While it’s crystal clear that nobody is going to be shocked by Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel in 2013, it’s still a huge question mark as to which defenses will be able to stop the reigning Heisman trophy winner in the season that lies ahead.
Though you’ve got to figure that if somebody can stop Manziel it will be an SEC defense, have you ever wondered what specific attributes it will take to shut him down?
Beyond this, which program fields the type of defense that best fits the profile to end Johnny Football’s offensive reign in college football?
Well, though it would be simple to say “Manziel is fast, elusive, can get it done both ways, is confident and blah blah blah” and match him up with defenses that are faster, more aggressive, better coached, etc., accurately predicting which team is best suited to shut the door in his face requires a bit more objective research.
Indeed, to answer this question properly, it’s key to look at what Manziel killed teams with as a freshman in 2012, statistically speaking, and then find a defense in the SEC that is an overachiever in those specific categories.
So, while we know that Manziel was roughly responsible for 70 percent of the Aggies' gross yardage production in 2012—and remember this is no small pocket change because A&M ranked No. 3 in total offense last season—but what was he good at in particular?
Delving into Manziel’s situational stats, there are a few areas that standout pointing to how he managed to start the season as a redshirt freshman and morph into the first-ever freshman Heisman winner.
To get the ball rolling, Manziel lit up opponents in the second quarter of games both as a passer and rusher.
To illustrate, his passer rating on the season was 155.32, which put him at No. 16 among FBS QBs, but his highest rating, by quarter, was in the second period when his number jumped to 161.25.
Though his completion percentage wasn’t at its highest in the second quarter, his total passing yards, total passing TDs, passing first downs and passing plays over 10 and 15 yards all hit highs in the second 15 minutes of the game in 2012.
If this weren’t enough, Manziel, who was the No. 22 rusher among all backs in the FBS in 2012, rushed for an average of 8.08 yards in the second quarter last season—a number which made the second his most productive segment by far.
And, like his passing numbers, the second quarter was home to the biggest portion of his total rushing yards, his most rushing TDs and the largest percentage of his rushing plays that resulted in gains of over 10 and 20 yards.
Simply put, Manziel was a beast in the second quarter to the tune of pumping out 38 percent of his offensive yardage in those precious 15 minutes of each game.
So, if a defense is going to stop Manziel, it will have to be sickly good in this subset of the game.
The next situational-statistical strength that Manziel’s performance in 2012 produced was his work on third down, especially third and more than seven yards.
To illustrate, as a passer last season, Manziel’s rating jumped up to 182.81 overall on third down, was a crazy high 202.18 on third and between seven and nine yards and then dipped marginally to 190.83 on third and more than 10 yards.
Again, it’s important to view these numbers against the backdrop of his overall passer rating on the season, 155.32, which was No. 16 nationally.
So, the picture here for opposing defenses is very clear; if your defense is already experiencing technical difficulties stopping foes on third and long (or longish), then Johnny Manziel is suddenly your worst nightmare.
From a rushing angle, Manziel’s average yards per carry in 2012 was a healthy 7.01, a number which jumped up to a greedy 9.08 overall on all third-down situations.
This already scary stat became an alarming 12.47 yards per carry on third and 10 or more yards in 2012, meaning that if it you’re counting on Manziel killing you softly with a pass (which he could based on the stats we discussed above), don’t discount the run where he’s been even more deadly.
So, once again, third down, especially third and more than seven yards, means that you must have a proven track record of shutting down both the pass and the run if you are going to be the defense that derails the Johnny Football express.
The other situational stat where Manziel the rusher showed significant gains was in plays that originated between the 40 yard lines, where his rushing yards per carry jumped from the season average of 7.01 to 9.42.
Though this may seem fairly insignificant on the surface, it really provides a bit of a clue as to how Aggie drives which could have tanked instead succeeded, resulting in 11 wins and the Heisman as opposed to eight wins and the “see you next season” plaque.
Of course there was also that beastly Aggie offensive line leading the way up and down the field, but since we’re trying to keep things simple, we won’t go there…
So then, we’ve laid a crude blueprint for what the defense that could stop Manziel next season needs to look like.
The checklist includes: a stifling, no surrender second quarter, no mercy both through the air and on the ground on third down (especially third and plus seven) and a shut-down rushing mentality between the 40s.
So, who’s got it?
Well, the team that has it, at least based on last year’s stats, is the first-SEC team ever to beat Texas A&M in the SEC—Florida.
The Gators finished the 2012 season ranked No. 11 in the nation in terms of second-quarter performance versus the pass and were No. 9 nationally in the second quarter versus the run.
That checks box number one.
Next, Florida was ranked No. 27 nationally last year against the pass on third down and gave up an average of only 2.87 yards versus the run on third-down situations.
That ticks box number two.
As far as third and long, we’ll start with passing situations. Florida allowed only 132 yards total all season on third down and seven to nine yard-to-go scenarios (Manziel’s highest passer came from this specific instance) and then gave up only 223 yards, again in total, from third and over 10 yards to go.
Two more check marks.
Next up, from third and plus-10 yards to go from a rushing standpoint, the Gator D gave up an average of only 2.78 yards per carry in 2012.
Another check mark.
And to close out the statistical round up, Florida finished last season ranked No. 19 nationally in terms of rushing defense between the 40s, giving up a total of 382 ground yards in 13 games or an average of 4.2 yards per play.
Last box ticked.
What’s unfortunate about the Gators as far as actually road testing this blueprint in 2013 is they aren’t on the Aggies' regular slate this season and won’t face Manziel unless the two teams meet in the SEC title game.
While this is a definite possibility, it’s obviously far from in the books.
Regardless of how things shake out in the SEC in 2013, it’s likely that the defense that is successful in slamming the door in Manziel’s face this season will have some of same strengths as Florida’s unit did a year ago.