Peyton Manning has long been exalted for his grasp of NFL defenses and the ability to dissect them on the fly from the high perch of his no-huddle offense. Today, Manning was the one getting a lesson or two from Mike Nolan and the Atlanta Falcons ferocious defense.
The Falcons went with a defensive strategy the San Diego Chargers have long used against Manning, with great success. Nine defenders “milled” around the line of scrimmage, disguising their coverages and making Manning show his hand early. The responsibility falls on the middle linebacker to bark out coverages to the defense right along with Manning’s usual audibles at the line, making it a chess match of wits between both sides. The Falcons unique approach allowed them to play possum as to when they were actually blitzing because it appears like every defender is blitzing every play. The Milling defense also make it difficult for Manning to distinguish who the Mike linebacker was, and also whether the secondary was in man, cover-2 or cover-3 defense. This clever disguise allows the defenders to take away most of the advantages the no-huddle brings, although they obviously still cannot sub out personnel between plays.
The Falcons combated this with a clever twist to the Chargers scheme. They ran a nickel set for the majority of the game, with 4 down lineman, only 2 linebackers and 5 defensive backs, allowing for them to have optimal pass coverage personnel in on all downs.This should have led to some holes up front when the Broncos chose to run and in the short passing game, but the Falcons defenders would have none of it. Sean Witherspoon and Stephen Nicholas were flying to the football all game, combining for 18 tackles and generally covering more ground than any linebacker should be expected to cover. Cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson did their part in cleaning up after short passes, with Samuel playing the most inspired run defense I have ever seen from him, delivering some jarring hits close to the line of scrimmage.
This fast moving and shifting defense flummoxed Manning and led to the early interceptions. A timid Manning could not read the defense and attack the middle of the field with confidence, which is where his Colts offenses have traditionally been the most dangerous. All of this put the Broncos in an early hole from which they ultimately could not escape, despite some late game heroics made possible by a late push by Von Miller and the defense. A great game plan and an inspired performance by the Falcons personnel allowed for Atlanta to send the Broncos to 1-1, and possibly to the drawing board on how to combat this innovative scheme.
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Written by Brandon Keller