Surveying the blitzed

Okay, folks, we’ve got a pop quiz, and it’s a five-parter...

  1. What team holds the NFL's single-game sack record?
  2. What was the year, and who was their opponent?
  3. Who was the Defensive Coordinator of the team that set the record?
  4. For extra credit - Who taught the scheme to the defensive coordinator for the winning team?
  5. For EC double points - What was the system that he used to earn that record?

If you can answer each of those, you understand much more of what happened at Invesco Field on 11/28/10. Invesco....ironic name, really. The company that bought the naming rights has gone belly up. When you come right down to it, the Broncos are doing the very same thing. 

Broncos/Rams and Chargers/Colts

It’s always interesting to me to watch the cat and mouse game between NFL coaches on Sundays. Surely yesterday, Wink Martindale and Josh McDaniels got schooled by a much more experienced coach. Just as much, the interior of the offensive line was spanked, beaten and humiliated. It’s nasty to watch, but it helps if you know what you’re looking for. Steve Spagnuolo was once one of the options whom Denver interviewed for the head coaching job. Even though Denver was a disaster, having one of the better minds in the game today helping to teach Denver how to effectively blitz the passer would go a long way towards turning the defense into an effective crew, especially with Elvis Dumervil sidelined for the year.  Right now, the defense seems to pretty much be in shambles. The DL didn’t have that bad of a day yesterday - it’s their job to take up OL players to free the LBs. The LBs are supposed to take it from there. There’s no question that Denver hasn’t found a way to replace Doom - losing the league leader in sacks from last year for the 2010 season didn’t help the cause. But the issue went deeper than that.

Somehow, Wink had Robert Ayers, in his first game back from injury, playing over the right tackle. That’s not what they ought to be doing with him in a 5-2 style of the 3-4. The point of it is to create a need for at least one double team, preferably two or even three, and for the LBs to attack the QB or RB, not wrestle with someone 50 pounds heavier at the LOS. Nate Jones was brought in partly because he’s supposed to be a top CB blitz player. I’m not seeing that  - the play, I mean. He might still be ready and willing, but it hasn’t been happening, and Denver badly needed to get pressure on the Rams’ young QB and that just didn’t happen. Ayers attempting to run around or through that tackle on his first game back from injury wasn’t a good approach, to put it mildly. But the center of the offensive line had it worse. By late in the game, they weren’t sure whom to block, and often just didn’t. As a result, Kyle Orton spent a lot of time running for his life. 

Something that is only mildly related happened, on the surface - San Diego went into Indianapolis last night and pounded on the Colts. Indy was beaten more completely than Denver was, also at home. Indy scored all of 14 points with the best QB in the game (and he still is). Rivers is trying to supplant him in that role, and while his style may not be as precise, his intellect as stratospheric or his footwork and mechanics as clean, he’s making a good case. In fact, Rivers' mechanics are generally fairly poor, but he’s one of the few players who hasn’t let that interfere with his vast production. He was 19 for 23 on Sunday night, without a TD. On the other side, Peyton Manning provided 4 interceptions, including two that were run back for touchdowns. In Denver, they’d be stringing him up in the street. Rivers was sacked twice, but not intercepted.  It points to the fact that San Diego is simply a far better team than Denver right now. They’ve got better depth, a better secondary and their LBs are playing well. Losing to them at home right now is pretty much par for the course. It’s not that I’m supporting Denver on this - see the above discussion - but I do recognize that losing to a much better team is pretty normal. 

Why the pop quiz and the discussion of San Diego? It’s this: there is no question that Denver is playing badly overall. The defense has taken a step backward, Brian Dawkins seems to have been caught by age, and he’s out, injured for the moment. David Bruton came in, although he didn’t create any basic stats. Assignments were blown, creating easy TDs for the Rams. Jimmy Johnson was right:  In any given year, you only need to beat about 10 teams. The rest will beat themselves for you. Denver did a nice job of that.

Even given all of their strengths, and noting that they, too are dealing with injuries, Indy had no better luck against SD, even at home, than Denver did in SD. For whatever reason, and they shouldn’t be able to, San Diego plays its best football, year after year, in November and December. Last week, Denver was destroyed by SD in SD, but Indy is a far better team and they didn’t have any chance either, despite being at home. It’s worth thinking about.  SD is making their yearly run, and they are likely to be tough for the rest of the year.

If you’re looking for me to be pleased about the Broncos' showing, forget it. I’m not. The errors that keep happening at key times are usually an indication of a lack of proper coaching. That’s the whole staff, not any one or two coaches. There is a lack of integration of positions that is troubling. The fumbles, the drops, the phantom penalties....Okay, the latter isn’t Denver’s fault, but the rest of it is. McDaniels and Wink Martindale were badly outcoached. In the end, that was the bottom line. 

Look back in history a few years. Defensive mastermind Jim Johnson - he may be gone, but his legacy will live on for generations -  was the defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles when he hired a younger assistant and found that the man was as obsessed with the details and intricacies of Johnson’s blitzing attack as Johnson himself was. Johnson had a long resume that included stints in the NFL in Arizona and Indianapolis, and he eventually wound up with the Eagles. They spent long hours together in the film room and the office, breaking down tendencies. Eventually, that assistant would move on, in the way of the NFL, and he later became the defensive coordinator for the New York Giants.

2007 and Yesterday 

During the 2007 season, all eyes were on the offensive fireworks that were coming out of Foxboro. The Pats and Josh McDaniels' offense were unbeaten in the regular season, and while the Giants had shut down the teams that they played on the way there, they were still underdogs for the Super Bowl. They had taken a little while to gel, but from that point on, they were remarkable. The Patriots were playing so well that the Giants' run gained little press - it was often assumed that they were just on a hot streak, but that wouldn’t save them in the Super Bowl. Oh, the games that our minds play with us. 

During that same season, they found themselves playing the Eagles, a close rival, and Johnson’s influence was still there. Over the time from 2000 to 2007 Johnson’s record was as follows: 

  • Tied for first in the NFL with 342 sacks
  • Second in the league in 3rd down efficiency (34.3%) and red zone touchdown percentage (43.0%)
  • Fourth in fewest points allowed (17.6 per game)

Johnson spent a lot of time teaching Steve Spagnuolo the intricacies of how to develop blitz packages that were nearly impossible to stop. Many casual fans hadn’t really heard that much of Johnson until the Super Bowl of 2007. When defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo kept the powerhouse Patriots in check throughout the entire game, he was quick to credit his teacher and mentor - Jim Johnson. 

It was during this same season that Spagnuolo’s Giants played the Eagles twice. Ironically, their first meeting of the season was the game in which New York notched 12 sacks, setting a new NFL record. Osi Umenyiora had 6 of them, and helped create the other six. He managed a great deal of this by using an approach that Johnson had taught Spagnuolo - variations on attacking the double A-gap in a blitz.

I should have seen yesterday’s game coming. Spagnuolo is famous for his use of Johnson’s double A-gap blitzes, and for using them to set up other blitzes. In a league where offenses are given great leeway to develop long passes and short, fast ones, where the blocking rules favor the offensive line and the 5-yard rule minimizes blocking of wide receivers, Johnson, and later Spagnuolo, loved developing new blitzes, disguising where they would come from, endlessly watching film and putting together game plans that destroyed the basic tendencies of any given offense. They were the first NFL coaches I know of to let their players just mill around until the offense had to be in place, just before the snap, and then to take up positions that created mismatches that were beneficial to the rushers. If the offense changed their style or approach, new blitzes and contain packages awaited them.

When ‘Spags’, as some call him, moved to the head coaching position for the Rams and noticed that Denver had rookies at LG and center, his heart had to race a little faster. The A gaps are between the center and his guards, on either side. By attacking both, you often freeze the center or force him to choose between the two ILB (or Mike and Will/Sam) rushers. The nose tackle may also be creating problems, simply on the basis of numbers. Of all the things that Johnson came up with - and his developments are legion in the NFL - the double A-gap blitz is the toughest to stop. Denver found that out for themselves. JD Walton didn’t sleep much Sunday night, I’d bet. Welcome to the NFL at its best.

None of this is an excuse:  it is, however, the facts of the case. A combination of poor play, loss of talent to injury and game plans that were simply outcoached had a predictable ending. Denver did make a run at the end. I know - lots of folks call this ‘garbage time’. It’s true that the Rams went into a prevent approach to defense, and it’s true that Denver took advantage of it, but here’s another fact - there is no garbage time when you’re able to get within a filed goal of the team ahead of you with time on the clock. Denver failed at the end to get that field goal, but don’t kid yourself - the Rams were concerned by that late run, and while they stayed in the prevent most of the time, no NFL coach or team takes their lead for granted. They move to a prevent when they believe that the game is out of reach. It wasn’t garbage time when the Jets came from behind to win over Denver. That principle holds.

What Next?

Where to now?  I really don’t know. Did the Spygate II fiasco affect the preparation for the game, or was McDaniels simply that badly outcoached? I’d argue for some of both. I can tell you this - there will be a growing outcry to play Tim Tebow, and McDaniels should resist it. One thing that football minds have noted is that putting a rookie QB with some problems of his own into a game when his line is shaky and the team is constantly playing from behind is a recipe for disaster. Tebow hasn’t earned the slot of starting QB - sitting Orton will not help the team get better. It won’t help Tebow to develop, either. 

Do you toss it all and start over? Welcome to Detroit. So much of the future of football is uncertain that making a fast decision on this won’t help anything. Let the string play out. If McDaniels has lost the faith of the team, coaches or owner, it will be time to go. Tossing in Tebow isn’t the answer. He doesn’t play defense, and Denver lost a 10-point lead in no time. The offense was destroyed by the Rams' defense for most of the day, but the Broncos' defense was utterly lost. Joe Mays is brilliant against the run. He still is troubled in coverage. The Rams knew the weaknesses of this team, and I think that it’s fair to say that Denver wasn’t able to bring a good game plan or adjust when it wasn’t working. Given the kind of week they’ve had, I’m less surprised than many. The players will say that it didn’t matter, but they’re human too. 

This is the last chance the coaches, particularly McDaniels and Martindale, will have to show that they have some ability to put together an approach that will help win games. Right now, that’s in serious question, and it should be. December may well be a long, difficult month, but most of you know that I’ve suggested before that this will be a long season. The team hasn’t gelled, and it may not. The talent level isn’t where it needs to be, and I stand with TJ on my feelings regarding the use of the draft - it’s fine to work on young players that you’ll need for the secondary, and it’s great to stock up on wide receivers. Having two rookies in the interior of the OL isn’t helpful either. At some point, some of those high picks needed to be used on the front 7, and that didn’t happen. The outcome was predictable - and it looks like it did on Sunday. 

I wish I had better news for you. Later this week I will be running a few articles on the essential formations of the game and how they have evolved. We’re going to be be seeing variations on the old Wing T from the running games of the teams that remain this year. I’d like you to know what it looks like - perhaps you can at least enjoy that. The so-called ‘Wildcat’ is little more than the century-old single wing formation, and we’ll talk about that, too. The evolution from the T formation (which was used by the Chicago Bears in the most lopsided championship in NFL history, as they won over the Redskins 73-0) into the Wing T and the history of the spread and the one-back spread will also be covered. Why? Because those roots are part of what Denver needs to overcome - much of it has come back in recent years, newly polished, but still the same old approaches. They may be tweaked - use of TEs, not using them, adding or dropping the fullback and so forth - but they are still very much what Denver is facing. You’ll see them being brought against the Broncos, and you should see Denver using some of them. 

But none of that prepares anyone for the blitz packages that Jim Johnson taught to Steve Spagnuolo, and that Spags developed himself. If you want to know more - just watch the defensive front 7 of the Rams during the first half yesterday. Try not to look at the score or the ball - just watch the battles between the Rams' and Broncos' lines. The entire tale is told there.

Nothing will be gained by dumping McDaniels before the end of the year. We don’t even know if there will be football next year. When the season winds down, though, he’ll be asked for an accounting of the events that came during it. I don’t really know what he’s going to say. This is the same young coach who blew Joe Ellis and Pat Bowlen away twenty months ago. He’s going to have to provide a heck of a presentation to keep his job. The fans voted with their feet on Sunday, and may continue to do so.

Despite it all - Go Broncos! I was a fan during the period of losing Super Bowls, and enjoyed the fruits of their dominance when they won two in succession. I was when Shanahan seemed to be missing the boat in the draft and free agency, and I was when they hired McDaniels. Whenever he leaves - and all coaches do - I’ll still be one, too.

It’s going to come down to doing what’s best for the organization. And that is what I’m a fan of. Hang in there this week - I look forward to your comments.


Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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