The Chalkoholic: How The Falcons' Defense Put Peyton Manning In The Hole Early

ATLANTA, GA - SEPTEMBER 17: Quarterback Peyton Manning #18 of the Denver Broncos calls a play against the Atlanta Falcons during a game at the Georgia Dome on September 17, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Hello, I'm going to try to do a weekly Xs and Os thing here, seeing as our team's Xs and Os are newly EXCITING and INTERESTING thanks to recent staff upgrades. Wanted to do something last week on Dirk Koetter's pick screen (we can call it a pick screen here -- replacement referees cannot read), and Mike Nolan's bewildering defense has gone and made it feel mandatory. I'm no schemes genius by any means, and am pretty much just doing this to learn more about what our team does. Onward!

This week, a look at how the Falcons beat Peyton Manning by confusing his offense just enough in the first quarter to make up for a late-game charge. The national narrative has been that Manning just doesn't have it back yet, but that's not necessarily the case. You can't fool Manning for long, but the Falcons fooled him for the first three drives, and that was the difference.

First, here's the opening look Nolan presented Manning. 4-3 under, no blitz, no coverage oddities:

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Dunta Robinson broke up an out to Demaryius Thomas, and Sean Weatherspoon, who'd been keeping an eye on Willis McGahee, covered about a billion miles to nearly pick it off. The basics worked! So stick with the basics LOL no here's play No. 2 OH NO WHAT HAPPENED:

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Kroy Biermann was the prime mover here, sliding across the line and displacing the tackles along the way as the five others in the box likewise shifted. The Falcons use Biermann like this a lot. The only thing planned is his final spot, not his wandering (Stephen Nicholas was quoted as saying players are still discovering how much freedom they have in this defense). Once he gets to the edge, he signals Peria Jerry, and both tackles slide into their final run fits just before the snap.

And it appears to have disrupted things. It's impossible to know Denver's entire blocking scheme here, but the line shift occurred almost concurrently with the center looking down. Center J.D. Walton fires out just behind Peria Jerry, who ended up using his ass to tackle McGahee. Walton then looks around for somebody to block, perhaps surprised to not see Biermann or Nicholas where they'd just been. He ends up facing Manning and blocking nobody. Left guard Zane Beadles attempts to pull, but Jerry's so thoroughly ruined everything that all Beadles can do is sort of lean his hip in Jonathan Babineaux's way.

Jerry made a great push here, but this play was awkwardly doomed almost immediately. Look at Walton flying solo in bizarro linebackertown and Jerry's disruptive ass on the right:

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We're not gonna try and wade through every play, because there were actually only six plays all night. The rest of it was referee stuff. Just wanted to point out this M-M-M-MULTIPLE stuff works against runs as well.

Interception No. 1

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In the game's first definite passing situation, Manning's quick count caught the Falcons off guard, so we don't really know what kind of look was planned (Spoon appears to still be giving instructions through the snap). But Denver has six blocking four, plus McGahee on pickup duty, so the threat of a blitz worked in one way -- Atlanta has six covering three, once you account for Nicholas and checkdown McGahee canceling each other out. There are many kinds of defensive advantages, and that's one:

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After the game, Manning chalked all three of his throws up to bad decisions, not a lack of arm strength. He did not entirely specify whose bad decisions, though he did claim full responsibility. Here's what he's looking at as he throws to tight end Jacob Tamme:

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Strong safety William Moore -- who'd stood among the linebackers pre-snap -- drops back, eyes Manning the entire play and picks the ball off. After, Manning appears to signal that he'd expected Tamme (who's been with Manning five seasons now) to cut his route off and come back. As you can see, if Tamme had come up two or three steps, he could've fought for the ball (at the moment of contact, Chris Owens isn't quite as close as he appeared to be in the previous frame):

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Jon Gruden said that Manning never saw Moore, but I'm not sure if Gruden saw Manning gesturing you should've come back to Tamme.

Again, just speculating, but it appears Tamme noticed Moore was caught off guard by the quick count and thought he had Moore beat -- and thus was expecting a seam-splitting throw up top -- while Manning saw Moore cutting that off and threw underneath the safeties.

Whatever happened, Moore immediately broke for the ball while Tamme ended up stumbling backwards after it. Moore was nowhere near as confused as Denver thought he was, and he pounced like a MOUNTAIN SHARK.

Interception No. 2

The Broncos kept the low-huddle (it wasn't quite a no-huddle) and quick count going on their second drive, but looked to only be befuddling themselves. Manning tripped over his own feet on one play and turned to hand the ball to Greg Ghost, invisible halfback, on another.

On 2nd and 11, the Falcons again show up looking as basic as possible:

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They appear to turn it into a Cover 1 Robber coverage (corners in man, Moore in a short zone, and free safety Thomas DeCoud over the top), though I could be wrong. It's really not a complicated disguise if it's even a disguise at all, but it works. Here, Manning makes a bad throw and a bad decision while being pressured by Jerry -- a much deeper heave would've given the skinny-postin' Tamme a shot at a touchdown (though not a great shot -- Moore's a better athlete), despite Moore being right behind him, having vacated linebackertown. The ball was short, and DeCoud made a great break and stole it.

Have a look at how covered Tamme (the deepest Bronco in this frame) was:

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I believe Moore technically should've stayed put near linebackertown, as Eric Decker is open for an easy first down on the logo. But Moore was proved correct by the choice Manning made, so let's mark this as another ATTAWAY for him. And, of course, for DeCoud.

Here's what Manning saw just after letting it go:

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Manning apparently thought DeCoud was either coming up on Decker or helping Dunta Robinson out wide. He didn't expect DeCoud to be near the ball, and probably didn't expect Moore to get his hips turned around so quickly either. The Falcons got lucky here that Manning didn't spot Decker -- perhaps we can thank Jerry for that.

Interception No. 3

The Broncos are finally driving. Three first downs, and a screen to Demaryius Thomas has pumped Atlanta's brakes a little. Look at Tamme (always poor Tamme) pointing downfield -- he's suggesting to Manning there's nobody covering him:

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But, of course, there is. This is a devious coverage. Cornerback Robert McClain (up top), who's in for Asante Samuel, ends up deep, while DeCoud (creeping around behind John Abraham pre-snap) takes a middle zone to the right of the hash. Chris Owens, who appears to be disregarding Tamme, breaks to his own right.

It's a Cover 3, but arrived at strangely due in large part to where DeCoud was pre-snap. (And due to Moore, not DeCoud, playing centerfield. When Manning studied Atlanta's tendencies from last year, I don't think he saw a lot of that.) If Manning expects DeCoud to be the deep man, and sees Tamme's beaten DeCoud, he throws, not expecting McClain to be the true deep man on that side of the field.

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Manning, perhaps seeing free safety DeCoud hasn't turned at all, thinks he has Tamme open deep, but McClain makes an incredible play as the ball sails just a bit. A lower pass would've given Tamme a chance, but it could've given DeCoud a chance as well. With no pressure at all here, we can credit McClain's read and DeCoud's disguise for the pick.

And with that, the Falcons took away three of Peyton Manning's chances to score, and as we saw at the end, every one of those chances mattered.

So, what do we think?

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