The best game planners in the NFL can craft scripts that accentuate the strengths of the quarterback while minimizing the signal caller's deficiencies. Although the play designer must factor in the skills of his perimeter playmakers, his primary goal is to make the quarterback as comfortable as possible on game day.
In Denver, Gary Kubiak faces the daunting task of building a playoff game plan around a veteran quarterback with limited mobility and declining arm talent in Peyton Manning. Although Manning played at an MVP level as recently as 2013, the 18th-year pro is having what has to be considered the worst season of his career -- or, at the very least, the worst since his 28-pick rookie campaign. Consider that he had the second-most interceptions in the NFL this season (17) despite playing in just 10 games (nine starts). If there are any lingering effects of the foot injury that interrupted his season, his mobility, zip, velocity and range could be limited.
Given those concerns heading into the Broncos' divisional matchup with the Steelers on Sunday, Kubiak will need to come up a plan that helps his veteran quarterback get into a groove against a Pittsburgh defense that's rounding into form in the postseason. After digging into the All-22 Coaches Film, I've come up with five things I expect the Broncos to do to help Manning orchestrate a win:
1) Use "tempo" to push the pace.
While the physical aspects of his game have deteriorated, Manning still has an exceptional football IQ. The five-time MVP picked apart opponents for years utilizing a frenetic no-huddle approach that allowed him to play chess with defensive coordinators and defenders at the line of scrimmage. Manning's remarkable ability to quickly decipher coverage and defensive fronts allows the Broncos to use a "check with me" attack package that features a run-pass check on every play.
With the veteran instructed to read the number of defenders in the box to determine whether to run or pass, the Broncos are guaranteed to be in the optimal play against any defensive call. Moreover, the rapid pace between plays limits defensive substitutions and forces opponents to avoid exotic pressures and blitzes due to communication concerns.
Given the Broncos' formation flexibility out of their "12" personnel package (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers), in particular, the use of tempo can exploit the Steelers' decision to use base or nickel personnel. If the Steelers elect to stay in base against the Broncos' two-tight end sets, Manning can instruct Owen Daniels or Vernon Davis to align in a slot or flanked position to create a spread formation. This will pit one of their crafty playmakers against a linebacker in space, a matchup that typically results in a positive play for the offense.
If the Steelers use their nickel defense against the "12" personnel grouping, Manning can condense the formation into a one-back power formation or a hybrid two-back formation to attack with a traditional running game directed at the nickel corner. With the Broncos using a fast pace between snaps, Manning can prevent Pittsburgh from substituting defenders and continue to exploit the vulnerability throughout the game.
2) Make the screen game a prominent part of the game plan.
The Broncos' screen game is a low-risk concept that routinely yields big gains on the perimeter. The combination of clever play design and explosive perimeter talent allows Denver to overwhelm opponents with quick passes thrown to receivers and tight ends at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Broncos will use a number of pass catchers in the screen game, of course -- but the concept is downright scary when Demaryius Thomas touches the ball on bubble and tunnel screens on the perimeter.
Checking in at 6-foot-3 and 229 pounds, Thomas is a menacing presence with the ball in his hands. He is not only too big for most defensive backs to bring down in one-on-one tackle situations, but his speed and burst allow him to run away from defenders when he spots an open lane behind multiple blockers on the perimeter. With the Broncos routinely putting Thomas on the outside of three-man bunch formations or on the single side away from bunch, the screen game is always in play for Manning whenever he identifies a nickel defender creeping into the box.
Given Manning's physical limitations as a passer and Thomas' explosiveness as a runner, the Broncos' use of the screen game should be a key part of the game plan against Pittsburgh.
3) Include the "mesh" crossing game on the script.
One of the keys to Manning's success throughout his career has been his ability to quickly counter defensive tactics with clever play calls. Since his arrival in Denver in 2012, the Broncos have routinely used a variety of "pick and rub" concepts to counteract tight man or press coverage on the perimeter. While there are a number of pick routes designed to destroy bump-and-run coverage, the Broncos' crossing game is problematic due to the size of the team's tight ends (Davis measures 6-3, 250; Daniels is listed at 6-3, 245) and Thomas. Thus, opponents with smallish defensive backs run the risk of getting knocked off their assignments when two receivers "mesh" (that is, they cross at similar depths over the middle) between the hashes.
The Broncos' use of "mesh" concepts also destroys the integrity of zone-blitz concepts. Most defensive coordinators diagram zone blitzes with three deep defenders and three underneath droppers. With defensive linemen and linebackers frequently deployed as underneath defenders, the crossers exploit their lack of awareness and route recognition (low-level defenders fail to recognize receivers crossing the field from the opposite side). Given the big plays that result when defenders blow assignments, the "pick and rub" crossing game could come in handy against the Steelers' aggressive tactics.
Against the Packers in Week 8, the Broncos used a variation of the "mesh" concept to get Daniels open between the hashes, as depicted below. The big-bodied tight end is positioned at Y in a trey formation. He runs across the field on a shallow cross. Ronnie Hillman runs a check route to the right. The crossing action creates confusion for Packers defender Clay Matthews as he crosses the field, leaving Daniels wide open for an easy completion (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
4) Feature digs and comebacks on intermediate pass plays.
There's no disputing Manning's limited arm strength at this stage of his career, but the veteran is still a capable short-to-intermediate-range passer. Although his waning zip and velocity prevent him from firing fastballs past defenders squatting on routes, Manning remains a terrific anticipation thrower with a knack for delivering the ball within the strike zone on the receiver's break. Manning consistently releases the ball well before the receiver hits the top of his route, which makes it nearly impossible for defenders to make a play on it.
Having studied the All-22 Coaches Film from Manning's regular-season games, I believe the veteran is most effective throwing comebacks and digs at intermediate range. While these routes certainly test the limitations of Manning's range, the veteran finds a way to connect with his receivers on these plays. Thus, the Broncos would be wise to feature these concepts in the game plan to help Manning find a rhythm as a passer and playmaker.
What's the best way to utilize the Broncos' perimeter personnel? It appears the team should use Emmanuel Sanders on comebacks and Thomas on digs to play to their individual strengths. Sanders, a sixth-year pro, is a superb route runner with exceptional balance, body control and short-area burst. He displays rare timing on double moves, which makes him a perfect receiver to target on comebacks or post-outs along the boundary.
Against the San Diego Chargers in Week 17, Manning took advantage of "off" coverage by targeting Sanders on a comeback on first down, as depicted below. With the defender aligned 8 yards away from the line of scrimmage prior to the snap, Manning knows he can fire the ball to the sideline on his fifth step to pick up an easy completion. Given the perfect timing between quarterback and receiver, the Broncos can take advantage of soft coverage on early downs with a simple route concept (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Thomas is a "catch and run" specialist with exceptional running skills. He lacks the stop-start quickness to cleanly execute double moves, but he routinely shakes free from defenders on "speed cuts" (short and intermediate routes that allow receivers to round off the top of their breaks). With his exceptional physical dimensions providing Manning a big target to pinpoint between the hashes, the Broncos should feature Thomas on in-breaking routes at intermediate range.
Against the Packers in Week 8, Manning repeatedly hit Thomas on an assortment of dig routes between the hashes. In the play depicted below, on third-and-8 in the third quarter, the Broncos align in an exotic empty formation, with four receivers to the right and a single receiver on the back side. Thomas is positioned as the outside WR in a three-man bunch and instructed to run a dig over the top of a snag by Cody Latimer. With the defense unable to properly match up with the formation, Thomas shakes free for an easy completion over the middle (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Given the easy completions Manning routinely records on comebacks and digs, Kubiak should make those concepts a prominent part of the game plan against the Steelers.
5) Have Manning take deep shots off deception or misdirection.
Despite Manning's limitations as a deep-ball thrower, the Broncos must attack every area of the field to keep the defense from condensing it. Thus, Kubiak will need to script four to six deep shots in the game plan to keep defenders at bay. The All-22 Coaches Film of Manning's game tells me he still has enough juice to push the ball down the field on quick fades or double moves along the boundary. In addition, Manning is also capable of dropping a dime on a deep post route or seam pass following a hard run-action fake in the backfield.
If the Steelers are intent on taking away the Broncos' short and intermediate plays with tight coverage, Manning must make them pay by throwing the ball over the top of the defense. Although Manning's deep-ball range caps out at around 45 yards, he has mastered the art of getting the ball "out and up" (quarterback releases the ball early with a high trajectory to allow his receivers to run under it down the field) to his playmakers on the outside.
Manning enjoyed success early in the season targeting Thomas and Sanders on quick fades down the boundary to both directions. I would expect him to take a few shots early in the game when he spots a Steelers defender aligned in press coverage, with the safety positioned between the hashes.
Against the Detroit Lions in Week 3, Manning hit Thomas on a quick fade against "off" coverage for a 45-yard touchdown on fourth-and-1, as you can see in the video below. The veteran senses Lions CB Darius Slay squatting on the route based on down and distance and delivers a teardrop to Thomas along the sideline. While Slay appeared to be in perfect position, Manning's high toss allows Thomas to win a jump ball over a smaller defender for an explosive gain. Given Thomas' size advantage over the Steelers' defensive backs, Manning could elect to take a few shots down the field when he spots one-on-one coverage on his WR1.
Against the Cleveland Browns in Week 6, Sanders and Manning connected on a fade for a 75-yard touchdown, as you can see in the video below. The key to the play was Manning's immediate recognition of bump-and-run coverage and his ability to get the ball out of his hands quickly before Sanders exceeded his range. Although the safety (Jordan Poyer) closed quickly on the play, Manning's precise ball placement and quick delivery prevented him from making a play on the ball.
Despite concerns about Manning's arm strength, particularly in cold weather, the Broncos have to encourage the veteran to take a handful of shots during the game to exploit one-on-one coverage.