To win in the modern NFL, you need to stop the pass. There are a number of ways to achieve this, but two very distinct philosophical approaches.
On one side of the coin, there are coaches like the Cowboys’ Rod Marinelli, who advocates for a strong four-man rush with coverage behind it. The offense may know what’s coming, but the idea is that if players know their responsibilities backwards, it will allow them to play at 100 mph.
The other side of the coin includes coaches like the Raiders’ defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
Two summers ago, I was paid to transcribe interviews for Sports Illustrated. Going into it, I underestimated how much time it’d take to copy Wade Phillips’ or Aqib Talib’s responses out word for word. One of the more frustrating parts of that job is how I would spend four hours writing everything out, only to see two or three quotes in a piece.
On the plus side, I got to be a fly on the wall for a few really interesting conversations. One such conversation took place last summer when Andy Benoit sat down and talked with Guenther, who Jon Gruden had scooped up from the Bengals.
I clearly remember Benoit’s reaction when he looked at Guenther’s white board and saw all of the different calls for the Raiders’ install. After a little discussion, Guenther let Benoit count them off for the piece that ran in MMQB in order to provide an idea as to the quantity.
14 different D-line fronts
14 stunts and twists
20 blitzes out of a four-down front
26 blitzes out of double-A-gap fronts
19 blitzes out of “odd” fronts.
It’s a lot for a quarterback to handle, which is exactly why Guenther does it. He’s among the most disruptive play callers in the NFL.
Quarterbacks earn their massive paychecks on third downs, which is why Case Keenum now plays in D.C. By Football Outsiders DVOA numbers, the Broncos were among the worst five teams in football on third down last year.
This issue became painfully clear in the Broncos 27-14 beating by the Raiders. At a glance, the offense converted 6 of 14 third downs for a respectable 42 percent, but that fails to tell the whole story.
On the Broncos opening drive facing 3rd-and-3, Keenum completed this pass to Courtland Sutton for six yards. Denver faced seven more third downs before they converted again with seconds left in the second quarter. They entered halftime in a 0-17 hole.
Fast forward to 2019 and the Broncos look a heck of a lot different. Vic Fangio brings with him new systems to both sides of the ball, as well as a new quarterback in Joe Flacco. On the other sideline, Oakland has undergone a massive infusion of talent while the systems remain in place.
Something will have to give between fresh faces in new places. Put simply, if the Broncos want to ensure victory, Flacco will have to make some magic on third downs. There should be plenty of opportunities.
I looked at every third-down play the Raiders ran against Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers last year, in large part because Rich Scangarello is bringing so much of that system with him to the Broncos. On the play above, the 49ers are facing third-and-long on the periphery of the red zone. George Kittle motions across the formation to give Nick Mullens a 3 X 1 bunch look on the right side of the formation. At the snap, he locks on to Pierre Garcon who has single coverage.
The play is an incomplete pass, but it didn’t have to be. Geunther and the Raiders bluff a blitz, but fall back into a standard Cover 3 shell at the snap. Kittle draws help underneath and Garcon draws the middle of the field defender, which leaves Richie James with green grass to the end zone.
Scangarello’s rookie quarterback never saw him, but his new twelfth year veteran should.
One of the most difficult parts about blitzing is timing it in order to maximize the effectiveness. The best defenders in the league will hide their intentions until the last second in an effort to go unaccounted for by the offensive line and quarterback. If they fail at this, the offense suddenly has a huge advantage.
On the play above, Guenther presents what looks like a standard 2 Man Under shell, with two safeties over the top and everyone assigned a receiver underneath. Alas, when the 49ers receiver goes into motion, the safeties begin rotating away from it. This is odd for a 2 deep coverage because they’re essentially splitting the field in half.
However, if it was a Cover 1 or Cover 3 corner blitz, it makes all the sense in the world. Mullens sees that a Raider followed the motioning receiver, so it probably isn’t pure zone coverage. The slant should be there, and he rips it quickly to beat the blitz.
One of the big reasons Guenther blitzed last year is because Jon Gruden traded Khalil Mack and he had no pass rushers. Even before he became a Bear, things looked bleak. Without him, Oakland’s pass rush was horrific. They finished the season dead last in adjusted sack rate with the second place Giants more than doubling their 13.
Part of this is by design. It seems peculiar, but the Raiders rushed four after the quarterback at a top 12 mark last year. They rarely sent five and sent six at about a league average mark. Guenther bluffed a lot more than he blitzed.
Last year it left the Raiders more dependent than all but two teams on their defensive tackles for sacks in 2018. In last spring’s draft, they added Clelin Ferrell in part because he was deemed pro-ready. The hope is that he can step in and immediately boost the edge rush, but his limited reps this preseason suggest it will be an ongoing project.
Long story short, look for Guenther to go back to the well and dial up Double A Gap looks, as well as other blitzes on passing downs. Look for how Scangarello and the Broncos use motion to identify the coverage shell. Look for Flacco’s performance in the face of pre-snap confusion and how he handles the pressure that does come.
It will make or break his time in orange and blue.