After Peyton Manning had a three-interception first quarter on national television in Week Two, concerns about his arm strength dominated any talk of his comeback. He clearly couldn't drive the ball downfield on seam throws, which made it child's play for the safeties to get over and pick off the pass before it reached its destination.
Last week, Manning had a two-interception game against the Cincinnati Bengals, his highest total since that loss to the Falcons. A review of the game reveals that Manning is still compensating for diminished arm strength. Could this be a problem for the Broncos as they attempt to win the AFC West?
Manning was still able to have a ton of success and lead his team to the win for two reason: play design and his ability to understand exactly what he can and can't do.
Play design has been a big help to Manning because it doesn't ask him to play outside of his comfort zone. Eric Decker ate the Bengals alive on short crossing routes that he could turn into longer gains, even though they were based on short throws.
As you can see here, Decker is crossing the middle of the field about ten yards downfield, and two receivers are running routes to make sure that area of the field will be open for him against zone coverage:
The excellent execution of the play creates a huge window for Manning to throw to Decker, which means he doesn't have to rely on velocity to complete the throw. Another reason that crossing patterns are a good fit for Manning right now is that they leverage off of his field vision and anticipation. As Decker flashes open here, Manning can hit him in stride because the throw is in front of him:
Throws outside of the numbers, where it might be easier for a defensive back to close that window, would force Manning to put more zip on the ball, which doesn't come easily to him right now. That is, unless Manning can alter the trajectory and distance of his passes to eliminate the chance for the defender to make a play on the ball. This deep shot to Demaryius Thomas demonstrates how Manning is pulling it off. As Manning is releasing the ball, Thomas is at the Denver 42:
The ball comes down at the Cincinnati 38, a full 20 yards from where Thomas was when the pass was released. You can see that the safety and corner are still having to catch up to Thomas. Manning was able to accomplish this despite the lack of his old level of arm strength by throwing a high-arching deep ball that he could put far enough ahead of Thomas that it would allow him to maintain his initial separation:
Manning is a natural thrower. He knows which throws he can make, and how and when to employ them to make completions. Since the Atlanta game, he has been making throws downfield that take seemingly forever to arrive, but always have an open receiver at the end of them.
Manning has also had the benefit of his ability to master his offensive scheme, as evidenced by Denver having six receivers over 20 receptions, which is tied for Detroit for the league lead.
About those two interceptions. Manning's first pick was based on a timing throw that didn't work out because Terence Newman was driving on the ball harder than Eric Decker:
Newman gets inside position on Decker, and steals the ball in the end zone:
No matter how much mustard Manning put on that ball, it was getting picked. His second interception was on a deep ball, so you might think that arm strength was an issue there. Instead, it was just a bad decision. Look at how Newman is positioned deep as Manning releases the ball:
Manning later atoned by throwing a deep ball that drew a pass interference in the end zone. He can still be an effective passer to all parts of the field, and the bad news for the rest of the league is that he will continue to regain more arm strength as the season goes on. Atlanta took advantage of Manning not knowing how he needed to alter his approach to adjust to the new limitations on his arm. Now that he has, it's the defense that will need to adjust, and they haven't been doing that good of a job of it so far.