Photo by Steve Nehf/Getty Images

The Broncos opened the 2015 season—and the Gary Kubiak era—by gutting out a defensive battle. Peyton Manning’s diminishing arm strength and lack of mobility were issues, but if you look closely enough, you can see why the Manning-Kubiak marriage can work

By Andy Benoit
September 14, 2015

The first red zone snap of the game in Denver came with 3:40 left in the fourth quarter. On that play Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman was tackled by Baltimore safety Will Hill for a loss of four, moving the ball back outside the 20. Fitting on a day defined by defense.

Opposing defenses don’t typically come into Mile High and dominate, but the last two have. In last year’s divisional playoff game, the Colts controlled the game through stifling, straight man coverage. On Sunday the Ravens dominated mostly with zone tactics behind pressure concepts. They held Peyton Manning and his offense to no touchdowns and just 219 yards on 69 plays.

Columnists across Colorado will spend the week positing whether Sunday is a harbinger of a painful adjustment process in the club’s first year under coach Gary Kubiak. That’s fair, but to address this big-picture question, one must isolate and remove Sunday’s “little picture” items. The Broncos had a devil of a time combating the Ravens’ double-A-gap pressure tactics, particularly those involving a slot blitz. Most likely this is the result of an offensive line having two first-time NFL starters (second-round rookie left tackle Ty Sambrailo and 2014 sixth-round center Matt Paradis), a new right tackle (Ryan Harris) and a left guard who was brought in less than three weeks ago (Evan Mathis).

It wasn’t all the O-line, either. Manning a few times failed to identify these pressure concepts and the coverage rotations behind them. Twice he threw into the hands of linebacker Daryl Smith (who twice failed to make the easy INT). And then there was the pick-six to cornerback Jimmy Smith early in the third quarter, which came on a Cover-2 trap—a well-disguised zone tactic aimed at taking away the precise slot route that Manning targeted.

Ugly as these errors were, they can and will be cleaned up. (Though granted, maybe not quickly enough for Thursday night, when the Broncos visit raucous Arrowhead Stadium to face a Chiefs defense that excels with its own pressure tactics.) When Manning is your quarterback, history says that failed pressure pickups and missed coverage identifications should be seen as aberrational, not foreboding.

This isn’t to say the 39-year-old can’t still play. But with no mobility and limited arm strength, it’s clear Manning can’t play the way Kubiak has always had his quarterbacks play.

Analyzing the bigger picture for the Kubiak-Manning union, the real story is what we didn’t see Sunday afternoon. For instance, Denver’s ground game—which was stagnant until an 11-minute drive in the fourth quarter—featured none of the outside zone stretch runs that have long been staples of Kubiak’s scheme. Not surprisingly, the zone stretch play-action game was also absent. And so were Kubiak’s staple rollout and bootleg concepts.

Coaches always reveal how they feel about their players through the plays they call. Kubiak tacitly told us on Sunday that he doesn’t believe Manning is remotely capable of playing on the move. As news goes, this isn’t exactly breaking. The best stretch-zone-action quarterback in football early in his career, Manning has not had the speed and quickness to reach the perimeter and execute a stretch-zone handoff or fake since hitting his mid-30s. And if you think bootlegs or cross-field rollouts can still be a changeup that catches a defense off-guard, just take a closer look at what happened Sunday whenever Manning was forced out of the pocket. He moves like a man struggling through shin-high water. Plus Manning as a passer has always relied heavily on planting his feet. He must stop, gather and balance before uncorking a ball. That need has become more pronounced as his arm strength continues to dwindle.

Which brings us to the subject everyone is most interested in: Manning’s arm strength did not look good on Sunday. Not that anyone who has seen him recently expected the future Hall of Famer to be unleashing fastballs. But for Manning to succeed, he’ll have to rely more than ever on his anticipation. At this point, he often doesn’t even consider throwing to out-breaking receivers on the opposite hash; he knows he lacks the juice to get it there. (Defenses know this, too.)

• DENVER D IS THE KEY:  In his Deep Dive preview of the Broncos, Andy Benoit broke down a defensive unit that should carry the Broncos to January.

This isn’t to say the 39-year-old can’t still play. But with no out-of-pocket mobility and limited arm strength, it’s clear Manning can’t play the way Kubiak has always had his quarterbacks play. We wondered heading into the season how much Denver’s quarterback would adjust to the new coach and how much the new coach would adjust to the quarterback. After just one week, it’s obvious the coach will be doing almost all of the adjusting.

That’s what a good coach does. Kubiak has already made headway here; with the exception of Manning being under center instead of in the pistol, many of the offensive ploys looked familiar to those from the quarterback’s first three seasons in Denver. We saw unbalanced formations, which Manning loves because it almost always forces the defense to reveal pre-snap whether it’s man or zone coverage. We saw slants and out-routes that took receivers to the 10-yard threshold near the seams, where Manning’s anticipation passing is the best. We saw receiver screens. We saw in-breaking routes off of play-action, which satisfies Manning’s predilection for having receivers coming into his line of vision as he scans the field.

Schematically, the Broncos aren’t far from what they were before; they just need more polish. The biggest change might actually be in the way they go about getting from one play to the next. Previous coordinator Adam Gase tried to call a play within the first six or seven seconds of the play clock, allowing Manning maximum time for adjustments at the line of scrimmage. (Notably, in his debut as Chicago’s offensive coordinator, Gase had his new quarterback, Jay Cutler, get to the line of scrimmage much earlier than Cutler ever has before.) Kubiak, however, is relaying his play calls through quarterbacks coach Greg Knapp. The added step slows down the sequence. Not surprisingly, the Broncos’ pace of play was more methodical on Sunday than it was a year ago.

This, too, can be adjusted if need be. Manning has, and demands from others, the type of drive that makes such amendments work. More important, however, is that Manning’s supporting cast must carry a heavier load than it has at any point in his Broncos career. In all 10 of the spots surrounding the QB, the Broncos need a better performance than they got against the Ravens.

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