Breaking Down Peyton Manning's Performance Against the Steelers

Christopher HansenNFL AnalystSeptember 11, 2012

September 9 2012; Denver, CO, USA;Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) during the first quarter against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Sports Authority Field. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE

What makes Peyton Manning so good? He didn’t play in a regular-season game for over 300 days and yet he dominated the Pittsburgh Steelers in his first game back. According to the NBC broadcast on Sunday night, Manning has lost 2.1 mph on his throws to the outside (H/T Peter King, Any pitcher in major league baseball would tell you a couple miles per hour on the fastball can make a big difference.

Those same pitchers will also tell you that velocity isn't everything and a pitcher can be effective with command and smarts. Manning’s throws are accurate and few quarterbacks have ever been as smart on the field as him. Losing a little zip on his fastball isn’t going to make him a less effective quarterback.

Don’t mistake Manning’s football smarts for something it's not; he isn’t designing plays that are football equivalent of the quadratic formula. Manning just knows when to run what plays and against what defense. It’s closer to playing rock, paper, scissors and knowing your opponent is going to throw rock.

On Sunday night, Manning completed pass after pass and only one needed to travel more than 20 yards in the air to reach his intended receiver. He didn’t need a cannon of an arm to do damage against a solid defense. 

Let’s take a look at a few examples of Manning in action.


Play No. 1

Offensive Personnel: Three wide receivers, one tight end, one running back.

Formation: Shotgun

Play: Manning sees a lot of space in the middle of the field and wants to take advantage of it. He’s got tight end Jacob Tamme in a favorable one-on-one with a linebacker. Tamme simply needs to get behind the linebacker and Manning will find him.

Manning sees Tamme get around the linebacker and Decker is going to clear the deep defenders enough for a throwing window in front of the Pittsburgh defense.

Manning already started his throwing motion to deliver the ball to Tamme, but if his first read wasn’t available, he would have dumped it off to McGahee for a solid gain. 

Manning has enough velocity to find Tamme for a 10-yard strike. Troy Polamalu and the linebacker covering the middle are late to arrive. Manning knew if Tamme could get a free release he would be able to fit in the throw in front of the defense and put his team in position to score. Knowshon Moreno walked in for the touchdown two plays later. 


Play No. 2

Offensive Personnel: Two wide receivers, two tight ends, one running back.

Formation: Shotgun with Tamme in the slot to the left.

Play: Outside receiver runs a slant and gets in the way of the defender assigned to Tamme. It's called a “rub” and it's frequently called an illegal “pick” play if the outside receiver intentionally blocks. 

This is perfectly executed. The wide receiver gets in the way of the defender without an illegal pick and gives Tamme just enough separation for Manning to deliver the pass.

Manning gets the ball to Tamme accurately and gives him a chance to get it in the end zone. I’d imagine the preference would be for Tamme to have already been in the end zone when he catches the ball, but the defense was playing it aggressively and a the key was the initial separation.

Tamme extends for the touchdown and breaks the plane, rendering the much talked about continuation rule a moot point.


Play No. 3

Offensive Personnel: Two wide receivers, two tight ends, one running back.

Formation: Shotgun with Tamme in the slot to the left.

Play: Wide receiver screen. Tamme is going to go out to block the cornerback playing off coverage and the two offensive linemen—Ryan Clady and Zane Beadles—are going to try to get blocks on the two safeties. This play isn’t a home-run type play, but it has the potential once you get the ball into the hands of the outside receiver. Demaryius Thomas takes it 70 yards for the touchdown.

The key is the fake to the running back that fools Polamalu (circled) and gets him to take three steps towards the center of the field. The safety is playing deep.

Clady doesn’t get a clean block on Polamalu, but he was out of position thanks to the play-fake and does enough to get in his way to spring Thomas.

Beadles had no one to block, so he kept moving and eventually found the safety several yards up the field. Thomas is going to use the safety's momentum against him so the defender can’t use the sideline.

Beadles gets just enough of the safety and Thomas uses his speed to burn past the last line of defense.

Manning took advantage of an aggressive Polamalu and a safety that was playing deep and the result was a big play. The Broncos ran the same play on the opposite side of the field and it was stopped for a short gain because the safety didn’t bite on the play-fake.


Play No. 4

Offensive Personnel: Two wide receivers, two tight ends, one running back.

Formation: Shotgun with Tamme in the slot to the right. You can you tell Manning likes this formation.

Play: Tight end wheel. With the Steelers using press coverage on the outside to try to slow down the Broncos' short passing game, Manning dials up a tight end wheel route to create space for Tamme. The safety is playing deep and Manning should have plenty of space to deliver the pass.

Sure enough, Tamme is wide open and Polamalu doesn’t have much of a chance because Manning looked him off for a split second.

The result is a big play and shows that Manning will still take a few shots when the defense is trying to take away his normal short routes.


Manning knows when and what to call against certain defenses and has the accuracy and enough arm to get his wide receivers and tight ends the ball.