A writer named Steven Ruiz has an article in USA Today worth spending some time on. There is the whole body of analytical data that fronts the article. He then documents some modern wrinkles in how the pass rush is now being coached.

He spends a fair amount of time talking about the zone blitz, something that in my eyes is not new, and to be plain, was used at least as early as the college TCU-SMU games of the 1930s, the Sammy Baugh games where SMU constantly varied the pressure Sammy would see (1). Different linemen would fall out of the lines and occupy zones, and the folks rushing would vary. This story pretty much gets told in any biography of Sammy Baugh. It’s not hidden in the depths of newspapers.com.

By the 1940s, you see lineman falling back into zones in books by coaches such as Dana Bible (2). Don Faurot, in his book on the Split T, says when speaking of the pass rush: “rush at least four men. Vary the number constantly.”(3)

Patterns like these continued into the 1950s, where books by guys like Bobby Layne then talk about the changes in how the rush was generated once Tom Landry’s 4-3 came into the fore.

In the 5-2 Eagle, as Layne explains, the rush largely came from the ends and the three linemen in the middle defended the run. In the 1950s era 4-3 system, all four down linemen rushed. All the linemen were tall men, with long arms to obscure the view of the quarterback. They all rushed because the wall of arms was a big factor in preventing downfield vision. And because they all rushed, and the 4-3 was a massively dominant defense, from the middle 1950s to the middle 1970s, the notion of a variable line rush was slowly lost.

So, in the modern context, Dick LeBeau is considered the father of the ‘zone blitz’, the modern incarnation of the 1940s ‘constantly variable rush’. And further, the faked blitz, is no longer just talked about or seen. It’s not, as a 1930s coach might put it, part of the ‘bag of tricks’ a defensive player should have. The creeper, as it’s called, is a coaching point that’s integral to some defensive systems. The idea is of course, not new, as anyone who ever saw the Jimmy Johnson coached Philadelphia Eagles defenses can attest to. The thing that’s new are that these kinds of ideas are integrated into defensive systems, are coaching points. And let’s give Steven Ruiz a +1 or thumbs up for exposing all that to us.

***

Hat Tip to Doug Farrar for exposing me to Steven’s post on Twitter.

Notes and References.

1. Holley, Chapter 4.

2. Bible, p. 156.

3. Faurot, p 223.

Bibliography.

Bible, Dana X., Championship Football, Prentice-Hall, New York, 1947.

Faurot, Don, “Secrets of the Split T formation”, Prentice-Hall, 1950.

Holley, Joe, Slingin’ Sam: The Life and Times of the Greatest Quarterback Ever to Play the Game, University of Texas Press, 2012 [ebook].

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Intended to be anecdotal and also suitable for families, I didn’t expect to get a lot from this book.

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As many drinking stories as have accumulated with respect to Bobby Layne, I was worried that all I would get would be anecdotes. But no, a careful reading of this small book yields some real information on the history of play in the NFL. For example, this bit from his chapter on defenses (1):

During the early 1950’s, the big years for the Detroit Lions, the defenses were not as complicated as today. The flanker back, who is really an end, revolutionized pro football. Until this innovation, and I don’t know who started it, defenses were mostly the same. Nearly every team played a 5-2 with four guys deep to take care of the passes.

Of course there were adjustments but basically the five men up front were keyed to stop any inside running plays. The two linebackers were responsible for the outside and short passes, while the four men in the backfield played tight to help out with a tackle or be ready for a pass.

Later, in a chapter called “Coaching”, he talks about the difference between the rush coming from a five man versus a four man line(2):

Even in the past five years, play has changed considerably. There used to be nothing but five man lines, with two linebackers, and four deep men. The day of the five man line is gone, simply because the offense introduced a new receiver with the flanker back.

There used to be tough, agile ends – guys like Bill McPeak, now coach of the Redskins; Norm Willey of the Eagles and Ed Sprinkle of the Bears, who could escape the blockers by force and guile. It was the end’s job, in those days, to put pressure on the quarterbacks.

With the coming of the four man line, the ends disappeared altogether. Guys like McPeak, Willey and Sprinkle would be linebackers today. The four man line is made up of the biggest men on the team. Besides being big, today’s four defensive linemen are usually so tall, you’d think they would be playing basketball instead of harassing quarterbacks.

In today’s game, you will see those tall linemen charging up the middle. The toughest job for a quarterback is to see over or under them, so he can spot his receivers.

There are sections where he discusses the increasing specialization of the NFL “no such thing as a triple threat back in professional football” and the single wing “good offense, but it takes as much out of you as the opposition”. He makes it clear he prefers to call plays, talks about the art of play calling, gives his opinions of the GOAT, as far as QBs go (Sammy Baugh. Joe Schmidt is his linebacker GOAT). Overall, not as much coaching info as a coaching guide, but it’s arguable that Bobby Layne was the one of the best QBs of the 1950s, and the opinions of such an expert do carry some weight.

It’s useful on a coaches or fan’s bookshelf. Just enough technique to be useful.

Notes and References

1. Layne and Drum, pp 52-53
2. Layne and Drum, pp 118-119

Bibliography

Bobby Layne and Bob Drum. “Always on Sunday”, Prentice-Hall, New York, 1962.