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Texas Football 2011: No Parking in the Manny Diaz Fire Zone

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As we turn the page on the Texas Longhorns, many a faithful fan is enthusiastic about the new look schemes on both sides of the ball.  Much has been written this off-season about the innovative philosophies the new coordinators bring to Longhorn football.  If you have not had a chance to study Longhorn Scott's great Power-O Series (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, and Part V) at Barking Carnival I highly suggest you BON-up on this reading as it about as good a peak at what new offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin brings to the table as there is.  Longhorn Scott also chimes in with his take on Diaz defense over at BC and discusses the fine points of the Scrape Fire Zone set as detailed by Coach Barry Hoover.

Matt Brophy, of, proffered an early blueprint for Longhorn fans in January with his Manny Diaz Bulletproof Fire Zone and our own Peter Bean posited with recent teasing insight into the potential of the Manny Diaz brand of blitzing defensive strategy. 

For those who are truly affectionate for the under-the-radar X's and O's, further fine reading can be found in the 2011 Longhorn Kickoff magazine with great detail, respectively, by Michael Bean and Ian Boyd on Manny Diaz multiple array defense and which current Texas personnel have the best chance of success adjusting into the new sets.  Also found in the magazine are insightful looks at new Texas offensive co-coordinator Bryan Harsin's motion offense by Mike Kuchar, of, with Peter offering perspective on which player groups will thrive and which are, well, sort of exposed.  If you have not already done so, I highly recommend you order the 2011 Longhorn Kickoff magazine by Maple Street Press (Ad free!) for all those interested in the nuts and bolts of what will be served up this season on both sides of the ball.

Texas fans may not be as familiar with the term Fire Zone, but they are no less familiar with the risk/reward of the set.  Texas defensive coordinators, like most in the business, have been running derivatives of this zone blitz scheme the better part of a decade in pushing the envelope on ways to slow down the Big 12 Spread offenses.  A little background is in order for the uninitiated.  The zone blitz was first developed in the early 70's by Bill Arnsparger.  You old timers might remember that it was Arnsparger's "No Name" defense that led the Miami Dolphins to the only undefeated season in NFL history.  The scheme has evolved through the years and has been perfected by long-time Steeler's defensive coordinator, and NFL Hall of Famer, Dick Lebeau.  And with the Packers having won last year's Super Bowl, their DC, Dom Capers, has picked up the mantle and taken the zone blitz to another level.

I had a chance to chat a bit with Barry Hoover of earlier this month.  Barry has been a leader in coaching blogs as well as a seasoned coach teaching fundamentals to rising football stars.  In the rarified air of coaching circles, his explanation of both offense and defensive formations and schemes are well regarded.  He is fascinated with the simplicity of Diaz' Fire Zone, and more particularly the Scrape Fire Zone, and offers his perspective on what Longhorn fans can expect to see this season.

Q:  The Big 12 is known for evolving spread offenses (Holgerson's diamond package for example).  How do you see the Fire Zone evolving to keep pace, or, how do you see it successfully implemented?

Brophy nailed this one in his post Manny Diaz Bulletproof Fire Zone.  Manny Diaz's Scrape Fire Zone (that pretty much every team in America runs) is great vs. the Zone Read play which is the staple of the Spread offense.  The drop DE is the QB's read key--when he drops the QB will give the ball to the RB, who is running into the teeth of the Fire Zone.

Q:  Given the widespread use of the scheme, where would Longhorn fans find examples of its implementation in the Big 12?

The Stoops brothers have been running Scrape since before they came into the league and I am sure everyone else has copied it or has been running it since that time too.  Bill Young, the former DC at Kansas, had a coaching video on Fire Zones a few years back.  I think that the talent at QB and the Mike Leach system have been so good in the Big 12 that the offenses are difficult to stop.  The SEC probably hasn't had as good QBs as the Big 12, which is why it is more of a grind it out, black and blue division.  I am a Florida alum and I think the 08 Oklahoma team had probably the best offense I have ever seen.  Florida held them to low points but they really moved the ball up and down the field on them in the NC. 

Q:  We hear a lot about the blitzing aspects of the Fire Zone but aren't those just sets of a much larger scheme? Principally, how does it compare to, say, base 4-3 design?

The Fire Zone can be used from any defensive front.  Basically it consists of 5 rushers (usually 4 DL (defensive linemen) and one LB (linebacker) or DB (defensive back), 3 underneath pass defenders, and 3 deep pass defenders.  The 3-4 front allows for more ways to run Fire Zones, but the 4-3 is still a good defense to run them.  Diaz's system allows him to easily transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 and most of his Fire Zones can be run from both the 4-3 and the 3-4 (I will talk about this in my next blog post).  Diaz also has a simple and concise way to teach the "jobs" of the 3 underneath pass defenders.

Q: So a two part question.  We are familiar with Will Muschamp's defensive legacy in turning out All-Americans and leading teams to championships. Muschamp prefers a 4-3 but we saw him turn to a 3-4 with a Buck player in response to the Big 12 spread and great QB play week-in and week-out as well as a drop off in interior line depth.  He prefers man coverage to zone and runs a lot of nickel.  Other than these obvious differences, in what ways is a Diaz defense different than Muschamp's?  And with the absence of being able to pressure with interior big-uns given the work-in-process Texas squad, in your opinion does the FZ scheme Diaz runs offer a best case counter balance?

The FZ scheme definitely lends itself to not having the big "war daddies" at the DT positions. A premium is put on speed. Smart DCs will try to move their front around to compensate for the lack of girth up front. The great thing about FZ is that a DC can do this in a safe manner. The FZ is bringing 5 man pressure, where I remember Muschamp at Auburn (and this is definitely from the influence of Saban) likes a lot of 6 man pressure which is higher risk-reward.

Q:  What positions are key to its successful execution? What kind of athlete excels in this defense?

A defense is only as strong as its weakest link, so every position is important, but I would say that the key position is the drop DE (defensive end), who is usually a pass rusher, not a pass defender.  Players that can run well like FZ concepts that let them get after the QB.

Q: In FZ, are there any levels more crucial than others?  Who is typically tagged with making the hot adjustments?  Seems to me the LB's are very central to the success of this design.  Am I wrong?

Diaz schematically isn't different than anybody else, he just teaches it differently and breaks it down to where it is extremely easy for his players to learn.  That and the ability to run it from the 4-3 and 3-4 is why I believe he is so successful.

Q: As outlined in your overview, given the multiple looks the Scrape FZ offers, which one do you think will offer the best "base" against the spread offenses of the Big 12 recognizing they are situational?

I think the East/West 3-4 formations will be best vs the Spread teams without a TE, but Diaz likes to mix all the looks to confuse the other team's offensive line. That's the beauty of his system--being able to throw all those different looks at you.  But it's the same play for his guys.

Q:  In the 3-4 Scrape is there any one player more critical to success?

I think the playside DE might be the most important guy in Scrape, since he needs to run to daylight for the play to be successful.

Q:  The Longhorns gave up a significant amount of yardage last season on backside cuts as players got caught in the wash.  Given the aggressive nature of the FZ, describe situationally who has primary backside contain responsibilities.

In the Fire Zone, there are three droppers: Hot 2 to the Boundary, Hot 3, and Hot 2 to the Field. Both Hot 2 players are responsible for having their outside arm free and keeping everything else inside of them, whether the ball is coming to them or going away from them.

Q: Studying a bit more on coverage options out of FZ sets, I have come across the acronym SCIF and MOFC.  How are these player keys defined?  Which level is the most common (DL, LB, S) to own the tag or do they float depending on the play call?  What attributes is a coach looking for in these keys?

Diaz has 4 "jobs" that he teaches in the FZ (which Matt Brophy explains in detail here):

Hot 2 to the Field (wide side of the field)
Hot 3
Hot 2 to the Boundary (short side of the field)
Outside rusher

You can get pretty intricate with FZ adjustments, but most teams like to keep it simple, which Diaz will definitely do in his first yr at UT.  There are two pretty common adjustments I could expect them to use, but both are made by whoever is the Hot 3 player (usually a LB).  He is the only player who has to think in this defense, as Diaz likes to say.

SCIF is an acronym for the responsibilities of both Hot 2 players: jam the Seam (vertical) route, drop to Curl, then drop late to Flat if threatened.  Diaz still uses this, but not initially.  He wants the Hot 2 and 3 players to be able to take the quick (Hot) throws to the 2 and 3 receivers (who can be WRs, TEs, or RBs).  They will spot drop evenly spaced to cover the width of the field and to take away the 5 yard Hot throws.  Then they will drop back to 12-14 yards vs. a drop-back pass (once they will see the QB taking a deeper drop).

MOFC has to do what a QB is looking at: MOFC (1 FS deep) or MOFO (2 FS's deep).  Usually FZ teams like to start out showing two FS's and then roll one of them down to a 1 deep FS (Cover 3: FS and both CBs deep) FZ.

Q: With Diaz, there is an appreciation for aggressiveness and instinct.  Your "Run To Daylight" breakdown touches on this.  In your opinion, why aren't more coaches teaching this?

I think that since Diaz didn't play college ball that he hasn't had that "stay in your gap at all costs" philosophy ingrained in him as much, which allows him to ask "Why?" about a lot of things and think outside the box.

Thanks, Coach.

"Out of the box" is exactly what Mack Brown told us was central to his hiring philosophy with the new staff.  Manny Diaz certainly qualified.  At the end of the day, the best athletes should deliver the best results. It is the instinctively, aggressive nature of defenders which sets the simple Fire Zone rules apart.  And in this regard, it is this fan's expectation the new staff will return the on-field nastiness to the 40 Longhorn fans have come to demand.  Game on.


(The following is reprinted with permission -

Manny Diaz Fire Zones

I will try to build on the superb efforts of Brophy's Manny Diaz: Bulletproof Fire Zone article and talk more about Diaz's Fire Zone scheme, which is ridiculously simple to learn for his players yet is complex for opposing Offensive Coordinators.  I will focus on two important aspects of his Fire Zone scheme.  First, I will look at how he is able to transition easily between multiple fronts and second, I will explain his "run to daylight" philosophy.

Multiple Fronts

There may not seem like much of a difference between the 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, but they represent two different paradigms in the universe of defensive football.  Each front requires significant time to teach its defensive linemen the necessary technique.  The time constraints are such that most coaches don't try to play both.  I would say that Diaz is a 4-3 guy who dabbles in the 3-4, but he doesn't try to do too much with it, which is important. 

The 3-4 lends itself better to Fire Zones, with 4 LBs who can move around more in the 3-4 pre-snap than the 3 LBs in the 4-3.  Diaz prefers to Fire Zone from the 3-4 because the DE who drops in coverage "has eyes"-being away from the line with his hand off the ground allows him to see and better defend the pass. 

Diaz has the ability to run his Fire Zones easily from either side due to his simple rules that tell the DL how to line up and where to slant to.  Diaz doesn't call a front in the 4-3 (one less word in the play call so as not to confuse his players), the DL will simply line up away from the call and slant away from the call.  Field Scrape (below) is run from the 4-3 front.  "Field" means that the Scrape Fire Zone will be run to the wide side of the field.  The DT (always on the left) and NT (always on the right) can start up head up on the Guards and then they can adjust their alignment away from the call and slant away from the call.  "Field" also tells the Safeties that they will rotate towards the Field.


In Bench Scrape (below) from the 4-3 front, the Scrape Fire Zone is now being run to the Bench, or the short side of the field (closest to the bench on the sideline).  The DL will line up and slant away from the call and the Safeties will rotate to the Bench.


East and West are Diaz's 3-4 fronts.  West shifts the DL to the wide side of the field and East shifts them to the short side of the field.  One DE will be aligned as an OLB.  His alignment off the ball improves his vision to help him to better defend the pass.  East Field Scrape (below) is from the 3-4 front to the wide side of the field.  The DL will line up according to East or West, and then they will slant away from the call like they always do.  Field Scrape (4-3) and East Field Scrape (3-4) are the exact same thing, the only thing that changes is how the front lines up. 


West Bench Scrape (below) is the 3-4 version to the short side of the field and is the same thing as Bench Scrape from the 4-3:


Diaz can also go show a 3-3 Stack look (below), which really "melts the computers," of opposing OCs.  He can easily go from the 3-4 to the 3-3 by making a "Freedom" call to the drop DE, which tells him that he has the freedom to line up wherever he wants.  Since he is a drop defender, he can line up as a LB. This call only affects one player, but it totally changes the defensive front. This allows Diaz to run Scrape six different ways vs. opposing offenses, but it's only one simple concept as far as his players are concerned.





Run To Daylight

The "Run to Daylight" scheme was popularized by legendary Green Bay Packer Head Coach Vince Lombardi, who told his OL to block their man wherever they wanted to go and then the RB would find the hole by "running to daylight." 

Diaz has his DL do the same thing: instead of going to your exact gap, you "run to daylight" like a RB would.  (Note: I don't believe Diaz doesn't use the terminology "run to daylight," but that's essentially what it is).  A good example of this concept is with the playside DE in the Scrape Fire Zone (see above diagrams).  Most coaches initially teach the DE that he has the A gap.  Diaz explains it a bit differently.  He tells his DE to blitz the Guard.  This allows the DE to blitz either A gap or B gap.  He even gives his guys the freedom to work all the way across the Center into the opposite A, B, or C gap.  He will "run to daylight" and cut up into the first hole he finds, like a RB would.  This may seem not seem gap-sound, but Diaz teaches his LBs that it's their job to make the DL right.  Diaz's defenses give up few big plays, so it works.

Diaz elaborates more on the "run to daylight" concept:

"Everybody in America runs Scrape, the difference will be in our Blitz Paths and knowing how to blitz." 

"We are blitzing to get to the QB.  We are not blitzing gaps."

"The offensive lineman is the worst athlete on the field-we want to make him try to change direction."

"Blitzers are ballcarriers, offensive linemen are tacklers.  You do not run right into the guy who is trying to tackle you." 

"Blitzer - keep working until you find grass.  We are blitzing the QB-go find the QB."

I had a hard time finding good video on the "run to daylight" concept in the three Mississippi St. games I had, but I got some Middle Tennessee State and NFL cut-ups to help illustrate the concept:

Run to Daylight video link by Barry Hoover.


Honestly, as I tried to figure out what made his Mississippi St. defense so good, I found that Diaz didn't blitz nearly as much as I thought he would (teams threw a lot of screens and sprinted out while throwing the ball, so the fear and respect of the blitz was there).  He picked his spots and was very effective when he did bring pressure.  The thing that really stood out while studying the 2010 Bulldog defense were the fundamentals: excellent DL play, solid tackling from the LBs, and the DBs kept everything in front of them (don't know why I was surprised, it's all about fundy's!).  I thought their Force play wasn't very good vs. Auburn, but it was only week 2, and they still held the national champions to only 17 points.  Brophy commented that Diaz's defense looked very "Norm Parker-esque" in the Texas spring game, which is a huge statement about their defensive fundamentals and a very good sign for Longhorn fans.

Manny Diaz's success speaks for itself.  You don't jump from the Sun Belt to the premier DC position / Head Coach launching pad in college football in two years by doing the same thing as everybody else-success often requires that one take risks and think outside the box.  Diaz's ability to run the same Fire Zone from multiple fronts, his "run to daylight" concept, and his commitment to fundamentals have made his defenses extremely difficult to defend at Middle Tennessee State and Mississippi State.  I expect he will have more of the same success with some of the premier athletes in the country at his disposal, even versus the great offenses of the Big 12 Conference.