All About the Football Blitz

A Philadelphia Eagle blitzing a quarterback
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Ever watch a child step into a candy store? A little boy is all about that first lollipop he sees, but then he drops it when out of the corner of his eye, he spots the giant, rainbow swirl unicorn lollipop.

In a football blitz, a linebacker or defensive back is like the little boy in the candy shop, when he leaves his normal position backing up the defensive line and instead goes after the big prize, the quarterback, behind the line of scrimmage, sacking him or forcing him to throw the ball with less accuracy by hurrying the pass.

A linebacker or defensive back is a defensive position that usually provides extra run protection or extra pass protection, but in a blitz, the player will leave their post to pressure the quarterback. Essentially the player becomes an extra pass rusher.

Other blitz terms in football include "red dog," "wildcat" and zone blitz variations.

History of the Blitz

Another term for the blitz defensive move is a "red dog." Donald Nesbit “Red Dog” Ettinger is usually credited with inventing the blitz move from 1948 to 1950. Ettinger played football for the University of Kansas and later with the New York Giants as a linebacker.

The term "blitz," comes from the German word blitzkrieg, which means, "lightning war." In World War II, the Germans employed this tactic which emphasized mobile forces attacking with speed and surprise.

Wildcat Blitz

The safety blitz, also known as a "wildcat," is said to have been popularized by Larry "Wildcat" Wilson, a safety for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1960 until 1972. A secondary coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, Chuck Drulis, devised a play that called for one of the safeties to take part in a blitz, code-named "wildcat."

At first, Drulis didn't think he had a player with the athleticism to run the play. However, that changed in 1960 during training camp when the Cardinals signed a cornerback from the University of Utah named Larry Wilson. Drulis believed he had found the player he needed for the play, and persuaded the Cardinals to convert Wilson to free safety. Largely due to the play, Wilson blossomed into one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history and became so identified with the play that "Wildcat" became his nickname. 

Zone Blitz

Miami Dolphins defensive coach Bill Arnsparger is credited with developing the zone blitz in 1971. Arnsparger placed linebackers on the defensive line and had them drop back into coverage, and eventually, he included regular defensive linemen as well.

The play did not gain widespread use in professional football until the early 1990s when defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau for the Pittsburgh Steelers refined the zone blitz, earning Pittsburgh the title of "Blitzburgh."

The base zone blitz also called a fire zone can force the quarterback to throw “hot” requiring hurried sight adjustments, while the defense drops second-level defenders directly into the throwing lanes.​