Monday, June 10, 2019

Origin of Simulated Pressures

The Simulated Pressures have been all the rage this off-season as the newest innovation in football, but how new are they?  I dug deep into some old film and many old playbooks to investigate this question.  I will veer off and talk a little football history along the way, so I hope you don't mind.

What is a Simulated Pressure?  It is pressure that brings a non-traditional rusher (a LB or DB) in exchange for dropping a traditional rusher (DL).  They are generally 4 man pressures, although they can also be 5 man pressures by "adding" the rusher assigned to cover the Running Back when he blocks.

Sim Pressures are similar to Fire Zones, except that a Fire Zone brings 5 rushers, leaving you one short in coverage.  Former Miami Dolphins DC Bill Arnsparger is credited for inventing the Fire Zone, which he termed as "safe pressure," a phrase that stuck with long-time Steelers DC Dick LeBeau, who popularized the concept in the NFL.  Fire Zones are usually run with 3 Deep defenders with 3 underneath defenders (normal Cover 3 has 4 underneath defenders), but can also be run with 2 Deep defenders and 4 underneath defenders (normal Cover 2 has 5 underneath defenders).  Fire Zones are effective when the pressure gets there but they always leave you one man short in coverage.  

ULL Safeties Coach Patrick Toney said this in the X&O Labs article on Simulated Pressures: “Most talented and well coached quarterbacks are good enough to take advantage of the weaknesses of fire-zone coverage.  But if your skill doesn’t match theirs, how do you pressure the quarterback when your front four can’t?  We had to find a better option to get to the quarterback another way.”

Fire Zones are generally safe protecting the deep ball but they have some holes underneath.  If they can still be considered "safe" pressures," then Simulated Pressures would have to be classified as "extra safe" or "no worries" pressure.  Simulated Pressures overload protection and attack them in precise ways; sometimes getting a free runner, but more often getting the most favorable one-on-one match-up possible.  

I think a benefit of Sim Pressures will be that they force high school DCs to be better at attacking protections and finding the best match-ups.  High schools do attack protections but if you are only bringing four, you have to make sure you even more exact in what you dial up.  DCs like Dave Aranda are getting really good at manipulating protections in today's game, and you will see how this concept of manipulating protection develops through the years in studying the Sim Pressures in these playbooks.  

Cody Alexander said this in his article on Sim Pressures from a Positionless Defense (2019 Sugar Bowl): "Everyone on the O-line has a man and must honor that man.  Once the ball is snapped, the simulated pressure uses this to its advantage. Most of the pressures shown in the article use long sticking and mugged ‘backers to 'waste' O-linemen."

"Mug" looks force the OL to account for all 5 rushers on the LOS and good DCs have a number of ways to manipulate protection, waste blockers, and get effective pressure without stressing or sacrificing coverage.

OL must account for 5 potential rushers on the LOS
"Mug" looks also are effective because they change the angles of the blitzers.  Bill Arnsparger noted this in his book, Arnsparger's Coaching Defensive Football, and it is true for Sim Pressures as it is for Fire Zones: "Defensive linemen who usually rush are now dropping out to short inside zones to replace the linebacker and secondary player that blitz.  Because of the blitzer’s path, it is difficult for the offensive linemen to adjust."  Patrick Toney also said that these "Mug" looks can diminish the Running Back's ability to block in Pass Protection by getting him to step straight up and get off of his spot (directly between the rusher and the QB), making it difficult to block a DB coming off the edge.

Steven Ruiz's article noted this benefit of Sim Pressures: “You really get a lot of hay off them by affecting the quarterback,” [Patrick] Toney said on the Deep Dive on Defense Podcast with @CoachVass.  “The quarterback feels like he’s being rushed because the pressure is being simulated, but it’s really a four-man rush.  So he feels like the timing and the operation of the pass play has to be that much faster when, in actuality, it doesn’t.”  Check out the podcast below:

Patrick Toney mentioned the biggest thing that I have noticed when studying these Sim Pressures on film.  While I love Sacks and QB Hits, Sim Pressures cause an abnormally high percentage of QB scrambles (good project for a data guy to study) compared to other types of pressure.  I think this is due to the fact that the normal hot throws are not there like they are vs. Man Pressures and Fire Zones.  There are no gaping holes in the coverage for the QB to exploit since you are dropping 7.  The QBs see pressure coming and they panic and scramble when they really don't have to  "extra safe" pressure.

I know for a fact that Sim Pressures have been around for a little while because Florida used to run the basic Nickel off the edge Field Sim Pressure, which they called Field Rock.  Chuck Heater had a Florida Defense Install video that he gave out at a clinic in 2008 that had the pressure on there.  Coaching Defense was so much easier back then, you ran Under Orange (Man-Free) vs. the I Formation and made sure you fitted it up.  You then added some Fire Zones from Nickel on 3rd Down along with a couple of Man Pressures and you were good to go.  Those were the days.  Today's Offenses are a major pain in the butt to defend with the rise of the Spread, RPOs, better trained QBs, multiple personnel, and tempo.

I wasn't impressed with Field Rock.  I saw it on film vs. the college Offenses in 2006 and it was just okay, but it didn't generate much pressure in the cut-ups I saw.  The lack of effectiveness, to be fair, was probably due to the fact that it wasn't used much vs. 10 Personnel.

My first memory of a team using exotic looks to pressure the QB is from the 2009 Jets Defense.  This film I was, and still am, very impressed with.  Film junkies remember 2009 as a very special year.  Every sack from every single NFL team somehow became available to the high school and college coaches who used to trade film back then.  I went through and studied the teams that led the league in sacks that year as well as getting to study Dwight Freeney's spin move and Demarcus Ware's sick get-off.  The Jets were only 18th in Sacks but they led the league in Points Allowed and Scoring Defense, and led by the bold and brash Rex Ryan, so I definitely wanted to investigate what they were doing.  Their film did not disappoint!  They did a lot of things that would not be advisable vs. a high school or college Option team (but great in NFL 2009), like bring four from a side in a 5-man rush Fire Zone.  They also ran this bad boy, bringing FIVE from a side!

They also ran a good number of four man pressures that didn't overwhelm Offenses with numbers as much as they did with confusion and precision.  Take a look, you still see these pressures being run:

Back to my original question: Exactly how far back do these Simulated Pressures go?  Time to dig into some old playbooks.

2010 Jets Defense
The first playbook I researched was Rex Ryan's 2010 Jets Playbook and it had 16 pages of Sim Pressures which I put together into the embedded .pdf file below.  Under Wasp Sting and Under Bee Sting don't fit the mold of what we think of these pressures being 3rd and Long calls.  Rex Ryan wanted an 8 man box on 1st and 2nd Down and he wanted to move the DL and fire a LB to disrupt Offenses and try to get a TFL.  He also dropped off the weak DE to get the full 7 men into coverage.  Max Blow 55 is a much-copied pressure with the ILBs crossing and hitting the A gaps and the DTs widening on Contain rush with 2 Man coverage behind it.

Rex did a brilliant job of varying his Fronts and Coverages with his Sim Pressures.  Odd Ram Pack brings the boundary OLB with Cover 6 (Quarter, Quarter, Halves) behind it.  Muff (Mike walked on LOS to the Field) Double Field is 2 Man, but with the boundary Corner dropping to Deep 1/2.  46 Zorro is a Bear Front with Cover 3.  It seemed as if the exotic 2 Man fronts were starting to become popular at this time and Rex used this with Cover 1 Rat coverage in Show Blow 1 Rat.  

(Note: Fritz Shurmur helped popularize these 2 Man fronts according to this N.Y. Times article after his death in 1999:  "In 1989 with the Rams, when both outside linebackers were injured, he improvised a 2-5 defense using one or two down linemen and filling in with ever-changing alignments of linebackers and defensive backs."  Actually he did it earlier, as we will see later.)

Stack Clubs Dbl Open used the 3-3 Stack with a Choke side (one Deep Safety playing Deep 1/2 help over the top vs. the opponent's best WR).  Stack Hearts Dbl Closed was a similar concept with the DL slanting to the Closed (TE) side.  3-2 Jacks Dbl Open is a 3-2 Dime with a Choke side over top and a Swipe side providing help underneath to the opposite side.  I really love this package and when combined with Fire Zones and 6+ man pressures, you can see why they led the NFL in Defense in 2009.

2005 Ravens Defense
Sim Pressures were a big part of the 2010 Jets playbook but I wanted to see how far I could go back and still find them in Defensive Playbooks.  I was still hungry for more Rex Ryan, so I went back a few years to possibly the greatest PowerPoint in the world, which became accessible to mortal high school coaches in 2005, the 2005 Ravens 3-4 Defense from Mike Pettine, under DC Rex Ryan.  High school coaches were freaking out for years over this beautifully designed masterpiece.  It had been a while since I looked at it, but I was disappointed to find only one Sim Pressure.  The PowerPoint was only 50 slides long so I had only a small part of the playbook.  I had to go farther back and keep searching.

1997 Panthers Defense
The next place I looked was in the 1997 Panthers Defense with Fire Zone guru Dom Capers and Vic Fangio.  This Zebra Stunt on the first page below is something to stop and take a look at.  If you are looking at all these Sim Pressures and trying to figure what to call of these concepts, it can be a bit overwhelming.  The Zebra Stunt allows you to run your same Fire Zones and tag one guy to drop to make it a 4 man rush Sim Pressure.  Pretty easy.  If I was a big Fire Zone guy and wanted to get started in the Sim Pressure world without changing too much, this is how I would do it.

Smoke 8 had a lot of variations of how to move the Front and where to blitz the SS to the Closed side.  Load Indian 2 or 3 is double edge pressure (Double Smoke for you TCU guys) with one DT on the Back and the other as a Hook dropper.  The Offense will waste 3 guys (Center and both Guards) on the DTs while the OTs and the Backs/TEs have to try to block two wide rushers on each side.  

The coaching points for the 4-3 DEs are huge on any edge pressures.  They need to run through the middle of the OT and engage him before slanting inside to the B gap.  If the DE just slants inside to the B gap, the Guard can pick him up and the OT can pick up the edge rusher.  Also, there is a Run to Daylight reference here with the DEs being taught to keep going one more gap if the Guard is there to try to block you in the B gap.

The Magic Front uses the same 4 man DL personnel as Load, but it is an Odd Front with a DE lined up at ILB.  Page 11 is Magic Indian 2 or 3 and it is a little different but equally dangerous from this Front.  It involves the "Mug" look that is extremely popular in Sim Pressures today with the two ILBs walked up over the Guards.  The "Mug" look gives you 5 immediate rush threats on the LOS and most teams will check to Big-On-Big (BOB) Protection to block your 5.  The result is once again that the Offense will waste 3 guys blocking nobody with edge pressure coming fast and max coverage behind it.

1997 Jets Defense
The 1997 Jets Defense featured the brilliant duo of Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick.  First, take a look 4-3/4-4 Thunder/Lightning Skim/Sky Zone.  Skim means an A gap blitz inside and Sky is bringing the Force player off the edge.

          Zone Dog TE/Open Side Blitzer Blitz Gap Dropper Drop Zone
4-3 Thunder Skim Zone TE SS A DE Str Hook
4-3 Thunder Sky Zone TE Str OLB Edge DT Str Hook
4-3 Lightning Skim Zone Open WS A DE Wk Hook
4-3 Lightning Sky Zone Open Wk OLB Edge DT Wk Hook
4-4 Lightning Skim Zone Open Wk ILB A DE Wk Hook
4-4 Lightning Sky Zone Open WS Edge DT Wk Hook

Under Lightning Skim/Sky Zone works the same way, with Skim being the Will to the A gap and Sky being the WS off the edge.  There is a "Swap" call vs 2 WRs to the Open side and a "Colt" call to bring the Corner vs. a compressed split.  Skim also has a "Cloud" adjustment to change up the Weak Force player vs. a compressed split.

Over Sky Zone and Over Reduced Skim Zone have the SS blitzing either the A gap or off the edge in most cases with the exceptions being on Sky with a "Swap" call with the Sam OLB vs 2 WRs or a "Colt" call with the CB vs. a compressed split (either pre-snap or by motion).

Under 44 Double Cross Zone or 44 Double AA Zone is similar to Max Blow 55 from the 2009 Jets Playbook, except that it is with Cover 3.  Both DEs and the Sam LB on the LOS will drop.  Under AB Zone is the same way except I do not know how they are getting Contain on their pass rush to the TE side the way it is drawn up.

43 33 Rock & Roll is an edge pressure that is always to the passing strength except vs. Double Left formation, which could be set to the wide side of field.  Under Tiger Zone is the NCAA blitz that has become a popular Sim Pressure.  It also adds some coverage variation to their Sim Pressure package with some Quarters and Cloud Cover 2.  Over Reduced Simpson/Winston Zone is a simple edge pressure with a Cloud Force to the pressure side, except vs. Twins.  This would allow the edge rusher to be a Spill player since he has a Force player outside of him.

Under Toby Nose 44 and Under Opie Nose 44 are the same pressure out of two different fronts with the 3 interior DL shaded either to the TE or Open side.  Eagle Nose Zone is the same pressure out of what is commonly referred to as the Bear Front or 46 Defense.  Bear Nose Zone is the same as Eagle Nose Zone with the strong DE in a 9 technique instead of a 6 technique.

Nickel 33 Rock & Roll shows the Mike walked up over the Center in a "Mug" look and then it brings edge pressure from the passing strength.  The "Mug" look prevents the OL from sliding in the direction of the edge pressure.  Today these "Mug" and "Bluff" looks are the way most Sim Pressures are run today so the DC can get known Protections vs. those pre-snap looks.

1996 Dolphins Defense
Out of curiosity I wanted to look at the 1996 Dolphins Defense Playbook with Head Coach Jimmy Johnson and DC Dave Wannestedt.  47 Nickel 3 Dog Stay is an edge pressure with a Cloud Force player to that side, allowing the Nickel rusher to be a Spill player.  The coverage rolls to 3 Cloud Strong.  This a good call to the strong side but the Dime to the weak side is in conflict being a weak B gap player and the weak Flat player.

47 Dime 4 Dog Stay gives a good "Bluff" look strong vs. only 1 detached WR so the Nickel can walk up on the LOS before dropping to the strong Flat.  The DBs will roll to Cover 3 Cloud Weak (4 Dog Stay).

47 Buck 3 Dog Stay (Invert) drops the NT in a 2i to the Weak Hook and brings the Buck LB into the vacated A gap (although the playbook says he can also rush the B or C gap).  The coverage rolls to Cover 3 Strong with the down Safety dropping into the Strong Hook zone.

1994 Eagles Defense
The 1994 Eagles Defense playbook from Bud Carson was one of my favorites to study although it didn't have much in terms of the simulated pressures.  The Run Keys section for the DL and LBs is very thorough and the Fundamentals for each position and for coordinating Run Force are extremely detailed.  He is one of the best ever and he enjoyed great success with a number of teams, not just with the Steelers and the famed Steel Curtain.  The 1976 Steeler Defense averaged less than 10 points a game and is considered by many to be the best unit in league history.

There is much of this content in the 1997 Jets playbook of Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick.  The Sky and Skim Zones are the same and have the same "Swap" and "Colt" adjustments.  Nickel 32 Sky Option is Nickel 33 Rock & Roll from the 97 Jets playbook with the exact same rules.  I am not sure of the connection between Parcells and Carson.  Parcells came to the league with a lot of college experience and became a DC quickly after only two seasons in the NFL, working under Fritz Shurmur in 1980, his last season as a position coach.

1992 49ers Defense
The 1992 49ers Defense with Head Coach George Seifert and DC Bill McPherson was very long (612 pages) and detailed in terms of coverages, which I expected from George Seifert, who implemented a Dime defense to beat Dan Marino and the Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX in one of the most impressive defensive performances in Super Bowl history.

Fever Cover Zoro is a Bear Front pressure bringing both of the 3 techniques and two rushers off the edge.  There are plenty of defenders to stuff the run and it looks like a heavy pressure look but only brings 4 rushers.  The Rush Zones shows some examples of Sim Pressures and a reference to Charles Haley who had left for the Cowboys in 1992, but this section is a bit confusing and I am not a fan of how this playbook is set up.  Nickel Zone is an edge pressure dropping off the DE to the backside of the pressure.

1985 Rams Defense
Fritz Shurmur spent 8 pages in his 1985 Rams Defense Playbook to talk about his Eagle - Zone Sim Pressure.  This is similar to the 46 Defense that Buddy Ryan made famous this very same year, but if you look carefully, it is actually a 2-5 Defense.  The only DL in this front are the two 3 technique DTs.  Fritz Shurmur wrote a book on it in 1993, The Eagle Five-Linebacker Defense.  (Note: here is a good article on the his Eagle Five-Linebacker Defense, although it was already in the playbook years before before people took notice of its success in 1989.  I don't agree with the title of the article, "The Birthplace of the Zone Blitz," as Tim Layden had detailed in his book, Blood, Sweat, and Chalk how Bill Arnsparger had already invented the Zone Blitz with the Miami Dolphins in 1971, dropping the first-ever hybrid player, DE Bob Matheson, into coverage and bringing two other rushers.)

He is dropping the NB (Nose Backer) and the B (Backer) lined up head up or inside shade of the TE.  He is bringing both 3 tech DTs and both OLBs, who are Force players.  Trips Formation causes some adjustments.  The SS, who lines up in a "4" alignment, head-up on the OT, will come out of the box and line up to the Trips side and be the Curl-Flat to the passing strength side.  An "Off" call is made to let the "R" OLB know that he will not blitz and instead be the Curl-Flat player weak.  Then, a Lex or Rex call is made for the NB to loop around and become the pass rush Contain player to that side.  The DT to the side of the Lex or Rex call will come inside to the A gap as it is drawn.  Page 5 shows the adjustment vs. Trips Left (Fly), which is a Split Pro Pro Formation with the Back motioning to Trips.  The Safeties will rock and roll and switch normal responsibilities.  That is quite a few moving parts but Fritz Shurmur made it work obviously.  

1977 Penn St DB Manual
This is the earliest Sim Pressure I could find.  The $ is a LB and the X is a DE in the other diagrams, so they are bring a non-traditional rusher and dropping a traditional rusher, making it a Sim Pressure.  The DC of this Defense will remain nameless.  

I was hoping to find an older playbook copy of a Sim Pressure than this one.  I checked older playbooks from Bill Arnsparger, George Allen, Dick Nolan, and everybody else I had.  If anybody would like to share an earlier playbook than 1977 with a Sim Pressure in there, please email me at

I finally discovered that the origin of Simulated Pressures is the same as that of the Zone Blitz, Bill Arnsparger. Chris Brown said in his 2012 article, Controlled Chaos: How the evolution of zone-blitz coverages has defined modern defense: "Many of the earliest zone blitzes Arnsparger called in Miami were not actually 'blitzes' as we think of them now. The Dolphins would rush only four players in total, simply swapping out a rushing linebacker for a zone-dropping defensive lineman. As a result, these defenses were just as sound against the pass as zone defenses that had been run for the past 50 or so years."

Bill Arnsparger - inventor of the Zone Blitz and Simulated Pressures
(Al Messerschmidt Archive / NFL)
That is some legacy from Bill Arnsparger, inventor of both the Zone Blitz and the Simulated Pressure concepts.  Arnsparger will be added to the website logo at the top of the page for that amazing feat.  

Sim Pressures will explode in popularity this year at all levels of football, and they will be a powerful weapon to help even the ongoing war against Offenses.  This chess match will evolve next with OCs having to be more diverse with protections and especially with checks vs. specific blitz looks, since DCs are targeting those protections with precise strikes in their Sim Pressure package.

I have recently added gamefilm that you can download (top left of page) as well as drill videos to the Position Drills & Fundy's folder on my Google Drive. 

Bill Arnsparger
History will reveal that not only was he an underrated genius, but that he was the most important Defensive Coach in the history of the game of football.  I discovered that he was not only the originator of the Fire Zone, but he also originated the Simulated Pressures that many coaches are just now discovering how powerful of a weapon they are against modern Offenses.  Bud Wilkinson is credited with inventing the 3-4 Defense but Arnsparger was the first to win a Super Bowl with the 3-4 Defense.  He was also the first to create the Hybrid 3-4 front that is very common today.  He coached in 5 of the first 8 Super Bowls and his Dolphins Defense gave up 0 points in Super Bowl VII for the NFL's only perfect team (17-0 record) and only surrendered 7 points in Super Bowl VIII.  He was the architect of the famed "No Name Defense" and the Killer B's" with the Miami Dolphins and his defenses at Miami ranked 1st or 2nd in the NFL for fewest points allowed for 9 of his 11 seasons in Miami.  He hired Steve Spurrier while he was the AD at Florida.  He was the HC at LSU for 3 years and won 2 SEC titles.  He went to the Super Bowl in his last season as the DC for the Chargers in 1994.  Finally, he wrote arguably the best book ever written on Defense, Coaching Defensive Football.

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