Denver Broncos: Offensive Design Is Making It Look Easy for Peyton Manning
We’re four weeks into the season and the Broncos have already scored more points (179) than all but one (1966 Cowboys, 183) other team in NFL history. Manning is on pace to shatter the single season record for touchdown passes, and he should surpass 5,000 yards passing for the first time in his career.
Manning has 16 Pass TD this season, the most in NFL history through 4 games and tied for the most ever in a season before throwing an interception, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Milt Plum of the Browns also threw 16 TD before throwing an interception in 1960.
Denver’s 4-0 start marks the sixth time in team history the club has won four straight games to begin a season. Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, 82 percent of teams to start a season 4-0 have reached the postseason. Of the 47 Super Bowls played, 18 of them have been won by a team that started its season 4-0.
However, a 4-0 start does not guarantee a Super Bowl win – or even a postseason victory. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, since 1990, 12 teams that started 4-0 did not even make the playoffs, while another 19 made the playoffs but did not win a playoff game.
In Week 4 the Broncos scored a franchise record for points in a game with 52 points. This also marks the most for any NFL team this season.
They have now won a franchise-record 15 straight regular-season games. This represents the longest streak in the NFL since the Packers also won 15 straight in 2010-11.
During this win streak all victories have come by at least seven points. This is the second-longest such streak in NFL history. The 1941-42 Chicago Bears had 16 straight such victories.
Last year after four games Manning had 1,162 yards passing, eight touchdowns, and three interceptions. This year after four games Manning has 1,470 yards passing, 16 touchdowns, and zero interceptions.
On Monday Broncos head coach John Fox commented on the differences from last year to this year.
We kind of had a slow start [last year]. Obviously, [QB] Peyton [Manning] was new to us. Everything was new for him. He had done it one way for 14 years. Early in the year, he got asked about comparing it. It’s not even close from this time a year ago. We’re more aware; we kind of started where we left off. I think we just continue to get better. It’s still early in the season and I expect us to get better.
So what’s changed? Let’s examine the Broncos passing game and examine how they are making it look so easy for Manning.
The Broncos have an embarrassment of riches at the wide receiver position. Last season we saw both Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker flourish with Peyton Manning under center. This season they look even better.
Demaryius Thomas is one of the top five receivers in the game today. He has an elite level skill set, featuring a fantastic blend of size and speed. Thomas can beat defenses on short routes because of his elite run after the catch ability. He can also beat defenses deep with his speed, wingspan and ball tracking ability.
In the picture below we see a 78-yard touchdown catch from Manning to Thomas. The pass traveled about two yards and Thomas did the rest after the catch.
Eric Decker can run crisp routes and get separation after his break. His concentration lapses at times, leading to drops. However, he can make difficult catches seem routine and has earned the trust of Manning.
In this picture we see Manning sneak in a pass to Decker on a hook route. The defenders sees it coming, but Manning zips in the pass before he can get there. Decker turns this upfield after the catch for a 61-yard gain.
Welker was a key addition for the Broncos offense. His ability to run jerk routes and get open consistently is making this passing game even more dangerous than it was last year.
The veteran receiver can get open with ease, and he has quickly become a favorite target of Manning. Welker is even seeing more targets in the red zone than most expected.
On Monday Fox commented on Welker being heavily involved when the team gets close to the end zone.
He’s a tough matchup. When we signed him, like I told you earlier, I think our defense was more excited than our offense because we don’t have to cover him anymore except in practice. But he’s a tough matchup. He’s very quick, he’s tenacious, he has a great feel for coverage. That’s why he’s probably as good all over the field.
After the Eagles game Manning talked about whether or not Welker has been better than he’d imagined when the team first signed the veteran wide receiver.
Well, he’s extremely difficult to cover. I think [Offensive Coordinator] Adam [Gase] is doing a great job using him in different ways. We get the screens to him, we’ve got the quick stuff to him. We put him in the backfield today – that was something we haven’t shown before. It’s a credit to him that he has that type of versatility. You can do different things with him. He does a good job getting north as well, and getting that ball in his hands and going upfield.
In the picture below we see Welker with an easy touchdown catch. The defense is frozen for just a second by the play fake to running back Knowshon Moreno. Welker is able to sneak into the end zone, and Manning makes the easy throw for six points.
Welker’s addition is not only great for the red zone, but it’s great for short-yardage situations as well. Now, instead of running the ball with only a few yards to go, the Broncos can instead find Welker wide open on a pop pass.
With Welker on the field, opponents have to choose whether or not to double-team him or Demaryius Thomas. Manning is great at quickly diagnosing where a defense is emphasizing their coverage. He can identify where the open man will be before the snap, and Manning can get the pass there accurately.
Another weapon that has greatly strengthened the offense is third-year tight end Julius Thomas. Coming out of Portland State Thomas was a basketball star with only one year of college football experience.
He was a standout player during the week of practice for the Shrine Game, and that helped elevate his draft stock. The Broncos felt confident in the upside of Thomas and chose to select him in the fourth-round of the 2011 NFL draft.
Thomas immediately flashed his playmaking ability during his rookie training camp. However, an early regular season ankle injury cost him most of the season. Thomas chose to have ankle surgery in the offseason before the 2012 season, and we didn’t get to see much of him last year.
This season Thomas was again a standout player during training camp. He’s stayed healthy, and has burst onto the NFL scene with his play.
Thomas is incredibly difficult to match up with. He’s too big for safeties to cover, and Thomas is too fast for linebackers to cover. Thomas also does a good job using his frame to box out defenders. He can also high point passes in the red zone like he’s rebounding a basketball.
In this picture below we see Thomas split the defense down the seam and score a 23-yard touchdown.
Defenses are so concerned with the other weapons in the passing game that Thomas will often see single coverage. He’s earned the trust of Manning, and Thomas should continue to be a key component in the Broncos high-powered offense.
The Pistol Formation
The Broncos unveiled the pistol formation in their first preseason game. That initially took the football world by storm as most couldn’t imagine Manning running this type of offense.
Looking at this situation with a keen eye shows that it makes a ton of sense for the Broncos. Manning made the stretch play famous during his time with the Indianapolis Colts. That play is back in the playbook now that the Broncos are using the pistol formation.
In the shotgun the running back is lined up to the side of the quarterback, and both are seven yards deep. If it is a run play then it will always flow to the opposite side of where the back is lined up. This is a tell that defenders can identify before the snap.
In the pistol formation the quarterback is lined up four yards deep instead of seven. The running back is lined up behind the quarterback, and the rushing play can go either way after the snap.
This picture below is the first running play of the season for the Broncos. It’s out of the pistol formation, and before the snap the Ravens defense has no idea which way the play is going. This play actually goes to the weak side of the formation, instead of the strong side behind the tight end.
The Broncos want to keep defenses off balance, and using the pistol formation helps them do that.
Another weapon for the offense is the use of tempo. This offseason I was joking around with offensive coordinator Adam Gase about using uptempo offense on every play. He joked, “I’m not Chip Kelly.” Gase uses tempo on a part-time basis.
When the Broncos get the defensive look they want the uptempo offense will be utilized. They can speed up the game to cause more confusion defensively. This high-powered offense is already difficult to diagnose before the snap. It’s nearly impossible to tell what’s coming before the snap when the uptempo offense is being used.
Part of the reason why Manning is making it look easy is because he’s getting plenty of time to throw the ball. Manning just isn’t getting pressured that much this season. When Manning is not under duress he can stand in the pocket and slice a defense apart like a surgeon.
In 2012 Manning was sacked eight times in the first four games of the season. This year Manning has only been sacked five times in four games. Manning has only been sacked twice in the last three weeks.
It’s amazing to think about this improvement when considering the Broncos have been playing for two weeks without All-Pro left tackle Ryan Clady. It’s a credit to his replacement Chris Clark, and this lack of pressure is also another credit to the entire scheme of the offense.
The Denver Broncos are making history every week. They are clearly focused on marching to the Super Bowl in 2013.
Each week they are scoring points in bunches. They look mostly flawless at times, and the Broncos area arguably the most dangerous team in the NFL.
With all the weapons in the passing game they are incredibly difficult to game plan for. With an uptempo offense the Broncos are able to keep defenses on their heels. With the pistol formation opponents are kept off guard. With better pass protection the Broncos are giving Manning the time he needs to be excellent on most every snap.
This is a fun offense to watch. Broncos fans need to sit back and enjoy the consistent excellence we see from this team every week. The Broncos and Peyton Manning are making it look easy every week, and that may not change any time soon.
All quotes and injury/practice observations were obtained firsthand.
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