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Old 01-21-2010, 06:18 AM   #1
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Default When the Blitz Is a Bad Idea

When the Blitz Is a Bad Idea
As Defenses Pile On the Pressure, Elite Quarterbacks Thrive; Peyton's 68% Completion Rate
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB2000...979275340.html
By REED ALBERGOTTI

This season, NFL teams blitzed Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning 149 times. Their goal: To mash Mr. Manning into a buttery paste suitable for dinner rolls.

The result: He completed 101 passes, 10 for touchdowns, and was only sacked five times. In fact, his completion percentage on blitzes was only one point lower than his overall mark.

The blitz, the act of sending extra defensive players grunting after the quarterback, has become the trendiest weapon of the NFL's top defenses. This season, in case you weren't counting, there were 6,075 blitzes run on passing plays—a monumental 18% jump over last season.

But when Mr. Manning and other elite quarterbacks were the targets, the blitz wasn't just ineffective—it was often a profoundly terrible idea.

On all 10 occasions when the Arizona Cardinals blitzed Mr. Manning during a game this season, he completed a pass. When the Houston Texans tried it in a game during the regular season, they got torched for two touchdowns. Even the New York Jets, Mr. Manning's opponent in Sunday's AFC Championship game, didn't have much luck bringing the heavy pressure. On 14 blitzes, Mr. Manning completed nine passes for 103 yards without a sack or an interception.

How the Colts have been able to render this strategy largely useless is a combination of Mr. Manning's unique talent at reading defenses, his accurate arm, and the team's blitz-stifling blocking schemes, the complexity of which invite comparisons to the Schlieffen Plan.

On Sunday, "If Manning catches on to what [the Jets] are doing, that's going to hurt," says Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson, who has seen Mr. Manning work his magic up close. "That's what Peyton does: he catches on."

The blitz, which borrows its name from the sustained bombings by Nazi Germany in the Second World War, first became popular in football in the 1950s. But in the last decade it has seen its status grow exponentially. Rules changes that made it more difficult for defenders to cover running backs, tight ends and wide receivers, forced defenses to look for new ways to hold down scoring by putting more pressure on quarterbacks.

Leading NFL minds like defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau of the Pittsburgh Steelers and head coach Rex Ryan of the Jets, combined blitzes with confusing coverage schemes that interrupted route combinations and stopped offenses in their tracks.

"The blitz is a mainstay now in the NFL," says Rod Woodson, a Hall of Fame defensive back and current NFL Network analyst. When Mr. Woodson won the defensive player of the year award in 1993, Mr. LeBeau was his coach. "We were starting to blitz all the time. There's a reason we called it Blitzburgh," he says.

This season, however, coaches and coordinators say the blitz isn't the kryptonite it once was. More quarterbacks have begun getting to the line of scrimmage early to study the defense and try to sniff out potential blitzes. By putting offensive players in motion—sending them from one position to another before the ball is snapped—teams have forced defenses to tip their hands.

The average completion percentage on plays where the defense runs a blitz hit 57% in the NFL this season, up from 53% in 2000 and 55.4% in 2006. In addition, the average passing yards per attempt against the blitz has inched up incrementally as well, to 7.13 this season from 6.47 in 2000.

Stomping out the blitz has become the hallmark of any elite NFL quarterback. Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints, who will play in Sunday's NFC Championship game, was blitzed 121 times this season on passing plays and completed 74% of those passes—a figure that's higher than his 70% rate against regular plays.

This is a big improvement: In 2007, Mr. Brees completed 64% of his passes against the blitz, and the year before that, only 55%. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots hit 68% of his passes against the blitz in 2007, the year his team went undefeated in the regular season.

As good as Mr. Manning has been at defending the blitz this year, he may have his work cut out for him Sunday. The acknowledged masters of the blitz this season are Mr. Ryan's Jets, who've given up fewer points and yards than any team in the NFL and held quarterbacks to a 51.7% average completion percentage—the lowest for any defense in the league.

The traditional NFL blitz comes from a linebacker—the player directly behind the defensive linemen. Linebackers are generally big enough to break free of offensive linemen and head after the quarterback. But Mr. Ryan is fond of blitzing his defensive backs. They are smaller and start from farther away, but they can reach the quarterback using speed and the element of surprise. These safety and cornerback blitzes require perfect timing and are risky because if they don't work, there are few players positioned to defend deep passes.

This season, the Jets blitz has been greatly enhanced by cornerback Darrelle Revis, who has held the league's top receivers to few yards and made mediocre ones look like rejects from Pop Warner. With Mr. Revis neutralizing top receivers, the Jets are free to send more calvary after the passer. "There are some blitzes that Ryan has that can't be picked up," says Greg Cosell, a producer of NFL Matchup on ESPN.

In their playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals, the Jets blitzed quarterback Carson Palmer 23 times, sacking him three times and forcing one interception. The most blitzes Mr. Palmer had faced in any other game this season was 13. A week later, the Jets blitzed Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers 22 times and forced the generally accurate quarterback to throw two interceptions. On one blitz, safety Kerry Rhodes came in so quickly that Mr. Rivers never saw him coming and lost the football.

The Colts and Mr. Manning have struggled on offense at times this season, but never because of the blitz. In fact, some of the key plays for the Colts this season have come on blitzes.

In Week 3, while trailing the Cardinals by three points in the second quarter, the Colts had four yards to go on third down. To try to cross them up, the Cardinals swapped their defensive ends with their linebackers, creating an odd look. Mr. Manning didn't blink. While the defensive ends and the linebackers all headed after him, the routes he'd directed his receivers to take cleared the defenders out of the middle of the field, allowing tight end Dallas Clark to catch a 4-yard dump-off pass and run free for a 15-yard gain. The play led to a touchdown and the Cardinals never recovered.

In a game Nov. 1 against the San Francisco 49ers, the Colts got the ball with 26 seconds to play on their own 39 just before halftime while trailing by eight points. Instead of playing conservatively at the end the half, the 49ers blitzed two linebackers. The blitz was designed to distract the offensive linemen and pull them out of position—but Colts left tackle Charlie Johnson caught on to the trick and followed an intricate blocking scheme perfectly. He let go of the lineman he was blocking and snapped back into position just in time to pick up a blitzing linebacker.

The block gave Mr. Manning an extra fraction of a second to locate the area of the field the linebacker had vacated and to hit receiver Austin Collie for a 23-yard gain. The play led to a field goal that regained momentum for Indianapolis.

Mr. Manning certainly isn't invincible. Mr. LeBeau recalls the 2006 AFC divisional-playoff game when the Steelers beat the Colts on the way to the Super Bowl. Mr. LeBeau's defense blitzed Mr. Manning 25 times in that game, sacking him four times. "If you talk to Peyton, he will tell you he's been fooled before," says Mr. LeBeau.

While he acknowledges that the tide may be turning a bit, Mr. LeBeau says it's just part of the natural evolution of football. In other words, he doesn't think the Jets, or anyone else, are going to stop the pressure. "I would never not want to blitz," he says.
—David Biderman contributed to this article
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Old 01-21-2010, 09:34 AM   #2
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Default Re: When the Blitz Is a Bad Idea

The key, of course, is upping the ante. LeBeau did a fine job disguising blitzes from Manning in the '05 SB run, and Manning was already brilliant at reading defenses...

The offense adapts, and the defense adjusts accordingly...
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