Kiffin report: Why you don’t blitz Peyton Manning

Just as you can’t play the Rams every week, the NFL won’t make you play the Broncos every week, either.

And we should all celebrate that because the Cowboys’ defense had the opposite experience of the one they had 2 weeks ago when the Rams visited the stadium. They were flying high in that game with sacks and pressures and the ability to batter and bruise the Rams offense into submission. Well, in this contest, they were taught the painful lesson that Manning teaches his opponents each week. And that lesson is simple, every decision you make is going to be incorrect.

Easy to say, seemingly difficult to execute. But, he is a living legend for a reason. He makes it look easy.

What are the characteristics of the Peyton Manning offense that you won’t see every week?

Almost no personnel changes. With the exception of goal-line, short-yardage plays, they basically had the exact same personnel grouping and 11 players in every play. The only variance is Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman swapping spots at RB (to make sure they don’t kill Moreno with 75 snaps in a game that are all collision-based, either carries or blitz pickups). Otherwise, you will see Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, and Eric Decker every single play. It is all 11 personnel and almost all in shotgun. This is how Peyton wants it and how he has done it forever. 75 of their 81 snaps were in this grouping. So, the Cowboys almost never had 3 linebackers on the field on the same play, because you simply cannot get out of nickel. Meanwhile, Orlando Scandrick and Brandon Carr played 80 snaps, and Morris Claiborne – who reportedly “lost his starting job”, played 75.

Varied snap counts. Manning will make you stay at the line as he calls out your coverages for as many as 10 seconds on certain plays. But, that isn’t his only trick. At least a half-dozen times on Sunday, he also went on “first sound”. I love that change-up and wish the Cowboys would do it more. Nothing is as flustering to a defense who assumes he is going to go into his full Sergio Garcia pre shot routine and then he snaps the ball the instant his side is lined up with no routine whatsoever. It is genius and he knows how to catch you asleep.

Ball is gone before you can get to him. As I have written many times, nobody has managed to preserve their own health like Peyton Manning. He is the industry-leader in avoiding sacks and big hits and you just can’t punish him physically because he doesn’t have the ball long enough for your pass rush to impact him. And when you blitz him, he can get the ball to a winnable matchup in under 2 seconds. And no matter how good your pass rushers may be, it is difficult to get to the QB in 2 seconds unless they forget to block you altogether.

Receivers have two technical programs that work in concert or separately: 1) they spread you out and make you win your man-to-man battles with a series of option routes where your coverage (inside/outside leverage or even your depth) will dictate their actual routes. And if you lose just one of them, Manning seems to always deliver the ball. 2) they use each-other to cause coverage confusion in pick-play scenarios. In other words, if you man up, he has a plan that is tough to deal with. If you zone up, he has a plan that is tough to deal with. Just be happy you aren’t in the AFC West.

So, what about the dude on his couch that want’s the Cowboys to blitz more? According to my numbers, the Cowboys only brought pressure on 6 of 42 pass plays. 14% is a low number, right? Not if you consider what he did to you in those 6 scenarios.

Here are a few examples:

Blitz #1 –

Here, the Cowboys are going to bring 6 (although the 6th is responsible for Moreno; if Moreno stays, he is blitzing and if Moreno goes on a route, he must stay with him in what is sometimes referred to as “key blitz”). That means Church has Julius Thomas, the TE, but he wants to show “2-deep” so the gap when the play starts is huge. JJ Wilcox will slide over and play the single-high safety, with man coverage underneath and a 6 man blitz. This will require Manning to find something quickly.

But, look above to see how quickly he knows where he is going. Church cannot just sprint up to Thomas, because if Thomas is taking it vertical, Church won’t recover. So, he has to measure his speed forward and Manning and Thomas are expecting this. Therefore, Thomas takes it horizontal and Church can’t close the gap. Meanwhile, on the edges, Decker looks open across Claiborne’s face on the bottom for a slant if Manning wanted it.

2.0 seconds is how long it takes Manning to let the ball go. You can see that he has silver helmets near him, but the ball is gone and Thomas has a comfortable space on the star to catch and run. With everyone blitzing, it is a 1-on-1 matchup with a guy who starts the play so deep that he cannot cover every route. If Church closes fast, Thomas keeps running. But, Church played responsibly, so the Broncos took 27 yards on a simple pitch and catch as you can see below.

Again, how do you blitz this guy?

Blitz #2 –

Here, the Cowboys want to rectify the issue with a deep safety trying to check Julius, so they put Church right on top of him and show Peyton a single-high look at the snap. If you go to QB school, they often teach that single high means the smart play is outside the numbers and 2-high gives you options in the middle of the field. I imagine that when he sees this look, Manning is now thinking a blitz is coming and his target will be to his men on the outside who have to be in man coverage now that Church is so close for some sort of blitz.

At the snap, you see that everyone is right on their man. But, before any of the 6 Cowboys can get to Manning, he is thinking back shoulder fade to Demaryius Thomas in what is becoming the most popular throw in the league as it is so hard for a corner to defend.

Total time to throw this ball? A staggering 1.7 seconds. Again, I don’t care how many you blitz, you aren’t getting home in 1.7 seconds. Throw and catch. 26 yard gain and a demoralized defense.

The guy is just a genius. Could the defense play better? Yes. But, it takes a special defense (last year’s Ravens seem to be the entire list – and they only beat him the one time they received the Torrey Smith miracle) to be able to send him home with a defeat while running this machine. And that Ravens win didn’t have to deal with Wes Welker or Julius Thomas.

WEEK 5 vs. Denver Broncos

First,a reminder of what a splash play is:

What is a splash play? Well, for purposes of this blog I believe a splash play will include the following: A sack, a pressure that forces a bad throw, and big hit on the QB, and a batted ball that may lead to an interception opportunity. Again, you can see how this leads to subjectivity, but a subjective breakdown is better than no breakdown at all, I have decided. In addition, a splash play will include tackles for loss, a big hit for a short gain, or a stop which is an open field tackle where a player is pulled down on 3rd down short of the marker because of an exceptional effort from a defender. An interception is clearly a splash play, but so is a defended pass that required a great effort. A major hit in the secondary could be a splash play, but I believe that the outcome of the play will determine that. Sorry, defensive backs, but standing over a guy who just caught a 15 yard pass because you think you hit him hard will not generally pass the test on this blog. So, stop doing it.

I am trying to be careful about handing out too many splash plays per game. I am trying to be picky, but too extreme in either direction. When I log a splash play, I will put time of the game on the chart so that if you want to review the same game and challenge my ruling, you are welcome to do so. Also, if multiple players deserve recognition on a single play, we will try to see that as well.

Basically, we are trying to assign a value to making plays on the defense. We don’t want to just see sacks and interceptions. We want to see broader definitions of splash plays to assign credit to those who help the Cowboys get off the field in important situations. These rankings will not deduct for negative plays at this point. There are simply too many occasions where we are guessing, and for now, I want to avoid that for this particular idea.

A splash play is a play that makes a major difference in the game. And by keeping it all season long, we will see which defenders are play makers and which are simply warm bodies. We already have our thoughts on both categories, but let’s see if we can dig a bit deeper and actually have numbers to back up our claims.

Here are the final results for 2011andhere are the final results for 2012.

Here they are for the Denver Game. 14 splashes again this week, with many in the 2nd half. Problem? Well, all but 3 were on 1st and 2nd Downs. Those help, but you have to get off the field on 3rd Down, and on those rare occasions that you pushed him to 3rd Down, he seemed to be quite comfortable, going an absurd 9 of 13.

A decent number of splash plays, but most of them also coming on runs.

Q-Time D/D/Yd Player Play
1-7:48 1/20/O10 Church Big Hit, Pass Broken Up
1-7:05 3/4/O26 Sims Fumble Strip
1-7:05 3/4/O26 Claiborne Fumble Recovery
2-11:58 2/10/O44 Church Hit Causes Fumble
2-8:49 1/10/D41 Lee Run Stuff
2-6:06 1/G/D8 Lee Run Stuff
3-14:25 2/2/O41 Ware Run Stuff
3-13:14 1/10/O45 Selvie Tackle For Loss
3-5:21 1/10/D35 Carter Tackle For Loss
3-4:04 3/7/D32 Wilcox 3rd Down Stop
3-0:09 1/10/O20 Claiborne Interception
4-9:45 3/5/32 Carr Pass Defended
4-5:52 1/10/D50 Ware Run Stuff
4-3:19 2/G/D7 Rayford Holding Penalty Drawn

2013 SEASON TOTALS

Player Splashes
Lee 11
Selvie   10
Church 10
Ware 9
Hatcher 7.5
Carter 6
Claiborne 4
Carr 4
Allen 3.5
Hayden 3.5
E. Jones  3
Durant 1.5   
Scandrick 1
Wilber 1
Wilcox 1
Sims 1
Rayford 1
Team Totals 78

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Pass Rush/Blitzing REPORT

This segment of the defensive study is simply to find out how well the Cowboys are doing at getting pressure on the opposing QB. We have spent a good part of the offseason talking about Monte Kiffin’s philosophy that, like so many of the great 4-3 schemes, is based on using blitz as a weapon, not a necessity. If you use the blitz as an ambush weapon that is always threatened but only used at the perfect times, you can often get free runs at the QB. If, on the other hand, you must use the blitz because your normal pressure is not getting it done, then the offense usually is waiting for you and prepared – so even 6 rushers don’t accomplish much.

Here, we look at the big plays for (Explosives are plays 20 yards and longer) and the big plays against each week (Sacks and Interceptions) and see what role (if any) was played by the defensive coordinator.

Check above to see why the blitz was burned and hardly used.

EXPLOSIVE PLAYS ALLOWED


Q-Time D/D/Yd Play Rushers
1-2:59 1/10/O39 Manning to Decker, +57 4
3-12:34 2/13/O42 Manning to J Thomas, +27 6
3-7:08 1/17/O13 Manning to J Thomas, +29 4
4-4:47 1/10/O36 Manning to D Thomas, +26 5

SACKS AND INTERCEPTIONS

Q-Time D/D/Yd Play Rushers
3-0:09 1/10/O20 Claiborne Interception 4

PASSING CHART

Look at the passing chart to see that although Manning beats you with his arm, it is not done with a series of bombs. Yes, he will throw it deep to keep you honest, but his passing game is based on getting the ball out quickly and isolating your weak links for easy gains and long drives. He is relentless and able to attack all comers.

Pass Rushers Against Denver Broncos– 42 pass rush/blitz situations:

Again, this has been covered, but the Cowboys did not blitz Phil Rivers or Manning because they knew what would happen. It appears we see that they will change their views from week to week and with veteran QBs, they are ready to concede that they need as many players in coverage as possible. Only 10 of 85 pass situations the last 2 weeks saw the Cowboys bring 5 or more rushers. They are building a defense that must get there with 4. But, does the NFL allow for that anymore? The way the league has evolved, could the 2002 Buccaneers be as dominant? Or do QBs and proper offensive design just tell you that the ball is gone in 2 seconds and arena football rules the day. It is worth asking how the Tampa 2 and the overall concept of rushing 4 is something completely dependent on 4 beasts up front (as in the NY Giants front of years past).


Pass Rushers 3 Rush 4 Rush 5 Rush 6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go) 0 2 1 0
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go) 0 17 1 0
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go) 0 3 0 0
Totals 0 22 2 0


Pass Rushers 3 Rush 4 Rush 5 Rush 6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go) 0 0 0 0
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go) 0 7 0 1
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go) 0 1 0 2
Totals 0 8 0 3


Pass Rushers 3 Rush 4 Rush 5 Rush 6 Rush
Short (0-5 Yds To Go) 0 4 0 0
Second Level (5-10 Yds To Go) 0 2 1 0
Open Field (10+ Yds To Go) 0 0 0 0
Totals 0 6 1 0

And, here are the full season numbers to date:

Pass Rushers 3 Rush 4 Rush 5 Rush 6 Rush Total
1st Down 5 – 4% 84 – 82% 10 – 9% 3 – 2% 102 – 43%
2nd Down 1 – 1% 64 – 85% 4 – 5% 6 – 8% 75 – 32%
3rd Down 3 – 5% 34 – 65% 9 – 17% 6 – 11% 52 – 22%
4th Down 1 – 20% 4 – 80% 0 0 5 – 2%
Totals 10 – 4% 186 – 79% 23 – 9% 15 – 6%
234

The game by game pressure numbers:

Wk 1 – NYG: 7/49 – 14%
Wk 2 – KC:  10/43 – 23%
Wk 3 – STL: 11/57 – 19%
Wk 4 – SD: 4/43 – 9%
Wk 5 – Den: 6/42 – 14%

2013 Totals: 38/234 – 16.2%
2012 Totals: 134/551 – 24.3%

SUMMARY: I think everyone knows that the defense failed. We just aren’t quite sure how much to hang on them and how much we should see how the rest of the league has fared against this offense that seems to be killing every defense in the sport at historic levels. But, clearly, the 2 week trend is disconcerting and now with the creative options that Washington, Philadelphia, and Detroit bring to the table, it is time for some retrenching.

I am interested in what they try, because there is very little the Cowboys have put on film that would discourage future opponents from trying similar ideas to what the Chargers and Broncos have pulled off. The good news is that those future opponents will be relying on QBs who are not near the quality of the one and only Peyton Manning.

At least until Drew Brees walks through that door on November 10th.