Quarterback Terrelle Pryor made just his second career start in Week 1—and his first with an offense designed around his strengths. Now, NFL defensive coordinators have a little more game tape on Pryor.
As they get more information, they are going to devise ways to slow him down.
The Oakland Raiders know that defenses are going to adjust, but predicting how they will adjust could open up more opportunities for running back Darren McFadden or the passing game. If the Raiders and Pryor don't adjust to the ways defenses try to limit him, the great Week 1 performance will just be an aberration.
Since Pryor is not a complete product, there are ways a defense can slow him down. The Raiders know as well as anyone that Pryor has some limitations, and they did their best to disguise them.
Unfortunately for the Raiders, Pryor's mistakes still cost them the win.
There has been a lot of discussion about the read-option this offseason. Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano is one of the coaches who believed the read-option would be slowed with study, yet his team allowed 112 yards on the ground to Pryor on Sunday.
It's not as easy to defend as people think.
Pryor used the read-option to pick up a good chunk of his rushing yards. The Colts were so focused on McFadden that Pryor was able to run around the defensive end frequently. He has the speed and elusiveness to make big plays in open space.
One thing Pryor didn't do was hand off to McFadden on read-option plays, even when it would have been the best decision. Defenses should force Pryor to hand it off to McFadden and take their chances. After averaging 3.3 yards per carry last year and just 2.8 yards per carry in Week 1, McFadden has a lot to prove.
For the most part, the Colts had their defensive ends crash down the line of scrimmage to stop the run. Even when they loaded the box, they couldn't stop Pryor on the read-option using this method.
Loading the box is one way teams might try to slow Pryor down. By putting eight or nine defenders close to the line of scrimmage, the defense is trying to force Pryor to beat them with his arm. Except in this case, the Colts' defensive end crashed and the majority of the defenders were on the wrong side of the formation.
Pryor has a tendency to run to his right, so this might have been an in-game adjustment by the Colts. The end result was a nine-yard rush for Pryor around the left edge. The defender responsible for edge containment was in no position to make a stop, so Pryor kept it and nearly picked up the first down with his feet.
On another play, the Colts only had seven in the box with a safety cheating up before he could even see if Pryor would hand it off or keep it himself. The difference between getting tackled for a loss and gaining big yardage came down to Pryor's read and the Colts' edge containment.
The two defensive linemen got a good push to the outside and had the outside run contained. The outside linebacker was also cheating outside, anticipating Pryor would pull it away from McFadden and try to get to the edge. Pryor should have realized the best play was to give it to McFadden, especially because it was first down.
Had Pryor made the right read, the Raiders had a double-team on the inside linebacker and McFadden would've had a big gain plus the possibility for an explosive play if he could have eluded the safety.
Pryor had nowhere to run and was tackled for a loss of a couple yards.
Until Pryor proves he can make the right read and McFadden proves he can make the most of those carries, defenses will have the ends contain instead of rush.
Even though Pryor has the amazing ability to escape pressure, he's prone to making mistakes when he has to throw on the run. Not only does Pryor often throw dangerous passes into coverage when he's on the run, but he also locks onto targets down the field and can often miss the easier underneath attempts.
Defenses should force Pryor to throw on the run by bringing extra pressure up the middle. If Pryor can’t find the checkdown or run it in these situations, he’ll complete a low percentage of his passes and will be prone to turnovers.
If Pryor starts finding receivers underneath, the secondary can adjust by Cover 1 Robber or something that would allow a defender to drive on the underneath passes.
However, this might leave the defense vulnerable to the deep pass. Defensive coordinators usually don't like to take this risk because it might allow a quarterback with a good arm like Pryor to make a big play through the air. But Pryor’s deep accuracy has been inconsistent at best, so it might be worth a shot.
Here's an example of how the Colts brought pressure on Pryor with good results.
This worked almost by accident because the Colts were loading up to stop the run on 3rd-and-1, so eight defenders are playing within a couple yards of the line of scrimmage and trying to get push up the middle.
The Raiders opt for the play-action fake and roll out Pryor to right, away from the interior pressure. Pryor gets outside with ease, but he locks onto fullback Marcel Reece.
Instead of setting himself to throw, Pryor throws inaccurately on the run. The ball lands way short and behind Reece. Pryor had two better options on the play: run it himself or hit wide receiver Rod Streater underneath. The Raiders punted on the next play.
Forcing Pryor to throw the ball outside the pocket is normally going to be a win for the defense. In this case, the pass fell incomplete, but it could have been worse for the Raiders if the Colts had been playing zone coverage and the defender could have made a play on the ball.
Expect defenses to bring interior pressure with stunts or zone blitzes to try to get Pryor to vacate the pocket while asking their defensive backs to read Pryor's eyes. Like many young quarterbacks, Pryor hasn't quite learned how manipulate the coverage, which will result in interceptions.
Shifting Zone Coverage
Stopping Pryor isn't all about limiting him on the ground.
If a defense can force him to make enough mistakes through the air, it will still have a very good chance to win. The Colts did just that by intercepting Pryor twice.
"The thing we judge on the practice field is (Pryor's) ability to make good decisions and his ability to throw the ball on time with accuracy," head coach Dennis Allen said Monday, via Oakland's official website. "That's what's going to make him a really good quarterback."
Pryor has ability to make plays with his feet, but unless he can make plays with his arm, defenses are going to slow him down. Pryor's ability to pass is what kept the Colts off-balance, but it also cost the Raiders the win.
Defenses are only going to make it harder on Pryor once they have an opportunity to examine his weaknesses.
On the second interception—when Pryor was facing a 3rd-and-long and a run wasn't practical—he didn't see the safety.
If Pryor can't see the safety and manipulate him, there's a good chance he's not going to see the coverage shift from Cover 2 to Cover 3 or from Cover 0 to Cover 2 Man. Shifting the coverage against Pryor will give defenders the opportunity to make plays on the ball in the air, especially a shift from a man look to a zone look.
On the game-sealing interception, Pryor's first read was to his left, but Denarius Moore was well covered. Pryor worked back to his right and saw Streater about to break across the face of the deep safety. The problem was that he didn't feel the deep middle safety and made a poor throw to compound the problem.
Had Pryor realized the deep safety was in the area, he could have put more air under the ball and let Streater try to track it down in the end zone. Pryor's best decision would have been to get to his third read, which was Brice Butler breaking toward the sideline at about the 10-yard line.
Had the throw gone to Butler, it might have been a touchdown. The deep safety was focused on Streater and the underneath defender's body was turned inside, so neither defender would have been able to make a tackle if Pryor threw accurately to Butler.
Until Pryor starts reading defenses more consistently, they are going to continue to challenge him to beat them with his arm. Expect Pryor to continue to see a lot of coverage that shifts after the snap in the hopes that he loses track of a defender.
Pryor will keep the Raiders in games with his feet, whether that means opening things up for McFadden or running it himself.
At this point, defenses might take their chances with McFadden and hope to force a few turnovers.
What that means going forward is that the Raiders will be in games, but Pryor will have to do better in the passing game for them to win. No matter how good Pryor is on the ground, multiple interceptions are going to keep the Raiders from winning the majority of the time.
Oakland's coaching staff is fully aware that Pryor gives them the best chance to win right now, but that they won't actually win unless Pryor can avoid mistakes in the passing game.
Only time will tell if Pryor can improve with experience.