Saturday, January 11, 2014

QB Corner - San Diego at Denver Flashback

I know, football isn't all about the quarterbacks. Many have (rightfully) written/said that you can't simply point to a quarterback as the reason for a team's success/failure. Notably, there are 52 other players available for each game, a bevy of coaches on the sideline (Kansas City has 23), trainers, doctors, etc. I get all that. On the other hand, when a player takes roughly 10% of the team's salary cap (as Peyton does), or 7.7% (like Phillip Rivers), I think it's fair to hold that player more responsible for a team's performance. And also - they're freaking quarterbacks!

So it's not incorrect to label today's Chargers @ Broncos (#SDvsDEN) match as a contest between the two QBs. One fact that has been brought up ad nauseam is that these two teams have played before by virtue of being in the same division, and more importantly, the Chargers won one such game in Denver. They did so by holding the Broncos to 48.8% fewer points than their average from the other 15 games. This included a stretch in the middle of the game where the Chargers held the Broncos, and then picked off Peyton for good measure. I took a look at the game tape of the two quarterbacks to see how the Chargers were so successful:

First, I wanted to analyze the stretches where the Broncos struggled, but given I couldn't help throwing these passes in from the Broncos first drive:

Two deep crosses with a go on the left side. The Chargers have man coverage on the outside and cover-2 safeties.

First read is (I believe) the go route on the left. Second is the safety covering Julius Thomas on the seam. He is looking at Manning rather than playing the receiver revealing he's in a zone. He has outside leverage, meaning he's between Thomas and the sideline, preventing a pass that direction (like a corner or out).
Manning could have done a better job with his feet. He does have a rusher in his face and needs to get it out quickly.
Thomas has crossed to the opposite side and the second safety (out of the frame in the earlier shots) is unable to get there fast enough. The throw doesn't have much pace but I don't think Denver's complaining.

This is a great example of footwork throwing right. Throwing right is slightly more challenging footwork-wise as you need to adjust both feet to the throw rather than stepping only with your front foot. Manning's first step after receiving a shotgun snap is backwards with his right foot.
He follows that with a cross step with his left foot. Notice how that foot is closer to the right has than in the first frame - he's preparing his hips to face right.
Final step is again with the right foot and he is facing both of his receivers on the right. The throw is perfect.

Good footwork again going right. Manning has to throw quickly (unlocked edge rusher from his blind side) and tries to lob it, but the receiver is well covered. The pass is incomplete but he avoids the imminent sack:

Great footwork on a shallow cross to Thomas for another first down.

Manning's last pass of the series. Julius runs a dig, but a zone LB over the middle takes that away. There's only one safety, so all of the deeper routes are available. Finally, an edge rusher are coming from both sides.
Manning steps a couple yards up - notice how those edge rushers have basically given up. His hips are pointed to the front left corner of the end zone.
Proper rotation allows his chest to face the direction of the throw. 
Pass is right on target. The young QBs I've examined in #QBCorner could take some notes from this guy.

How about some Phil Rivers highlights? In the first Denver @ San Diego match, the Chargers had 4th and 1 late in the 2nd quarter and did this:

This time, the Chargers had 3rd and 7 on the Denver 10.
The bring a man in motion left. The DB following him tells Rivers it's man coverage underneath.
Concept is double slants with the lead receiver clearing to the corner.
The slants are well covered. If this were 3rd and 5, a quick throw probably works, but with the safety and a linebacker both zoning on the first slant, it is unlikely the Chargers will pick up the first down with a short pass. On the deeper route, the corner is correctly playing with inside leverage, but he doesn't know the pass will go to the sideline.
Rookie corner Kayvon Webster does a fantastic job catching up and is draped all over rookie receiver Keenan Allen.
But Rivers throw is a little behind but he somehow fits the ball between Webster's arm and his shoulder. Look at the next shot and how close Webster was to knocking this ball away.
If the Chargers threw this exact ball against this exact coverage 100 times, how often do you think they convert? 20? 10? Scoring this fortunate TD proved crucial as the Chargers won by only one score. I don't mean to imply the Chargers would have lost had they not gotten this, but the fact remains that good teams find ways to score touchdowns in the red zone. And a little luck never hurt anyone.


The purpose of this post is to analyze the ability of San Diego's defense to contain Peyton Manning and Co. It turns out the offense was a big part of that: by putting together long drives, consistently working the play clock down, and converting on 3rd downs, the Chargers shortened the game and probably eliminated one meaningful Denver possession. I don't have to tell you what Peyton can do with one possession. This is how the Chargers offense succeeded in the 2nd half:

Run Plays

The Denver run defense is very stout in the middle, but things get dicier on the edges. Overall, the team ran for 177 yards on 44 carries for a neat 4.0 average. On runs to the edge, the Chargers took advantage of a Denver defense that was A) missing Champ Bailey in the secondary and B) focusing on containing Phillip Rivers and the receivers. The Broncos were very committed to coverage and thus gave up some numbers in the run game. For example:

Ryan Matthews (yellow circle) has come on strong this year after dealing with injury issues in the past. This is on the Chargers' first possession of the second half. Notice how they have 6 blockers between the left hash and the sideline against only 4 Broncos up front. That means they can double team the best Denver defender and still have someone left over to block the DB on the 16 yard line.
Star linebacker Von Miller almost gets Matthews, but can't and the run is on. Denver is going to miss his ability to not only get the quarterback, but really set the edge against the run. He immediately gets his man on his heels and almost makes a huge play in the backfield.
Matthews gets free though and runs it all the way in for a TD.

The Chargers also took advantage of Denver mistakes for huge conversions. Their next possession began on the 1 yard line after a Denver punt with 9:52 left in the 3rd. Denver stopped them for a three and out, then this happened:
Encroachment on the punt allows San Diego to convert.

Still not out of the woods, the Chargers take advantage of what must have been a blown coverage to get Antonio Gates wide open on a short cross:

After this first down, they run the ball effectively before Rivers takes a sack at midfield. However, by milking the play clock, by the time Denver fair catches the punt, only 48 seconds are left. The Chargers were able to run an extra 7 and half minutes of game time and flip field position because of the dumb penalty.

Manning, to his credit, puts together a nice drive including this conversion on 4th down:
 Andre Caldwell really stepped up for Wes Welker in this game.

A few plays later Peyton rewards Caldwell with a screen for a TD:
Footwork isn't great (not even alien robot QBs are perfect), but it's an easy pass. The Chargers are very concerned with Julius Thomas and the Denver run game, leaving 3 to cover 3 up top.

After the Denver TD, San Diego receives a kickoff with 10:25 left in the 4th. They convert a crucial third down when this happens:
The ball would have been caught without interference.


Then, the Chargers catch another break when this happens on the punt:
It takes a little luck to win games, especially in the playoffs.

Play Calling

Manning responds with this:
San Diego is showing pressure on the left side of the line, which would free Julius Thomas for an out route as the receiver clears the DB on a go. But the blitz will actually come from the corner circled at the bottom of the frame. Notice how the safety on that side is inching up? He's getting ready to cover the outside receiver that was the corner's original responsibility.
Both guys on the left drop to defend Thomas. San Diego is NOT letting him beat them. Unfortunately, Manning has a receiver to his right but is reading left.
Thomas isn't open and his next read is the deep fly. He pumps once but that's enough for the corner to get to him:
Hit as he threw, this pass is intercepted:

The Chargers get the ball needing to burn clock:

The backfield needs to start charging Von Miller rent; he's living in there for free. Ryan Matthews does a great job of avoiding Miller and running hard into a VERY slim hole. A cut block clears the backside linebacker and this run goes for 8 yards. San Diego gets a TD on this drive and more importantly, leaves only 2:36 on the clock.


Manning had a few nice passes on the last possession as San Diego dropped into a deep Cover 3, leaving the middle of the field wide open. But the game was basically over. After reviewing the tape carefully, this is how San Diego stopped the vaunted Denver offense:

Running the ball

The Chargers offensive line did a good job kicking outside and showed good chemistry on double teams and getting to the next level. Ryan Matthews was huge in this game and has really helped the team down the stretch.

Denver mistakes

Encroachment, blown coverages, pass interference, even a missed tackle from the erstwhile amazing Von Miller helped the Chargers' cause. As you know, Von is out for the season and Denver may find it hard to replace his production on the edge. If San Diego is able to run effectively early in this game, look out.


They got some luck with the TD pass to Allen and the dropped punt. Let's say the TD pass is knocked away; assuming the rest of the game went as it did, Denver would have been down only 6 on the last drive. That is certainly significant as they ended up needing an onside-kick to try and tie (they didn't get it).

Play calling

Mike McCoy is known for being a bit conservative. He will do well to remember that two of the biggest plays in this game were the aggressive 3rd down TD to Keenan Allen and a corner blitz that resulted in a pick. He needs to make some calculated gambles to win it all.

The good news for San Diego fans: all of these are repeatable in this afternoon's game (luck isn't repeatable per se, but they certainly need some of it). They have shown that establishing the run game and shortening the game works.

The good news for Denver fans: The secondary may improve with a healthy Champ Bailey, allowing Denver to devote more resources to run defense. They will need some luck to swing their way, but that's the nature of the game. Finally, one thing I haven't mentioned was that Denver had 2 meaningful 3-and-outs in the first half - if they are able to take an early lead, San Diego's plan to run the ball may go out the window.

Either way, this should be a fun game.

#YMTC #YouMakeTheCalls #QBCorner

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