Denver brought over right guard Louis Vasquez in free agency from San Diego as part of their rebuilding process on the O-line and without doubt it was a hugely successful move. Vasquez in particular will face his sternest test in the biggest game of the season this Sunday.
Vasquez didn’t allow a sack all season and surrendered just 14 total pressures in the regular season, fewer than one per game. He has played 155 snaps in the playoffs and hasn’t added to that tally with a single pressure surrendered.
Only Josh Sitton had a better Pass Blocking Efficiency this season than Vasquez did when you look at the pressure surrendered per snap pass protecting. Unquestionably he had a great first year in Denver.
There is equally no doubt that his season was helped hugely by Peyton Manning; a quarterback that mitigates pressure from his offensive line better than any other passer in football.
The term ‘pocket presence’ seems to have fallen a little out of favor in recent years but Manning’s is unrivaled and a little different from the traditional idea. Manning does move and slide in the pocket to avoid pressure, but where he separates himself from the rest is how he responds when pressure becomes inevitable.
Manning has an incredible ability to feel when a part of his protection is beaten and instantly get rid of the football, pulling the red rag away from the charging bull like a matador before he has a chance to make a play. This is a big bonus to an offensive lineman protecting Manning. Even when you’re beaten there’s a good chance it’ll never become pressure given how quickly he can recognize it and deliver the football to a receiver.
The Broncos’ QB also has the ball in his hands on average less than any other passer. The average time to throw from Manning this season was just 2.36 seconds, the lowest mark in the league by some margin. By contrast, that average mark for the other quarterback in the Super Bowl, Russell Wilson, is 3.18 seconds. That difference is huge for pass rush and pass protection alike.
So why will this game be an especially tough test for Vasquez? For two reasons. Firstly, the Seahawks have the kind of aggressive coverage that increases that average time to throw. The average length of time the opposing quarterback had the ball in his hands against them was 2.77 seconds, almost half a second per play on average longer than Manning this season. If the Seahawks can have that kind of impact on Manning in this game, they buy their pass-rushers extra time to cause havoc.
When they met in the preseason Manning’s average time to throw was 2.86 seconds compared to 2.36 again in all his other preseason throws. The Seattle D, if nothing else, creates a hesitation in Manning’s game.
Vasquez will likely be tasked with holding his block for longer than he has had to before this season, but he is also going to face an unusual looking pass rush.
The Seahawks have a platoon of edge-rushers they can deploy to bring the heat but in Michael Bennett they also have a defensive end who they align inside in a four-man line to ply his trade as a defensive tackle. There’s nothing unusual about this in today’s NFL – it’s a trend that multiple teams employ – but the Seahawks don’t actually line Bennett up inside.
Take a look at this picture:
Bennett is lined up all the way over the right tackle, actually shaded a hair to his outside. He’s lining up a full player further outside than the guy who is tasked with blocking him, RG Alex Boone in this case, or Louis Vasquez on Sunday. The Seahawks will attack the tackles with speed around the edge from wide alignments, but it’s the way they line Bennett up abnormally wide and exploit that width that is unusual, and effectively turns the RG into an extra right tackle on the play.
Vasquez was actually asked to kick out to right tackle this season when Denver was hit by injuries. Against the Colts in Week 7 he allowed just a single pressure from his snaps on the edge. As impressive as that was, however, Michael Bennett is a tougher proposition than Erik Walden.
While left guards are usually the guards that have help from the center, in this case combining to block Clinton McDonald at the other DT spot, the right guard is often on an island against an interior rusher. The width that the Seahawks attack with puts that guard on an island in far more space than they are used to dealing with. It effectively creates an extra edge rusher from just a four-man rush.
Of course the down side to using all of this extra space is leaving a big hole up the middle.
Against Colin Kaepernick this can be a big issue, and we saw him take off for several big gains over the course of the NFC Championship game. Against Peyton Manning? Not so much. Manning this season scrambled on zero occasions – not once. You could part the red seas of defense in front of him all the way to the end zone and he’d be looking for a crossing pattern to hit. The Seahawks can afford to rush to the perimeter and abandon the middle of the field safe in the knowledge Manning won’t exploit the gap it leaves up the gut.
So while Louis Vasquez was undoubtedly a fantastic signing for Denver in the offseason, he is going to get tested in a way he hasn’t been tested all season, and will have to bring all his pass protecting skills to bear against Michael Bennett and the Seahawks.
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