NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
When it comes to defending Peyton Manning, there isn’t a silver bullet in the defensive playbook. There isn’t one particular player, scheme or personnel package that can take the eyes, intelligence, arm and in-pocket mobility away from the Denver Broncos future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Defending the 37-year-old requires a mixture of different looks and disguises. And every NFL defense that has faced the 12-time Pro Bowler has employed its own method in doing so. But thus far into the 2013 season, few teams have seen their creative efforts culminate in the final score. The Broncos are 9-1, and Manning’s 70-percent passing for 3,572 yards, 34 touchdowns and just six interceptions are an integral reason in why.
Manning is orchestrating a prolific offensive attack reinforced by wideouts Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker, tight end Julius Thomas and versatile tailback Knowshon Moreno. Predominantly through that onslaught, Denver has notched a league-leading 398 points through Week 11.
Yet come 8:30 p.m. ET on Sunday night, the New England Patriots will try to avert that production in meeting No. 14 between Manning and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Although in order to understand the measures New England might take versus Manning and the Broncos, it’s important to understand the measures Denver’s opponents have taken to find some semblance of success in previous tilts.
Manning’s release is rapid, and the numbers prove it. Per Pro Football Focus, the Tennessee Volunteer takes an average of 2.33 seconds to throw from the pocket – the shortest duration of an NFL quarterback this campaign.
As a result of that succinctness, Manning finds himself under pressure on just 22 percent of his dropbacks – the lowest rate in the league. Bringing Manning under duress isn’t as linear as it sounds, though; he’s tossed four touchdowns and one interception under heat this season, completing 60 percent of attempts.
Part of it is experience, and part of it is the offense. But Manning’s progressions are also a byproduct of his mental clock, and an ability to quickly diagnose openings in the defense before the ball is even snapped. Because of that adeptness, sending pass rush on Manning is not necessarily a foolproof way to disrupt his reads.
If he is sacked – something that has transpired just 13 times this year – it’s because the defense did its job in coverage and disguising the blitz. The San Diego Chargers were able to hit on both of those components against Manning and the Broncos in Week 10, despite losing 28-20.
Combating a 3rd-and-7, Denver showed trips right, a split end left, and Manning flanked in shotgun by Moreno. The Broncos sought to stretch the field with Demaryius Thomas, Welker and Decker running corner, go and wheel routes, respectively. Meanwhile, rookie halfback Montee Ball planned a screen off the tackle, and Julius Thomas planned a double-move post underneath.
The Chargers responded to the “11” personnel with a two-down lineman, three-stand-up linebacker front. Given that Manning was unlikely to scramble through the interior, the outside bend from edge-rushers Thomas Keiser and Larry English was in place while middle ‘backer Donald Butler was playing the screen.
And to deter Manning from easily piecing together the inside rush, defensive end Kendall Reyes plotted a delayed blitz next to fellow end Corey Liuget. No defensive tackles were on the field, and the dime secondary was. There was nickelback press on Welker, and there was off coverage on the Thomas duo and Decker.
Two safeties roamed deep.
As Manning handled the snap and his receivers broke past the line, the man coverage blanketed the routes with the aid of safety help overhead. The most reasonable option was the tight end running across the hashes.
Before Manning could make a decision, though, his steps sent him into English’s arc around right tackle Orlando Franklin.
Manning merged up into the pocket. It was too late. English had spun around the C-gap and wrapped up the QB’s legs. The intricate front five had managed a sack, with a light and fast rush.
Ultimately, San Diego was able to bring Manning down twice on Nov. 10. It wasn’t the most frequent output, but the exotic defensive end-linebacker groupings in the box offered unfamiliarity. And the two-deep safety coverage over underneath man offered few windows.
Some secondaries concede ground to the Denver route-runners, playing the space to avoid the deep pass. Others, however, perform the opposite.
By slowing the get-off of receivers, the jam slows the quarterback’s decision-making. The Washington Redskins grew aggressive in this arrangement against the Broncos in Week 8.
On a 1st-and-10, the Broncos displayed “11” spread. Decker motioned right to join Welker and Demaryius Thomas, while Ball and Julius Thomas inhabited the left side of the field. From right to left, the patterns included a quick slant, a deep dig, a hitch, a screen and a curl.
The Redskins were prepared to face all five, accompanied by two down lineman and four linebackers – similar to San Diego’s alignment.
The defensive backfield also showcased a Cover-1 “Robber” approach. Strong safety E.J. Biggers was set to drop down and protect the underneath zone in Welker and Decker’s vicinity, all while free safety Bacarri Rambo was set to slide over and protect center field. Concurrently, linebacker London Fletcher was set to deflect Decker from the inside.
But the matchup of interest proved to be cornerback DeAngelo Hall opposite Demaryius Thomas.
Manning took the shotgun snap and assessed his targets. The close press had hobbled Julius Thomas, Welker in addition to Demaryius Thomas. And with two defenders hovering around Decker, there was no clear-cut pass to be thrown.
Nonetheless, Manning opted for his “X” receiver out right and fired a pass ahead of the slant.
Hall’s jam resulted in his assignment tripping up. He jumped ahead and intercepted Manning’s pass, returning it for a touchdown.
The press, if contested well, can hinder even the best anticipators and pass-catchers. Washington exemplified that, while also incorporating some last-second movement from the strong safety.
“The main thing is you can’t give Peyton Manning a lot. When you give him a lot – you give him pre-snap reads, you give him a lot of information – he’s so smart at game planning and watching film that he can break you down.”
Those are the words of former Patriot linebacker Willie McGinest, a current NFL Network analyst. And for all intents and purposes, those words explicate what New England will attempt to do – or not do – under the lights at Gillette Stadium on Nov. 24.
They will attempt to hide the final product.
And it can be done via late switches to press – something the Indianapolis Colts did to dissuade Manning in Week 7.
On a 2nd-and-10, the Broncos utilized Welker and Demaryius Thomas over left on a circle and fly route. Over right, Julius Thomas and Decker were utilized on a deep out and in route. While behind Manning in shotgun, Moreno was utilized on a route to the left flat.
Indianapolis corresponded with the nickel defense but marched all three corners towards the line of scrimmage prior to the snap. Two of which were vying to press, as left cornerback Greg Toler zoned the boundary near Decker.
The defensive line went two up and two down, and the two inside linebackers – Pat Angerer and Jerrell Freeman – had the inside of Decker and Moreno covered.
Manning would have to decipher those aspects before the play got underway.
The snap was harnessed and Manning sorted the coverage. He acknowledged the tight man defense to his left. He acknowledged the linebacker pursuing Moreno in the flat. And he noticed the linebacker brush off of his tight end in-seam, abutted by safety zone coverage deep.
In turn, he threw in the direction of Decker’s in, as the boundary zone by Toler seemingly kept the underneath free.
But it wasn’t free. Freeman was multitasking on Julius Thomas and the “Z,” Decker. The pass sailed in and was knocked down as the wideout and the linebacker collided.
Upon reflection, the Broncos offense is far from a simple equation to solve. But defenses have dug up nuances to contain the vast knowledge and skills of Manning and Co. for select spurts this season.
It will be up to the head coach Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and the Patriots defense itself to unpack some of those nuances on Sunday. Still, one thing is certain: Moving to 8-3 will take an assortment of tactics from an assortment of players.
It will take exotic blitzes. It will take physical press. And it will take the element of surprise.