Attacking “Psycho” fronts and other blitz heavy defensive looks

When asked earlier this season how he would describe the current trend in modern defenses, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton summed it up in one word: “confusion.” While there are few truly “new” ideas in football, there is a near infinite number of ways to hide, disguise, or slightly vary those ideas. One increasingly popular idea in the NFL is the “psycho front“, which simply refers to a defense that has two, one or maybe even zero defensive linemen with their hands on the ground and tends to stack the line of scrimmage. This may mean the defense is bringing a heavy blitz — or it might not. Often, the defense will show this look and then back out of it into some kind of coverage.

The advantages of the pyscho are many, but the biggest key is that confusion Payton talked about: it’s difficult for the quarterback and offensive line to determine which of the potential rushers will blitz — other than through mind reading — and with so many of them there is a high likelihood that there will be an assignment bust. Further, although the defense might give away what deep coverage it is playing, it’s not clear what kind of underneath coverage it will be — man, zone, and if zone how many underneath? Two? Three? Four? These are real issues.

Of course, the psycho itself is just a spin on some scheme done before; the fact that a defensive lineman takes his hand off the ground doesn’t, by itself, change the defensive structure. Indeed, these same issues have been presented by NFL-style heavy blitz teams in the past. The problem presented in the image below is the same one as in the image above, as the defense shows a seven man defensive front while the offense has only the five linemen and one running back as pass protectors. If the offense uses some spread run game they can tilt the numbers slightly back to their favor, but it’s still a big issue.

So how do you attack these looks? Ultimately the offense will need the ability to protect and complete some passes downfield, but that’s not where I would begin. Below is a short list of ideas (in no particular order) to defeat these heavy or “psycho” fronts where the defense simultaneously threatens all-out man blitz, confusing zone blitz, and no blitz, all at once. Note that this is from the perspective of either a pro-style team or some kind of pass-first or pass-balanced spread team.

  1. Run the ball at it. If they are in a true “psycho”, it’s worth trying to just physically get movement on the defense despite the numbers advantage. But even if not a true “psycho” look, it’s important to see if their unsound defensive fronts present any obvious gaps to attack, particularly with the inside zone if they try to bring overload blitzes to one side or blitz off the edges. Trap is a good ideas as if you block it your players may be off to the races, but you may miss some assignments given their defensive movement.
  2. Gap protect (a.k.a. “slide” or an “area” pass protection scheme). It becomes very complicated to try and use man-to-man or BOB (big on big) pass protection against such a shifting defense given all the movement, as it takes a lot of sorting through on every play, though it can certainly be done depending on your rules. The problem with gap protection is you may lose a potential receiver to their pass protection, whereas with man pass protection, if the runningback’s man doesn’t blitz he can release into the route. But to me protecting the quarterback is job one, even if you lose a receiver. The quarterback knows if it is an all out blitz the extra rushers are his man, but I don’t want five rushers beating our six pass protectors.
  3. psych

  4. Scale your protection to your throws. What this means is if you want to put five receivers out in the pass pattern, it needs to be a hot or quick pass thrown with quick timing. Same with six man pass pro. If you want to throw further down the field, think about seven man protections. Even if you can’t block all of their blitzers, you can at least protect from inside to out and force them to take a longer path to the quarterback.
  5. Sprint out or quick bootleg from gun. Isolate run/pass defenders and attack them in the flats, on the corner, and so on. Get outside of the garbage inside. The quarterback must know he can’t dilly dally, however. It must be first pass choice, second pass choice, run or throw it away.
  6. Screen them. Fast screens in particular, but also tunnel screens, runningback screens, and so on. Try to use their aggressiveness against them. Get to the perimeter and away from the junk and get the ball to playmakers in space.
  7. Don’t underestimate four verticals, if you have a chance to protect it. If they want to fly around like that you might be able to hit the seam or the sideline throw. The quarterback must know he has to pick his progression of receivers based on the pre-snap location of the free safety and go 1-2- throw it away. Use their confusion and aggressiveness against them, as in the video clip below.

Overall, my thought process is to focus on formationing the defense with an eye to running the ball and throwing screens. See how they match up to trips to one side, two receivers and a tight-end and wing to the other, two-back shotgun, and, if your quarterback can run the ball, no-back. See if all their defensive movement won’t get them into trouble. If the defense doesn’t cover all the receivers, throw fast screens. If they stretch out and give up gaps and bubbles inside, run the zone play inside. If they pack it in and cover the receivers, then think about some speed option with outside zone blocking.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

  • Coachconides

    Great post. Yes, always protect from the inside out. I’ve noticed defenses, these “psycho” looks using the rush to cover technique on the back. I like to force their hand . Send the back out, force the backer to cover and sight adjdust the outside free rusher if they are plus one to the formation.

  • Mr.Murder

    Always run early when nobody has a hand down, the leverage alone is worth the movement it creates. Bust ’em up . If you do choose a pass, tunnel screen with an offset back to replace the linemen because you can have trouble leaving free runners on a blitz but the tunnel anticipates some runthroughs and even encourages it. Attack the run through and still limit it having a direct path to your launch point. Think those answers work best from balanced sets as a way of not leaving ball control emphasis early in games, they want you out of third and short so they go psycho on first or second. This is the defensive cover form of the Polish goal line call from the Ryan playbooks, too much going on to tell what is going on,etc.

    If your players are not close to the formation it is pretty easy to site hot, if they are close to one another you can switch and really burn man coverage. A close wideout to the form would have to be crossing so if you used that go to a back option route in front or behind of that(both, a back to the side you sucker up coverage and an option/choice behind it). This sets up a double screen, for how you space and gap blockers.

    Finally let your peek route be a really hard double move. Sluggo, hitch and go, out and up, post corner. Something that really makes them pay for movement. To do that you need a sail route opposite the double side to bring safeties or rotation on the other side of the field when you peek. Peek away from where you want to throw double moves but keep in mind that the throw is there if nobody gets up on the sail/rail/seam/fade/seam whatever you call it.

    If you do a lot of max protect, often from balanced sets, then dual routes can work magic on tall route stems vs. many cover sets. Seems like a dual slant on loose man or dual posts on a zone. Deep stems take time to get yards, and quicks often counter a blitz well but the targets need to start farther away from the form so a defense can’t muddy who covers their catch area.

  • David Kilpatrick-White

    The D-coord on my staff often uses this strategy when we go Five Live in practices that focus on convert & long situations. I am not sure if it is just his tendency, but I feel I see the same thing on TV. When defense’s use these psycho fronts they very rarely end up in a gray area defense…meaning they either bring the house (6+ man pressure) or drop 8 even 9 men into coverage…in other words they gamble that they know you’ll throw and either load up all the zones or bring more than you can block.

    I agree with Chris about 3×1 or 3×2 sets…I have even motioned into 4×1…these sets force the defense to show their hand early. If you are no huddle you can run a check with me…use formation/pre-snap movement to force them to show. Once they show I have three plays I prefer. First, is a quick hitting crack screen (ours has a backside tunnel paired with a tunnel screen just in case we get a peeler), second would be our Snag concept with a backside post-combo sight adjust stolen form SMU’s Coach Morriss, third is a QB draw that we block like trap.

    The screen is my choice if I still feel confused about his what they will do, or if I see they are looking to drop 7+. I will run the snag concept if it becomes clear they are playing man because it creates some nice 1-on-1 match-ups…if they looked to get into a conservative attack live Fire-Zone Snag would be awesome. Our blocking assignments on Trap-Draw have been kept beautifully simple by the OL Coach, so if they bring overload-pressure we feel we can get it blocked well enough to gain yards and potentially pop it…just last Tuesday during a live 2minute drill, we busted one for 53 yards…

  • James

    Rob Ryan defenses (who I suspect was the DC for the Browns in the first picture) seem to be very successful at stopping the run, but gashed by the RB, particularly screens and throws to the flat.

    Also, from my impression watching NFL games, the coaches that use the “Psycho” front seem to primarily employ it on “passing downs”, meaning that running the ball  isn’t an option to the offense. As near as I can tell that’s the idea behind Rob Ryan’s defense – be decent at stopping the pass from the base 3-4 but excellent at stopping the run, causing long 3rd downs when the defense is forced to throw against the Psycho and unknown coverage. 

  • Anonymous

    Eric Mangini did this with the Jets and again last year with the Browns.  He and Rob Ryan were both on Belichick’s staff so I imagine that’s one place that this might have percolated.

  • Anonymous

    Right. One of the best ways to avoid “junk defenses” is to stay out of third and long.

  • Hemlock

    I do not think that there is anything too terribly novel about Psycho, or, for that matter, challenging.  Watch Oregon versus Arizona State.  Oregon is doing a lot of this type of stuff defensively and gave ASU a heavy dose of it.  Because of the way Mazzone’s scheme identifies and attacks a defense’s fulcrum player it really did not present anything too problematic for it.  Their Rip and Tear motion did a nice job forcing the defense to declare who was the fulcrum, after which everything else is pretty academic, because of how they use concepts to protect other concepts within their scheme.  So what I’m saying is that teams that concentrate more on what they do than on what the opponent does is in a better position to attack these defenses.
    There is nothing that remarkable about Psycho.  As Chris wrote before, from a holistic scheme point, especially for the hoople head announcers, its akin to the “wide 9” technique. 

    In someways the conservative schematic culture of the NFL puts it at a disadvantage when negotiating exotic looks.  Wide splits beginning with the line and moving out goes a long way towards diagnosing who is who in the Psycho look. 

  • Hemlock

    Oops.  I just read the rest of Chris’s post and I think he channels the gist of my comment.

  • Anonymous

    I really like running wedge with your RB going downhill right now. It’s easy for the lineman and puts stress on the inside of the defense immediately.  Running Back would, theoretically, be able to get 3-4 yards running inside off of sheer push. 

  • Anonymous

    I think Chris really hits home on a lot of points here.
    To me, the defense is putting itself at a disadvantage by placing all defenders up around the line of scrimmage. Yes, this can be problematic for protection schemes. But, in situations where “psycho” type defenses are generally used- teams need 6-10 yards usually. By stacking all of the defenders inside the box- yes some of them may drop out and into coverage and trick me. But, I can pretty much guarantee that none of these defenders will be able to make it past the hashes- especially to a wide side of the field. 

    Thus I know I’ll have one on one coverage to the outside- can go comeback, double move, (like others have suggested- ) 

    To me- defenses are thinking in the right direction, but moving in the opposite one- 

    I like the idea of motion- Offenses can only have one man in pre-snap motion before the play. Defenses can have as many as they want- and I think they should utilize one of their few advantages over the offense. 

    However placing all of these moving parts right in between the tackles, to me is not necessary for all the players. I think a much more sophisticated approach to this movement defense is one that gives players an option to come underneath the curl/flat routes. 

    See Dick LeBeau:

    What I really like about that clip- is how the defenders who ultimately end up covering hook zones in the middle of the field take about 2-3 steps at the o-linemen. This:

    1. Occupies an o-linemen because he really believes the defender is rushing. 

    2. Makes the QB really believe he is rushing. 

    3. There is no route that ends up over the middle of the field within one second of the snap- these take a little longer to develop- and it gives the linebackers inside the tackle box some time to play mind games- 

    The biggest thing about the clip though- option defenders outside of the hashes- that read the QB and are in solid positon to shut down routes to the outside- 

    sorry that was a longer ramble than I intended it to be- Chris covered the topic really well anywho-

  • honestly

    wow i just came to this website and this is the first thing I have read. very awesome and interesting ideas.

  • Guest

    We saw a team who had a “Psycho” package early in the season exclusively reserved for 3rd and long, and while it was intimidating upon first review, it quickly became apparent that they had limited looks out of the package. They had two – in the first, they brought seven, including a disproportionate count off one side in case you decided to go slide-protect; they overloaded your gaps. The second was a three man rush where they played four underneath/four deep quarters coverage.

    In either event, we quickly established that the pressure package was always going to come from the field and used that as the leverage point for our plan against it.

    I don’t know if this is the rule or not, but my guess is that all of these packages are limited to several basic plays; obviously, as you go up the ladder, the complexity of the packages will increase (but so will the variety of your answers).

    Has anyone else dealt with this in game-planning and noticed anything similar? Is there a defensive coach who has this as a psycho package (or whatever you call it) and explain its cultivation?

  • sswoods

    I’m not a coach, just someone who finds these topics highly interesting.  I soak this stuff up.  So, if my questions/ideas/comments seem naive, forgive me.

    It seems to me that when a defense is in “psycho” fronts, they are in effect declaring what they are doing deep, which I believe Chris alluded to.  If you know exactly what a defense is doing in one area, isn’t that a significant advantage?  Even with the potential numbers disadvantage in the box?  Chris even suggested four verticals as a way of attack.  This reminds me of the “constraint plays” concept – if the defense isn’t going to play straight up, some simple constraint plays might force the issue.  

    Another thing that caught my attention.  In a previous post Chris explained how defenses can key a QB’s drop to determine how they will play their zones – a 3-step drop means certain pass routes, a 5-step drop means certain other routes, etc. etc.  Why not incorporate 7-step patterns with 5-step drops – wouldn’t this take advantage of those defenses that key the drop?

  • endersgame

    Two responses, though I could be just pulling this out of my ass. And I apologize if you already know this, I didn’t mean to insult your intelligence if that’s case.
    1) Chris said it above: unless you have ESP, or are REALLY astute in the film room, you don’t know what they’re doing on all fronts–in this particular case, mainly how many under defenders will drop.  If you have excellent coverage corners against your receivers, by the time those deep and intermediate routes are open your quarterback is on the ground. And while you certainly can take advantage of some matchups (i.e. a slot receiver against a dropping DE), you have to be smart with both your short and your hot routes and where you’re placing the ball–otherwise you might find yourself  with a B.J. Raji or Vince Wilfork taking it to the house for six (and the way Wilfork has been returning INTs this year, that notion isn’t really so farfetched.) 
    2) This somewhat builds on my first point. The 3-, 5-, and 7-step drops correspond to short routes (slant, hitch, levels/under, shoot), intermediate routes (outs, ins, digs) and deep routes (post, corner, go, etc.) and, of course, it all goes back to the quarterback with enough time and protection ready to throw and the receiver ready for the ball out of his break. That’s why they’re called timing routes. Let’s use a dig route with a post-stem, for example: by the time the reciever is at 10-12 yards ready to make his break to the post, the quarterback should have already completed his first step. By the time the QB has taken 5 steps, his feet should be planted, ready to let loose–at that time, the reciever should be 15-17 yards down field on a straight line out of his break, ready for the ball.
    That said it is possible–when I played D-I, we had a play called “Quick” with the weakside as the first read (#1 had a 4-yd square-in, #2 slot had a skinny slant) but the strong-side running a 7-yd skinny post which we’d hit we if we saw Cover 3, man or just a soft corner. You definitely can’t do it on the fly unless you have excellent QB/receiver communication, so it’s more of a game-planning/game week

    I see why Chris said four verticals would work; you’re essentially banking on the fact that that your deep receivers will at best beat the man downfield or at worst occupy the corners, while the hope is that slot recievers are going to outrun the linebackers before they make it to their drops. I would have at least one slot receiver, though, be ready to make a read on the deep look over the middle of the field–for example, bend it at about 12-14 against two high, or continue down the seam if single-high.

  • Cheslow

    The NY Giants used the “Amoeba” defense, after the microscopic organism floating around for a while under Spagnuolo.  

  • T-Bone

    This is a GREAT post.  Well written, digestible and interesting analysis.  This is why I read this blog.

  • sswoods

    As I wrote previously, I’ve no coaching experience in football; I do have some coaching experience in basketball, however.  So I’ll use an analogy.  If I know, against a particular opponent, that on a pick and roll the defense doubles the ball and cheats on the roll, that there will be an opportunity in the post.  Since I know how the play will be defended, I have a significant edge – by taking advantage of that edge, I force the defense to play the pick and roll straight up, thus making it a more effective play.  In a sense, I’ve used a constraint play to open up a base play.  In the same vein, if a psycho front is presented by the defense, I know that there are only a certain number of  players available for deep coverage – that knowledge would seem to me to be a distinct advantage.  Of course, I’d still have to take execute that advantage.  In this case, I wouldn’t want to use the underneath routes, because of the great number of possible defenders dropping into shallow zones.  I’d want to attack deep, where I can create a numbers advantage.  Anyhow, it appeared to me to be an opportunity.  Thanks for your reply.
    On the second part, I remember a video from Bill Walsh and Joe Montana explaining how they read certain plays out of a five step drop.  The first read was the corner’s position on the Z receiver – if he was even or behind the receiver by the 5th step, the QB would throw the deep fade.  This appears to me to be an example of a throw that would normally be applied to a 7-step drop.  I was simply taking this idea and thinking of how an offense can take advantage of how a defense keys the drop – if they expect a short route based on the drop, hit ’em over the top.  I think of this every time I see a play where all the routes are short and the defense is in perfect position to challenge the pass on every receiver – if the defense is cheating up, possibly because they are keying the drop, giving them something they don’t expect is another opportunity.  Just a thought. 
    Again, thanks for the reply.

  • Mr.Murder

    The defense can only be a changeup look. If your team has defenders with flaws in their technique this may actually enhance negative traits. To an extent it can disguise the ability to get on those players quick. As the play extends then you are probably twice as likely to get big damage off the fact that you have too many people on or near the scrimmage line.

    So, you use it as a change of pace, to deny tempo reps to no huddle teams, to slow them down when they begin to click.

    Or, do like New England and several other NFL teams, have a backup defensive back or nickle rotation man from the front seven fake injury to stall the game.

    The shortcut page I use to get here is the wonderful Jenkins Run & Shoot article. In it he shows how they will use one particular route to influence the nearest possible help to the primary read. Basically runs a snag/stick/choice on the backside with a combo to the front. Then you end up making the defender’s leverage wrong either to helping the choice or on the rhytm throw underneath that.

    Came back to that off reading some Homer Smith archives here(his splendid link no longer shows up on your story link or on my shortcut).  Misconception #41(or #42, I may have misconceived that article). Smith deals with individual technique shaping how you attack the defense more than the front or cover fit because flawed players will remain susceptible to a well prepared plan.

    That actually matches the Jenkins R&S evolution of using one route adjustment to compliment the choice leverage against one defender, it makes two defenders wrong every time instead of one to the side it is done.

    Now it is time to find the other set of BYU notes(think it is Lavell Edwards, not Norm Chow) or was it a set of Walsh notes here, where it says to attack coverage instead of matchups? On the go, yes, but when you can prepare you must know the matchup and the cover and find a way to attack both and still be able to function independently of either(or congruently) at the same instant. Guess the triangle read gets reinforced.

    That’s where the great coaching comes into place.

    Does Andy Reid have BYU ties as well? His use of oblique routes vs. the 46 influenced defense of Rob Ryan and motion against run keys or along the areas of the field where pass defender switches occur was a forensic example of how to kill the beast of the East and its great blitzing defense.

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