Putting together a game plan versus Peyton Manning isn't an easy process because of the quarterback’s ability to dictate tempo, work the ball to multiple receivers and expose secondaries with a variety of route concepts.
But as we look ahead to opening night of the 2013 NFL season, let’s examine how the Baltimore Ravens can script a defensive call sheet to matchup versus Manning and the Denver Broncos.
Manning’s top route concepts
Here are three route concepts/combinations the Ravens should prep for in multiple down-and-distance situations versus the Broncos.
Think of a Hi-Lo read for Manning out of both 2x2 (Doubles) and 3x1 (Doubles Slot) formations with the No. 1 receiver on the quick smash route (five-yard square-in) and No. 2 running the dig route (12- to 15-yard square-in).
The Broncos will add window dressing (mix personnel and alignments) to disguise the concept, but the two-level read is the same for Manning. This was a top route combination for Manning during his time with the Colts and that hasn’t changed since his arrival in Denver.
Part of the "semi-series" (seam-curl, seam-out, seam-comeback) is in the Broncos playbook. Denver will get to the "semi-series" from a variety of alignment and personnel groupings (2x2, bunch, stack, etc.) with the No. 1 receiver on the curl, out or comeback and the inside receiver (No. 2) running up the seam.
And from a defensive perspective, the pre-snap splits of the No. 1 receiver (outside receiver) should tell you a story (bottom of the numbers=curl, top of the numbers=out, plus two-yards outside of the numbers=comeback).
With the ball in the red zone or the "strike zone" (20- to 35-yard line), the Ravens should prep for play action (outside zone run fake) with four verticals out of a 2x2 alignment that can convert to comebacks on the outside.
And versus Cover 2 (or 2-man), Manning will look to target the inside seam routes if the deep-half safeties widen off their landmarks (top of the numbers) versus the outside 9 routes (fade routes).
Breaking down the tape
I went back and studied the Ravens-Broncos tape from the 2012 divisional playoffs to get a better feel for how the Baltimore defense game planned Manning.
The Ravens showed a lot of Cover 2 and 2-man (two-deep, man-underneath). This allowed the Ravens to limit the vertical passing game versus receiver Demaryius Thomas and to attack the "levels" concept. Put a tent on top of the defense and force the ball underneath.
Here are two examples of the Ravens' Cover 2 versus the “levels” concept:
Cover 2 vs. 2x2 Levels
As I said above, the Broncos will dress up their alignments to get to the base "levels" concept. Here, Denver uses a "stack" alignment (two receivers close together) to the open (weak) side of the formation to run the Hi-Lo read.
How do the Ravens defend it? The nickel reroutes the point receiver (receiver on the ball), sinks and cushions the intermediate dig route with the cornerback driving on the smash. And with the protection of the deep half safety over the top, the underneath defenders can aggressively disrupt the release and attack the route.
This turns into a pick-six for the Ravens because of the cornerback’s ability to identify the concept and drive the smash route. That results in a "PBU" (pass broken up) and an interception for the nickelback on his way to a touchdown.
Cover 2 vs. 3x1 Levels
In this situation, the Broncos are running the "levels" concept out of a 3x1 look (Doubles Slot) with a curl/flat combo to the open side of the formation. The cornerback will drive the smash, the nickel will sink under the dig, and the "Mike" 'backer will match to No. 3. To the open side, the cornerback will reroute No. 1, sink and drive to any throw in the flat.
With the "Will" 'backer dropping under the curl to the open side of the formation, Manning has to come off his No. 1 receiver and dump the ball to the flat. This should be a minimal gain with the cornerback driving downhill to make the tackle.
The Ravens didn’t show a lot of pressure in their game plan from their last matchup with the Broncos, but we can still look at a nickel blitz to get an idea of how they can attack the pocket.
This is a five-man zone pressure from the Ravens. Send the nickel and the "Mike" 'backer with two defenders dropping to the "vertical hook" (match to the No. 2 receivers).
The Broncos have a protection bust and allow the nickel to come underneath the tackle on his way to the quarterback. And with the linebacker matching the crossing route, Manning has to escape pressure and force this ball.
Cover 1/Cover 4
The Ravens mixed their coverage looks by playing Cover 1 (man-free) and Cover 4 (quarters). This allowed the Baltimore safeties to play the inside seams in "quarters" (safety will match to No. 2) and to use the deep middle-of-the-field help in man-free.
Plus, by playing Cover 4 or Cover 1, the Ravens can look to limit Manning’s ability to throw the deep crossing route versus Cover 2. This is a concept the Broncos ran twice in their previous matchup to target and exploit Baltimore’s two-deep shell.
Let’s take a look:
The Broncos will clear out one side of field with the deep inside seam and the outside 9 route. That occupies the deep-half safeties and forces the nickel to carry No. 2 vertically up the field. And with the cornerback sinking hard under the 9 route, Manning can hit the deep crossing route for an explosive gain.
This is a clear throwing lane for Manning with the nickel now removed versus the seam route. The Broncos quarterback can target wideout Eric Decker and deliver this ball to the hole in the middle of the field.
Don’t forget about Wes Welker’s impact
Welker's skill set is an upgrade for the Broncos. The former Patriots receiver can create separation at the top of the route stem because of his change-of-direction ability and productivity after the catch.
Plus, he is an ideal fit for the Broncos playbook.
Think of Welker in the "levels" concept, the option routes (work away from defender's leverage), the curl or running the inside seam. He provides Manning with another target to go along with Thomas, Decker and the talent at the tight end position.
There is no question the addition of Welker will impact defensive matchups and alter the Ravens' final game plan. Plus, this could limit Baltimore's ability to play Cover 1 (or send pressure) if they can’t take away Welker in the middle of the field.
How will the Ravens game-plan against Manning on Thursday night?
After watching the tape from the 2012 playoffs, I understand why the Ravens leaned on their coverage schemes over sending pressure. Peyton Manning is one of the best at recognizing blitzes, identifying hot reads and getting the ball out. And every time you send pressure (both zone and man), you are taking a risk versus the star quarterback.
I would expect the Ravens to once again put their coverage schemes at the top of the game plan and force Manning to target underneath route concepts. Baltimore has two edge-rushers in Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil that can get home on a four-man rush. That’s a luxury for any defense, especially one that is starting two new safeties in Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo.
The way I see it, Baltimore can (and should) pressure in specific situations, but I would lean on those coverage looks versus Manning. The Ravens have made multiple personnel changes on the defensive side of the ball this offseason. And veteran leaders Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are no longer in the locker room.
Are they a better unit? I don’t know that yet, but I do think this defense will be faster and more athletic this year as they attempt to defend their Super Bowl title. And the first test comes Thursday night in front of a national audience versus one of the top quarterbacks in the game.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.