In preparation for the Super Bowl, Inside the Pylon‘s editors have compiled everything we have on the Denver Broncos offense.
Manning has the understanding of defenses to capitalize on this Green Bay weakness, and in big-bodied Thomas and the speedy 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.
Peyton Manning Passing
Assuming New England will focus on stopping the run, it will be up to Manning to lead his team to victory, suspect arm and all. Against Pittsburgh, Manning looked as healthy as he’s been all year, yet lacked velocity on some throws.
Manning also had trouble with touch on his downfield passes, overthrowing receivers multiple times, as with this errant throw to Demaryius Thomas where the wideout is open, but the ball sails up and away, over the head of the receiver:
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Manning operated much more under center in his return, which alters the play-calling options for Gary Kubiak. In Week 12, Osweiler executed bootlegs and even a designed QB run, which don’t figure to be in the game plan this time.
Pressuring Manning up the middle will, as it always has been, the key. Collins and Hightower excel at sugaring the A gap, which may have Manning checking to run plays often.
New England, for their part, played mostly man coverage in Week 12 with success, so it would make sense for them to do the same in the rematch. Cornerback Logan Ryan shut down Demaryius Thomas for much of the game, and Malcolm Butler limited Emmanuel Sanders’s production.
At the end of the fourth quarter, Thomas and Sanders both had impressive, if not lucky, catches that helped Denver march down the field and score the go-ahead touchdown on an Andre Caldwell four-yard reception. Thomas’s reception came on a deep curl route in which he leapt over Ryan to high-point the ball and snatch it away from the outstretched hands of the cornerback to make the 36-yard catch. Sanders then had a 39-yard reception in which he got behind Butler on a go route and made the catch to bring Denver to the New England four-yard line to set up an Andre Caldwell touchdown. It will be important for Butler and Ryan to limit Thomas and Sanders again in order to free up a defender to put in the box to help defend against the run.
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.
Denver Run Game
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Freeny is responsible for filling the gap here, as Mayo works to fill the B gap. However, Freeny is late to recognize the play and, as a result, Anderson gains nine yards before Freeny can tackle him.
On Anderson’s game-winning touchdown in overtime in Week 12, Denver perfectly executed a toss sweep featuring great blocking by both the offensive line and the wide receivers:
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Freeny is easily handled by the tight end while the safety is blocked by the wideout, which allows Denver’s center and left tackle to swing out and pave the way for Anderson to scamper down the sideline and into the end zone untouched.
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.
Against the Blitz
The Broncos held a 9-3 lead at halftime against Baltimore, but the Ravens drew blood less than a minute into the second half:
The Broncos line up in the shotgun with Thomas (#88) split out wide and Jordan Norwood (#11) in the slot. The Ravens counter with Jimmy Smith (#22) and Kyle Arrington (#24) on them, respectively, but prior to the snap Arrington inches closer to the tackle box as if to blitz. He’s not the only Ravens defender showing blitz; all three of their linebackers align at the line of scrimmage, too, giving Baltimore seven potential pass rushers. With six blockers, Denver can’t account for all of them, and in this case they leave Arrington unblocked. He charges in on Manning (#18), who makes the correct read and targets Norwood on an out route.
With Arrington blitzing, no one is covering Norwood as he heads to the area vacated by Thomas’ go route. Unfortunately, with Arrington bearing in on him, Manning can’t get his legs into the throw and floats it, giving Smith time to come off Thomas and tip Manning’s pass in the air. He catches his own deflection and has nothing in front of him but green grass, sprinting to the end zone for a 10-9 lead.
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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking downmatchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.
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