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
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.
December 28, 2009
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."
The Double A Gap arrived in 2001. The first time Johnson called it, Eagles defensive tackle Darwin Walker came in unblocked for a sack. From 2000 to 2008, Philadelphia was second in the NFL in sacks, with 390. Spagnuolo went to the Giants as defensive coordinator in 2007 and used the Double A as a foundation for the pressure defense that sacked Tom Brady five times and kept him under siege all night in New York's 17--14 upset win in Super Bowl XLII.
It has become one of the most common blitzes in the NFL, especially among teams that favor a 4--3 alignment. The Bears, Bills and Rams run it frequently, as do the Broncos and Patriots. Philadelphia runs it the most, though it is struggling with injuries and personnel this season. "The thing about the Double A," says linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who was with the Eagles when Johnson installed the scheme and rejoined them this year for his third tour, "is that it doesn't really have a major weakness."
It begins most often with the defense's nickel personnel—five defensive backs—on the field with four down linemen and two linebackers in a 4-2-5 configuration (although it can be run from various other sets). As the offense reaches the line of scrimmage, the two linebackers move menacingly into the A gaps. If the quarterback is under center, the 'backers are eye-to-eye with him. "At that point it's mental gymnastics," says Jon Gruden, the former Raiders and Bucs coach who's now an analyst on Monday Night Football. "There's no doubt there's going to be some penetration in the middle if they blitz, and it's going to mess with your blocking schemes."
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub says, "We don't want to have somebody in my face right away. So the first thing the offensive line is going to do is adjust to protect those A gaps."
There are several ways to secure the middle, but all of them create weaknesses elsewhere.
• Gap (or squeeze) protection, in which both guards block down inside toward the center, putting three big bodies on the two blitzing linebackers. This, however, forces the offensive tackles to do one of two things. They can block down as well to pick up the two defensive tackles, but that leaves some combination of running backs and tight ends to deal with edge rushers like the Colts' Dwight Freeney, the Vikings' Jared Allen or the Broncos' Elvis Dumervil. Or the tackles can stay on the outside rushers, leaving the back to block a defensive tackle, another bad deal for the offense. "They're trying to create a negative one-on-one matchup with your halfback," says Denver quarterback Kyle Orton.
• Slide protection, in which the entire offensive line slides one way, with the center picking up one blitzer and a guard picking up the other. The same problem results—a defensive end is left to rush against a running back or, at best, a tight end or H-back.
• Straight protection, in which the center takes one blitzer and the other is allowed a free release to the running back, who must make a key block in the quarterback's lap. "This blitz has changed what you need in a running back," says Bugel. "He's got to be able to pass-block, or you really can't have him on the field."
Even if the back stops the blitzing linebacker, his involvement in that block prevents him from helping out on any other pass rusher. "You like to have your running back chip the defensive end, stick an elbow in the guy's ribs off the edge," says Gruden. "But if the defense shows a Double A Gap, that running back is going to be too late to chip, so you're one-on-one with Dumervil or Freeney on the outside."
Another consideration: It's perilous to leave the quarterback under center in the face of the Double A Gap Blitz. "It's imperative that you get into shotgun, to give the quarterback some breathing room," says former Giants coach Jim Fassel. "To do that you really need to do your homework and know what situations you might see it in." Even from the shotgun formation the ball must get into the air swiftly.
The most devilish aspect of the Double A is that the linebackers don't even need to blitz to make the play effective. The offense must adjust its blocking scheme on the assumption that the A Gap rushers are going to blitz, and once it does, "the offense tips its hand," says Mikell. "That's the whole thing with the Double A—make them adjust and then attack." Empty backfield sets, with five wide receivers, aren't practical against teams that run the Double A Gap Blitz. Also, defensive backs can sit on pass routes, anticipating quick throws that can be jumped for picks.
There are numerous other variations of the blitz. In '07 Spagnuolo rotated defensive ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora into the A gaps and linebackers Antonio Pierce and Kawika Mitchell to the edge, creating an even more daunting mismatch on the inside, with Tuck or Umenyiora on a running back or center. The Giants called that combination Bombs. Other teams drop both 'backers into coverage and rush a safety late, after the offense has adjusted for the A Gap rushers.
The best way to exploit the Double A Gap is to block it effectively, a difficult proposition says Gruden, but "if you're using it against a CEO-type quarterback, like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, who understands how to pick up blitzes, you can have problems because you're short of personnel in coverage, and they'll get rid of the ball quickly."
Says Trotter, "Teams run quick screens, slants, things like that, because normal pass routes take too long, and the pressure is right on the quarterback. Jim Johnson always told us, 'You take away great receivers by getting in the quarterback's face.'"
They echo his messages in Philadelphia. Around the league they copy his plays. Johnson would appreciate that. During game week he could always be found in his office long after practice, working the coordinator's customary hours, searching for seams in somebody's offense. "He brought an energy and an enthusiasm to figuring things out," says Reid. "The players couldn't wait to hear how Jim was going gash 'em this week."
The best coaches will tell you their work is more cerebral than gladiatorial. The chess game, Gruden calls it. Double A Gap Blitz. One coach's legacy. One move on the board.
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