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Film Study: Philip Rivers and Keenan Allen beat the Zone Blitz

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Denver's defense played a lot of zone coverage. Zones are vulnerable to a precise route runner like Keenan Allen, and despite the Chargers' struggles, Rivers found him often on plays like this one.

Keenan Allen was open. A lot.
Keenan Allen was open. A lot.
Justin Edmonds

Denver's defense was very good this week at taking away the Chargers' running game and vertical passing game. With all that zone, however, the Broncos left the intermediate throws open. These throws were the ones the Chargers were able to convert with ease on Thursday night, which is why it's surprising they didn't go after it more often.

The Play: 7:30 remaining in the 2nd Quarter. 2nd and 10 Chargers at the 50 yard line.

The Chargers use "11" personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR). Here's a diagram of the play.

Play Diagram

The Chargers' Offense, from left to right.

  • WR Malcom Floyd (80) runs a Comeback Route.
  • WR Eddie Royal (11) runs a Skinny Post Route.
  • RB Branden Oliver (43) is flanking Rivers' on the right. He stays in to block.
  • TE Ladarius Green (89) runs a Shallow Cross Route.
  • WR Keenan Allen (13) runs a Hitch Route.

The Broncos' Defense (from the defense's right to left).

  • Up Front: LB Lerentee McCray (55), DE Derek Wolfe (95), DT Terrance Knighton (98), DT Sylvester Williams (92), DE Quanteras Smith (93).
  • In the Middle: LB Nate Irving (56), LB Brandon Marshall (54).
  • In the Secondary: CB Chris Harris (25), FS Rahim Moore (26), SS T.J. Ward (43), CB Bradley Roby (29)
  • The Broncos are running a standard 4-3-4 defense by personnel. However, with McCray lined up so close to the Line of Scrimmage, the look is closer to a 5-2-4.

Elements of the Play

Figure 1 shows the pre-snap business. Rivers doesn't send Oliver in motion to get the defense to show whether it's playing man or zone coverage. What you do see is Rivers talking to Oliver, and pointing at McCray - who is currently lined up in front of and just inside Royal. This sets off alarms for Rivers, as he knows there's a low probability of a LB covering a WR, and it's therefore likely that McCray will be blitzing. Rivers is telling Oliver that's his blitz pickup assignment. It would be "weird" for Rivers to point out this blitz pickup to Oliver, then miss it completely, as Phil Simms suggested during the broadcast.

Figure 1


At the snap, Figure 2 shows Denver's defense employing a zone blitz, likely to try and manufacture pressure on Rivers while both Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware are off the field. Denver's attacking DL slant to the left and McCray and Irving blitz behind them, while Smith drops into coverage. The zone blitz also protects rookie CB Bradley Roby, who's temporarily in the game for CB Aqib Talib. Behind the blitz, both FS Rahim Moore and SS T.J. Ward bail out to cover the deep middle of the field.

Figure 2


At this point in Figure 3, Oliver has moved over to try and pick up the blitz. Oliver, however, is in a pickle. Generally speaking, the rule for blitz pickup is always to locate the free man inside - as he will get to the QB before an outside rusher will. In this case, however, Irving ducks behind Wolfe. The result is Wolfe slanting left, picked up by Rinehart. Irving is picked up by Dunlap. Oliver is looking for Irving while McCray has a clean shot at the QB. This is a classic case of a veteran Defensive Coordinator (Jack del Rio, in this case) attacking a rookie RB with a blitz.

Figure 3


In Figure 4, Rivers has just come off his 1st read - to TE Ladarius Green, running a Shallow Cross. However, Green is covered closely by Marshall, and Smith is covering any route which breaks back to the right. Rivers comes off Green and locates Allen outside.

Figure 4


Keenan Allen has some of the best feet in the NFL. Figure 5 shows how he does a terrific job running Roby off the point where his route breaks back inside and creates about 5 yards of separation. By the time he makes his break, Rivers has already unloaded the ball (and taken a big hit), and Roby is in no position to make a play on the ball. Near disaster is about to be turned into a pretty easy 1st down pass play.

By the way, check out Royal in the slot. If Oliver is able to pick-up the backside pressure, Royal is free on the Skinny Post, with Moore still retreating. The Chargers went on to score a TD on this possession, but this shows how critical it is for RBs to have the correct blitz pickup. A potential great play becomes a good play and only then by milliseconds.

Figure 5


Here's a GIF of the play


Author's Note: The player dropping into zone coverage is not McCoy. It's Quanteras Smith.


This game was an absolute clinic by Keenan Allen on short and intermediate route running, and it goes to show he hasn't regressed. In fact, this game showed how dangerous he can be when an opponent pays too much attention to the running game and the vertical passing game. If the Chargers had force fed him the ball, instead of wasting plays attempting to establish the run, they could have given themselves a better chance of stealing this game.