With a first round bye on the line and the offense sputtering, the Denver Broncos turned to their backup to right the ship. Their 39-year-old signal caller entered the game in the third quarter and the offense seemed to wake up. Dave Archibald looks at why the Broncos went back to Peyton Manning.
The Denver Broncos earned the number one seed in the AFC after a 27-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers, but the game’s outcome is just a footnote to the real story: the reemergence of future Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning, who replaced Brock Osweiler after three turnovers in the first half. Osweiler appeared to have a stranglehold on the quarterback job after leading the Broncos to overtime victories over conference rivals the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals. Manning had struggled this season with injuries, interceptions, and adjusting to new head coach Gary Kubiak’s scheme, and through Osweiler’s first six starts the offense seemed to respond better under his direction. A closer look at the tape and stats, however, shows an offense that was still struggling, shedding light on why Kubiak went back to Manning.
New Kid In Town
Bootleg action is a longtime staple of Kubiak’s offense, acting as a constraint on the defense. The bootleg helps to keep the defense from pursuing zone runs too hard and creating chunk passing plays if defenders flow too quickly to the run. The Denver offense struggled early in the year with the bootleg, with 39-year-old Manning lacking some of the athletic tools the Kubiak scheme demands. In theory, 25-year-old Osweiler offered a better fit, but the film doesn’t prove out the theory, as this play from the Bengals game shows:
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The Broncos line up with 12 personnel and show an outside zone run left. Osweiler (#17) fakes the handoff and runs the bootleg to the right. The two outside receivers run deep routes, with Andre Caldwell (#12) running a post from the left side and Emmanuel Sanders (#10) running a double move up the right side. Tight end Owen Daniels (#81), initially lined up on the wing to the left side, tunnels behind the line of scrimmage to the right flat, mirroring Osweiler’s boot. Kubiak has been using this route in conjunction with the bootleg for years – it’s difficult for a man-to-man defender to sift through the trash and follow Daniels even if he isn’t fooled by the play action.
Osweiler doesn’t target Daniels, however. He stops and looks to his deep routes (blue circles), finding both are well-covered. By design, no one blocks Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap (#96), counting on him to follow the run long enough for Osweiler to break contain. But because Osweiler stops, Dunlap has him dead to rights. Had he kept going, the quarterback might have had a throwing lane to hit Daniels (red circle) for a short gain; at the very least, he would have been able to throw the ball away. Instead, he takes a nine-yard sack, bringing about 3rd-and-19 and effectively ending the drive.
Manning has had issues executing Kubiak’s offense from under center, clearly preferring to line up in the shotgun or pistol. Osweiler didn’t appear to be any more comfortable under center, however, as the Broncos still executed most of their passing concepts from the shotgun. Against the Bengals, Osweiler had 33 dropbacks from shotgun or pistol formations and just 10 from under center, while 255 of his 299 passing yards came from the ‘gun.
What the fourth-year player did was throw fewer interceptions than Manning, who finished second in the league with 17 interceptions despite missing six games. Osweiler’s threw just six – 2.2 percent of his pass attempts, versus 5.1 percent for Manning. Their average yards per attempt (6.8 for Manning, 7.2 for Osweiler) and per game (224.9 for Manning, 245.9 for Osweiler) are similar. Denver’s passing offense didn’t experience wholesale improvement under Osweiler, but they did avoid turnovers that put the defense in poor positions – until Week 17, at least.
In the Long Run
Denver’s running game improved with Osweiler in the lineup – sort of. The Broncos jumped from 86 rushing yards per game in Weeks 1 through 10 to 123 yards per game in Weeks 11 to 16. But team-leading rusher Ronnie Hillman actually took a step backward with Osweiler, averaging just 3.6 yards per carry after averaging 4.1 yards per carry with Manning. It was the other Broncos running back, C.J. Anderson, who improved dramatically. Hampered in part by ankle and toe injuries, Anderson disappointed Denver (and fantasy owners around the world) prior to Week 11, rushing 90 times for 324 yards (3.6 yards per carry) and one touchdown. He has impressed since, with 62 carries for 396 yards (6.4 yards per carry) and four touchdowns.
Part of the improvement appears to be better blocking from the offensive line: Anderson has been dropped for a loss on just five percent of carries since Week 11 versus 10 percent before that. Another good portion of Anderson’s improvement has been big plays, as Anderson has ripped off four runs totalling 136 yards since Week 11. His four longest runs in Weeks 1 through 10 totalled just 79 yards. One of those recent big runs was a 39-yard touchdown that gave Denver a fourth quarter lead against Cincinnati:
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The Broncos line up in the shotgun with Anderson (#22) just to the left of Osweiler. The offensive line executes outside zone right blocking, with the covered linemen trying to get to the right of the defenders and the uncovered linemen attempting to work to the next level. Daniels, lined up tight to the left, gets a good reach block on Wallace Gilberry (#95). Left tackle Ryan Harris (#68) is able to tie up defensive tackle Brandon Thompson (#98), which allows left guard Max Garcia (#73) to stone linebacker Vontaze Burfict (#55), charging into the hole. All of this action creates a solid hole, but Anderson sees that there’s no backside contain and bounces the run to the left edge. Gilberry can’t recover in time, safety Reggie Nelson (#20) takes a poor angle charging in from deep, and Anderson is off to the races.
Cutbacks runs are part of what makes the zone blocking scheme so dangerous. Not only can the running game steadily move the chains with three- or four-yard runs, but the threat of the home run looms if defenses lose discipline and over-pursue or lose contain. Anderson provides a big-play dimension in the running game and could play a vital role in Denver’s playoff run.
After the Thrill Is Gone
The fundamental unit of opportunity in football is the drive – when the offense gets the ball, does it score, turn the ball over, or punt? Replacing Manning with Osweiler cut down on the number of interceptions, but the rest of the per-drive statistics were virtually identical:
One would expect that more drives would have ended in scores under Osweiler, if only because fewer are being derailed by turnovers, but in fact a smaller percentage of Denver’s drives in Weeks 11 to 16 ended in points than they had before, with yards (29.4 before vs. 29.8 since) and points (1.64 before vs. 1.59 since) per drive almost the same. Manning’s errant deliveries were replaced not by more scores but by more missed field goals, fumbles, and turnovers on downs.
Up until Sunday, Osweiler avoided putting the defense in bad positions the way Manning did, but he didn’t lead the offense to the heights reached in recent seasons. If Manning is healthy and cuts down on mistakes from early in the season, he gives the Broncos offense the best chance to pile up points. Even if Manning recaptures only a fraction of his former glory, Denver’s improved ground game coupled with the NFL’s stingiest yardage defense gives the Broncos a chance to add another Lombardi Trophy to their mantle.
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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.