That's what defensive coordinators around the NFL are uttering after watching Peyton Manning find his groove as the quarterback of the Denver Broncos. The four-time MVP has been on a sensational run over the past five games, completing 68.5 percent of his passes for 1,619 yards and 14 touchdowns with only one interception. He has posted five straight 300-yard games, helping the Broncos (4-3) surpass the 30-point mark in three of those contests.
While Manning has performed at this level for most of his career, there were great concerns about his ability to re-emerge as an elite quarterback following multiple neck surgeries, a season-long absence and a move from the Indianapolis Colts to Denver. With Manning performing like a Pro Bowler again, I thought I would pop in some All-22 Coaches Film to see what the Broncos are doing to help the veteran overcome his shortcomings while maximizing the talent around him.
Here's what I discovered:
1) The Broncos have become a no-huddle offense.
After attempting to utilize a conventional approach during the first few games of the season, the Broncos have exclusively featured the no-huddle offense in recent weeks. Part of the decision could be attributed to the fact that the Broncos faced significant deficits against the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers, but I believe the switch was intended to make Manning more comfortable as the leader of the offense. By operating at a quicker pace, the Broncos are able to limit defensive substitutions, resulting in fewer exotic schemes and pass-rush packages. This also causes the defensive line to fatigue quicker, putting a dent in the ferocity and effectiveness of the pass rush by the end of the game.
The move to the no-huddle offense also discourages defensive coordinators from blitzing; they're reluctant to call pressures against hurry-up teams for fear of a cornerback or safety failing to hear the play call and blowing their assignment. This allows Manning to attack a static defense without the threat of a heavy rush. For a pinpoint passer with extraordinary anticipation and awareness, the game transforms into a 7-on-7 contest, with all of the odds tipping in the offense's favor.
Finally, the Broncos' utilization of the no-huddle allows Manning to take control of the game at the line of scrimmage. The veteran will step to the line, read the alignment of the defensive front and the coverage and get the Broncos into the proper call to exploit the look. Given Manning's experience and exceptional football IQ, the Broncos are rarely in a bad play, which leads to fewer negative plays for the offense.
2) Heavy utilization of "11" and "12" personnel packages makes Denver difficult to defend.
One of the overlooked aspects of Denver's offense has been the clever utilization of personnel to create mismatches at the point of attack. The Broncos accomplish this by routinely featuring "11" (one back, one tight end, three wide receivers) and "12" (one back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) packages in the game plan.
While most teams will use various one-back personnel groupings to generate favorable matchups, the Broncos have shown the capacity to run or pass out of each package, making it difficult for defensive coordinators to anticipate what is coming when substitutes are running on the field. In looking at Denver's 34-14 win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday night, I was impressed by the play-calling balance (41 runs, 30 passes) and the variance of personnel, regardless of the down. By routinely switching personnel groupings while utilizing the same formations and plays, the Broncos can thrive against any defensive scheme.
In the screengrab below, the Broncos are in an ace formation with "12" personnel on the field:
This package balances up the set with tight ends on both sides of the line, thus eliminating the effectiveness of a defense loading up the box. Additionally, the balanced formation has a "four verticals" threat (the receivers on the outside run go-routes down the numbers, while the tight ends run down the hashes) that puts defensive coordinators in a play-calling quandary.
This creates an alignment issue for the defense (lack of a run supporter) against a potential run to Green's side, while also posing the same "four verticals" threat in the passing game.
And in the next screengrab, the Broncos have "11" personnel in the game, with Brandon Stokley aligned in the slot:
While the formation is similar to that shown in the prior screengrab, Stokley's speed and quickness create a dilemma for the defensive coordinator, who must decide between the base or nickel defense.
3) Mike McCoy has wisely implemented parts of the old Colts' offense.
The NFL's top offensive coordinators are willing to tailor their schemes to fit the talents of their best players. Not only is Manning Denver's top player, but he is one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in NFL history. Part of his success can be attributed to the fact that he's played in the same scheme for most of his career. Manning has mastered the nuances of the system and developed counters to most defensive tactics. McCoy appreciated Manning's effectiveness within his previous system and implemented several of his new quarterback's favorite concepts into the Broncos' attack.
In studying Denver's offense on tape, I've noticed a few carryover concepts from the Indianapolis Colts' playbook.
Over the past few weeks, the Broncos have featured the stretch as their No. 1 running play. The design of the play gets the runner to the corner before he is instructed to bounce to the outside or cut back into an open seam off tackle. While this requires Manning to sprint to the outside to meet the running back for the handoff, it eventually sets up an effective play-action pass fake that nets big yards.
McGahee takes the ball to the corner and looks for an open crack:
With his lead blockers clearing a path, McGahee makes a hard cut inside and hits the open seam for a 17-yard gain.
Here is another example of the stretch play, with running back Ronnie Hillman taking the ball to the outside:
The Broncos block the play perfectly and Hillman scoots through an open lane for a 31-yard gain.
WIDE RECEIVER SCREEN
The Broncos have used the wide receiver screen sparingly in the past, but it has become a staple of the game plan since Manning's arrival. The veteran signal-caller routinely fires the ball out to Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker or Green on quick screens to take advantage of soft coverage on the outside. In addition, Manning will use the bubble screen to offset the blitz pressure from opponents sending crashers off the edge. With the ball coming quickly out of Manning's hand, defenders are unable to put a shot on the veteran and are forced to tackle the Broncos' big, physical playmakers in the open field. This is a daunting task against most pass catchers, but it's particularly so against the Broncos' aforementioned trio; Thomas, Decker and Green are all big and strong enough to run through arm tackles.
If Manning senses a blitz coming off the edge, he will check to the bubble screen to exploit the tactic and avoid taking a hit in the pocket. Against the Saints, he routinely checked out of his original play and quickly dumped the ball to Green on the perimeter:
The Broncos have also started to incorporate more variations of the wide receiver screen. As diagrammed in the following screengrab, Manning increases the effectiveness of the play by really selling a run-action fake before firing the ball outside to Thomas:
With the linebackers pulled inside by the threat of a run, there's more space for Thomas on the perimeter, leading to a big gain.
Denver enters each game with a few play-action passes designed to produce big gains on vertical throws. Every team in the NFL attempts to feature complementary play-action passes, but the Broncos are one of the best at building play-action passes that match their favorite runs. By making the initial part of the play look like a stretch run or draw (with the coordination of the offensive line and running backs), the Broncos are able to lure linebackers and defensive backs to the line of scrimmage, creating huge voids down the field. Manning enhances the organized deception by selling the run with clever ball fakes in the backfield. Thanks to the veteran's knack for picking on the out-of-position defender, the Broncos have been able to consistently produce explosive plays on play-action passes.
In the screengrab below, the Broncos are aligned in an ace formation, with Decker and Thomas aligned on the outside. Manning will execute a play fake and wheel around to find Thomas breaking to the outside on the corner:
In the following screengrab, taken from the Broncos' 37-6 win over the Oakland Raiders, Denver is aligned in a dubs formation. Manning takes the snap and fakes the draw before looking downfield for an open receiver on a four-verticals route:
Tight end Joel Dreessen breaks open down the right hash in front of the safety for a 22-yard touchdown.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.