Here is a stat that might surprise a lot of fans who are going into the season with the expectation that Mike Zimmer’s new defense will be a blitz-happy unit. Where would you guess Zimmer’s Bengals defense ranked last season in number of blitzes?
Given Zimmer’s supposed reputation as a super-aggressive play caller, you might think the Bengals would be at the top of the rankings in terms of blitz volume. But at least last season, that was not the case. The Bengals actually blitzed only 24.75% of the time, ranking them 26th in the league overall.
The team ranked 27th in number of blitzes? The Leslie Frazier-led Vikings, who brought extra pass rushers only 22.05% of the time.
By this measure, Zimmer comes off as one of the more conservative defensive playcallers in the league. Why then does he have a rep as one of the most aggressive?
There’s a simple explanation, really. Zimmer probably seems like he blitzes more than other defensive playcallers not because he actually does blitz more, but because his blitzes tend to be more effective. You’re less likely to notice the blitzes that get stuffed than the ones that result in real pressure on the QB. And Zimmer’s blitz calls tend to result in pressure.
The stats show that, though Zimmer is relatively un-blitz-happy when it comes to volume, he is very strong in terms of efficiency. By PFF’s reckoning, the 2013 Bengals were effective 36.8% of the time when bringing the blitz, good enough for 10th overall in the league.
Zimmer’s reputation as a defensive guru is not necessarily related to his “aggressiveness,” but rather his ability to throw multiple looks at an offense and disguise what he is doing. Zimmer will bring pressure from different directions using zone-dogs, sometimes bringing only four men altogether. These looks can be as effective as traditional blitzes even though they technically are not blitzes.
The key to Zimmer’s effectiveness as a defensive playcaller has not been in his willingness to bring extra men a large percentage of the time, but in his knack for feeling out the offense and knowing when to bring pressure. In blitzing as in many things in life, it’s really all about timing. Zimmer has tended to have very good timing.
He’s also tended to have players who were able to execute his savvy play calls. Does he have enough of those players on the Vikings? He, and we, are still finding out.