The changing dynamics of the NFL these days have led title contenders to rely on explosive offenses rather than shutdown defenses.
Teams lucky enough to land an elite quarterback often build around the talents of their marquee star. From implementing a scheme that amplifies the strengths of the signal-caller to stockpiling a roster chock full of playmaking options, the plan for building a title contender starts with the quarterback.
1) Peyton Manning has his mojo back.
After Manning sat out the 2011 season following multiple neck injuries, many doubted that the four-time MVP could return to an elite level of performance. Questions about his overall health and durability were accompanied by concerns about his arm strength, accuracy and range as a passer. Many of those concerns were addressed last season, when he completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 4,659 yards with 37 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. Manning still didn't look like his former self down the stretch, though, seemingly lacking the arm strength to connect on vertical pass down the field. This was particularly evident in the divisional-round loss to the Baltimore Ravens, when Manning struggled to push the ball down the field. With that being the case, defenders could squat on short and intermediate routes without worrying about defending the deep ball.
However, I don't think the Broncos' opponents will be able to rely on such tactics this season. At the Manning Passing Academy, I saw Peyton throw the ball with superb velocity and zip while continuing to display exceptional accuracy and ball placement. Additionally, Manning showed outstanding anticipation and touch, connecting on a series of deep throws to a variety of receivers, including Broncos tight end Jacob Tamme. With Manning showing the arm strength and range to make all of the throws from the pocket, I'm sure the Broncos will be able to use their entire playbook in 2013.
Manning's improved mastery of said playbook should also help the offense produce better results this season. In 2012, the former Colt had to adjust to a new offensive philosophy before Fox allowed him to incorporate some of his favorite concepts from his days in Indianapolis, including the no-huddle offense. Granted the freedom to run the game from the line of scrimmage, the veteran returned to his comfort zone. This also simplified things for the young, inexperienced group of skill players around him.
Given an entire offseason to work out the kinks with a more mature supporting cast, the Broncos' no-huddle offense should torment opponents with pace and execution.
2) The addition of Wes Welker makes this receiving corps indefensible.
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The Broncos' receiving corps -- which was one of the most explosive in the league last season, with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker each topping the 1,000-yard mark -- will be even better with Welker on board. As one of the premier slot receivers in the NFL, the Pro Bowler has a game built on quickness, burst and running skills. Additionally, Welker is a masterful route runner with a knack for creating separation from defenders on option routes or shallow crossers between the hashes. As a result, he topped the 1,000-yard mark (and eclipsed 100 catches) five times in the past six years.
Welker will get a ton of looks on an assortment of quick screens, option routes and short crossers over the middle. This will allow Manning to connect with the dangerous runner quickly on a number of high-percentage passes. Giving the explosive Welker the ball in space will help the Broncos' offense stay on track. The diminutive playmaker has led the NFL in yards after the catch in four of the past six seasons.
Of course, the expectation that Welker will play a major role from the slot has led many to speculate that Thomas and Decker will see their production dip dramatically. But I believe adding Welker to the fold will lead to more big-play chances for each of the Broncos' young playmakers, as Denver should see more single coverage on the perimeter.
Thomas, a fourth-year pro, is a legitimate big-play threat with a combination of size, speed and strength that makes him nearly indefensible on the perimeter. He can overwhelm opponents with his burst on vertical routes or use his size and physicality to win on intermediate routes. Thomas finished 2012 with 29 receptions of 20-plus yards (second-most in the NFL, behind only Calvin Johnson), including five catches of at least 40 yards.
To tap into Thomas' skills as a vertical playmaker, the Broncos will align him at an outside position and take shots downfield on an assortment of go-routes or post patterns, as they did in the video clip above. This exploits the weakness of coverage designed to bracket or double-team the slot receiver, leading to big-play chances on the perimeter. Most importantly, it will put Thomas in the kinds of one-on-one situations that he can win with his speed and athleticism.
For Decker, Welker's presence will create more opportunities to work over the middle on intermediate routes. The Broncos frequently use levels concepts (a combination route with a shallow cross and a dig route directed from the same side) from "two-by-two" and "three-by-one" formations to take advantage of open windows over the middle. With Welker likely to attract multiple defenders on snags and crossers, Decker could have a field day snaring catches on in-breaking routes behind the linebackers, as he does in the video clip to the right.
The Broncos have given Manning a plethora of weapons at receiver to take advantage of the tactics preferred by defensive coordinators around the NFL. While the distribution of touches could be an issue in some situations, Manning's willingness to hit the open target could help the Broncos become the sixth team in NFL history to have three 1,000-yard receivers -- an accomplishment that Manning's Colts achieved in 2004, with Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison and Brandon Stokley.
3) The running game from "11" personnel will tear up nickel defenses.
The running game is rarely cited in discussions about the Broncos' offensive potential, but I see a rushing attack that is capable of giving opponents problems, particularly from "11" personnel (one running back, one tight end and three receivers).
Part of this belief stems from the fact that defensive coordinators tend to rely on nickel and dime defenses against three-receiver sets. With a linebacker removed from the lineup, the defense becomes vulnerable to the run, especially when those runs are directed to the weak side. Most defensive backs (especially nickel cornerbacks) lack the size, strength and physicality to set the edge against the run. Additionally, their reluctance to attack the line of scrimmage creates seams for runners, which allows 3- and 4-yard runs to turn into gains of 10-plus yards late in games. Factor in the poor tackling skills routinely demonstrated by secondary members, and it's clear that the Broncos will have a significant advantage when electing to run from their "11" personnel package.
From a personnel standpoint, the Broncos' trio of running backs -- Ronnie Hillman, Knowshon Moreno and Montee Ball -- is ideally suited to run from one-back sets. Each runner displays a decisive, one-cut running style that exploits creases at the point of attack while avoiding the negative plays that can bog down an offense.
In Hillman, the Broncos have an explosive perimeter runner with the speed and burst to turn the corner on outside runs. He excels at running outside zone or "stretch" plays, when he initially heads toward the outside leg of the offensive tackle before making a hard cut at the line of scrimmage. This is particularly effective from "11" personnel because Manning can change the play at the line to ensure Hillman gets the ball heading to the nickel corner -- the defensive weak spot -- as evidenced in the video clip to the right.
Though Moreno has experienced an injury-plagued career, he's shown flashes of being an effective runner. While he lacks the speed and explosiveness to break off big gains, he is efficient when running between the tackles on delays and draws, thanks to his outstanding vision and instincts. He has a knack for finding creases on the back side, exposing the voids created by fast-dropping linebackers in the middle. Last season, Moreno notched a pair of 100-yard games in six starts, with a draw play (an example of this is shown in the video clip below) featured prominently in the game plan. With defensive coordinators intent on slowing down Manning and his explosive trio of receivers, Moreno could find plenty of running room on deceptive runs between the tackles.
Ball has yet to play a down in the NFL, but he could emerge as the workhorse for the Broncos, thanks to his hard-charging running style and toughness. He was an ultra-productive runner as the feature back in a run-heavy Wisconsin offense that utilized a number of tight formations. I think Ball should be even more effective in the Broncos' offense with fewer defenders in the box. With the majority of runs directed to the weak side or the nickel cornerback, Ball's physical running style should produce big gains for the Broncos in 2013.