The Denver Broncos enter the playoffs this year as the second seed in the AFC. They get a well-deserved bye this week, with a home playoff game in the divisional round.
They should open up the aerial attack—and Peyton Manning—in the playoffs.
They have become a run-heavy team since their Week 11 loss to the St. Louis Rams. During that time, Manning and the passing game have taken a back seat as the team forged a new offensive identity.
Running the ball effectively, controlling the line of scrimmage and playing strong defense are all keys to winning in the postseason. However, the Broncos have a threat at quarterback that few teams have.
Here we examine why passing the ball early and often may be their best bet for postseason success.
The Broncos need to use tempo as a weapon in the postseason. As we saw in the game against the Cincinnati Bengals, defenses have become used to giving Manning multiple looks before the snap of the ball. When Manning calls an audible, defenses switch one, two or three more times before the play starts.
Using the hurry-up offense will instantly fix that disruption. Defenses don’t have time to adjust or show multiple looks before the snap when the Broncos get to the line of scrimmage in a hurry, but that’s not the only benefit.
Manning seems to get into a rhythm better when utilizing the up-tempo offense. Defenses are put on their heels, and Manning gets comfortable quickly within the game.
Shotgun and Pistol Formation
Yes, the offensive line (in different incarnations) has struggled this year. Manning was only sacked 17 times this season (best in the NFL), but that has more to do with his quick release and decision-making.
When the Broncos face teams with elite pass-rushers, they can use the shotgun and pistol formations to get Manning further away from the defense.
In the pistol formation, Manning is lined up four yards behind the center with a running back behind him. The defense cannot key on which direction the back will go based on a pre-snap read. This gives an advantage to the offense on both running and passing plays.
In the shotgun formation, Manning is lined up seven yards behind the center with a running back on either side of him. Defenses can read the run easier because a back will usually carry the ball to the opposite side of where he’s lined up. Manning is further back in the shotgun, plus he’ll get more space to ‘climb the ladder’ up the middle to avoid edge pressure if it gets to him.
With Ronnie Hillman back in action, the Broncos should be using more of the pistol formation going forward. Hillman’s speed is something the Broncos can use to attack a defense on the edge or in space. These formations—and having a speedy weapon in the backfield like Hillman—can help Manning distribute the ball better through the air.
The Broncos have shown more intent to run the ball over the last six weeks of the season. Running back C.J. Anderson has taken the league by storm, and he leads the NFL in rushing during that span. This emphasis on the ground game can make things open up for the passing game.
After the Broncos have established the run, they can start using play-action passing for long strikes. Defenses who are getting abused on the ground will almost always start putting a safety near the line of scrimmage to help stuff the run. Once this happens, Manning can wreak havoc against a single-high safety look.
Manning is arguably the best play-faking quarterback of all time. His fakes get defenders to bite, then he takes advantage of them through the air.
|Peyton Manning Play-Action Passing Stats|
|ESPN Stats & Info.|
He leads the league in passing yards off play-action fakes. Manning also ranks second (Andy Dalton, nine) with seven interceptions on plays that feature play action. The Broncos quarterback also ranks seventh (first is Tom Brady, 70) in first downs off play-action passes with 57.
The Broncos don’t know who they’ll face in the divisional round of the playoffs. Looking at potential opponents for the next round, Indianapolis, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh could be on their way to the Mile High City.
The Colts came to Denver in Week 1 of the regular season and lost by a score of 31-24. In that game, Manning had 259 yards passing with three touchdowns. The Colts defense ranks 12th against the pass, allowing an average of 229.3 passing yards per game.
The Bengals won 37-28 over the Broncos on Monday Night Football in Week 16. Manning passed for 311 yards with two touchdowns—his first 300-yard game since Week 11 against the St. Louis Rams. His four interceptions were costly, but if Manning is safer with the football, the outcome could be different. The Bengals defense ranks 20th against the pass, allowing an average of 243.0 yards though the air per game.
The Steelers defense isn’t what it used to be—especially against the pass. They currently rank 27th against the pass, allowing an average of 253.1 passing yards per game. Give Manning enough time, and he could certainly dissect the Steelers defense with his arm.
The Broncos want to lay it all on the line in the playoffs. The Super Bowl window is open in Denver so long as Manning is the quarterback—and his time in the NFL has one or two more seasons left.
Yes, they have a new identity as a run-heavy team, and their rushing attack will be important to their postseason success. However, the best player on offense is still Manning, and the team needs to make sure he gets comfortable early in each contest.
They can set Manning up for success by using the no-huddle offense to establish a rhythm. Using shotgun and pistol formations will give Manning a little extra space from opposing pass-rushers. This added real estate will give Manning the room he needs to properly step into his throws.
Finally, running the ball effectively will open up play-action passing. Defenses will have to adjust to what Denver is doing on the ground. When they do so, Manning can execute play fakes to throw the ball over the top of the defense.
The NFL playoffs are a single-game elimination tournament. In order to continue this season, Denver should let Manning air it out.
All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos unless otherwise noted. Contract and salary-cap information provided by Spotrac.com. Transaction history provided by ProSportsTransactions.com.