Bob Donnan/USA Today Sports

Best, worst NFL quarterbacks when blitzed

It seems defensive coordinators weren’t always making the best decisions when trying to blitz some of the best quarterbacks under pressure last year.

Mixed metaphors can be a source of great humor, but one former NFL coach had a saying he referenced often: “Live by the dog, die by the dog.” In that case, it wasn’t confusing different metaphors for longtime NFL offensive line coach Mike Tice, who spent four-plus seasons as the Minnesota Vikings’ head coach.

Tice was simply modifying the worldly saying, “live by the sword, die by the sword,” and adapting it to NFL parlance. The “dog,” in this case, was a general reference to blitzing in the NFL, where cornerback blitzes are sometimes referred to as “cats” and linebacker blitzes “dogs.”

With the sophisticated passing games in the NFL these days, defensive coordinators are always looking for new ways to confuse a quarterback. Showing blitzes and dropping out of them and hiding them and then bringing them with a fury are all part of the cat and dog game, to mix the “cat and mouse” metaphor.

But defensive game-planning often takes into account the quarterback on the other side of the ball. Unfortunately for those that faced the Arizona Cardinals and QB Carson Palmer, it seems like a lesson that wasn’t learned.

In a story that used blitzing information from ESPN Stats & Information, writer Sheil Kapadia ranked the five best and five worst quarterbacks when they are blitzed. It should come as no shock that a mix of experience and athleticism usually helped shape some of the best, and the Cardinals’ Palmer gained the top billing in the list. But the surprising element was that only three quarterbacks were blitzed more than Palmer, showing that analytics aren’t always employed by scheming defensive coordinators. Palmer finished first in yards gained (8.45) per dropback, second in percentage of completed passes (65) and third in yards per attempt (9.35) when facing pressure last year.

Tom Brady is often thought of as the master manipulator in taking advantage of blitzing defenses and he proved that in ESPN’s assessment, ranking second against the blitz. Brady has a 105.8 passer rating when facing the blitz the last three seasons and was deadly when blitzed in the red zone.

Andy Dalton was given third billing because of a “quick trigger,” getting rid of the ball on average in 2.02 seconds when facing a blitz and had a 112.4 passer rating in those situations.

Cam Newton greatly increased his stock against the blitz overall last year and was even better in the red zone, throwing 14 touchdowns and no interceptions when blitzed inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. As with Palmer, that didn’t stop defenses from trying, and Newton finished as the second-most blitzed quarterback in the NFL, according to ESPN.

While Peyton Manning is often seen as the wily veteran that tries to manipulate defenses with his pre-snap gyrations, it was Denver’s “other” quarterback last year, Brock Osweiler, who led the league in yards per attempt (9.83) and passer rating (114.6) when blitzed, according to ESPN. It remains to be seen if that success translates in his new home in Houston.

Many of the five worst against the blitz might be expected. Nick Foles and Sam Bradford topped ESPN’s list and the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles drafted quarterbacks first and second overall this year.  

Colin Kaepernick was third in the ranking of worst quarterbacks against the blitz as the only quarterback to complete less than 50 percent of his passes when pressured, but Eli Manning was sort of the anti-Palmer. While Manning was blitzed less frequently than any other quarterback last year, he had only a 67.7 passer rating in those situations (only Foles and Bradford were worse).

The final one of the list might be surprising. Joe Flacco has the second-highest interception rate (3.4 percent) in the NFL when blitzed over the last three years, according to ESPN.

While defensive minded coaches will tell they can’t blitz young quarterbacks all the time or can’t shy away from blitzing veterans who are adept at reading defenses, it would seem they might want to alter their game plans – and blitz percentages – against some of those quarterbacks who either struggled or excelled when pressured last year.


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