Thanks to an NFL rule that requires certain players to wear a microphone, we can now hear what quarterbacks say at the line of scrimmage. In recent weeks, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning’s use of the word “Omaha” has been the subject of much discussion.
The fact that Manning’s use of “Omaha” became such a huge story indicates just how little we all understand about the game. Manning’s ability to read, react and adjust at the line of scrimmage is well documented, but how he does it seems to be a mystery.
In fact, Manning does many of the same things at the line of scrimmage as other quarterbacks. Manning isn’t the only quarterback that uses the word “Omaha,” and he isn’t the only quarterback that adjusts protections, routes and plays at the line of scrimmage, either.
The difference between Manning and other quarterbacks is that he almost always makes the correct adjustments. When he’s wrong, he and his receivers know how to adjust after the snap.
One common thing Manning does at the line of scrimmage is make protection adjustments. Although Manning gets the ball out quickly, quick pressure can still disrupt Denver's passing game.
Manning can tell his offensive line and his running backs whom to block simply by calling out whom he believes is the “Mike” linebacker. That is, the middle linebacker whom the offensive line is responsible for blocking.
The Mike may actually be a safety, a cornerback or even a defensive lineman. The defense will often move players around to try to confuse the offense, but Manning thrives at deciphering it.
On a 3rd-and-2 on the Broncos’ first drive in the AFC Championship Game, a protection call was the key to the conversion. This Broncos’ drive happened to be the only one that ended in a punt this postseason, but that doesn't take away the play.
First, Manning identifies a blitzing safety, No. 28 Steve Gregory. Defenses know that they can’t show their intentions too early, so they often wait until fewer than 10 seconds remain on the play clock, as the New England Patriots did here.
Showing blitz with eight seconds on the play clock still gave Manning enough time to make an adjustment.
Manning shouted, “54 is Mike!”
This told the offensive line that linebacker Dont’a Hightower was their blocking responsibility. It also told running back Knowshon Moreno that the blitzing safety was his blocking responsibility. If the safety didn’t blitz, either Moreno would have helped left tackle Chris Clark or leaked out of the backfield to become a checkdown for Manning should he have needed it.
Manning bobbled the snap—just one of many things that can go wrong after the snap in the NFL. Without good protection, a sack-fumble was a possibility. Instead, Manning got control of the ball and hit wide receiver Eric Decker for a first down.
As is usually the case, Manning’s protection call was perfect. The safety blitzed, and Moreno was in good position to pick it up. Clark passed the defensive end off to right guard Zane Beadles so he was ready to block Hightower.
Manning correctly presumed that the Patriots weren’t going to bring two linebackers from the trips (three receivers) side because either there would be a huge mismatch, a receiver uncovered or both—depending on which players came on the blitz.
Against man coverage, wide receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker both run what is called a whip, or pivot route.
Off the line, it looks like a short slant, so the cornerbacks have to commit and drive hard if they have any hope of breaking up the pass. These routes are one of many ways an offense can take advantage of man coverage—something the Broncos should see plenty of in the Super Bowl.
Once Manning secured the snap, he knew exactly where he had to go with the ball. Decker made the catch, and the Broncos received a fresh set of downs. The protection call was critical, but the execution was just as important.
If the Seattle Seahawks want to give Manning trouble, they will have to do a better job disguising their blitzes and winning one-on-one matchups. Otherwise, Manning is going to do what he always does and adjust the protection to give any given pass play the optimal chance for success.
It’s worth noting that the Broncos can run a nearly identical-looking play where one receiver picks off the other receiver’s cornerback. This fabled “pick” route (highlighted by the dotted line in the graphic) landed wide receiver Wes Welker under scrutiny after the AFC Championship Game. It’s legal as long as the ball arrives before there is any sort of blocking.
Adjusting routes is something Manning can also do at the line of scrimmage with or without a protection adjustment. This isn’t necessarily an audible because the protection and formation stays the same, but it is a different play.
Manning might change a “levels” concept to a “smash” concept because one of the deep safeties is cheating inside. All Manning needs to do to make this adjustment is change the route of one receiver. In the case of the above example, his slot receiver would go from running a 10-yard in to a corner route.
The more space the route can put between the receiver and the defender, the better the odds for a successful play. If nothing changes after the snap, Manning knows exactly where he needs to go with the ball.
Way back in Week 3 in a Monday night game against the Oakland Raiders, Manning made a protection and route adjustment out of an empty backfield. It was 3rd-and-4 from the Oakland 13-yard line, so the goal was at least to get a first down.
“24 is Mike,” Manning screamed.
No. 24 is veteran free safety Charles Woodson, who had lined up over the slot as if to cover tight end Julius Thomas. Split wide was running back Knowshon Moreno who was drawing the coverage of middle linebacker Nick Roach.
As noted previously, the offensive line is responsible for blocking the Mike, so Clark had to get outside to block Woodson. Beadles had to block the defensive end, and center Manny Ramirez had to block the defensive tackle.
One of the offensive linemen initially heard wrong, but Manning made sure he had it right.
Why did Manning make this odd protection adjustment?
After studying the Raiders, Manning believed Woodson being in an odd place was a blitz alert. Coupled with outside linebacker Kevin Burnett playing suspiciously deep, Manning could be reasonably sure Woodson was blitzing.
With the protection set, Manning barked “Carolina” out to his wide receivers while giving a hand signal.
We can’t be sure if the hand signal or “Carolina” was the route change, but chances are it was the combination of both. The word “Carolina” likely told his receivers to look at him, and the hand signal changed the route combination.
Manning changed the route to a quick-out and short-curl combination. With Roach glued to Moreno and Woodson blitzing, Burnett would have to cover too much ground to tackle Thomas before he could get the first down. A terrible angle by Burnett allowed Thomas to score to put the Broncos up 24-7.
Roach, Burnett and Woodson are not only smart veterans, but also a few of the better defenders on a bad Raiders team. It really didn’t matter because Manning essentially beat them by diagnosing the blitz and checking to a route combination that worked.
Changing the Play
There are times when it makes sense to call an entirely different play at the line of scrimmage. Manning might not think the play against a certain defensive look will work, so he will opt for a play he thinks will.
The Patriots, for example, dared the Broncos to run it on them both in Week 12 and in the AFC Championship Game. Manning will take everything a defense gives to him, even if that’s a run and not a pass.
On 3rd-and-10 from the Patriots' 39-yard line, Manning checked into a run from a pass play. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase certainly didn’t call a run play in that situation, but Manning got the perfect look to make the change at the line.
“Bags Montana Five Man (or, potentially, Fat Man),” Manning barked. “Bags Montana!”
With zero linebackers in the box, only four down lineman, one deep safety paying no attention to the run and the other playing 15 yards off the line of scrimmage, all the Broncos had to do was get Moreno cleanly past the line. From there, Moreno would only need to make one defender miss.
It’s the Broncos’ five-man blocking against four defenders, so the Patriots don’t really have much of a chance. Moreno sprints into open space, slips the safety coming up to make the tackle and turns it into a gain of 28 yards and a first down.
Manning’s “Montana” call could have been a nod to his four Super Bowl victories, which was equal to the number of defenders in the box. In that case, “Bags” probably had something to do with where the run should go and, therefore, which defenders needed to be double-teamed.
One thing that will get a defense into trouble against Manning is trying to guess what Manning is doing at the line of scrimmage. The calls will change, so trying to guess what’s coming is impossible.
The “Carolina” call could turn into a “Newton” call, and the “Montana” call could turn into a “Bradshaw” call. The “Montana” and “Carolina” calls turn into dummy calls that Manning can use to force a defense to panic.
“The big thing is all the theatrics, all that stuff, try not to focus on it," Chargers pass-rusher Dwight Freeney said via Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com. "He's going to be calling different things so that guys on defense pay attention to it.”
Freeney should know since he’s both a defensive player and played for a decade with Manning while with the Indianapolis Colts.
"So when he calls this it's going to be an out route. The next time he does that again, it's going to be an out and up. He really feeds off of that stuff.”
The whole idea behind Manning’s theatrics is to get the defense to tip its hand before the snap. If Manning figures out the defense before the snap, he’s going to make sure the protection, the route combination and the play itself is the best for that situation.
A defense that shows its true intentions before the snap is a lot easier for Manning to figure out.
The best chance for a defense is to force Manning and the rest of the offense to adjust after the snap by showing its true intentions as late as possible. To do this, many defenders try to figure out when the snap is coming.
Manning shouting “Omaha” and “Hurry, Hurry” turned out to be just the kind of theatrics he needed against the Chargers defense in the AFC Divisional Game. The result was four neutral-zone infractions by the Chargers by four different players.
The Chargers clearly didn’t listen to Freeney's advice.
It seemed like the Chargers thought they had the snap count figured out. Manning always snapping the ball on one after “Omaha” or “Hurry, Hurry” is what they thought, but it didn’t take long for that tactical error to cost them valuable yards and downs.
“You can’t get in Peyton’s head,” Seahawks star cornerback Richard Sherman said last week via Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated. “If you get in his head, you'll get lost."
While that is true, “Omaha” isn’t a tough one to figure out. It means that Manning is ready for the ball, and he’s finished making adjustments. From there, the snap comes on the predetermined snap count.
In many cases, the ball is snapped on one, but it could also be on two or more—especially if Manning starts catching defenders jumping the count. That’s why Manning’s description is both hilarious and accurate.
"Omaha is a run play, but it could be a pass play or a play-action pass depending on a couple things—the wind, which way we’re going, the quarter and the jerseys that we’re wearing,” Manning said at his press conference last week via the Broncos' official website. “It varies really play to play.”
When Manning is at the line of scrimmage, “Omaha” is trivial compared to all the other things he does. That doesn’t mean he won’t use the snap count to his advantage should the need arise, but adjusting his protection, routes and plays is far more important to the Broncos’ success.