Success in the NFL is often predicated on the matchups: No one has profited more from exploiting mismatches than Denver’s quarterback Peyton Manning. Dave Archibald previews the matchup between the Broncos passing attack and Packers defense, as one of these unbeaten teams will leave Denver with a loss.
It is hard to believe that future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning is leading an offense that ranks 29th in yards, but the Denver Broncos have struggled to move the ball in 2015. Things don’t figure to get any easier on Sunday when they face the Green Bay Packers, tops in scoring defense. Denver’s defense has carried the team, ranking second in points allowed, first in yards allowed, and adding four defensive touchdowns to boot, but they figure to have their hands full against a Packers offense featuring reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers. Manning and company will need a return to form to win at home Sunday and continue their unbeaten season.
What Is It Good Four
The Packers use a variety of coverage shells, and one of their favorites is a Cover 4 scheme that takes advantage of hybrid defensive backs Casey Hayward and Micah Hyde, who are adept at playing cornerback, the slot, and even the safety position. The San Diego Chargers found a way to put stress on Green Bay’s deep safeties, however – particularly second-year player Ha Ha Clinton-Dix – by overloading the Packers zone with deep routes.
The Chargers line up in the shotgun with trips left. The key route combination here involves Malcom Floyd (#80) on the outside left and Dontrelle Inman (#15) in the slot. Both run vertical stems upfield. Hayward (#29) lines up in the slot on Inman and gives a quick jam to the receiver before dropping into a robber role underneath:
That makes Clinton-Dix (#21), playing a deep zone, responsible for Inman. When Inman cuts out, Clinton-Dix takes a few steps in that direction. Floyd runs a skinny post right through what had been Clinton-Dix’s area, and gets a step on cornerback Sam Shields (#37). Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers drops a perfect pass to Floyd and, by the time Clinton-Dix recovers to help, San Diego has a 50-yard completion. The Chargers had run the same exact play earlier in the game for a 38-yard connection to Keenan Allen. These two plays were their longest gains on the day.
Manning has the understanding of defenses to capitalize on this Green Bay weakness, and in big-bodied Demaryius Thomas and speedster Emmanuel Sanders, he has the kind of receivers that can threaten the Packers deep. Indeed, Denver ran a similar route combination against the Minnesota Vikings earlier this season:
The Broncos line up tight end Owen Daniels (#81) to the left with Sanders (#80) just outside of him. Daniels runs up the seam before breaking outside, where safety Robert Blanton (#36) picks him up. That leaves Sanders one-on-one with veteran corner Terence Newman (#23). Sanders breaks on the post and it looks like Manning has a window to hit him, but the throw is too high and a bit behind the receiver.
Manning has been unsuccessful throwing deep this year, completing just 16-of-46 (34.8%), a mark below the league average (41.8%) and Manning’s rates in 2013 and 2014 (46.3%). Is this a sign of diminished skill or a small sample size fluke? The Broncos are certainly hoping it’s the latter and that Manning can connect on a few deep shots to his talented wideouts.
Thomas the Tank
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers loves to create confusion up front with blitzes and late movement, as Green Bay has finished in the top 10 in blitz percentage each of the past two years. Their best pass rusher is linebacker Clay Matthews, who posted 50 sacks in five seasons as an edge rusher before Capers moved him inside last season for more flexibility. Matthews responded with 11 sacks last season, and already has 4.5 in six games, posing a threat from wherever he rushes.
The Packers line up in a 2-4 nickel against the St. Louis Rams with both outside linebackers up on the line of scrimmage. The OLBs drop into coverage, however, while inside linebackers Matthews (#52) and Nate Palmer (#51) execute a crossfire blitz, with Palmer crossing the center to the left A gap and Matthews shooting right A gap:
The Green Bay defensive tackles occupy the guards, which means Rams center Tim Barnes (#61) has no help from his linemates. He blocks Palmer, leaving tight end Lance Kendricks (#88) – lined up in the backfield – to pick up Matthews. The five-time Pro Bowler comes in with a full head of steam and easily brushes Kendricks aside, pressuring quarterback Nick Foles (#5) and forcing a throwaway. With just four rushers, this is technically not a blitz, but it is indicative of the elements the Packers use rushing the passer.
The Broncos line up with an empty backfield and two receivers left: Thomas (#88) wide and Jordan Norwood (#11) in the slot. Thomas runs forward and then almost immediately turns to receive the throw from Manning:
Norwood veers to the sideline to block cornerback Rashean Mathis (#31), lined up across from Thomas. The receiver also gets a convoy from the offensive line as the center, left guard, and left tackle all leak out to block. Thomas dashes between Norwood’s block and his OL convoy for 17 yards before two Lions can haul him down.
The Broncos execute this play as well as any team, with perfect timing and coordination to get blockers in front without being flagged for offensive pass interference or illegal receiver downfield penalties. The key is Thomas, dangerous enough downfield that corners give him a cushion and a terror with the ball in his hand. Thomas stands 6’3”, 230 pounds, making him a load for defensive backs to bring down, and he has the shiftiness and speed of a smaller player. Denver figures to get him involved at all levels Sunday, and the need for quick throws to counteract the blitz means he could rack up a bunch of receptions and yards after catch.
QB Manning: It shouldn’t shock NFL fans of the past 15 years if Manning plays well, but given the struggles of Denver’s passing game this season and Green Bay’s stinginess, especially in the red zone, there are better options.
RB C.J. Anderson / Ronnie Hillman: In the offseason, some questioned how the Broncos would meld Manning’s style with that of new head coach Gary Kubiak. Denver has managed to seamlessly blend the unpredictability of opportunity for running backs that characterized Kubiak’s early-2000s Broncos with the inefficient ground game of Manning’s mid-2000s Colts. You don’t know who will get the ball and, even if you guess right, you’re not likely to get much production.
WR Thomas: Our THIS SPACE FOR RENT Best Bet of the Week. Will see targets and receptions as noted above, and the likeliest Bronco to get into the end zone.
WR Sanders: A riskier play than Thomas. He could catch a 40-yard pass, but how much do you want to gamble on that? If you have him in season-long fantasy you probably want to start him, but there are better options in daily formats.
Any other Denver WR: Hard pass; no one else is averaging even 20 yards per game.
TE Daniels: Daniels has been a stellar receiver for a long time in Kubiak offenses, but he’s 32 now and suffering from the broader issues in Denver’s offense as well as the hand of Father Time. He has not produced in better matchups, and Football Outsiders ranks Green Bay #2 at defending tight ends, so there’s no reason to play him in this one.
Green Bay Defense: Manning is still excellent at avoiding sacks and it’s a gamble to assume he keeps throwing interceptions every week. While Denver’s offense has struggled, the defense has put them in good positions, so the Broncos are more likely to score in the teens or low-20s rather than be shut down entirely. A playable option but without great upside.
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Dave Archibald knows pass defense, specifically how coverage, the pass rush, excellent cornerbacks, versatile safeties and in-game adjustments can make a big difference.
All video and images courtesy NFL Game Pass.