Will Different Broncos Lead to Different Result?
Broncos general manager John Elway centered his offseason around correcting the weaknesses that Seattle exposed during the 43-8 Super Bowl humiliation. The overwhelming majority of Denver's problems started with the offensive line.
Few notice that this prolific, history-making offense is actually a dink-and-dunk one. Last season, Manning threw a league-high 353 balls under 10 yards through the air (as tracked by Pro Football Focus) and his receiving targets collectively averaged 165 yards per game after catch—also an NFL high. The Seahawks were prepared for this, with a game plan focusing on aggressive gang tackling. Obviously, no matter how motivating Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Dan Quinn are in practice, it’s not enough to simply tell players to go make tackles—coaches have to put them in position.
What Carroll and Quinn did was brilliant. Against Denver’s empty spread sets, knowing Manning gets rid of the ball so quickly, they rushed only three and dropped a defensive linemen into coverage (see image below).
The short-dropping D-lineman took away Denver’s interior short routes and allowed Seattle’s linebackers to play wider to the flats (thus better defending Denver’s patented wide receiver screens and short outside patterns). And if Manning did complete a quick pass, there’d be an extra tackler already in the field.
Against base-type sets when a running back was in the backfield, the Seahawks played a little more man coverage than usual, relying heavily on strong safety Kam Chancellor lurking between the numbers. Besides his intimidating hitting and nose for the ball, Chancellor’s range enabled Seattle’s linebackers to risk playing faster. Couple this with Denver’s wideouts—particularly Eric Decker—not winning off the line and suddenly you had a defense swarming. Up front was even feistier, as Seattle’s front four feasted on offensive tackles Chris Clark and Orlando Franklin. Manning was rattled into playing by far his worst game of the season. Besides clumsily having to move out of the pocket a few times, he made a handful of critical misreads.
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After Elway’s offseason changes, things could be different this time around. With Pro Bowl veteran left tackle Ryan Clady back after missing almost all of last season with a foot injury, Clark moved to right tackle, which allowed the heavy-footed Franklin to move to left guard. There, Franklin has the help he needs in pass protection and offers better physical strength than predecessor Zane Beadles, who was allowed to leave in free agency.
The Broncos will count on this retooled line to handle Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and, in some instances, Bruce Irvin. It helps that Seattle’s pass rush is not as deep with Chris Clemons and the wildly underrated Clinton McDonald gone.
Even if the protection is sound, there’s still the matter of getting guys open downfield. The biggest keys will be Demaryius Thomas and Decker’s replacement, Emmanuel Sanders, Denver’s two fastest weapons.
It’s hard to get players downfield against press corners like Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell, so offensive coordinator Adam Gase will have to design plays that get his guys a clean release off the line. For this, expect to see Thomas and Sanders often line up on the same side. And, expect the Broncos to set up a portion of their vertical routes by faking a wide receiver screen—likely to Thomas, which means Sanders is the man Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas must find.
Aligning all the wideouts on the same side is a great way to remove Richard Sherman from the equation. True, the Packers did this in Week 1 with poor results, while the Chargers in Week 2 treated Sherman like any other corner and had some success. But the notion that the Bolts “exploited" the loquacious superstar is an exaggeration. They had route combinations that out-leveraged Sherman a few times and they beat him with a change-of-direction route or two. But by no means is Sherman suddenly a player you can attack. Manning and Gase were very leery of Sherman heading into Super Bowl 48; they know that you don’t avenge a humiliating loss by getting the opponent’s best player more involved. They’ll use formations that stay away from Sherman, especially when the ball is on the right hash and Sherman has less area to cover.
The Broncos tried this in the Super Bowl, overloading all of their receivers to one side and putting tight end Julius Thomas alone on the other. Unfortunately, the game’s circumstances prevented them from finding any rhythm here. With the offensive line being improved, expect Gase and Manning to not only try these unbalanced sets again, but to be much more aggressive out of them. The Broncos did not (and could not) take enough deep shots last time. That won’t be the case again.
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On the defensive side of the ball, an influx of new talent has inspired Broncos coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to rely less on disguises and more on straight man coverage looks. (The less there is for defenders to think about, the looser they can play.)
But man-to-man can be risky against a mobile QB like Russell Wilson, as defenders following receivers turn their backs and run away from the scrambler.
In order for the Broncos to play man-to-man, they’ll have to put one of their man defenders on Wilson (a nomination: the fluid and impressive new starting inside linebacker Brandon Marshall). Spying Wilson will make blitzing almost impossible. The onus is on nickel defensive ends Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware—not only to get pass rush pressure but also to set the edge in the ground game, since blitzing is a great way to prevent Seattle’s zone runs from getting outside.
Through the air, Wilson has been very sharp this season, thanks in part to shrewd play designs from offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Bevell has done a good job incorporating Percy Harvin, and this week he’ll use more moving pockets to make Wilson comfortable. To play man against this, cornerbacks must make good use of the physicality that they’re allowed to exert in the first five yards off the line. That physicality can compromise the structure of passing lanes, which is critical when Wilson is on the move.
This sort of game plan is exactly why the Broncos shelled out big money for DeMarcus Ware and Aqib Talib.
Smart watching for Week 3
Traveling from San Diego to Buffalo for a 1 p.m. ET game is about as hard as it gets, but don’t be surprised if the Chargers emerge with a second straight victory. Their defense is quite impressive. Assuming they can correct the mental mistakes they had last week in defending (or not defending) running backs leaking out of the backfield (something that’s vital when facing Buffalo’s Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller), the Chargers can suffocate the Bills. Rookie corner Justin Verrett has given the secondary more man-to-man presence, which has helped make their base Cover 3 zone concepts tighter. Inside, Chargers safeties last week kept Russell Wilson’s mobility in check through man-free lurk concepts that acted as a downfield spy. They’ll do the same against EJ Manuel. Up front, the Bills will have trouble against a still viable Dwight Freeney in the passing game and against rising star (maybe even superstar) Melvin Ingram in both the pass and run. Freeney and Ingram can line up on the strong or weak side of a formation, giving the defensive front flexibility.
Jumping out on film
It was an ugly loss to Houston for the now 0-2 Raiders, but there was a silver (and black) lining: the play of third-round rookie Gabe Jackson and first-round rookie Khalil Mack. First, Jackson. The 336-pound left guard from Mississippi State often worked against J.J. Watt and, overall, battled the NFL’s most destructive defensive force to a draw. Jackson has tremendous strength that derives from a strong base. His pass protection held up firmly against Watt’s bull rush (which you almost never see from any guard) and he was able to drive defenders in the running game.
As for Mack, his athletic burst is everything we were told it would be. Most encouraging is that he knows how to apply it in confined spaces, attacking both inside and outside. On two different plays he embarrassed Pro Bowl left tackle Duane Brown off the snap, and as a playside run defender he drew two holding penalties against tight end Ryan Griffin. Mack looks like a surefire star. So does fellow youngster Sio Moore, last year’s third-round pick. Moore has really flashed as a downhill attacker and is explosive on the back end of his pursuit.
For the second week in a row, Cincinnati’s defense from a schematic standpoint looked terrific under Paul Guenther. The first-year coordinator did an excellent job building coverage rotations behind his presnap pressure looks against Atlanta. From some of those pressure looks, instead of rushing Reggie Nelson off the edge like the week before, he had the veteran safety drop into the flats beneath Roddy White, while corner Terence Newman went over the top, creating an inverted Cover 2. On the other side, centerfielder George Iloka played well helping corner Leon Hall (who looks great coming off his second Achilles injury) against Julio Jones. Iloka also intercepted a bad Matt Ryan post route throw from his deep safety spot opposite one of those inverted Cover 2s.
The Bengals this week face the Titans. Quarterback Jake Locker is still an unrefined progression reader and the offensive line, particularly right tackle Michael Oher, has struggled in protection. Guenther may rely more on Cincy’s advantage in talent and scale things back, challenging Locker to make plays late in the down. But at some point, inevitably, he’ll also throw an aggressive, sophisticated disguise at the Titans. That’s when game-changing plays occur.
On the podcast this week
Coming on Thursday night, we’ll touch on the analytic side of every Week 3 matchup plus let you hear my conversation with rising Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall. Marshall is an impressive space-area linebacker. He talks about his preparation for playing in the nickel package as his team prepares to face Seattle.
10 film study quick-hitters
1. One of the few bright spots on a Falcons defense that has allowed 472 yards in each of its first two outings is cornerback Desmond Trufant. The 2013 first-round pick is already one of the league’s premier underneath man defenders and deep ball thwarters.
2. Looks like Kansas City’s Marcus Cooper remains Peyton Manning’s favorite corner. The second-year pro was picked on once again in outside solo coverage last week. Cooper is a better player than his match-ups with Manning indicate.
3. Jay Cutler made several “arm talent” throws in Chicago’s gutty win over San Francisco. Cutler will always have to do that because he’s not a natural anticipation passer. Interesting that, despite Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery being less than 100 percent, the Niners still played a lot of two-high safety coverage.
4. The Cowboys have been a run-based offense so far, and it’s worked (DeMarco Murray 285 yards on 51 carries). The Rams have one of the league’s most athletic front sevens but still got gouged for runs of 18, 19, 24 and 31 yards by Tampa Bay’s Bobby Rainey. Last season they could not stop the Cowboys’ zone ground concepts. With an improved O-line, those zone concepts are even sharper this time around.
5. Panthers first-round rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin has a lot to learn as a route runner, but he will keep making just enough spectacular plays to obscure fans from really noticing.
6. Eager to see if the Colts, facing a schematically simpler Jags defense this week, continue running to the weak side of an unbalanced formation like they did against Philly.
7. Last week the talented Lions offense faced a Panthers defense that was minus its best pass rusher and was doing nothing sophisticated with its zone scheme despite having iffy corners facing Calvin Johnson. And the Lions were soundly defeated there. Now they face a much more talented Packers secondary.
8. Arian Foster is back to his old self.
9. And unfortunately for the Raiders, so is linebacker Miles Burris.
10. Playing the role of Reggie Nelson in Minnesota’s new scheme under Mike Zimmer: Harrison Smith, who has better speed than Nelson.