Beating the Blitz

| May 12, 2011

You want to be a quarterback in the NFL? Well you know you need to be gifted physically. You need to have the arm to zip the ball into tight spots, the accuracy to hit your man, and the mobility to avoid defenders that are crashing in around you.

You also need to be smart. You need to recognize defenses and see what is coming. You need to process information quickly and make the right decision.

Nowhere is that ability (or lack thereof) more apparent than in the face of a blitz. It doesn’t matter whether the defense is bringing everyone or dropping an end into coverage and overloading on the other side. You need to pick it up and get that ball somewhere.

It’s what can separate a good quarterback from a truly great one and that begs the question: who are the best in the business when it comes to dealing with the blitz?

Well, fortunately, Pro Football Focus tracks every blitz and every result of every blitz and we’re going share with you what the numbers say. It only took a spreadsheet with over two hundred columns to process it all.

The qualifying minimum to be part of this study was being blitzed at least 100 times.
 

Bullseyes On Their Backs

I guess if you’re going to break down how quarterbacks deal with the blitz, it would be nice to look at which quarterbacks get blitzed most often. Something of particular interest to Raider fans, who will see two of their players in the top six.
 
Having the house thrown at him more than any other was Bruce Gradkowski. The former Buc and Brown felt the blitz on 57.8% of all of his drop backs for Oakland in 2010 with the next in line, Joe Flacco, finishing a figurative mile behind, seeing blitzes on 49.51% of his drops from center. Just outside of the Top 5 was the aforementioned other Raider, Jason Campbell. Elite quarterbacks Matt Ryan (44% of plays) and Ben Roethlisberger (41.21%) both saw a lot of men coming their way as teams tried to slow them down.
 
In less of a surprise, rookies Colt McCoy (45.59%), Sam Bradford (42.03%), and Jimmy Clausen (41.28%) all faced their share of blitzes, while defenses smelt blood with Ryan Fitzpatrick (45.95%) and those multiple receiver sets the Bills liked to use.
 
Here’s a complete list of how much each quarterback was blitzed.
 

Percentage of Pass Play Blitzed

Rank
Player
Team
Drop Backs
Blitzed Drop Backs
Blitzed %
1Bruce GradkowskiOAK17310057.80%
2Joe FlaccoBLT61830649.51%
3Ryan FitzpatrickBUF49422745.95%
4Colt McCoyCLV26111945.59%
5Matt RyanATL65028644.00%
6Jason CampbellOAK38816843.30%
7Sam BradfordSL64026942.03%
8Josh FreemanTB54422541.36%
9Jimmy ClausenCAR34414241.28%
10Ben RoethlisbergerPIT54622541.21%
11Alex D. SmithSF37515340.80%
12Brett FavreMIN38315440.21%
13Matt SchaubHST61124439.93%
14Mark SanchezNYJ64025139.22%
15Carson PalmerCIN62024339.19%
16Derek AndersonARZ35513939.15%
17Jay CutlerCHI56521938.76%
18Aaron RodgersGB69526638.27%
19Donovan McNabbWAS52519937.90%
20Drew BreesNO74728237.75%
21Kyle OrtonDEN54520537.61%
22Peyton ManningIND72427137.43%
23Eli ManningNYG56521037.17%
24Chad HenneMIA54019936.85%
25Michael VickPHI51018636.47%
26Philip RiversSD59120935.36%
27Tom BradyNE57220034.97%
28Matt CasselKC51917633.91%
29David GarrardJAX42114133.49%
30Jon KitnaDAL35711933.33%
31Matt HasselbeckSEA56618131.98%
32Shaun HillDET44813630.36%

 

Down near the bottom, teams shied away from attacking the aging trio of Shaun Hill (30.36%), Matt Hasselbeck (31.98%), and Jon Kitna (33.33%). Meanwhile, it would appear teams were scared of sending more men after Tom Brady, for fear of leaving his receivers even more room to roam.
 
One figure that did catch my attention was how low Michael Vick was on the list. Understandably, teams have to account for Vick’s mobility, but the Vikings showed how susceptible he could be to pressure off the edge as Antoine Winfield got the zone blitz working. Furthermore, Vick wasn’t exactly seeing the whole field, with just 15.55% of his throws going to the right side.
 
Philadelphia can expect more of this. If you want to know why, you need only look at Vick’s completion percentage when blitzed as it dropped to 52.98%.
 

Accuracy Impacted

At the top of this next list – completion percentage when blitzed – it’s no real surprise that Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers are securely among the best, but there may be a small shock in store for some with Chad Henne ranking so highly. When you consider Miami’s preference for keeping extra guys in to protect, some explanation is offered. With 5.84 men kept in on average, Miami’s number was third highest in the league. Comparatively, teams like New Orleans and San Diego keep in a relatively low 5.51 men per pass play.
 

Completion Percentage When Blitzed

Rank
Player
Team
Blitzed Drop Backs
Attempts
Completions
Completion%
1Drew BreesNO28226717665.92%
2Chad HenneMIA19917911463.69%
3Aaron RodgersGB26624515462.86%
4Philip RiversSD20919011862.11%
5Matt SchaubHST24422614061.95%
6Matt RyanATL28626816561.57%
7Jon KitnaDAL1191046461.54%
8Eli ManningNYG21019812161.11%
9Carson PalmerCIN24322313660.99%
10Peyton ManningIND27126115960.92%
11Josh FreemanTB22520012160.50%
12Shaun HillDET1361247560.48%
13Matt HasselbeckSEA18116610060.24%
14Joe FlaccoBLT30627616258.70%
15Matt CasselKC1761589258.23%
16Jay CutlerCHI21918810857.45%
17Tom BradyNE20019010957.37%
18Alex D. SmithSF1531377856.93%
19Ryan FitzpatrickBUF22720311556.65%
20Sam BradfordSL26924613956.50%
21David GarrardJAX1411196756.30%
22Jason CampbellOAK1681397856.12%
23Colt McCoyCLV1191005656.00%
24Brett FavreMIN1541488255.41%
25Ben RoethlisbergerPIT22519410654.64%
26Michael VickPHI1861518052.98%
27Donovan McNabbWAS1991829652.75%
28Mark SanchezNYJ25123112051.95%
29Kyle OrtonDEN2051919348.69%
30Bruce GradkowskiOAK100884146.59%
31Jimmy ClausenCAR1421165143.97%
32Derek AndersonARZ1391275240.94%

 

Down where you don’t want to be, you get a little bit of numbers to back up what we already know when it comes to Derek Anderson. After our deep ball article looked favorably at his accuracy going downfield, you see the true problem with him. He gets flustered in stressful situations. While others excel against the blitz, he’s completing just 40.94% of his passes. When you’re ranked lower than Jimmy Clausen you got some explaining to do.
 

Points Not Picks

So we’ve looked at accuracy, but what about the plays that show up on highlight reels? Which players are using the blitz to put up points, and which ones are feeling the heat and turning it over? In a shocking result, Peyton Manning is at the top.
 
Turning the sarcasm off for a second, it is a surprise to have him joined by Mark Sanchez. For all his faults (and he has a few), Sanchez tends to work best when teams give him more of the field to exploit, handling the teams that go after him.
 

Touchdown to Interception Ratio When Blitzed

Rank
Player
Team
Blitzed Drop Backs
Touchdowns
Interceptions
TD / INT
1tPeyton ManningIND2711334.3
1tMark SanchezNYJ2511334.3
3Joe FlaccoBLT3061243.0
4Matt RyanATL2861452.8
5Michael VickPHI186832.7
6Sam BradfordSL2691042.5
7tEli ManningNYG2101672.3
7tJon KitnaDAL119942.3
7tBen RoethlisbergerPIT225942.3
10tJosh FreemanTB2251152.2
10tAaron RodgersGB2661362.2
12tCarson PalmerCIN2431052.0
12tTom BradyNE200842.0
14tMatt CasselKC176951.8
14tKyle OrtonDEN205741.8
16Philip RiversSD2091061.7
17Matt SchaubHST244851.6
18Jason CampbellOAK168641.5
19tRyan FitzpatrickBUF2271291.3
19tDonovan McNabbWAS199861.3
21tChad HenneMIA199761.2
21tDavid GarrardJAX141761.2
23tDrew BreesNO282661.0
23tMatt HasselbeckSEA181551.0
23tAlex D. SmithSF153441.0
23tJimmy ClausenCAR142221.0
27tJay CutlerCHI219560.8
27tBruce GradkowskiOAK100340.8
29tShaun HillDET136230.7
29tColt McCoyCLV119230.7
31Brett FavreMIN154480.5
32Derek AndersonARZ139150.2

 

Again it doesn’t paint a pretty picture for Derek Anderson, and it gives some numbers to the widely held feeling that Brett Favre should never have come back. A more surprising figure sees Drew Brees towards the bottom at 23rd. Given how many times he threw the ball when blitzed you can understand the six interceptions to a degree, but it’s slightly stunning there weren’t more touchdowns.
 

Grading

Lastly, as everyone knows, we grade plays on a certain scale. Some of that was explained briefly in this article. I reviewed our grades specifically for blitz situations. Things that won’t astound are how well our the top three in this list did, but Eli Manning probably doesn’t spring to mind as a guy expected to rank well. The same goes for Carson Palmer, who may not be coming off his best year, but there’s something left in the tank if the Bengals are prepared to let him go.
 

Pro Football Focus Grade When Blitzed

Rank
Player
Team
QB Rating When Blitzed
Grade When Blitzed
1Aaron RodgersGB60.939.0
2Matt RyanATL86.534.0
3Philip RiversSD74.323.5
4Eli ManningNYG61.022.0
5Carson PalmerCIN63.922.0
6Joe FlaccoBLT64.021.5
7Ben RoethlisbergerPIT81.119.0
8Peyton ManningIND67.418.0
9Matt SchaubHST58.717.5
10Drew BreesNO64.316.0
11Shaun HillDET52.014.5
12Sam BradfordSL51.014.0
13Josh FreemanTB79.413.5
14Matt HasselbeckSEA67.712.5
15Mark SanchezNYJ51.911.5
16Chad HenneMIA48.811.5
17Tom BradyNE84.511.0
18Jason CampbellOAK60.69.5
19Michael VickPHI65.39.0
20Jay CutlerCHI68.99.0
21Jon KitnaDAL78.78.0
22Ryan FitzpatrickBUF44.06.5
23Brett FavreMIN43.26.0
24Alex D. SmithSF66.14.0
25David GarrardJAX67.23.5
26Colt McCoyCLV53.82.5
27Kyle OrtonDEN62.41.0
28Matt CasselKC63.20.5
29Jimmy ClausenCAR50.30.5
30Donovan McNabbWAS46.7-1.0
31Bruce GradkowskiOAK64.8-2.0
32Derek AndersonARZ56.1-11.0

 

That brings to a close our look at the quarterbacks against the blitz. With metrics there are always mitigating circumstances and it’s so with our grading: players who are blitzed more are rewarded with more opportunities to make plays.
 
Such is life that things are rarely perfect, but there’s plenty of food for thought here as you wonder why some quarterbacks make it look so easy, and others seem like they’re playing a different game.
 
That’s what the blitz can do to quarterbacks.
 
 

  • ppabich

    My one complaint is that it’s not only QBs who are blitzed, o-line performance and defensive schemes affect blitzing numbers as well. Take the raiders for example, they have a slow nonathletic offensive line and play in a division with three 3-4 defenses. Those factors would skew the numbers of total blitzes.

    Because Campbell was decent against blitzes, it leads me to believe that opposing defenses were blitzing against the raiders because of other factors than QB play. This fact is supported by the extremely high blitz percentage against Gradkowski. A large percentage of his blitzes against were due to factors other than QB play, and the extremely high number is increased by his inability to beat the blitz.

    Another factor that comes into play is RB blitz pick up. No doubt Rodgers is great against the blitz, but he is benefited by having RBs with great blitz pick up. Before the Super Bowl, it was said that the Packers are the only team in which all their RBs have positive protection ratings. This not only gives a QB a little extra time, but it could increase confidence.

    I do not have a problem with the conclusions of the article, it just seems to me that other clear factors that come in to play need to be addressed.

  • palo20

    Does this include the playoffs? If not, your numbers on Brady are off. He only threw 4 INTs on the season and one of them was a Hail Mary against the Ravens against a clear 3 man rush.

  • http://www.profootballfocus.com Khaled Elsayed

    Sorry, I should have said in the article – data includes playoff numbers.