Revisiting the Manning offense

Happy Wednesday, friends.  Today, since we’re at the halfway point of the season, I want to revisit the series of articles I wrote in March and April about the Manning offense, and update them.  If they’re going to live on as strong reference material, they deserve an update. 

In advance, let me say that you shouldn’t take this as a victory lap, although I was right about a lot of stuff.  And don’t even get me started on how right I was about the results of the Presidential election.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Here is a set of links to the whole series of articles:

Part 1 – Basics – Formations, Personnel Groupings, and Fit of Existing Personnel

Part 2 – Presnap Recognition Concepts

Part 3 – The Running Game

Part 4 – The Three-Step Passing Game

Part 5 – The Five-Step Passing Game

Part 6 – The Seven-Step and Screen Games

Some updates:

1.  One important thing that I didn’t get into all that much was the no-huddle aspect, which has been very pervasive this season.  I did say this in Part 1:

Manning’s offense is the simplest in the NFL, which has the benefit of making it 100% callable from the line of scrimmage, and with every play available.  For all the talk about audibling, most teams in the NFL primarily use a check-with-me system.  That means that there will be a call made in the huddle, and also a coach-selected second call that should exploit a defense which is aligned well to defend the first call.  By doing it this way, the QB can just yell out “ALERT!  ALERT!” or something to that effect, and switch the play to the alternate call that everybody is expecting.  Nothing is given away to the defense, because the check-off play will be something different every time the offense huddles.

The Colts of Peyton Manning did change a lot of plays at the line of scrimmage, and they did play no-huddle sometimes, but it wasn’t as frequent as the Broncos are doing.  This 2012 offense seems to have adopted the trend that’s also become very pervasive with New England, Baltimore, and a number of other teams. 

The Broncos have run it constantly over the last two games, and as has been the case all season, they’ve been dominant when they’ve gone without a huddle.  Doug had been wondering why the Broncos ever huddled at all, and it seems that the coaches and Manning agree with him, and decided that it was better to just stick with it all the time.

One thing to note is that it’s easier to run no-huddle at home, because your crowd quiets down, and allows for relatively easy verbal communication.  The next best thing is playing in a place like San Diego, where the fans suck, and either don’t get very loud, or just sell their tickets to Broncos fans when they’re playing their most important game of the season.

Cincinnati is a tougher place to hear, especially if the Bengals are in the game.  The Broncos have had decent success with hand signals, but you can communicate less with signals than you can with words.  Marvin Lewis talked on Sirius this morning about how the home crowd can limit a team’s ability to play no-huddle.

I expect the Broncos to continue to use the no-huddle approach almost all the time, and for them to continue to get better and better at it, as the season goes. 

2.  The receivers have gotten much better with their route-running, much more quickly than I anticipated.  It remains true that they’re not as precise as Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, and big guys like Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker probably never will be.  They’re much improved over 2011, though, especially Thomas.

In each of the last two games, Thomas has run excellent routes that have led to big gains.  Against San Diego, he scored on a masterful post-corner-post route, which I had described in Part 7 of the series.  I’ll echo TJ’s comment that if Thomas ever becomes a consistently above-average route-runner, he’ll be unstoppable.  He was definitely a better choice than Dez Bryant – I have no doubt of that.

As for Decker, he’s a pretty unique player.  I heard a call on Sirius this morning where a fan was trying to compare him to somebody, and he came up with Dwayne Bowe and Hakeem Nicks.  I think that Bowe is a more apt comparison than the more-explosive Nicks, but I think he’s really more like a faster version of Marques Colston, if I had to compare him to anybody.  They’re both bigger receivers with the primary skill sets of slot receivers, so they can play either inside or outside.

3.  In my series, I talked about the importance of having a slot receiver like Brandon Stokley.  From Part 2:

The really vulnerable defender is the nickelback covering the slot receiver, because the receiver has a two-way go.  Peyton Manning has taken advantage of that fact against many nickelbacks playing man over the years.  He’s got such great recognition skills that he can look at that nickelback, who is usually playing with even leverage, and tell from his body posture what direction that guy’s first step is going to be.  When he’s on the same page with his slot receiver (think Brandon Stokley), that defender has no chance.  The same is even more true of OLBs who are assigned to cover TEs man-to-man.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Stokley himself would be rejoining the Broncos this year.  He’s been fantastic, and I just couldn’t get over how easily he was separating off the line against Nate Clements last Sunday.  He was just vastly quicker than a guy who used to be the highest-paid CB in the NFL, and he’s 36 years old.  Clements had no chance to even touch Stokley.

When you have a receiver inside who is almost always going to win with a two-way go, the QB has to have a lot of comfort.  He can look outside for separation, and then work back down to a guy he’s sure is going to have a step for the checkdown.  Stokley’s snaps need to be managed, to maximize his effectiveness, and I’m pleased with how the Broncos have done in that area.

4.  I was right about the lack of need for a specific “blocking" TE, although Joel Dreessen and Virgil Green have blocked pretty well.  The issue the Broncos present in 12 personnel is that all three of their TEs who play regularly are receiving threats, and with Peyton Manning at QB, defenses have to view it as a pass-heavy grouping.

The choice defenses are left with is whether to use Nickel personnel, and risk getting mashed in the running game, or to use their base package, and risk getting strafed in the passing game, when the LBs can’t cover Jacob Tamme or Dreessen, or Green.  Most teams are trying to split the difference, and play big nickel with an extra safety.

When the Broncos have used 11 personnel this year, they’ve given Manning a simple read; down and distance permitting, if the defense is playing one high safety, he should pass, and if they’re playing two high safeties, he should run, or use play action.  This has been a consistent approach all season, and Manning has almost always gotten the Broncos into the right play based on this one read.  The 11 personnel grouping makes them equally threatening with the run and the pass, and that allows Manning to attack specific weaknesses.

5.  The offensive line has come together as I’d expected.  They’re still not the greatest at knocking defenses off the ball, but when they zone block, and when they pull and trap, they’ve been excellent in the running game. 

As for protection, the season didn’t start off the greatest, which I think was a combination of the downgrade from Chris Kuper to Manny Ramirez, as well as rust on Manning’s part.  Over the last month, though, my prediction of Manning taking less than one sack per game has looked very good.

6.  In terms of the specific pass concepts I went through, I described one in Part 5 that I call Numbers.  The Broncos have used a very similar concept that I didn’t describe called Levels.  It has the same effect, of stretching a zone out by using a shallow crosser and a deep crosser in the same part of the field.

The Broncos have worn out Levels this season, and I’d bet they’re getting five completions per game on it.  Sometimes, they run it high-low, which is to say that one guy is deep, and another is shallow.  (See the first picture in the Bowen article I linked above).  Other times, they’ll have the outside guy follow the inside guy at roughly the same level of the field, as you see in the second and third pictures. 

The first way stresses a defense vertically, and the second way stresses it horizontally.  Doing both with the same action is a great idea, and the Broncos use it to terrific effect.  Even beyond that, they’ve thrown the 9 route on the backside of this concept at times this year, and that tends to help stretch out the defense too.

7.  Retired for John Elway (TYJE)

8.  Finally, in Part 6, I talked about double and triple moves, and the Broncos have hit some big plays on those this season.  The best example of this was the TD against San Diego that came on the Post-Corner-Post route by Demaryius Thomas.

NFL.com sucks, and won’t let you embed video, so check it out here.  Thomas’s first post move is just a nod to the inside, but the corner part is fairly pronounced, and then he really gets where he needs to get on the ending post route.  It showed his improvement as a route-runner, and as you can see, even against solid coverage, it’s devastating.

That’s what I have for today, friends.  I’ve had a crazy week and a half, with our fiscal year ending, but I’m hoping to get back to a better schedule, at least before I go on vacation a week from Friday.  Have a good rest of your Wednesday.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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