Breaking Down how Mike Nolan’s defense confused Peyton Manning


Aug. 24, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan looks on before a game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

Mike Nolan came to the Atlanta Falcons staff with a lot of conversation about what he would do to make this defense better without a huge influx of talent. I was hopeful, but also reserved about thinking Nolan’s defense would turn the tide for the Falcons. His impact has certainly been felt through the first two games, and while that isn’t a whole season, the impact against the great Peyton Manning really highlights how confusing this Atlanta defense was the first quarter and a half.

The one play that truly highlights this was the first interception thrown by Manning on his second pass attempt of the game. The play design was pretty simple, but the freedom Nolan gave his players to move around before the ball was snapped was the key. Looking at the pre-snap alignment, both corners are playing way off their receivers, and Thomas DeCoud is playing a deep safety. While he isn’t perfectly in the middle of the field, this is designed to look like a Cover 3 defense (three deep defensive backs, in this case two corners and a safety in the middle of the field). If it were Cover 3, DeCoud would rotate into the middle of the field to complete the defense. Instead, he simply plays the near-side hash, and plays deep. There will be a void around the far-side hash if only those three players dropped into deep coverage.

The confusion came from what was going on underneath that coverage shell. The linebackers were shifting all over the place, showing blitz and moving back to their initial position. Kroy Biermann shifted from a down lineman position to the linebacker level, switching off with a linebacker who took his spot. William Moore was five yards from the line of scrimmage, and looked like he was going to blitz from either the far-side of the offensive line, or up the middle. There was a lot of pressure that the Falcons were showing, and Manning was counting on a Cover-3 look that also brought a lot of pressure including a safety blitz. That was not what the Falcons ended up unfolding.

In the end, the Falcons rushed four defensive linemen. They left three linebackers in underneath zone coverage, something that isn’t very complicated. The key, however, is that William Moore was within five yards of the line of scrimmage at the snap, and had the speed to get back into deep coverage. Remember how I said a couple paragraphs ago that the corners had the deep sideline zones, and that DeCoud was covering the near-side hash deep? Well Moore’s role was to play the far-side hash deep zone, giving the Falcons a Cover-4 defense, with Robinson, DeCoud, Moore, and Samuel playing deep zones.

The key is that Moore had the freedom to be in the box before the snap, as long as he reached his deep Cover-4 zone in time to reach his landmark before any receiver did. Manning wasn’t expecting him to drop deep, and once the ball was snapped he lost track of his after assuming Moore was coming on a blitz or playing an underneath zone. The end result of an interception was the culmination of a very simple play design, combined with the defensive coordinator trusting his players to do their job while disguising what they were doing. The initial alignment of the defensive backs showed Manning one thing, he trusted what he saw, and went with it. The excellent disguise by Moore and the sell by the other defensive backs made this play come together. Credit Nolan’s design and Moore’s execution on this play.