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San Diego Chargers Offense: Facing the Double A Gap Blitz

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Let's take a look at one particular defensive tactic which has given the 2015 Chargers fits over the last 2 weeks, and one they'll have to manage if they want to beat Cleveland on Sunday.

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According to Tim Layden's Blood, Sweat and Chalk, the Double A Gap blitz was brought into the modern NFL by the late Jim Johnson, Defensive Coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2008. Here's an excerpt:

The Double A Gap came in 2001, it was Johnson's ultra-aggressive extension of everything he'd been doing. First conjured when Johnson asked himself this question: Instead of a single blitzer on the edge or a single blitzer in the middle, why not load up the middle of the formation? The first time Johnson called it in a game, Eagles defensive end Darwin Walker cam unblocked for a sack. From 2000 to '08, the Eagles had 390 sacks, second in the NFL.

- Blood, Sweat, and Chalk by Tim Layden, Page 227.

See below for an example of what the Double A Gap blitz looks like. The A Gaps are gaps on the Offensive Line between the Center and Guards.

DoubleADiagram

Double A Gap Blitz

The appeal of the Double A Gap blitz comes from simplicity. It places 2 potentially unblocked blitzers directly in front of the QB. And as a result, the offense facing the blitz has to make a decision. If you choose to look at it from a military vantage, it embodies Superiority at the Point of Contact, Simplicity, and Movement-Mobility. It's a tactic which constrains what the offense can do should they meet it head-on.

Here are the offense's blocking options, again, from Blood, Sweat and Chalk, Page 228:

  • Gap protection, in which both guards block down inside, putting three big bodies on the two blitzing linebackers. This, however, forces the offensive tackles to block down as well to pick up the two defensive tackles, and it leaves some combination of running backs and tight ends to deal with edge-rushing defensive ends.
  • Slide protection, in which  the entire offensive line slides one way, with the center picking up one blitzer and one guard picking up the other. The same problem results, with one defensive end left rushing against a running back, or, a best, a tight end or H-back.
  • Straight protection, in which the center takes one blitzer, and the other one is allowed a free release to the running back, who must make a key block in the quarterback's lap.
Of course, the other problem with the Double A Gap Blitz occurs when it's shown by the defense, the offense adjusts accordingly, and then the blitz doesn't come (or comes from somewhere else).

Once more, from Blood, Sweat and Chalk:
Because the Double A threatens to bring pressure so close to the quarterback and so quickly, the offense must adjust to one of the above protections on the assumption that the A Gap rushers are going to blitz.

- Pages 228-229.
With all that in mind, the Double A Gap Blitz seems like an ideal tactic for attacking an inexperienced center, new left guard, and an inexperienced right guard. And then, when you factor injuries into the equation, well... let's just say smart defensive coaches with killer instinct like Marvin Lewis, Paul Guenther, Mike Zimmer, and George Edwards aren't going to let up until you prove you can stop or beat it.

So, let's take a look at some Double A Gap pressures shown by the Chargers' opponents so far this season, and how the Chargers handled it on offense:

At Cincinnati:


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Figure 1

Figure 1: 4:22 left in the 1st quarter, 3rd and 2 at the CIN 40. This is the 1st time the Bengals show a Double A blitz. In this case, the linebackers drop out. The Chargers elected to use straight protection - when the blitz doesn't come, C Chris Watt joins with RG Chris Hairston to double team DT Geno Atkins. RB Danny Woodhead moves up into the pocket to pick up the other blitzer which doesn't come. Three offensive linemen are left blocking 1-on-1. Rivers fumbles after being hit by DT Wallace Gilberry, who beat LG Orlando Franklin.


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Figure 2

Figure 2: 1:12 left in the 3rd quarter. 3rd and 6 at the SD 14. In all of the situations where the Bengals show a Double A blitz, this is the only time they send both linebackers. The Chargers used slide protection to the right, and as a result pressure comes from the left side of the offense. Rivers attempts to throw back to his left to Stevie Johnson on a WR screen. However, the throw is so hurried, Johnson has to dive for the ball and can't generate any yardage after the catch. If Rivers hits Johnson and he makes his man miss, this play could go for a TD.

For the game: CIN showed a Double A Gap Blitz 8 times. The sent both blitzers once, sent one blitzer once, and dropped out of the blitz 6 times. The results included 2 sacks, 1 fumble lost, a false start penalty and a holding penalty.

At Minnesota:

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Figure 3

Figure 3: 2:55 left in the 1st quarter. 3rd and 10 at the SD 20. This is the second time the Vikings show a Double A blitz. The Vikings, however, add an interesting wrinkle. Both linebackers blitz while LDE Brian Roberson drops back into zone coverage. The Chargers elect to block this one straight, and I can't think of a play that better illustrates Danny Woodhead's value as a blocking RB. He steps up and pick ups one of the blitzers, and buys enough time for Rivers to get rid of the ball. Unfortunately, Rivers double clutches, and LB Anthony Barr eventually sheds a Watt/Franklin double-team and the result is a sack and fumble, recovered by the Vikings.

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Figure 4

Figure 4: 13:34 left in the 3rd quarter. 3rd and 7 at the SD 23. By this time in the game (early 3rd quarter), the Vikings have shown more Double A pressures than the Bengals did all game. The Vikings have also been much more aggressive with their blitzes, as this is the 6th time they've sent both linebackers - although this time LB Eric Kendricks delays a moment before rushing. Again, the Chargers block this one straight. The mistake is made by a (severely hobbled) D.J. Fluker. Fluker's responsibility is to pick up DT Tom Johnson while Woodhead comes in front of Rivers and picks up whomever Watt doesn't. Instead, Fluker doubles with Watt on LB Anthony Barr, leaving Woodhead with no one to block and giving Johnson a free run at Rivers.

For the game: Minnesota showed a Double A Gap Blitz 13 times. The sent both blitzers 8 times (3 of these involved zone blitzes where 1 or more linemen dropped into coverage), sent one blitzer 2 times, and dropped out of the blitz 3 times. The results included 3 sacks and 1 fumble lost.

Remedies

I'd like to add that the majority of these Double A pressure looks came on 3rd down when the defense is trying to force Rivers to unload quickly. The Chargers have to mitigate the ability of defenses to use these blitzes by playing with tempo, and focusing on staying ahead of the chains, especially on 1st down.

The best play the Chargers had against Double A gap pressure in these 2 games was a WR screen to Stevie Johnson against the Vikings. The play went for 30 yards, as well as drawing a Roughing the Passer Penalty. The reason goes back to a point I made above about military tactics.

If the Chargers cannot maintain Superiority at the Point of Contact, and contact occurs in the middle of the offense, then their strategy against the Double A Gap blitz is to move the Point of Contact to a location where they do have superiority (or at least parity). Just ask (now-retired) LB Jeremiah Trotter...
"Teams run quick screens, slants, things like that, because normal pass routes take too long and the pressure is right on the quarterback."

-Jeremiah Trotter in Blood, Sweat and Chalk, Page 229.
It's apparent right now that just calling the play and expecting the players to execute it isn't working well. So, instead of deploying motivational ploys that a hack Hollywood screenwriter would be embarrassed to write, how about just looking at the film, seeing what works, and simplifying things for a struggling offense. Things like...

WR screens, shotgun toss running plays, RB flare passes, jet sweeps, slants, and even fade stops are all plays which do a great job of getting the ball to the perimeter quickly, protect the quarterback, and create opportunities in space. The Chargers coaching staff, because of the hits Rivers has taken as well as the condition of their offensive line, have to get the ball to the perimeter quickly when facing these Double A pressure looks.

The NFL has no mercy. Opposing defenses will bring these pressures until the Chargers prove they can stop or beat them.