The Monster Defense, Overload Blitzes and Angle Stunts

Coaches and quarterbacks nowadays are exceptional at identifying and exploiting defensive weaknesses. Defenses now, with the rise of spread offenses, often give away their soft spots by how they line up, and the myriad of reads, packaged plays and options make exploiting those weaknesses ever simpler stuff.

But football is a game of give and take, and defenses are responding. And they are reacting to the up-tempo read-on-the-run offenses of today in two main ways: By becoming more flexible, with more hybrid type defenders to deal with hybrid type offensive players, and doing increasingly more of their own attacking.

We're coming

The key for defenses then is to attack, but to attack intelligently. Offenses will exploit obvious weaknesses, so the best approach is for the defense to combine aggressive tactics with sound schemes and even to set traps for the offense. And one of the best — and oldest — methods for doing that is to combine an overload blitz with angle stunts that go the opposite direction. This tactic is increasingly popular at every level of football, particularly against nouveau spread attacks, but it has old, old roots.

Specifically, the combination of overload blitzes to one side with angle stunts going the other way was a feature of one of football’s most dominating defenses, the 5-2 “Monster.”

In the old 5-2 Monster defense, the defensive aligned with five defensive linemen, two linebackers, and a “Monster” defender who lined up either to the wide side of the field or to the strength of the offense, typically the latter. With a nose guard lined up directly over the center, the defense had three additional defenders lined up to the offense’s left and four additional one’s to the offense’s right. This gave the defense the chance to overpower offenses to their strength side, where they typically liked to run to.

But, as the defense evolved over time, this increasingly became a trap for the offense. Against the 5-2 Monster, offenses typically liked to either call plays to the weakside of their formation, or even let the quarterback audible to them at the line, just as pro-style and spread quarterbacks today check to runs away from the defense’s numbers. Indeed, much of the modern run game is simply about identifying where the extra defenders are and getting away from them, and running away from the Monster seemed as good of a plan as any.

Except it was exactly what the defense wanted the offense to do. The reason for this was because most of those 5-2 Monster teams, despite lining up with extra players to one side versus the other, used “angle stunts,” or defensive line movements, away from the Monster player. The net result was that the 5-2 Monster was a balanced defense.

Thus the Monster’s great success — and it was one of the most popular defenses in football for at least thirty-years — was as much about psychology as it was schematics; there were unbalanced defenses and there were balanced defenses, but the Monster was uncanny at trapping the unwary coach and quarterback into running into the strength of the defense: Against balanced defenses, the offense wants to run to its strength, or to the tight-end. Against unbalanced defenses, offenses want to run wherever they have a numbers advantage, typically to the weak side. The Monster wreaked havoc with that kind of calculus.

While the 5-2 Monster may no longer be the defense du jour, defensive coaches have not forgotten its lessons, and instead apply them every week across football. It’s just a matter of adaptation.

The first change is philosophical and pertains to purpose. While the 5-2 Monster was primarily a run-stuffing defense, and the overload combined with an angle stunt was meant to play games with run plays, the modern approach typically first attempts to attack pass protection schemes. With the rise of spread formations — and even to some extent before the rise of spread formations — the most popular pass protection concept has involved some kind of six-man pass protection scheme, involving the five offensive linemen and one runningback.

In the older, true West Coast offense pass protection schemes the most common six-man pass protections required an offensive lineman, typically a guard or sometimes the center, to “dual read,” meaning he had to first look to one potential blitzer and if he did not rush the quarterback then he was responsible for another one. This approach has almost entirely been run out of football in recent years due to increasingly effective zone blitzes. It’s just very difficult to ask an offensive lineman to read an interior blitzer and then, if he doesn’t rush, peel out to block some kind of outside linebacker, safety or even cornerback. More than likely, even if he reads it instantly, the guard will simply not get there.

But dual reading is still necessary because offenses still want the ability to get all five potential receivers out into the pass route if the defense only rushes three or four defenders. So dual reading is now increasingly done by the runningback. Typically, the offense will zone (also known known as “area,” “slide,” or “gap” protection) to one side while blocking the other side man-to-man, with the runningback responsible for either of two potential blitzers. If only one or the other rushes, the runningback blocks him; if neither rushes, the runningback runs a pass route; if they both blitz, the quarterback must see it and throw a quick pass. The runningback is not always the ideal pass protector in terms of physical attributes, but, being set into the backfield, he can see how the blitz develops so that there are no scheme breakdowns and can be trained to step up and hit the onrushing defender, stopping him cold.

This makes the runningback the fulcrum player in the pass protection, both in terms of potential mismatches and just the raw numbers, as he is responsible for two potential blitzers. Indeed, defenses, if they can identify this tactic, can learn to dictate hot or quick throws from the quarterback by blitzing the two people the runningback is responsible for, while potentially dropping other players into coverage. And this is where the overload tactic comes in: It’s extremely common now for defenses to set their overload blitz by simply directing it to the side that the runningback is lined up, presenting a rather dangerous quandry for that runningback.

And making this tactic even more effective is the enduring lesson of the Monster: This overload blitz is combined with an angle stunt going the other way. And why is that so important, particularly versus spread attacks? On most shotgun spread runningplays, the runningback runs to the side away from where he lined up, while the quarterback reads the backside. The backside blitzers in this scheme are taught to read through the runningback to the quarterback, so if it is a zone-read play they can account for the quarterback. Indeed, if the quarterback pulls the ball on a keeper, he should run directly into two blitzing defenders.

But if he gives the ball to the runningback, the defense is well positioned to stop the run play to that side as well, as the rest of the defense is running their angle stunt in that direction, likely able to penetrate and potentially get a tackle for loss. And this tactic doesn’t only work with zone blitzes, as I’ve shown above. It also works potentially even better from man-to-man, as shown in this page from Rex Ryan’s New York Jets playbook. (H/t Brophy; click to enlarge the image.)

The blitzes above almost all show the exact same set-up I’ve described: An overload, or double blitz directly at the hapless runningback who must make a Hobson’s choice in pass protection, combined with angle stunts in the opposite direction to balance up the defense and take away run plays that way. And Rex Ryan of course takes it a step even further: In the above blitzes, he’s trying to get an overload blitz — where the offense cannot account for an extra rusher — while only rushing four defenders! It’s good stuff.

Of course there are counters to this, or at least tactics to throw a defense off the scent. They primarily involve playing games with the alignment of the runningback, either motioning or shifting him back and forth just before the snap, or simply lining him up to one side and giving him pass protection responsibilities to the other. Predictability is the killer of success when it comes to football tactics. But this is a powerful weapon in the defensive arsenal, one to look for this season at every level of football.

Offenses can’t have all the fun.

  • David Kilpatrick-White

    Coach, you’re right about how prevalent these tactics are…every OLine clinic I visited this year discussed the “NCAA Blitz” which does exactly what you’re saying. Many coaches mentioned having the back motion pre-snap, blocking across from alignment, and 1 coach even said they trade the TE in to the backs blocking assignments. As you say predictability is the primary hazard to avoid. Holgorsen style combo run/pass plays seem like the best answer to me.

  • Benjamin Malbasa

    This is a great post.  I find 3-4 fronts to be especially difficult to attack in the spread, whether running or passing, and find myself often using TE’s to attempt to improve run-game possibilities and to try to avoid blitz situations.

  • Mr.Murder Murphy

    The stunt is sound against the run and a big part of old school football. Cross a blocker’s face to the next gap and you have worked away the run lanes inside.
    The overload is simple wide alignment rushing of a blitzer, using two they now have to account for both. Bet the outside blitzer has cover responsibilities if the back hots on a release to the flats like the Buddy Ryan playbook showed. Does the tackle continue wide instead to boundary if that call comes out, peel like an end to closed space?
    What is nice to see is how wide those DT are. It is a passing down so you have two three techs. Now the center is left spinning his head, everyone is several steps away. There’s no lineman to switch on that he can reach and you still have to number up their blitz.
    X seems to predicate where things go from. You have a Jayhawk adjustment on ‘NRG twin Y off’ as well and again X is the cover tag.
    The best way to adjust this is go Y off and motion him to the back’s offset side to help on the overload while you full slide away from it.  So you have Y to the backfield like the E alignment and step him across like the back usually does, or motion him there so you can kind of force that free safety to declare and still reach the blitz.
    Not just how they blitz, but who they blitz. If you let David Harris types get a head of steam at 260 plus no back will stop him from driving the blocker through the release point for the passer. It isn’t just about sacks, it is about disrupting the flow so you lack timing needed to burn the man coverage. You need the block help to nail the big guy at or near the line and let the back stay with the movement blitzer.

  • Will Veatch

    The overload shown is pretty much “America’s Zone Blitz,” or the “NCAA Blitz.”  This is good against zone read but a good response is the inverted veer (or shovel), running away from the overload and optioning the outside-slanting DE. 

    The benefit of any option is the offense gets to avoid blocking a defender; the cost is the defense can choose the runner.  The additional benefit of running split-flow options like zone read is the defense can’t rotate to the playside (both sides are the playside); the additional cost is they can choose the direction of the offensive attack.  The solution is to have both single-side and split-flow type options – attacks for one are weak for the other.  As you point out, you have to avoid predictability.

  • jagpac3128

    Can you explain how how zone blocking concepts in the run would handle your first diagram. Isn’t that what zone blocking wants is the defense to slant to open up cut back lanes?