Peyton Manning has been in the NFL for 16 seasons. His offenses have ranked in the NFL's top three in points eight different times, and in the top three in yards seven times. He's had great receiver corps through the years, led by Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison, but it's safe to say that he's never had a group of targets as interesting, diverse and productive as the one he currently has with the Denver Broncos. The 2013 Broncos set an NFL record with 606 points, Manning set a league mark with 55 passing touchdowns and four of his receivers caught 10 or more touchdown passes.
Those four targets comprise as diverse a group as you'll see in the NFL -- in their history, means of acquisition, and roles in Denver's offense. But when Manning has Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the outside, Wes Welker in the slot and Julius Thomas at tight end, the result is usually the same no matter the opponent -- option anxiety for the defense.
“I think the stats kind of speak for themselves, but I think just across the board there are so many weapons between receivers, running backs, tight ends," Decker said of the group on Jan. 13. "Everyone has a different skillset and they do it well. When defenses try to take away a couple guys, the other guys step up and that what’s so great about a team -- you can’t always rely on one person. You have to have all 11 guys doing their job and making sure that -- for us it’s just being in the right position because 18 [Manning] is going to get us the ball.”
Rod Smith, who played receiver for the Broncos from 1995 through 2006 and should be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame someday (I will brook no argument), said in the week before Denver's 26-16 AFC championship win over the New England Patriots that there is hidden value in the way these four play so well together.
“I love the fact that they block," Smith said on Jan. 17. "I’ll be honest with you, I love the fact that they block. I think their running game helps the passing game, and those guys downfield -- if you look at some of the big runs they’ve had this year -- you’ve got Decker and Demaryius and Welker and they’re fitting up on guys, they’re hitting big guys, they’re hitting small guys, they’re hitting everybody. That, to me, is the sign of team. That’s one thing I like. They catch a ton of passes. For some reason, I think they’re playing with five footballs sometimes [laughs], but they catch a ton of passes and get great yards after the catch. If you look at them, they play together and they root for each other. If one catches a big ball, the first one over there is the other receiver. The first one over there is that guy or the tight end and the lineman.
"It reminds me of backyard football. You had your group versus the other group -- no matching jerseys -- you’re just out there playing. That’s what these guys are playing like right now, and they’re having a lot of fun. I like the fact that I’m really close to them. I’ve watched them practice a few times this year -- I don’t come out that much -- and at the game, I’m right there on the sideline right by those guys and I’m listening and I’m hearing and I’m feeling what they’re feeling. It’s a good feeling to know that those guys are fighting for each other every single play.”
Yes, they fight for each other, but few receiver corps in NFL history have been better aligned to attack defenses.
One thing that is very different from the offenses Manning ran in Indianapolis is the number and complexity of route concepts Denver uses. The Colts ran more three-wide single-back formations than anyone in the NFL back then, and it was up to Manning to decipher the coverages, change the routes to a certain degree at the line and throw to the open man. Now, the designs by offensive coordinator Adam Gase constrict coverages by throwing too many options at defenses. In addition to the rubs and picks everyone's talking about, the Broncos do an incredible job with route combinations -- switches, hi-lows, combo routes -- and that makes Manning's job easier. When you give Peyton Manning a blank canvas on every play, and you spot him a head-start ... well, that's a nightmare formula for any defense. Even the league-best Seahawks defense the Broncos will face in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Here's how it's done, one target at a time.
Demaryius Thomas: The undeniable talent
When I first watched tape of Thomas at Georgia Tech, I was immediately reminded of Michael Irvin in his prime (Note: In an on-field sense only.) Here was a big (6-foot-3, 229-pound) downfield target who could beat coverage at the line in a big hurry, fight for catches downfield and break away for huge numbers after the catch. He caught 120 passes for 2,339 yards and 15 touchdowns over three seasons for a Georgia Tech offense that still hasn't gained complete trust in the forward pass, and he was one of two first-round picks the Broncos took in 2010. (The other one? That Tebow person.)
Thomas was always going to be talented enough to succeed in the NFL, but when he went from catching passes from Tebow and Kyle Orton to becoming a key cog in Manning's algebraic offense in 2012, he really took off. His numbers over the last two seasons have been as consistent as you could ever want -- 94 catches in 141 targets for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2012, and 92 catches in 143 targets for 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2013. He finished third among receivers in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted efficiency metrics in 2012, and first in 2013, and he led the league with 718 yards after catch this season.
“First off, he’s just a wealth of talent," Broncos head coach John Fox said of Thomas on Monday. "I mean, he is big, physical, strong, fast -- all the things you look for athletically. I think he has worked extremely hard -- at least I know the time I’ve been here. Our quarterback is a fairly demanding guy and I think it has really helped Demaryius in his growth -- as well as all of our receivers. They’ve done a terrific job.”
Thomas did a great job against the Patriots in the AFC title game, catching seven passes for 134 yards and a touchdown, and it was the one catch he made before cornerback Aqib Talib was injured that's worth special mention. With 5:52 left in the first quarter, Denver had 3rd-and-10 at its own 42-yard line. Thomas ran a step inside from iso left against Talib to gain separation, and hitched inside again at the New England 46-yard line, which is about where Talib lost him for a step in his tight coverage. Because safety Steve Gregory had come down to help with the intermediate stuff (again: option anxiety), there was nobody over the top to help Talib when Thomas started to pull away. Safety Devin McCourty came over from the other deep half to make the tackle, but that was 29 yards and a first down later.
Eric Decker: The "Possession Receiver," who's far faster (and better) than many think
If Thomas is the face and name of Denver's receiving group, Decker is the guy in the engine room -- the one who keeps things humming in many different ways. He was Denver's second-best slot target behind Welker this season (32 receptions on 40 targets over 205 routes for 350 yards and two touchdowns), and he caught more passes that traveled over 20 yards in the air than did Thomas (15 receptions for 509 yards and five touchdowns to Thomas' 12 catches for 491 yards and four scores). There is the inevitable tendency to typecast every pigment-impaired receiver in the NFL as a possession guy with sneaky speed ... but with the possible exception of Green Bay's Jordy Nelson, no current NFL player makes that stereotype look stupider than Decker. Make no mistake -- the man who was taken in the third round of the 2010 draft has developed into a complete player who would be the No. 1 target on many NFL teams.
On the play after Thomas' 29-yarder, Manning smoked the Pats defense with a 19-yard post to Decker out of play action. That was cool, but the play I'd like to illustrate came a bit earlier, with 11:33 left in the first quarter, because it illustrates how frustrating it is to keep all of Denver's receivers -- and all of Denver's route concepts -- in check. This was 1st-and-10 from the Denver 30, and Decker (yellow box below) ran a drag route from right to left. Welker came over the middle from the left slot and tried to run a quick pick, but middle linebacker Dont'a Hightower knocked him right on his ass (funny how Bill Belichick never mentioned that). Thomas ran Talib outside left, and linebacker Jamie Collins took tight end Julius Thomas up the left seam. McCourty ran high from his safety spot, while Gregory took running back Montee Ball's outside route. Thus, Decker was not only open at the catch point; he was also given enough of a release to head upfield for extra yards.
Wes Welker: The multi-slot mastermind
Welker's move from Foxboro to the Mile High City has been told and overtold, so we don't really need to go there -- except to say that when Belichick was railing against Welker's pick play after the AFC Championship Game, he was probably also wondering why he deemed Welker so fungible in the first place ... and whether he'd be heading to another Super Bowl had he not made that mistake.
As he was in New England, Welker is the game's most prolific slot target. He managed a league-leading 400 snaps from this slot this season, despite a 2013 campaign that was shortened by concussion concerns. He caught 58 passes inside for 688 yards and seven touchdowns, but as they have done with many of their offensive players, Gase and the Broncos like to play their guys against type.
Welker is still the king of the seven-yard slant, but I liked what they did with him with 13:30 left in the game. Denver was up, 20-3, and they had the ball at New England's 18-yard line. In tight quarters with cornerbacks who love to play man coverage (hello, Seattle), one optimal strategy is to run a bunch formation to either side. The Broncos did that, and by putting Welker as the outside man in bunch, they created some interesting coverage constructs that ... well, that did not work.
Demaryius Thomas was the man at the top of the formation, and nickel defender Kyle Arrington handed him off to cornerback Logan Ryan. Decker was inside, and Hightower handed him off to McCourty. Here's the problem -- those two zone ideas took all of New England's defenders from that side because Arrington didn't recover to the outside. Welker (yellow box) ran a quick out, and Manning got an easy pass off to a receiver who was, in technical terms, "wide-ass open."
Julius Thomas: The final matchup nightmare
Thomas was taken in the fourth round of the 2011 draft, and he didn't do much of anything until this season -- the former basketball player from Portland State caught one pass for five yards in his first two years in the NFL, and then kicked off the 2013 season by opening up a can of Jimmy Graham on the Baltimore Ravens in Denver's opener. Thomas caught seven passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns in that contest, and he was well on his way. This season, Thomas became Denver's first Pro Bowl tight end since Shannon Sharpe, but he's more like a Graham in that he can roll over the top of coverage and negatively affect certain coverages by forcing defenders out of their comfort zones.
One perfect example of this came with 9:19 left in the Patriots game. On the play before, Collins rushed off of Denver's left edge and let Thomas head up the seam to Hightower's coverage. But on this play, the Patriots and Collins were caught short from a coverage perspective because Thomas lined up wide left, and Collins was somehow the assigned defender. Not a good matchup for Bill Belichick's team, and there aren't a lot of advanced Xs and Os here -- Thomas (bottom receiver) just trucked Collins up the seam for a 37-yard gain.
Of course, the additional complication to all of this is the fact that whatever coverage you throw against all these guys, Manning is a quarterback who will file it all away and torch you if you get too predictable. Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells explained this difficulty when he was talking with ESPN's Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic on Wednesday morning.
"Here's how I feel about this. The Seahawks are going to do what they do, and Denver's gonna do what they do," Parcells said. "But one of the things Denver is capable of doing is that they've standardized by their formations the approach the defense can take. That's where talent, experience and preparation come into play. When Manning starts to see those repetitive looks, he then knows what to do against them. If you look at the history of playing against Peyton Manning, you have to have a little bit of the element of surprise to create a fragment of uncertainty. He's seen so much, it's very difficult to do it, but you have to do it at all costs." The Seahawks have paid the cost to be the boss, as James Brown once sang -- they have a defense good enough to do what needs to be done. But whether they can shut down Denver's multi-tiered attack will go a long way in deciding who walks off with the Lombardi Trophy.