The Denver Broncos are on a roll. The team is currently 8-1, and many consider them to be the favorite to win the Super Bowl.
However, there is a problem that has come up over the last three weeks. The Broncos are struggling to protect Peyton Manning.
During the first six games of the year Manning was sacked or hit a total of 12 times (five sacks, seven hits). Over the last three games Manning has been sacked or hit a total of 16 times (seven sacks, nine hits).
It’s clear the team has issues when it comes to protecting its most important player.
Left tackle Chris Clark took over for All-Pro Ryan Clady after Clady was lost for the year with a foot injury in the Week 2 game against the Giants. Clark initially started off strong, but he’s failed to provide adequate protection for Manning over the last three weeks.
The Broncos have to make some changes. Their Super Bowl hopes rely on Manning being in the lineup. Changes may include using more two tight end sets (12 personnel), using more shotgun formation, running the ball more often, running shorter routes or using more play-action passes.
Manning is the centerpiece of this team. The top priority each week is making sure that he stays upright.
Let’s take a look at the different ways the Broncos can better protect Manning moving forward.
Two Tight End Sets (12 personnel)
Last year the Broncos' base formation was 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers). They most often featured two tight end sets with Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme.
With the addition of Wes Welker, the Broncos are now using 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) about 70 percent of the time this season.
With the struggles in pass protection, perhaps the Broncos will go back to 12 personnel.
Julius Thomas is the starting tight end and the most dangerous receiver at that position. If a move to two tight end sets is made then we’ll see more from Virgil Green.
Green is a fantastic blocker, and he regularly blasts open holes for the ground game. The team could start using Green more as a pass-blocker. Green could line up on the outside shoulder of Clark to help him with speedy edge rushers.
Using More Shotgun Formation
This move would make a lot of sense for the Broncos. By having Manning line up seven yards back, he would be farther away from pass-rushers at the snap of the ball.
The Broncos have employed the pistol formation this year with Manning four yards back from the line of scrimmage. This does not tip off the defense to the direction of the play like a shotgun formation does.
In the pistol the running back is behind the quarterback and can go either way at the snap. In the shotgun the running back is to one side of the quarterback and if it is a run play he will always run to the opposite side of where he lined up.
The Broncos like to use the pistol as they are using more outside zone stretch plays this year. With Manning’s ankle injuries the team needs to cut down on the outside zone stretch.
I asked Dr. Jene Bramel, from Footballguys.com, about ways the Broncos could help Manning play through this injury. Bramel said, “The Broncos can find ways to work around Manning's limitations with shorter throws and increasing their use of wide receiver screens, exclusively using shotgun formations, using fewer zone stretch runs, etc.”
Moving to more shotgun formation may be something the Broncos use going forward. It’s a simple change and an easy fix.
Running the Ball More Often
The Broncos are a pass-happy team with Manning under center. However, perhaps they should begin to lean more on the ground game in the second half of the season.
Knowshon Moreno is the most trusted running back on the roster. He’s had a strong season as the team’s featured back. Moreno is the best pass protector in the backfield, runs with great intent and can be utilized as a receiver out of the backfield.
However, with his long and storied injury history there is a concern about him wearing down with too much use. If he is maxed out at his current workload then the Broncos have a couple of backs behind him who could help lighten the load.
Montee Ball was selected in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft. Many felt he could start the season as the primary back for the Broncos. However, it was clearly evident during training camp that Ball needed some time to get used to the speed of the pro level.
Two lost fumbles early in the season put Ball third on the depth chart behind Moreno and Ronnie Hillman. From Week 5 to Week 7 Ball only played 14 snaps total. After a lost fumble by Hillman in the loss to the Colts, the door was opened up for Ball once again.
Ball has changed the way he’s holding onto the rock, and his fumbling issues have dissipated. He’s earned valuable experience over the course of the season and now should be ready for a larger role.
He finished his college career at Wisconsin with the most touchdowns (83) in NCAA history. Ball’s nose for the end zone could prove to be incredibly valuable when the team is near the goal line.
The play below shows Ball's improved determination. At the snap he flows to the right side of the line and blasts through the hole. This run goes for a 12-yard gain after Ball runs through an arm tackle.
Behind Ball the Broncos have another rookie, C.J. Anderson, the undrafted free agent from Cal. Anderson has a powerful lower body, and he runs with a punishing style. He also has better burst than some think. Anderson gets to top speed in a hurry, and he’s tough to bring down when he builds a head of steam.
After nine games the Broncos are 13th in the NFL with 256 carries on the season. That is an average of 28 carries per game. Perhaps we could see a few more carries each week to help better protect Manning.
Going forward we could see more from Moreno, Ball and Anderson.
Using More Play-Action Passes
|Manning Play Action Passes||Week 10||Season Average|
|yards per attempt||20.8||11.9|
|yards after the catch per reception||15.9||7.0|
Manning entered Week 10 ranked in the top five in completion percentage, yards per attempts and touchdowns off play action this season.
Against the Chargers we saw Manning improve on those numbers, going 9-of-9 for 187 yards and three touchdowns off play-action passes.
Many of those yards were gained after the catch. In fact, 143 of Manning’s 187 yards off play-action passes were gained after the catch, a season high for Manning and the Broncos.
Against the Chargers, Manning’s average play-action pass traveled six yards shorter (4.9 yards downfield) compared to the rest of the season. Using shorter pass routes may be something else the team does more from here on out.
The play below shows how the defense responds to the play-action fake. The Chargers are frozen by Manning’s fake to Moreno. After the fake Manning has time to turn, scan the field, then he completes a 10-yard pass to Moreno out of the backfield.
When the Broncos emphasize the ground game more they will be able to run play-action fakes even more effectively.
Running Shorter Routes
In order to slow down a pass rush teams will often use screen passes or draw plays. Running routes that are closer to the line of scrimmage only makes sense. Manning can slice up a defense like a surgeon when he’s given time to throw.
Shorter routes mean the line has to pass protect for a shorter amount of time. The Broncos have implemented screen passes to their wide receivers and running backs each week.
The play below was the Broncos' first against the Chargers in Week 10. Julius Thomas catches the pass about two yards past the line of scrimmage. By the time he turns upfield he is only about four yards into the play. The end result was a 74-yard touchdown catch.
Below we see the 34-yard touchdown catch by Demaryius Thomas. He actually started the play lined up in the backfield but motioned out to catch the quick screen.
On Monday interim head coach Jack Del Rio talked about if the team was planning on using more short passes in the future.
I would just say that’s the flow of the offense. We’ve got a lot of weapons and the backs are part of that and the tight ends, certainly. I think ‘Juice’ (TE Julius Thomas) had a couple of nice plays yesterday. Obviously ‘D.T.’ (WR Demaryius Thomas) was spectacular. We’ll continue to utilize all of the weapons and there are times where we’re standing and blocking, there are times where we’re getting out, and he may be a hot player or checked out. I think Peyton’s pretty good at going through his progressions quickly and delivering the ball on time.
Going forward we should see more routes like these to keep defenses off balance.
The Broncos have a chance to make it to (and win) the Super Bowl this year. In order to do that Manning must be on the field.
They’re unlikely to shuffle their offensive line unless injuries strike at the position. The Broncos have a strong interior line, but they need better play from their tackles.
Denver could use more two tight end formations or shotgun formations to help better protect Manning. The extra tight end could line up next to Clark and help chip the pass-rushers on the left side.
The play-action passing game is working well for the Broncos. It’s something we should definitely see more of in the future.
In addition to play-action fakes, the Broncos will continue to feature shorter routes in the passing game.
Denver is marching on in what they hope is a Super Bowl season. Better protecting Manning by employing these different strategies could help them get there.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record information provided via email from the Denver Broncos.