The Denver Broncos' acquisition of Peyton Manning certainly has placed the team among the ranks of the AFC elite. The offense should become one of the most explosive units in the league, and Manning's thumbprint undoubtedly will be on the game plan, despite the presence of rising offensive coordinator Mike McCoy.
Mike McCoy earned rave reviews for his creative game planning with Tim Tebow, but the addition of Manning will test his adaptability as an offensive architect. Rather than force his offensive system upon a veteran quarterback, he will amend his playbook and cater to Manning's preferences.
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This isn't a novel concept when an established quarterback joins a new team, but the unique nature of the Indianapolis Colts' passing game under Manning will require McCoy to really expand his horizons as a tactician. Part of his schematic growth will come from stealing concepts from the Colts' offense during intensive film study, while other ideas will arise from conversations with Manning regarding his favorite passing plays. The constant exchange of information will lead to several tweaks to the offensive playbook designed to make Manning comfortable in his new setting.
Recalling a few of the staples of the Colts' offense under Manning, I would expect the Broncos to use several "Smash/Corner" combination routes. The outside receiver will run a smash or "under" route (five-yard shallow-crossing route) with the slot receiver or tight end running a post-corner route. The concept is effective against all coverages because it puts the cornerback in a bind, with receivers available at multiple levels on the outside quadrant of the field, allowing Manning to string together completions by making sound decisions with the ball.
Another tactic certain to find its way into the Broncos' playbook is the "All-Go" vertical concept. The Colts routinely aligned in a 2-by-2 formation, with four receivers running down the field on go-routes (inside receivers run down the hashes and outside receivers run down the bottom of the numbers). Operating out of the shotgun, Manning will execute an inside fake to the running back before looking downfield. He will look to hit a slot receiver running down the seam immediately off the run-fake or hold the safety on the hash with his eyes before hitting an outside receiver down the boundary. When Manning is on his game, the route is impossible to defend and consistently nets big gains and/or touchdowns.
McCoy couldn't incorporate complex passing elements with Tebow under center, but the arrival of Manning will help the Broncos build upon the simplistic schemes featured a season ago.
The Broncos led the NFL in rushing offense a season ago, utilizing a series of zone runs and option reads. However, the installation of Manning under center will lead to some tweaking of the ground game. Rather than featuring zone-read plays from the shotgun, the Broncos will return to the zone-based system utilized when Kyle Orton was the starter.
The system, which actually rose to prominence in Denver under former offensive line guru Alex Gibbs, is deeply rooted in the synchronization of the offensive line coupled with the disciplined approach of the running back. And meshing this with a strong complementary run-action passing game puts defenses in a quandary.
In reviewing Manning's best run-action passes, I noticed that he excelled on passes executed following the outside zone or "Stretch" play. The run, which directs the running back to the inside leg of the offensive tackle, forces linebackers to flow fast to the edge, making them susceptible ball fakes followed with pinpoint intermediate throws.
Given Willis McGahee's production and the Broncos' reputation as a dominant running team, a little sleight of hand and precision passing should yield big results for the Broncos.
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The Broncos' young receivers have shown flashes of brilliance, but they are still raw and unpolished at the position. However, if history is any indication, Manning's arrival will bring out the best in this duo.
In Indianapolis, Manning helped Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie and a host of others become productive players in the Colts' offense. Part of their success can be attributed to their diligent work on and off the field with the four-time MVP. Manning and his Colts receivers spent countless hours on the practice field and in the film room, running through the finer points of each route. Providing a keen understanding of timing in the passing game and a mastery of the route tree, this extra work accelerated the development of Indianapolis' young receivers and led to big Sunday results.
In Denver, Manning will certainly implement a similar program to get the Broncos' youthful pass catchers up to speed. He will work tirelessly throughout the offseason with Thomas and Decker, and their diligence will quickly build trust and camaraderie within the unit. Most importantly, Manning will develop a great sense of where his receivers will be when it's time to unload, which will allow him to blindly release the ball before his targets come out of their breaks.
With defenses unable to disrupt the timing of the passing game due to the rigid league rules, Manning's budding chemistry with his young receivers should produce robust numbers in Denver.
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The no-huddle offense has played a pivotal role in Manning's success. Its frenetic pace limits the opponent's substitution patterns, blitz options and pre-snap coverage disguises, allowing Manning to control the game from the line of scrimmage.
Manning thrives in the no-huddle approach because of his exceptional football IQ. He quickly deciphers pre-snap coverage, and his innate ability to get into the right play call puts defensive coordinators in a bind when deciding how to attack the veteran in the pocket. If they decide to bring pressure and tip their hand before the snap, Manning will check into a blitz beater and attack the vulnerable area downfield. If the defensive play caller opts to sit back in coverage and doesn't at least bluff a blitz, Manning will simply exploit the weakness with a short, high-percentage throw.
Another factor in the Broncos' likely use of the no-huddle offense is the effect of the altitude on the stamina and conditioning of the defense. Opponents routinely wilt under the challenging conditions of the Rocky Mountains; the no-huddle will only exacerbate the difficulties of playing in thin air. With defenders playing at a rapid pace without the opportunity to get an occasional breather on the sideline, the Broncos will eventually wear down their opponents.
Manning's no-huddle units in Indianapolis routinely pummeled defenses in the game's late stages. His work in Denver should produce similar results.