The Blitz Is Back! (Maybe)

Some NFL trends—more passing, more shotgun, and a blurring line between 3-4 and 4-3 defenses—become ensconced in the game. Others fade away, like the Wildcat or the read-option. Here are five emerging trends to watch coming out of the 2015 season
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Bringing the Heat

Over the past couple seasons, the championship belt for League’s Best Defense belonged to the Seahawks, a unit defined by a relatively conservative approach. Seattle thrived on a steady diet of Cover 3 and the standard front four rushing the passer. The thought was that if the Seahawks could bother the quarterback with only their down linemen—they led the league in pressure rate in 2013 despite blitzing at the 25th-highest clip—that meant more bodies flooding the secondary and clogging passing lanes.

The 2014 Broncos, and their fourth-ranked defense by DVOA, had a similar approach. With Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware in its employ, Denver rarely sent extra heat but still managed to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. When blitz-happy Wade Phillips took over as defensive coordinator in 2015, the question became whether the Broncos would continue to rely solely on their front four to create pressure or adopt an approach similar to those that Phillips had taken at previous stops. It wasn’t long before we got the answer.

This season, Denver blitzed at the fourth highest rate in the league—41.7 percent of drop backs—and the NFL’s most disruptive pass rush helped make this defense the league’s best. A difference between two teams does not a trend make, but broadening the scope a little further yields some intriguing results.

Last year, among the top five teams in defensive DVOA—Seattle, Buffalo, Detroit, Denver, and San Francisco—not a single one blitzed at an above-average rate. In fact, three of those teams were in the bottom five. This year that flipped. Three of the league’s five best defenses—the Cardinals, the Jets, and the Broncos—finished in the top five when it came to blitz rate.

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There were still plenty of excellent defenses that blitzed less often than average (the Seahawks and Panthers come to mind), but several of the league’s most frightening units preferred to throw extra resources at quarterbacks while leaving back-end defenders to fend for themselves. Saying that the success of the Jets, Cardinals and Broncos will lead to other teams bringing the house more often is a slippery slope. All three of those clubs are blessed with a shutdown man defender in the secondary, and in the case of the Cardinals and Broncos, more than one. In each case, it was a defense perfectly tailored to personnel.

Next year should be a useful study in whether this season was indicative of any philosophical shift—or determining if trends aren’t even applicable to this year’s Broncos. Tom Brady got the ball out too fast for stud rushers to matter, until Von Miller ate New England’s offensive line. Cam Newton had too many extra blockers for blitzes to be effective, until the Broncos used five-man rushes to crush Carolina. The Broncos might have too much talent for us to glean any insight about the replicable parts of their scheme, but suffice it to say that with Denver leading the way, the blitz was back in 2015.

The Offensive Line Epidemic

Part of the reason defensive coordinators cranked up the thermostat this year is probably that they were maniacally laughing like cartoon villains while watching some of these offensive lines on film. Plenty of theories have been posited about why the level of play has dipped. More spread offenses in college means fewer players are ready for the demands of the pro game, and position coaches have complained that less offseason practice time means fewer opportunities to correct that. It felt like subpar offensive line play was pervasive this year, and that includes several teams that actually made the playoffs.

Injuries and more struggles from Matt Kalil left Teddy Bridgewater as the most pressured quarterback in the league this year, possibly stunting his development in the process. But for most of the season, both the Seahawks and Patriots were able to get by with a dearth of talent on the offensive line, albeit in different ways. Tom Brady’s ability to see the future meant New England got rid of the ball before most pass rushers could matter, and although Wilson did plenty of that down the stretch, actually sacking him is like trying to tackle a wet fish. Not those dead ones at Pike Place Market, either. I mean a live one that flops around.

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Still, for all their combined ability to neutralize defenders, poor protection was part of the playoff undoing for the Patriots and Seahawks. Wilson’s new home in a heap on the turf was partially to blame for Seattle’s loss in Carolina, and I’m pretty sure Brady just got knocked down again at Mile High. What makes both New England and Seattle interesting case studies, though, is more than how they could build great offenses with shaky lines. It’s that those shaky lines were partially their own doing.

New England dealt Logan Mankins before the start of the 2014, and its plan to replace his production this season involved a fourth-round rookie from this past spring. The Seahawks made a similar move in trading Max Unger to the Saints. It’s been years since either team has drafted an offensive lineman in the first round — 2011 for New England (Nate Solder) and 2010 for the Seahawks (Okung) — and both have either shipped talent away or, in the case of both Breno Giacomini and James Carpenter, let players walk in free agency.

They’re not alone. The Panthers chose linebacker depth and a second receiver over a chance to upgrade at offensive tackle in last year’s draft. Their highest in-house draft pick was Ryan Kalil, who was taken in the second round almost a decade ago, but Carolina countered its lack of elite pass-blocking talent with max protect schemes and an excellent running game.

Pointing out how these lines were built isn’t meant as criticism. The Panthers’ line was actually a strength all season until the Super Bowl. It’s just worth noting that some of the league’s best teams have put less of an emphasis on building from the lines out.

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Knowing Your Left from Your Right

Quick, name the best five edge rushers in the NFL.

There’s room for debate here, but my list is J.J. Watt, Von Miller, Khalil Mack, Justin Houston and Cameron Wake (when he’s right). Aside from all five being dudes I would not want to mess with, there’s one other trait they all share: Each has spent most of his career rushing off an offense’s right side. Good defensive players inherently get moved around, but if you were to list a side for each, it would probably start with “left.”

That’s just one of the many reasons that in the current NFL, the distinction—and difference in prestige—between left and right offensive tackles has eroded. The left edge of a defense is no longer just the place for bulky players whose main task is stopping the run. Michael Bennett will eat a right tackle for lunch in the run game, but he’ll also tear past him and haunt your quarterback’s nightmares. The same goes for Miller, Watt and Mack. The question, then, if the game’s best pass rushers are lining up over the right side, is why left tackle is still considered the premier spot to such an absurd extent.

Right now, there are two right tackles who made at least $14.5 million on their current contracts: Lane Johnson of the Eagles, and Jermey Parnell of the Jaguars. At left tackle, there are 17, and a dozen of those players got more than $20 million. That’s a massive gap and one that makes less and less sense. As Andy Benoit mentioned on this week’s podcast, the ubiquity of the shotgun has made a quarterback’s “blind side” less important than ever. Right tackles and left tackles have never been more interchangeable, yet the use and value of offensive tackles still don’t reflect that shift.

A QB’s Mind Is the Fountain of Youth

The evolution of Ben Roethlisberger’s game has turned him into maybe the league’s most dangerous passer, and a major contributor to that development is the amount of work Roethlisberger does above the neck and before the snap. He’s become an extension of offensive coordinator Todd Haley, to the point that they’ll often suggest the same call, in unison, when the team gets back to the huddle.

That type of handle on an offense has widespread benefits. Roethlisberger was the least pressured quarterback in football, despite the Steelers’ losing their center and left tackle. Pittsburgh marched on without Le’Veon Bell. Antonio Brown caught 547 passes, or something close to it. Roethlisberger isn’t a unique case, either. Andy Dalton is asked to do an underrated amount of work before the snap; the Bengals finished No. 1 in offensive DVOA. The Chiefs hit a stride offensively when Andy Reid ceded more control to Alex Smith. And no one needs reminding about what Tom Brady continues to do in New England.

A quarterback with complete ownership—and control—of his scheme has become an accurate determiner of a team’s offensive ceiling. Both the Eagles and Dolphins fielded offenses that failed to meet expectations this season, and it’s probably not a coincidence that the play-callers for each gave his quarterback a limited amount of wiggle room before the snap. The ability to totally decipher increasingly complex defenses and get an offense into the right play has become the equalizer. A quarterback with outstanding physical traits is nice; one who can see a defense like Neo sees The Matrix is better.

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Carson Palmer—and his use of virtual reality as part of his exhaustive preparation routine—wasn’t far off. With a career year at age 36, Palmer was just one of several examples of how increased cognitive authority can breathe new life into a quarterback’s career. Even in 2013, Peyton Manning’s production had outlasted his body. Anyone who watches Brady throw the deep ball now can see his skills have diminished, but his mind might still be the most dangerous offensive weapon in football. Quarterbacks who know more are able to do more, and these days, quarterbacks know more than ever.

The Growing Value of Pass-Rushing Tackles

Last week, when I asked Sean McDermott about the increased value of interior pass-rushing threats like Kawann Short, he pointed to quarterbacks like Brady. New England and Cincinnati finished first and second in average release time this season and fifth and first, respectively, in offensive DVOA. Some of the league’s best offenses are some of the league’s fastest-working offenses, and disrupting those passing games is dependent upon having a player who can push the pocket and push it fast.

Short is just one instance of an interior player who acted as the centerpiece of a quality defense’s pass rush in 2015. Carlos Dunlap had 2.5 more sacks than Geno Atkins this season, but make no mistake: Atkins is the disrupter for the Bengals, who went from dead last in pressure percentage last year with Atkins on the shelf to eighth this year with him back. Michael Bennett was a terror when moved inside for the Seahawks. And Aaron Donald was sent here from the future.

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Finding a player who can hold up inside while also being able to teleport to the quarterback has almost become a necessity. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware were dominant in the Broncos’ Super Bowl run, but they got plenty of help from the likes of Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson. The latter should make for an interesting case study in the value of interior linemen whose best trait is the ability to bother quarterbacks. Jackson is a 26-year-old free agent coming off a breakout year, and the market for him come March should be robust. He exists in a world where Ndamukong Suh, a defensive tackle, is the richest defensive player in the NFL. Five years ago, that would have been unthinkable.

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