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Defenses blitzing less this year to curb big plays

COSTA MESA, Calif. — Los Angeles Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is blitzing a little more than he did in years past, trying to limit explosive plays in the backfield before they pick up steam.

Bradley said sometimes as a defensive playcaller he’d like to bring pressure into a jet sweep, but it’s a calculated risk, and he has noticed opponents are blitzing less.

“Some of the things offensively that you’re seeing, and with some of the ways teams are trying to attack defenses, that forces you to be more sound in some of the things you do,” Bradley said. “I’m not sure if that’s taking away some of the pressure. Some teams we watch — I would think as a whole though, as we’re watching plays, we’re seeing less blitzes against opponents we have played thus far.”

Through eight games this season, the Chargers have blitzed five or more defenders 20 percent of the time, compared to 18 percent last year, which was third-least in the league. With Joey Bosa unavailable due to a bruised left foot, the Chargers have looked to blitz more to create pressure.

However, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, the leaguewide blitz rate this year is 24.1 percent of dropbacks — the lowest since ESPN started tracking blitzes in 2006. The previous low was 27 percent in 2016.

Despite the drop in blitzes, quarterbacks are still being pressured on 28.4 percent of dropbacks, which is the highest since 2009.

The quarterbacks who have been blitzed the most often this season include dual-threat signal-callers such as C.J. Beathard (35.9 percent), Blake Bortles (30.2) and Josh Allen (29.8) — players who are less likely to beat defenses with their arm talent.

Quarterbacks who make their living from inside the pocket such as Tom Brady (15 percent), Aaron Rodgers (18.5) and Eli Manning (19.5) do not get blitzed as much.

With quarterbacks focused on getting to their playmakers earlier, the result has been more yards and more points on offense. Five quarterbacks are on pace to throw for more than 5,000 passing yards this season.

And scoring is at 24 points per game, up from 21.7 points per game in 2017 and on pace to eclipse the highest average number in the Super Bowl era (23.4 PPG in 2013).

We asked a handful of coaches around the league why teams are blitzing less, and they point to the uptick in pre-snap movement like jet sweeps, the ascension in popularity of run-pass options and and the fact that quarterbacks are getting the ball out much quicker than in previous years.

“The ball’s coming out so fast now,” Oakland Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said. “There’s built-in passes on running plays now, so what are you blitzing for? I mean the ball’s coming out in 0.2 seconds, so what are you blitzing for? You’re not seeing the quarterback take seven-step drops and two hitches anymore. That ball is coming out at warp speed.

“I think you have to ask yourself, why are we blitzing and can we get there even if we’re free? The ball is coming out rapidly right now and you’re seeing open formations. I’ve seen more no-back formations in the first month of the season than I can recall. So I think that has a big reason for it.”

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said offensive and defensive coordinators are playing a cat-and-mouse game of who will bring pressure on defense and how can you exploit the extra players coming after the quarterback on offense.

“I know offenses are doing more and more stuff,” Shanahan said. “The more blitzes that you do with the change in motion and all of that stuff and all the jets sweeps that people have, it’s very hard to stay sound and in your gaps and defend every single play.

“Blitzing is an extremely calculated risk. If you never do it, then it’s extremely easy for the offense. But if you always do it, that’s very easy for the offense, too. So the key is keeping people off balance and trying to not give up big plays.”

Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s defense is blitzing 18 percent of the time this season, fifth-lowest in the NFL. Like Bradley, Carroll said it’s important to keep explosive plays in front of you, and that’s done easier the less his defense blitzes.

“If a team called a run and there’s a pass involved and you’re trying to pressure — whether it’s the run or the passing game — you might not be right at all,” Carroll said. “So I think it’s just caused a little bit more uncertainty for the callers.

“And the throwing game is just so good. Teams are so adept at spreading the ball around, and the ball’s out so quickly, it doesn’t make sense to bring a ton of pressure right now.”

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