Through the first 59 minutes of their game against the Seattle Seahawks last Sunday afternoon, the Denver Broncos' offense was uncharacteristically conservative and tentative. Peyton Manning didn't test Seattle's defense deep as one might have expected, he was misfiring to open targets in the third quarter, and the run game couldn't really get things going. When Seattle safety Kam Chancellor intercepted a Manning pass intended for Wes Welker with 2:25 left in the game, and Seattle's subsequent field goal put Denver down 20-12 with one minute remaining, the Super Bowl XLVIII rematch appeared to be over. This was Manning and Denver's offense against Seattle's (mostly) great pass defense at home, and few believed the Broncos had a chance.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Seattle's re-coronation: Manning drove Denver downfield, hitting Emmanuel Sanders on a 42-yard pass on the way, and connecting with tight end Jacob Tamme on a 26-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds remaining. One two-point conversion later, and the defending conference champs were headed to overtime. The Seahawks won the game by driving down for a touchdown, but there were a lot of concerned faces in Seattle's locker room afterwards, because the Broncos were beating the Seahawks' defense over and over on the same route concept.
"There was one that they threw at us that we misplayed," head coach Pete Carroll said Monday. "They threw it four times in a row. We stopped the first. The second one got us. The third one we think we’re OK, and the fourth one scored the touchdown. It was unfortunate that [slot cornerback] Marcus [Burley] was all revved up for the scheme, the first one, and that’s when [safety] Kam [Chancellor] knocked him out, and then Josh [Thomas] got off the bench and they came right back and hit the exact same play. I gave him a heads up on the way in, but it didn’t make any sense. Then they got [linebacker] K.J. [Wright] later on in a similar situation, so they did a really nice job. It’s just a raw principle that we didn’t play well, and [Manning] took advantage of it and did a great job."
The route concept is called a vertical switch release, and it's set up to strain defenses to their limits in a downfield sense. Two receivers will align on one side of the formation, with the outside receiver either running an inside route or staying straight, and the slot/flex receiver will run an up-and-out. Ideally, the crossing concept will take one or more defensive players out of position, leaving openings downfield. And if there isn't the kind of pressure that forces quick throws, the defense is at a distinct disadvantage. Everyone needs to play their roles perfectly to counter rapid and long gains.
The first example of the switch release came on the first play of Denver's final offensive drive, and it detailed the importance of Burley, a reserve defender who was in the game due to injuries to other players. Burley isn't a big-name player, but he played this attempt as if he was. When Sanders tried to hit the inside-to-outside part of the release, Burley established outside position and delayed the timing of Sanders' route. The result was an incompletion. Unfortunately for Seattle, the result was also Burley coming out of the game following a violent collision with Chancellor. Byron Maxwell covered Demaryius Thomas on the outside release, and Maxwell had that on lock.
Then, on the next play, Manning took the Broncos from their own 20-yard line to the Seattle 38 with a 42-yard pass to Sanders. Sanders ran the exact same route, down to the distance, of his break to the sideline and his break back upfield. Josh Thomas replaced Burley, and here was the first breakdown in coverage: Thomas handed off to ... well, we're not sure to whom he handed off. But nobody followed Sanders up the route, and though Earl Thomas tried to get over there in time to do damage control, Sanders was too fast.
"Basically, that's just a post route, and I've got to get back over to the thirds -- it's really attacking the thirds," Maxwell said of his role in Denver's counter to Seattle's base Cover-3 defense. "I've got to get back over to the top there.
"It was the same play and the same defense; it was the same thing."
And the Broncos weren't done wearing the Seahawks out with it.
After a 12-yard completion to Demaryius Thomas that really wasn't the same concept at all (Thomas ran an out route to the sideline as the lone receiver on the left side, and running back Ronnie Hillman ran a Texas route out of the backfield), Denver set Seattle up with the same vertical switch idea. This time, Tamme, who probably runs 10 yards in the time it takes Sanders to run 40 yards, had the advantage. This time, the inside-to-outside receiver (Tamme) took advantage of two space-creating defensive concepts -- linebacker K.J. Wright deferred to curl/flat responsibility, which kept him from following Tamme on the route, and Earl Thomas broke loose because he was playing more aggressively to read a shorter play. Tamme ran the same route Sanders had, and Demaryius Thomas took Maxwell away from coverage toward the middle of the end zone.
Thomas was playing "Robber" coverage on the Tamme touchdown. The idea here was to fool Manning, who may have been expecting a more traditional coverage. But as Tamme was running the same out-and-up Sanders ran as the inside man on the vertical switch, it didn't matter -- in fact, Thomas playing the Robber and Wright in curl/flat set the touchdown up perfectly.
"We didn't get the corner to pass it off," Thomas told me after the game. "It was zone [coverage], and our eyes weren't right. We hadn't seen that before, what they showed us with that last touchdown out of the empty package. And they ran that same play twice. We didn't see that at all in the week of practice. It was something new that they brought to the table, but we have to do a better job of adjusting. If we were keyed into what we needed to be keyed into ... the receiver [Sanders] is faster than that tight end [Tamme], so it kind of looks funny to the corner. We just have to get that communicated."
Wright seemed similarly confused.
"Yeah, it was stuff we hadn't gone over -- it's a really tough route versus the defense we run, and between the busted play and the corner," he said. "We've got to be able to see that and get really good depth. That was me on that side on the second one. We've just got to get good depth and know that those are [coverage] beaters, especially in two-minute situations."
Wright also said that the Chargers had shown Seattle a similar idea the week before and assumed the Broncos stole the idea from them, which was contradicted by Carroll's final reflection on the series of plays.
"They were in a pretty desperate mode to get the ball down the field," Carroll said. "They had a concept they had only used a couple times, but we had seen it -- they had used it in long-yardage situations [in other games]. We alerted our guys to it, and we knew it was coming -- [secondary coach] Kris [Richard] and [defensive coordinator] Danny [Quinn] were all over it, but the guys who needed to stop it couldn't. It was just a good concept;ot them deep down the sideline behind the zone coverage, and it worked out right. It looked like Peyton was just chucking the ball, but he had a design in mind there. They had two significant plays in the game, and they were both on that drive. I thought we kept them underneath us all day long -- we challenged them really well from the top down. Our guys were running and hitting on stuff, and they didn't have any significant plays until that concept. Unfortunately, we were just behind it, and they did a better job than we did."
And in the end, that's what matters, though it's a sure thing that Seattle's coaches and players will spend some time during their bye week to coordinate on a way to counteract the problem in future. When the Seahawks take the field against the Redskins on Oct. 6, you can assume that head coach Jay Gruden will try to test Seattle's defense with variations of the vertical switch release.