to our normal cover 3 alignments essentially.
Now, Dick LeBeau plays his 3 deep, 3 underneath coverage differently then I like, especially in regards to his seam/curl/flat players, which he just calls seam players.
As we can see above, the seam player aligns outside #2. He stays with the vertical until he tries to cross his face or a number 3 appears.
I feel like this is harder to disguise. Also, while you take away the immediate threat of a bubble pass with this alignment, you open yourself up to quicker seam throws.
Regardless of how you decide to play the coverage, I feel the following is an important guideline for setting your coverage.
1) Prevent Scores
2) Prevent Big Plays (lead to scores)
3) Create Turn Overs
Depending on your resources (coaches abilities, time allotted for defensive practice, etc…) this might mean you need to play a man coverage variation. However, this also might mean you should play a specific version of the fire zone coverage, or maybe another zone blitz coverage.
Disguising the Fire Zone Blitz
As you can see below, LeBeau had several calls for disguises. While these diagrams don’t show the fire zone blitz, they do show how he had specific calls for some of his favorite blitzes.
So, for instance, you could say “Sugar Mike Dog 1″. In that, we’re sending 1 blitzer (dog), but the sugar call could look like one of our Mike Will crosses. You could also say “Sugar 4″, so you look like your bringing the blitz, and then you drop everyone back and play 4.
The most effective way to cause some pressure might actually be to run his blitz enough, show it, then bring pressure off the edge. This might get the offense to check to an outside run, which you would be there to stop, or get the pass protection set to protect inside and then bring it off the edge.
Conclusions on the Mike/Will Cross Fire Zone Blitz
Using this play and the fire zone blitz coverage behind it is a fairly safe way to get after the running game and the passer. Depending on your coverage, you’ll be safe against a multitude of pass concepts as well.