As usual in these Scouting Journals, I just have to look at an element of Matt Eberflus and the Colts defense yet again. One thing that I have noticed over the years with Eberflus as the Colts’ defensive coordinator is that he is an expert at scheming up pressure for the defense without actually blitzing or committing too many defenders to the blitz. In year one and two of his tenure, he did a lot of work with stunts and twists and was able to simulate pressure in many ways. Then he got his hands on DeForest Buckner.
With the addition of Buckner in the offseason, the Colts’ blitzing is at an all-time low under Eberflus. The Colts currently blitz just 18.8% of the time which is the second-lowest rate in the league. This doesn’t mean that the Colts aren’t aggressive with how they pressure quarterbacks. Eberflus likes to use something called simulated pressures to speed up the process of quarterbacks and get unblocked defenders.
So today we are going to look a bit at how Eberflus blitzes without actually blitzing with simulated pressures and how this has been a major benefit for the Colts defense this season.
What is a simulated pressure?
So the basis of a simulated pressure is to bring a blitz without actually blitzing. The defense in a sim blitz will stack the box with five to seven defenders with the main intention of dropping players out of that look and only bring just four or five. The reasoning behind this is simply to throw off offensive blocking assignments in an attempt to isolate one on ones or get an unblocked rusher.
Here is a good visual from a piece on sim pressures on matchquarters.com. This is a good example of the impact this type of blitz can have on blocking assignments and create a free rush. The defense brings just four on this play but because they drop two down linemen into coverage, the left guard is left blocking air as the “BC” comes off the edge for the free rush.
Essentially here are the goals of bringing sim pressure and benefits for the defense:
- Waste offensive linemen but having them block air despite the defense bringing just four on the play.
- Speed up the quarterback’s process by making them account for a blitz that really isn’t coming.
- Isolate preferred match-ups along the line so that other offensive linemen can’t help on prominent pass rushers.
How the Colts Simulate Pressure
The Colts and Matt Eberflus are very unique when it comes to these pressures as there is no player off-limits when it comes to who will drop into coverage and who will blitz on a given play like this. One constant though is the use of Darius Leonard as a “creeper” on the inside as he typically will walk up to the line pre-snap and draw the attention of the center or interior lineman.
On this particular play, the Colts simulate a blitz by bringing six defenders into the box. Even though Bobby Okereke is the one who is faced up over the right guard, he is the linebacker who drops into coverage as Leonard creeps up to the center and blitzes on the interior. To further complicate things, the Colts drop Al-Quadin Muhammad into a mid-hook zone and bring just four despite showing six pre-snap.
This simulated pressure forced the Jets to use six blockers to block just four rushers and gets young quarterback Sam Darnold frantic in his reads. He rushes his process and throws an errant throw outside where it is intercepted and returned for a touchdown by T.J Carrie.
The Colts blitz the second least amount in the NFL, only blitzing 18.5% of the time. That doesn't mean the Colts don't put pressure on opposing offensive lines. The Colts do a great job of simulating pressure by stacking the line, confusing OL assignments, yet still rushing 4 pic.twitter.com/Iqv6q3e3xh— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) December 11, 2020
A fire blitz is basically the same principle as a sim pressure but it has the defense bringing five defenders while dropping three into underneath coverage and three into deep coverage (this was popularized by the great Dick LeBeau with the Steelers). The Colts utilize that blitz here late against rookie quarterback Joe Burrow as they stack inside with seven defenders in the box.
At the snap, the two defenders over the left guard drop into mid-hook zones as the pressure is brought from the right side. This pressure doesn’t necessarily get to Burrow but it does speed up his process as he thinks he has a free-running receiver over the middle. He is sadly mistaken though as safety Julian Blackmon is lurking in that deep zone and he is able to step up and make the game-ending INT.
A fire blitz is a Dick LeBeau staple where you stack the box with defenders yet only bring five (dropping three in deep zones and three in under zones). Game ending INT vs Bengals, Colts sell 7 but bring 5 and speed up Burrow's process to force the INT. pic.twitter.com/79YnRvHuJw— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) December 11, 2020
There is nothing off the table with who Eberflus will drop in these situations. The Colts stack the line of scrimmage on this play with Leonard again playing that creeper role lining up over the left guard. At the snap however, Leonard and defensive tackle Taylor Stallworth both drop into coverage underneath. This sim pressure though is designed more to isolate Denico Autry on the outside with a one on one match-up.
Notice the right guard on this play and what essentially happens. If the Colts were to just rush three with three down linemen, that guard would be able to help on the end and not allow Autry to have this desired match-up. Instead, he has to account for the down defensive tackle and is left blocking air when the DT drops. This basically takes a blocker away while covering more ground in the secondary. The result is Autry winning that match-up on the end for the sack.
Sometimes the Colts can simulate this pressure not with the intention of getting a free rusher but to get a desired 1 on 1 rush isolated. Colts bring just 3 on this rush but look how the RG is left in no man's land and unable to help on Autry who wins inside for the sack pic.twitter.com/Zyp5JlgXG8— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) December 11, 2020
One of the biggest reasons why the Colts do this is to simply waste blockers in the backfield. Pressuring the quarterback even with max protection without bring extra rushers is the goal here. The Colts sim a rush of seven in the box but end up just bringing four. Defensive end Kemoko Turay drops into coverage as both Leonard and Khari Willis also pull out of the blitz look.
While the Packers offensive line doesn’t get too confused by this, because they are a top OL in the league, it does still work to its intended purpose. The running back is delayed out of the backfield because he is anticipating the interior rush. Also, the running back is unable to chip Justin Houston on the outside because he has to keep eyes on the interior. The result is Houston isolated with the right tackle for the quick win and a sack.
The Colts get pretty creative with these designs too. 7 rushers in the box selling the blitz. DE, LB, and SAF drop out while blitzing LB and DT stunt inside. This is all window dressing to isolate Juston Houston on the RT who wins easily for the sack pic.twitter.com/JwD5UimRP5— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) December 11, 2020
This final example may be the best example of the impact sim pressures can have on an offensive line. It is actually hard to fault the Texans linemen up front here as the Colts are selling a seven man blitz while stacking the interior (Kenny Moore II is to the left off the screen). Offensive linemen are taught to play inside out so their main priority has to be the three standing up players inside.
With six players to block a perceived seven rushers, the Texans know they have to seal up the inside and quarterback Deshaun Watson will have to account for an outside rusher and get the ball out fast. However, the Colts throw a curveball with this sim pressure. All three players over the interior drop out and take underneath zones on the play.
With these players dropping out, the interior has to shift their focus to the outside now and adjusting your footwork to cut off a player like DeForest Buckner here is a tall task. The left guard is unable to account for Buckner quick enough and the result is a near sack. Look at the wasted blockers on the play though. The Colts are able to generate quick, unblocked pressure while the Texans had six players in to block four players.
Best example of how the Colts can create pressure without blitzing. Colts stack 7 in the box and force the OL and RB to play inside out. However Colts rush just 4 but Buckner is left unblocked as multiple linemen are blocking air on the play pic.twitter.com/Wfx999JKet— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) December 11, 2020
While Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus doesn’t blitz near as much as other teams in the league, don’t mistake that for lack of creativity or aggressiveness. He is superb at creating a sense of pressure without actually bringing the heat. In today’s NFL, it is almost more important to create the essence of pressure than to actually get home. Anything that speeds up a quarterback’s process and gets the offense to play on the defenses’ terms is a win.
This is simply another wrinkle in what Matt Eberflus does with this defense that makes what is seemingly a simple cover-two defense into one a bit more complex and creative. My favorite takeaway is the usage of Darius Leonard as the creeper as it plays to both Leonard’s and this defenses’ strength. Look out for these simulated blitzes this week against the Raiders who have struggled with concepts like this over the past few games.