Today, I want to briefly look at a play from the Raiders game that went for good yardage, and talk about why it worked. I'm going to try to start doing this at least every week to stimulate thought and discussion.
The situation in last Thursday's game that we're covering is a 1st-and-10 from the Denver 36, right after the Broncos have received a third-quarter punt. The score is 23-7:
The Broncos are in 11 personnel, but are initially aligned with TE Joel Dreessen in the backfield to Peyton Manning's right, joined by Ronnie Hillman, who is to Manning's left. The receivers at the line are initially aligned in a 1-by-2 set, with Demaryius Thomas just outside the wide-side hashmarks, Brandon Stokley between the short-side hashes and numbers, and Eric Decker outside those numbers.
The defense shows a Cover-2 shell, with Matt Giordano (#27) on the wide side cheating up like he has run responsibility. The short-side CB is showing man alignment, while the wide-side guy is off, and playing with outside leverage. Ordinarily, the QB would read this as zone technique, but the fact that Thomas is so tight to the formation suggests that the CB has outside run responsibility, and that he's primarily trying to honor that. He doesn't want DT burying him inside on a run play.
Ultimately, the Broncos motion Dreessen out to the left, to the outside of Thomas. That makes the set 2-by-2, and a shotgun look from which the Broncos have run a pitch action to Hillman in the past. The Raiders are in good shape to defend that play, with the CB staying outside, and Giordano ready to fill inside.
Alas, this is a play-action pass, off of a run look that the Broncos know is on film.
This screenshot is from before Dreessen has reached his outside position, so take my word for it that he goes to the top of the numbers, as represented by the green line. From there, it's the levels concept, which the Broncos run to death. At the top of the screen, where the play isn't going, Decker is running a 9-route to clear out the safety who's standing at midfield. Stokley is running a quick out to stretch the short side of the field horizontally. Thomas is running a crosser at 15 yards, and Dreessen is coming in behind him with another crosser at 10 yards.
First, though, there's the play fake to Hillman, which exploits a look that the Broncos had on film:
Note the pitch fake from Manning to his left, to Hillman. The red star is meant to point out Giordano, who is only partially in the frame. He had started out at the 48, and has moved up to about the 42 to take on the run play. When he sees it's not actually a run, he'll be taking Thomas man-to-man. That's a debacle waiting to happen, which is why the Broncos have run this play the way they have.
By the time they reach the 45, Thomas has begun to make his break on the crosser. Notice that Giordano is on his outside shoulder, and that there's a throwing lane big enough to drive a truck through.
Demaryius has created pretty good separation at the time of the throw, and it's going to widen even further by the time the ball gets there. Manning throws with anticipation of where Thomas will be, as usual. This is probably the thing that eludes most QBs, and it's what Manning does best.
Manning throws the ball when Demaryius is on the hashmark, and it arrives right before DT gets to the numbers. He has a good yard of separation on Giordano, who is actually one of the faster straight-line safeties in the NFL. The catch is good, five more yards are gained after the catch, and Giordano is shaken up making the tackle.
This play works for several reasons:
1. Given down and distance, field position, and tendency on film, the play action is highly believable. Matt Giordano specifically reacts by advancing toward the line of scrimmage, and heading toward the outside.
2. The choice of concept is excellent against man-to-man coverage. The route combination stretches the field as planned, and opens up the intermediate area where Demaryius is headed, just like it's supposed to.
3. The Broncos scheme it to where Thomas is covered man-to-man by a safety, and Dreessen is covered man-to-man by a cornerback, by lining up Thomas inside, and motioning Dreessen outside. Each is a mismatch.
4. The protection is simply awesome.
5. Thomas runs a good route, catches the ball cleanly, and gets upfield smoothly for additional yardage.
6. Manning throws with anticipation, and leads Thomas to the open spot. (This is the most important part.)
This is a play that the 2011 Broncos could never have made, for a lot of reasons, and for the 2012 team, it's almost routine and business-like. It's good to have Peyton Manning, friends.