As a young quarterback, Andy Dalton is still learning to read defenses that disguise themselves to bring pressure and change coverage in creative ways. His struggles against the fire zone blitzes of Pittsburgh are well documented.
Denver’s defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has a few tricks up his sleeve, as well as one of the most dangerous defensive weapons in the league: Von Miller. Miller’s skill set allows him to rush from a two- or three-point stance, play the run in space and cover in zone or man-to-man with athletic tight ends.
In fact, Miller is such a versatile threat, Del Rio created a nickel package designed to take advantage of his unique skill set.
The 3-3-5 Nickel Package
I wrote earlier this season about how the 3-3-5 suffocated Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers, and it has evolved even further since that early-season contest.
This alignment has Miller, circled, lined up as a stand-up linebacker in a traditional 7 technique over the offensive tackle. Occasionally, on very obvious passing downs, Miller will shift over to the right side of the line while the defensive line keeps their regular alignment. The offensive tackle will have his hands full with defensive end Elvis Dumervil, and that focuses a quarterback to either slide protection or let a running back try to block Miller, likely unsuccessfully.
The problem with sliding protection is that Miller can drop back into coverage, allowing another player to blitz in from the other side away from the pass protection. That is what happened when Denver linebacker Joe Mays broke through on a blitz and ripped off a piece of Matt Schaub’s ear.
A common technique that Denver uses is “thumbs” coverage, like shown here. Champ Bailey is aligned high on the bottom of the formation with a safety underneath. The safety defends against underneath routes and the cornerback is in position to protect against the deep route. Against the Saints, this forced Drew Brees to go 1/7 for only 18 yards on deep balls. On this play, he was rushed into an incompletion from Miller’s pass rush.
While the Bengals’ deep passing game is not as dangerous as that of the Saints, the Steelers used the thumbs technique with Ike Taylor taking away A.J. Green on the deep routes and a safety underneath to bracket Green and take away any intermediate routes. Bailey is likely to use the same technique today.