Short-yardage passing had a good year, except at the end of the Super Bowl. We look at the return of quarterback runs, the rise in pass-happy strategy, and 2014 success rates for offense and defense.
12 Sep 2013
by Cian Fahey
Look kids, new writer! Today we're happy to announce that Cian Fahey is taking over our Film Room column. Unfortunately, Andy Benoit's new role with Peter King's MMQB site means he won't be able to write for us on the Internet anymore, although he will still be writing for the book. Even if he's not writing for FO, you should definitely make sure to still read his pieces over at MMQB, like today's piece about how the read-option may change as it becomes less of a novelty in the NFL.
When we found out we needed a new writer for Film Room, Cian was able to slide in at the last minute. He'll make sure you all still get your recommended weekly dose of scouting and play breakdowns to go with all those FO stats. He'll also be contributing each week to Audibles at the Line. Cian is from Ireland, so he extends our writing staff across the pond. You may know him from articles he writes for Bleacher Report and Football Guys, as well as a really great series of film studies on cornerbacks and pass rushers he did this offseason on his own site Pre-Snap Reads. Cian also adds another Steelers fan to our ensemble, joining J.J. Cooper, Scott Kacsmar, and Mike Kurtz. Next week, we'll be introducing Steely McBeam as our new mascot.
Peyton Manning eviscerated the Baltimore Ravens defense in Week 1 of the NFL season. Manning threw for a record seven touchdowns and wasn't intercepted, so it doesn't take much insight to say that he played well. However, his display went further than that. Manning didn't just throw for seven touchdown passes, he showed off the true value of elite quarterback play.
Elite quarterback play can't be overvalued in today's NFL. It's the reason why players such as Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford, and Joe Flacco have all received huge contract extensions in recent years. None of those quarterbacks would be considered top-tier, but the desperation of franchises to find good quarterbacks, let alone true difference-makers, has eradicated the idea of fair value.
To digress a bit, Manning's performance in Week 1 explains why there is a debate over whether Jadeveon Clowney should be the top pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Clowney is a freakishly athletic defensive end for South Carolina -- a once-in-a-generation type of player -- but some have argued that because he is not a quarterback, the consensus opinion that he should go with the No. 1 pick is wrong. How does this connect to Peyton Manning? Well, in Week 1, Manning played against an elite defensive end, plus another very gifted pass rusher. You saw what good that did.
Since Manning threw for seven touchdowns, one would think that his offensive line was outstanding or those excellent pass rushers had off days.
But former Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs and former Denver Broncos star Elvis Dumervil were outstanding against Manning in Denver last Thursday night. Neither had an off-day and neither faced an offensive lineman who was able to contain him. In fact, not only did left tackle Ryan Clady fail to contain Suggs, he struggled throughout the game at both pass protection and controlling the edge in the running game.
Clady and right tackle Orlando Franklin faced off against Dumervil and Suggs in pass protection a combined 71 times. On those snaps, they contained their assignments alone just seven times each. The Broncos anticipated those struggles with a game plan that would slow down the pass rush.
On the first seven snaps of the game, the Broncos ran play-action fakes three times and ran the ball between the tackles twice to give the edge rushers more to think about. This is a standard approach for teams looking to prevent the opposition from solely focusing on the quarterback with their explosive edge rushers. While the plan made sense, it didn't have any lasting effects.
On Manning's second pass attempt, his first without a play fake, pressure forced him to get rid of the ball quickly and use his outstanding throwing mechanics to avoid what could have been a costly turnover.
The Broncos motioned Knowshon Moreno into the backfield from his position out wide to give them seven blockers for Manning. Theoretically, that should have allowed them to comfortably deal with the Baltimore pass rush even if they rushed all six defenders who lined up in the box. The extra blocker would also allow them to double team at least one of Dumervil or Suggs.
The Ravens don't rush all six defenders in the box at snap; instead Josh Bynes and Daryl Smith hesitate before Bynes moves towards the quarterback and Smith drops out into coverage. While Smith drops out into coverage, he still stays close to the line of scrimmage long enough to occupy the Broncos' left guard and center. This means that Ryan Clady focuses on right defensive end Chris Canty, allowing Suggs to immediately attack tight end Julius Thomas. On the other side of the field, Bynes occupies Moreno to give both Dumervil and Suggs one-on-one matchups.
As soon as Suggs engages Thomas, the tight end is rapidly moving back into his quarterback. Thomas only needed to withstand Suggs' initial bull rush so that Clady could come back to double team the Ravens defender, but Suggs was too powerful. Dumervil works down the field against Franklin on the other side of the pocket. Franklin initially does well to cut him off from the quarterback, but Dumervil dips beneath him. That gives Dumervil an opportunity to attack Manning from his blind spot.
Suggs is much too quick for Clady to get back into a double team. Thomas has no chance of stopping him from getting to Manning, so even as Suggs loses his balance he is still falling into the lap of Manning. Suggs' presence prevents Manning from stepping into his throw, as the left side of the image above shows.
The right side of the same image shows how Dumervil was in position to make a play on the ball from behind Manning before he started his throwing motion. However, Manning's throwing motion is so tight that Dumervil has no chance of getting near the ball before he lets it go. The yellow line indicates how far Manning's arm drops, whereas the red line would be where it needed to be for Dumervil to have any chance of knocking it free.
This is the type of tight play that most quarterbacks are asked to make on occasion during games. Manning attempted 42 passes against the Ravens last week, and he used his quick release to avoid sacks on 17 of those attempts. Many of those plays looked like the one above, but that number also includes the plays where Manning's pre-snap reads allowed him to get rid of the ball before the defenders had a chance to penetrate the pocket. To go along with those plays, Manning also avoided three sure sacks with his pocket presence.
Manning was the primary reason that the Ravens only had three sacks against the Broncos. 11 times he was the reason Dumervil couldn't finish the play, while he was the reason Suggs couldn't finish the play an incredible 16 times.
In order to help their offensive tackles, the Broncos did make use of double teams often. Suggs was blocked by two players or chipped with a tight end or running back on eight plays, while Dumervil was double-teamed 10 times. On three plays, the Broncos doubled-teamed both Suggs and Dumervil, exposing their offensive line inside.
Haloti Ngata twice got to Manning on those plays, but the quarterback again foiled those plays with his quick release.
The first of those passes went to Thomas for a touchdown in the second quarter, while the other went to Ronnie Hillman for a first down.
When the Ravens did sack Manning, it was because he was unable to make those instant reads and exceptionally quick throws. Suggs' sack came just before halftime, as he fought his way through Clady to take Manning down. Dumervil's sack came when he exploded through a double-team attempt to start the third quarter.
When Suggs was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, he had 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles. He completely dominated Clady, which bodes very well for his potential to return to that form, but it also highlights just how well Manning played.
Manning almost completely neutralized the edge rush from both Suggs and Dumervil without much help from his offensive line. The fact that Suggs and Dumervil could play so well and Manning still tossed seven touchdowns goes to show just how valuable elite quarterback play is.
Of course, the argument against that statement is that the Broncos' receiving options were too diverse and talented for the Ravens to compete in the secondary. It's true that those weapons played a huge role in deciding the game, but their impact on Manning's play is overstated. Throwing to Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and an upstart Julius Thomas is always going to be an attractive situation for a quarterback. But Manning didn't have all those receivers to work with on every play.
Jimmy Smith, Corey Graham, James Ihedigbo, and Michael Huff were overmatched, but Lardarius Webb played like a shutdown cornerback. Despite the fact that it was his first game back after the second ACL tear of his career, Webb flashed the same aggressive style and versatility that had made him a special player previously.
Using the Pre-Snap Reads cornerback analysis criteria, which you will find listed at the top of this article, Webb played 22 snaps in man coverage and gave up just three routes. One of those routes was a five-yard "in" route against Decker on second-and-9 that came against off-coverage. The other two came against Welker, but one of those required a perfectly thrown pass from Manning against good coverage from Webb. That play was negated for a holding penalty.
Webb primarily played left cornerback early in the game, covering Decker 10 times and Demaryius Thomas three times. However, after halftime, the Ravens moved Webb on to Welker in the slot. Welker didn't catch a single pass except for the aforementioned 14-yard gain which was negated by penalty. For the whole game, the Broncos only gained six yards off of Webb in man coverage, and he had similar success in zone coverage.
On the play where Welker fell to the ground late in the game after Manning extended the play into the right flat, Webb aggressively played underneath expecting safety help. However, the route combinations dragged the safety away, meaning that Webb lost Welker long enough for him to win on the route. Welker also caught a touchdown at the goal line when Webb lined up over him, but that appeared to be the result of a blown assignment between Webb and Graham rather than a failed coverage.
Manning targeted Webb less than any other cornerback and had very little success when he did. The Ravens didn't anchor their coverage off of Webb, but Manning definitely understood where he was on the field and was reluctant to throw in his direction. That, combined with the pressure he was constantly dealing with from Suggs and Dumervil meant that Manning's performance, even though it was a record-setter, will still be underappreciated.
The value of Manning is never understated, but his work is sometimes underappreciated if enough attention isn't paid. His performance against Baltimore not only showed off his talents, it completely took the focus off excellent games from Suggs, Dumervil and Webb. Webb and Suggs, in particular, may not play a better game all season. But none of the national attention has focused on how well they played since little of what they did helped the Ravens compete with the Broncos.
That is why Joe Flacco got a huge contract. That is why Teddy Bridgewater or Marcus Mariota may go ahead of Jadeveon Clowney in the 2014 draft. That is why the quarterback position is the most powerful in the NFL.
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