Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has had a historic season. He set the single-season touchdown record with 55 in the regular season and the single-season passing-yard record with 5,477 in the regular season.
In two playoff victories, he has thrown for 630 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
Manning has all the statistics and the reputation to be the star of the Super Bowl. It's easy to solely focus on him because of who he is and the position he plays, but that would do a disservice to the Broncos' passing game as a whole.
The Broncos had four receivers with at least 10 receiving touchdowns this season. Wide receivers Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker combined for 35 touchdowns. Running back Knowshon Moreno added 10 rushing touchdowns, but also three receiving touchdowns and 60 receptions as he played an important role in the passing attack.
Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase has implemented an offense around Manning that perfectly plays to his strengths. That system has a few key concepts that stand out.
The Broncos' route combinations are built on the idea of attacking one specific area of the defense with multiple options on the same play. Receivers will cross behind each other, fill space that was just vacated by another teammate or settle down in the same zone.
This approach puts pressure on one or two specific players in coverage and allows Manning to make quick reads without looking to another area of the field.
A staple of this idea comes when the Broncos bunch three receivers together on one side of the field.
Manning lines up in the pistol formation on 2nd-and-2. The Broncos have three receivers to the top of the screen and Demaryius Thomas alone at the bottom. Thomas is lined up on the numbers, not outside of them, and the ball is closer to the left hash mark. This means that he has less space to cover to get to the blue area of the field. That is where the Broncos are going to expose the Washington secondary.
Manning's first two reads are at the outside edge of the blue area. He initially looks at Decker running down the seam, but Julius Thomas running into the flat is also in his line of sight so he can read both receivers' situations at the same time.
Washington is playing man coverage, so even though Julius Thomas appears to be open outside, Manning doesn't want to attempt what could be a dangerous throw. He is able to make that decision because he understands that he should have another receiver open over the middle of the field.
Linebacker London Fletcher, who has dropped into space rather than followed a receiver, is the player that the Broncos are targeting. Fletcher is initially dragged wide by Manning's eyes, but he also is drawn away from the middle of the field by Welker.
Welker releases vertically down the field, past Fletcher's outside shoulder. If the veteran receiver had run infield, underneath Fletcher, then he would have dragged the linebacker forward.
Manning is looking right at Welker at this point of the play. He hasn't had to move his eyes far to go from his first two reads to his third read. Manning immediately sees where Fletcher is and he understands that Demaryius Thomas is going to be wide open if he has escaped the cornerback covering him.
DeAngelo Hall is an aggressive cornerback, but even he is unable to stick with Thomas on the shallow crossing route. Those routes are tough for cornerbacks to defend because they have to prioritize the big-play potential down the sideline.
Demaryius Thomas is wide open in the area that was initially highlighted blue. Manning very quickly finds him for a first-down reception.
It takes a smart quarterback to go through his progressions that quickly, but the impact of the route combinations can't be understated. By not asking Manning to read the defense from sideline to sideline, Gase is allowing him to get rid of the ball much quicker.
The Broncos will attack specific areas of the underneath coverage by combining sharp in routes with deeper out routes, sharp in routes with deep seam routes and with a variety of other route combinations that follow the same principles. However, it's this bunch formation with the backside shallow crossing route that repeatedly rears its head.
On Manning's next pass attempt against Washington, they ran a very similar play.
This time they ran it out of a different formation, but the concept was the same and they attacked an area over the middle of the field. Julius Thomas made the first-down reception after initially lining up as a tight end to the left.
Building on an established concept is something that puts a lot of pressure on the defense. From this concept, the Broncos brought in a screen to the backside of the play.
With the defense being dragged to the other side of the field by the three receivers to that side and Demaryius Thomas running a shallow crossing route to that side, it's very tough to account for Moreno going the other way.
This type of play shows that Gase and Manning understand how to stretch the defense and create space on the field while still running a relatively simple offense.
While the Broncos look to get rid of the ball quickly and they base their offense on shorter completions, they will be very aggressive when looking for big plays down the field. Much like how they attack space underneath, the Broncos like to attack the opposing team's deep coverage with as many receivers as possible.
On this play against the Tennessee Titans, the Broncos run two deep comeback routes on the outside, with Welker and Julius Thomas running down each seam. Manning is able to find Welker down the seam when he sees the defender that was initially covering him drop into the flat.
By sending so many receivers deep, Manning is able to anticipate what area of the field will be weak in coverage.
Manning threw an accurate pass to Welker on this play, but as the second section of the above image shows, he also had the opportunity to find Moreno free underneath. This is something that happened regularly throughout the season, and it should be a key play against the Seattle Seahawks.
The Broncos will want to attack the seams against the Seahawks to try and expose the defense's scheme, so Julius Thomas and Welker should prove to be important players.
Outside of plays like this, the Broncos' big gains generally come from yards after the catch or deep crossing routes that feature outside receivers, slot receivers and Julius Thomas at tight end.
Ever since Welker collided with New England Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib in the AFC Championship, the Denver Broncos' use of pick plays has come into focus.
Pick plays are plays when one receiver intentionally blocks off a defensive back from getting to another receiver who is receiving the pass. The Broncos have become associated with them because of the aforementioned incident and they are an important concept for their offense.
As Welker himself explains, "You try to get a rub on that guy and if you can get him to go over the top of you, the more separation the other receiver will have."
However, it should be noted that the Broncos are not the only team in the league running pick plays.
Manning and Brock Osweiler have combined for 732 pass attempts this season, and the Broncos attempted 58 pick plays on those. Three times they ran multiple picks on the same play, so they attempted a pick play once every 13.3 pass attempts.
This means the Broncos attempted 3.2 pick plays per game, but the quantity varied from week to week:
|Denver Broncos Pick Plays|
|Week||Opponent||Picks||Successful Picks||Failed Picks|
|Week 2||New York Giants||2||1||1|
|Week 10||San Diego||0||0||0|
|Week 11||Kansas City||7||6||1|
|Week 12||New England||5||0||5|
|Week 13||Kansas City||5||5||0|
|Week 15||San Diego||1||1||0|
|Divisional Round||San Diego||2||2||0|
|Championship Game||New England||4||4||0|
|Cian Fahey Analytical Analysis|
Only twice all season were the Broncos punished for offensive pass interference when running pick plays. That is largely a result of their excellent execution and timing, but there were a number of obvious calls that were missed by officials also.
In the regular season, the Patriots shut down the Broncos' pick plays by being very aggressive with receivers over the middle of the field. They had no success on five attempts. However, during their second meeting in the postseason, Denver kept the defense off balance and was unstoppable with its pick plays.
|Denver Broncos Pick Usage|
|Player||Picker||Picker Success||Catcher||Catcher Success|
|Cian Fahey Analytical Analysis|
As you would expect, Julius Thomas had the most success as a picker of those with a substantial number of attempts. Unsurprisingly, the Broncos tried to run pick plays that would give the ball to Welker more than any other player. However, Welker benefited less from successful picks than most of his teammates.
Forty-two of the Broncos' 58 pick plays were successful in 2013. Nineteen times, the play resulted in a first down with a pass to the receiver who benefited from the pick play, and that receiver scored a touchdown six times. Only once was a pass dropped, courtesy of Julius Thomas in the end zone during the AFC Championship.
Nine times a pick play was successfully run away from where the quarterback threw the ball. Twice the quarterback missed the intended receiver on a pick play, and five times the pick was successful but the receiver couldn't get a first down.
Each of the Broncos' six touchdowns from pick plays came within 10 yards of the end zone. They excel at using pick plays in situational football and Welker in particular was very effective at the goal line. He ran four successful goal-line pick plays and scored a touchdown on each play. They attempted 11 pick plays close to the goal line in total for the season.
Situational football is where this aspect of the Broncos' passing attack excels. It's very difficult to stop their pick plays because of how well they are executed, the different ways they run them and the various things they can do if you overplay one aspect of the route combination.
This play shows off just how well the Broncos execute their pick plays. Welker, in the slot, and Demaryius Thomas, outside, are highlighted to the bottom of the formation. Washington is showing press coverage at the snap, so there is no room for a quick throw.
At the snap, Demaryius immediately releases inside and goes straight for the defender who was lined up over Welker. The outside cornerback thinks he is running a slant route, so he overplays him inside.
Meanwhile, Manning is beginning his throwing motion, so the ball isn't yet in the air when Demaryius makes contact with the defender. To the officials, this looks like a receiver trying to release into his route and the contact can be perceived as incidental.
As the ball is in the air on its way to Welker, Demaryius puts his hands up and turns to the quarterback to sell the fact that he is not actively engaging the defender in a block. Thomas is very rigid and it's a bad case of over-acting, but it's enough.
When the ball arrives to Welker, he has time to turn and comfortably amble into the end zone for a very easy touchdown.
Getting into the end zone and moving the chains are the two most important aspects of any offense. The Broncos get more easy touchdowns and first downs than any other team in the league because of their pick plays.
The obvious answer to handling pick plays is to be more aggressive chasing the catcher underneath or to try and run through the picker. It's often too difficult for the defense to swap receivers when in man coverage, while defenders in zone coverage often don't see the pick coming because their eyes are on the quarterback.
Even when teams figure out how to stop the pick play, the Broncos can adjust.
On this play, the Broncos are facing a 3rd-and-3 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Welker is lined up in the right slot, with Decker out wide to the left. Decker is the picker on this play, as he makes a concentrated effort to get in the way of Brandon Flowers, who is trailing Welker.
Flowers evades Decker's attempt to block him, which allows Decker to continue running across the field while three defenders are drawn to Welker. Manning recognizes this and finds Decker with a simple pass. Decker already has a first down when he catches the ball, and he has a huge amount of space to turn into.
The threat of the picker coming free is rare because more often than not, they are sure to make contact with the initial defender. Having a quarterback as aware as Manning makes this kind of play possible, though.
The other way pick plays can adapt is with awareness from the receiver position.
In certain situations, the receiver can cut back inside if the defensive back is too aggressive going outside. This play didn't necessarily look like it was going to be a pick play, but the presence of the players outside obviously affected the defensive back's mindset. Having that impact on plays where picks aren't being run is also important because it affects how aggressively the defense will play normal underneath routes.
Of the Broncos' 5,572 total receiving yards, 2,751 came after the catch in 2013. That number led the league by almost 200 yards. Part of that production is simply a result of them having excellent receivers, but it also speaks to how creative they have been with their screen passes. They throw them to tight ends and running backs in a variety of ways. The threat of their individual weapons and the design of the offense allows them to be very consistent.
Against the Indianapolis Colts, the Broncos turned to a brilliantly designed screen pass to escape from their own goal line. It was 3rd-and-8, just three yards away from their own end zone. They are in the pistol formation, with three receivers to the right.
Importantly, the Colts defensive backs align in press coverage and they have four defenders standing up in that area of the field.
Manning runs a play fake with Moreno to the left side of the field. That draws the outside linebacker toward the line of scrimmage and takes him away from the three receivers to the top of the screen. All of them are releasing into routes.
Demaryius Thomas releases vertically and runs directly at the cornerback in front of him. However, Welker and Decker release at an angle, so they are moving past the outside shoulder of their defenders. These releases are important for creating space.
The releases were important because when Manning turns to throw the ball, neither of the inside receivers is engaging his defender. Yet they are still in good positions to block for Demaryius. Meanwhile, Demaryius' release through the defensive back allows him to work backwards toward the line of scrimmage freely.
On the offensive line, one blocker is already free and advancing to the second level.
When Thomas gets the ball, the momentum of the inside defensive backs has carried them to the sideline, while the outside defensive back is being blocked out of the play. Demaryius has a blocker in front, but he doesn't need him to get a first down.
Success on screen plays is based on execution, design and timing. The Broncos' screens are very well-designed and the execution is excellent, but the timing may be most impressive.
It's very difficult to anticipate when the Broncos throw a screen pass. Because Manning adjusts the play call based on what the defense shows him, it's generally hard to diagnose the play before the snap. The threat of the fake screen is always evident.
The Broncos have run many different fake screens this season and rarely have they failed.
Manning's first touchdown pass of the season came on a fake screen. It was scored by Julius Thomas, who initially lines up in a receiver stance tight to the line of scrimmage. The Ravens are playing off coverage, so they theoretically should be in a good position to prevent any fake screen.
The athleticism of Julius, Demaryius and Decker in particular makes the Broncos' screen play so effective. Not only is each receiver able to be an effective blocker, each can transition from faking a block to running downfield very quickly. That is what Julius does down the seam on this play.
The Ravens didn't defend this play well, but they weren't the only team to give up this much space on fake screens this year.
With more talent than any other defense in the NFL, the Seahawks won't fear the Broncos. They won't be intimidated by Manning or overwhelmed by the variety of weapons he has to work with. However, the Seahawks must respect the design and intelligence of the Broncos offense.
This historic unit wasn't simply built on stockpiling talent.
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