Ask any defensive coordinator which is his favorite pass-rush scheme, and he'll tell you it's the four-man rush.
You bet it is. Who doesn't like having seven pass-defenders covering four receivers? If you can get "home" with four guys, that's the way to go, baby.
But if your four down linemen aren't the equal of the "Fearsome Foursome" or the "Steel Curtain," you'll probably have to consider some other pass-rush schemes. After all, this is the modern game, and you don't win in this league by giving the quarterback all day to throw.
"The importance of the pass-rush is that you want to force the quarterback to throw the ball before his receivers have gotten to the proper depth of their routes," Jaguars defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. "It's most important on third down. You're off the field if you win on third down, and our offense is back on the field."
At that defensive pursuit last season, the Jaguars fell considerably short of the high level of performance their run-defense established. The same defense that was number two in the league against the run was number 31 in third-down defense. Only Arizona was worse at getting opposing offenses off the field on third down.
"We were terrible. We have to improve our third-down efficiency. The pass-rush was a contributing factor," Smith admitted.
The Jaguars' 24 sacks were fourth-worst in the league and second-worst in team history, and the team wasn't able to address its need at defensive end this offseason as fully as it would've liked. If the Jaguars are going to make strides forward from their 5-11 season in 2003, they'll have to find a way to improve their pass-rush, and that could fall heaviest on Smith's and head coach Jack Del Rio's combined ability to creatively utilize the personnel available to them.
"We feel like we've added some young guys with some speed. Schematically, what we did last year was very basic, and we feel like we can do some things schematically to enhance our pass-rush," Smith said.
For example, the Jaguars added speed at linebacker, bolstered the cornerback position and drafted a "tweener" Del Rio refers to as a DPR (designated pass-rusher). What we may find out this season is how many schemes Del Rio and Smith have in their heads, because it's very doubtful the Jaguars will get "home" with a four-man rush.
Actually, it's doubtful any team is going to get home with four guys. "The difficulty is the majority of offenses are going to commit six players to protection; five linemen and either a back or a tight end. That means two guys are going to be double-teamed. You have to win the one-on-ones," Smith said of getting "home" with a four-man rush.
Contrary to what most fans might believe is true, there just aren't a lot of pass-rush schemes available. There's four-man, five-man, six-man and zone-blitz. That's about it. Terms such as "safety blitz" and "corner fire" are nothing more than variations of five-man and six-man pass-rush schemes.
When it comes to rushing the passer, it's not so much a matter of how many come, but, rather, from where do they come? Confusing the offensive blocking schemes is what creates open lanes to the quarterback, and he must go down, and he must go down hard.
Let's examine those pass-rush schemes.
Fifth rusher—He's either a linebacker or a defensive back. The object is to force the offense to identify him. You show a linebacker in the pre-snap, then drop him into coverage and shoot the safety. It can work; offensive linemen have been known to be a little slow between the ears. And you still have six guys in pass-defense. Nice concept, but it doesn't carry with it a high degree of success.
Sixth rusher—Ok, now we're getting somewhere, but not without some risk. You're only covering with five now, so, you're playing no-help man-to-man coverage. This is a real good blitz scheme if you have a deep stable of cornerbacks. In fact, you better either have a deep stable of cornerbacks or get "home" with this blitz. Without either, it may be time for the kick-block team.
Zone-blitz—It is the greatest defensive innovation of recent football history. The Steelers made it famous in their "Blitzburgh" Days. The zone-blitz is a wonderful pass-rush scheme because it offers the ultimate in confusion. In other blitz schemes, linebackers and defensive backs become pass-rushers. In the zone-blitz, defensive linemen become pass-defenders. In a typical zone-blitz play, a linebacker and defensive back may blitz in tandem from the side of a defensive end that drops into coverage. All of a sudden, the offensive tackle has to account for three people, and that's just too many. Jail break!
For those with a death wish, there are seven-man and eight-man rush schemes, and you'll see them used once in awhile, but, of course, rushing seven or eight means fewer pass-defenders than there are receivers. The quarterback must go down, must go down hard, and most importantly, must go down quickly.
Oh, yeah, there's the Chicago Bears' famous "46 Defense" of the 1980s, but it has been incorrectly perceived as a rush defense. The "46" is really a run-defense that flourished as a blitz scheme because the Bears' personnel was good enough to sack the quarterback in any scheme. The cornerstone concept of the "46" is that the center and both guards are covered by three defensive linemen, and what covering the three interior blockers does is deny them the ability to trap or pull.
Del Rio and Smith will put their ears back and create some pass-rush schemes. They know the onus is on them to improve what was one of the league's worst pass-rushes last season, but it all begins with personnel.
"The great pass-rushers have a desire to get to the quarterback. They have to have outstanding quickness off the ball and good use of hands. The great ones will have two guys assigned to them and still be able to pressure or sack the quarterback," said Smith, who considers former Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary to be the best example of a top pass-rusher. McCrary was always renown for his relentlessness. "They also have the ability to counter what a guy does to them. They don't throw their fastball in the first quarter."
So, really, how important are sacks? Smith believes the answer to that question isn't as much about how many, as it is about when.
"The most important sacks are on third down throughout the game, and those in the fourth quarter are huge," Smith said.