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What to Expect from Steve Wilks: The Fire Zone Blitz Part 1

Cleveland Browns v New York Giants Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Steve Wilks’ defense is likely to rely heavily on a pattern-matching style of Cover 3 zone. But no defense can stay in the same playcall on every play and expect to be successful. Cover 3 allows the defense to play in a safe coverage, while relying on talent in the front 4 to apply pressure to the quarterback.

When the defense needs to turn up the heat against the pass or needs a convenient run blitz, a Zone Blitz is an efficient an effective choice. One of the strengths of zone blitzes is that they are safer than blitzes that are employed in combination with man to man coverage.

Pat Narduzzi, who is now the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh, said this about his zone blitzes at Michigan State (where he served as Defensive Coordinator for years under Mark Dantonio):

“We like zone pressure over man pressure. The main — and only — reason is, [zone blitzes] are safe and easy[...] In man pressure, if you miss a tackle, it’s all the way to the house and the band is striking up and we are getting ready for kickoff.”

From Chris B. Brown

Fire Zone

New Browns defensive coordinator Steve Wilks uses primarily a 3-deep, 3-underneath coverage behind his zone blitzes. Dropping 3 deep, 3 under, and rushing 5 players is known as a “Fire Zone” blitz.

While the zone coverage behind these blitzes might make them safer, it also makes them easier to integrate into Wilks’ defense because the coverage shares a lot of similarities with his base coverage, Cover 3.


The components of Cover 3 are:

  • 3x deep 13 field players (two outside, one middle of field)
  • 2x “Bronco” or “SCF” players (one to either side of the field, typically the player immediately inside cornerback)
  • 2x “3 receiver/hook” or “3RH” players (one to either side of the field, the furthest inside of the players in the coverage)

The safety of the zone blitz might be due to the nature of zone coverage (as opposed to man to man). But the efficiency created by the zone blitz is that the coverage is almost exactly the same as Cover 3: once you have taught defenders how to play the Bronco position or the 3RH position, you’ve taught them to play both Cover 3 and Fire Zone coverage.

The only difference in Fire Zone coverage will be that instead of having two “3RH” players, the defense will blitz one additional player.


Once the defenders understand how to play each part of a Cover 3 zone, the possibilities for a defensive coordinator become virtually limitless. Drop 6 into coverage, send 5 into the pass rush from any angle and with any number of stunts and slants, and you’ve got a Fire Zone blitz.

How Fire Zone Blitzes fit the Browns

Particularly now that the Browns employ athletic edge rushers on both sides of the defensive line, Wilks can deploy at least one elite edge rusher while dropping the other in to coverage to surprise the quarterback and pass protection scheme.

One Fire Zone blitz that Wilks will almost definitely use is called the “NCAA blitz” or “America’s blitz,” so named because it is so popular “everyone in the NCAA/America runs it” (find more on this blitz here). Here is a look at that blitz from Dick LeBeau’s 2002 Cincinnati Bengals playbook:

This blitz illustrates just how dangerous the Browns’ front can be in 2019. It is shown above in LeBeau’s preferred 3-4 personnel, but could just as easily be run from a 4-3 under front.

The “S” above (Sam linebacker) would be Genard Avery. Avery was the Browns’ second best edge rusher last year in his rookie year and adding a few additional pass rushers only makes him more dangerous. Next to Avery would be new addition Olivier Vernon at the “E” position. Larry Ogunjobi would probably occupy the “N”, with new addition Sheldon Richardson at the “T” spot. Myles Garrett would be lined up at the “EL” spot, which in Wilks’ defense could be a 2 point or 3 point stance. Joe Schobert would round out the rushers from the “B” position.

With Garrett blossoming into an elite pass rusher, offensive lines with often slide his way. But with the line sliding to the defense’s right, this fire zone blitz coming off of the left edge would be a great call.

As the tackle follows the E down toward the B gap, some combination of the TE and RBs would need to pick up Avery and Schobert with full heads of steam.

If the offense leaves the F, H, and Y in to block they can probably safely pick up the blitz, but they would only have 2 receivers with 6 players in coverage. If they release one into the route, there are still effectively double teams on every receiver (3 receivers, 6 defenders) and the offense is asking a running back to pick up a moving target (the red box above). If they release 2 or more, there is likely at least one free rusher coming at the quarterback.

Have your cake, eat it too

The above illustrates why the Fire Zone blitz is both safe and able to generate pressure on the quarterback. At worst, this “NCAA Blitz” creates favorable rush angles for the defense and tough blocking angles for the offensive line. At best, the blitz will turn loose a free rusher. And regardless of the pressure up front, the coverage is still sound, protecting against a deep pass first, and at worst allowing a short throw where the secondary has an opportunity to come up and tackle the receiver short of the first down.

Hopefully the 2019 Browns will utilize a bevy of Fire Zone blitzes to achieve the best of both worlds: pressure up front with solid coverage behind it.