The Denver Broncos have done an outstanding job of building a very respectable defense by adding Demarcus Ware, TJ Ward and Aqib Talib over the offseason (and then having Von Miller already on the team), but let’s be real, the Broncos are a successful team because of a stud named Peyton Manning and his weapons. Their offense is the driving force behind their success. If the offense does well, the team does well. If the offense has too many mistakes, the team doesn’t do well, it’s as simple as that. The Colts play the Broncos in Sunday’s divisional round; how can they force the Broncos to make mistakes and how can they slow down a high flying offense led by player whose face would be up on the Mount Rushmore of football? Looking through all the data and video from the past season, we can see what hurts them.
Blitzing & Pressuring Peyton Manning In An Effort to Force Turnovers
Peyton Manning can do wonders, and every Colts fan knows that. He has been able to turn unwanted scraps into gold. I say this because, if Manning were to come out, take everything the Colts throw at him, and still have a great game, it should come to no one’s surprise. However, there are ways of making him feel uncomfortable and forcing him to make mistakes. You have to pressure him.
According to Pro Football Focus, when Manning is not pressured, he has a rating of +20.2, with a completion percentage of 69.7%, 8.4 yards per attempt, 31 touchdowns (14.9% (#/drop backs)) to 12 interceptions (2.4% ) and a passer rating of a 106.1, on 482-drop backs.
When he’s pressured, Manning has a rating of -12.6, with a completion percentage of 51.4%, 6.1 yards per attempt, 8 touchdowns (6.0% ) to 3 interceptions (2.2% ) and a passer rating of 82.5, on 132-drop backs.
Those numbers when pressured are still pretty good numbers and his passer rating is better than the passer rating of Cam Newton, Nick Foles and Derek Carr (over their entire season). Nevertheless, his numbers decrease dramatically and Manning clearly isn’t the same passer when pressured. He’s not Peyton Manning when he’s under pressure.
When Manning is not blitzed, he has a rating of +18.0, with a completion percentage of 69.6%, 8.0 yards per attempt, 27 touchdowns (5.8%) to 9 interceptions (1.9%) and a passer rating of 105.0, on 461-drop backs.
When Manning is blitzed, he has a rating of -10.5, with a completion percentage of 55.8%, 7.8 yards per attempt, 12 touchdowns (7.8%) to 6 interceptions (3.9%) and a passer rating of 91.1, on 153-drop backs.
Again, with a passer rating of 91.1, it puts him above Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Colin Kaepernick and Andy Dalton, but it is 13.9 points less than when he is not blitzed and again his number jump off dramatically.
These numbers show that if you can successfully blitz Manning and pressure him, you’ll be able to throw him off his game. But how do you blitz Manning? If he sees you blitzing, he’s going to change it up most of the time. To be fair, most capable and competent quarterbacks will change up the play if they sense or see a blitz, but what separates Manning from those quarterbacks is he can sniff out blitzes in his sleep, which means you have to properly disguise them. Here is an example from the Colts-Broncos Week 1 matchup where the Colts had a perfectly disguised blitz on Manning.
As we can see here, the Colts are in a normal 3-4 base defense and there is no indication that there will be a blitz. There aren't any extra players on the line showing blitz and no one is out of their normal position. Even a trained, smart eye like Peyton Manning cannot spot the difference in the defense because as we see here, there isn't a difference!
As the play starts, we see #57 Josh McNary bolt up the middle. Bjoern Werner on the outside is handling Montee Ball (#28). If you go back on the previous screenshot, there is no indication that McNary is blitzing and it is a good disguise.
At this point, the right tackle was too late to stop Josh McNary and Manning is a sitting duck. Even Cory Redding (#90) and Erik Walden (#93) are there.
Manning is initially hit by Josh McNary and wrapped by Erik Walden.
That play was the perfect example of how a good disguise can fool anyone and the Colts will need to have some great disguises like that one against Peyton Manning.
Attacking the Weakest Pass Blocker (Offensive Linemen)
When you’re a coach and you’re evaluating your opponents, the first thing you do (or at least what I do) is to spot weaknesses and to find weak players to attack. It sounds harsh, but it’s how you win football games. If the Colts intend to blitz a lot and to generate pressure on Peyton Manning, where are the weak spots in their offensive line? According to Pro Foobtall Focus, the weakest player on their offensive line is Manuel Ramirez, and their weakest pass blocker is Ryan Clady. Let’s start with Clady, the "pro bowler". Clady has had a rough season, but because of his reputation, made the Pro Bowl. Clady had bad games versus Michael Bennett (Seahawks), Robert Quinn (Rams), Jason Babin (Jets), Melvin Ingram (Chargers) and oddly enough Wallace Gilberry. With the exception of Gilberry, all are speedy pass rushers, so we can draw the conclusion that Clady has trouble versus speedy pass rushers. As we see in this example, Clady struggles versus the speedy Melvin Ingram.
As we see here, the Chargers are in a very similar system (essentially the identical base package) as the Colts would be in. Melvin Ingram (Chargers Right Outside Linebacker #54) is up against Ryan Clady (Broncos Left Tackle #78).
As the play starts, Clady is a bit slow in his get off off the line. Ingram is in good position against him as he has the body leverage and can beat him to the outside.
Ingram is in very good position and has the body leverage on him. He shows good bend and has beat Clady "to the corner".
Ingram has beat Clady with his speed. Clady cannot keep up with a speed guy like Ingram because if he doesn't have a good get off, he won't keep up with fast players.
Ingram hits Manning, forces a fumble and Clady is on the ground.
I can't say it enough: Clady isn't very good versus speed rushers. For this reason, the Colts should put Jonathan Newsome against him and have him go up against Clady. Werner, Walden and Newsome should all rotate, but if the Colts don't utilize Newsome versus Clady, then they're making a big mistake. They need to pressure Manning (as mentioned before) and attacking Clady's weakness will generate pressure on Manning.
Taking Away Demaryius Thomas
Another way of slowing down Peyton Manning is to take away his favorite target, Demaryius Thomas. Now, this is much easier said than done, but it is very possible to take out Thomas and funny enough, Thomas had a very weak game against the Colts in their Week 1 matchup. Vontae Davis did a great job of shutting him down, and despite the 11 targets that Thomas had, he only caught 4 passes for 48 yards. A job well done and the same should be done in this matchup. There is a strong argument for Vontae Davis being the best cornerback in football. He’s done extremely well this season and him shadowing Thomas gives the Colts the best chance of taking him out. If he doesn’t stay on him all game, the second he goes up against Greg Toler, Manning will target Thomas, it’s that simple. Demaryius Thomas had a great season with over 1,600 receiving yards, but he had his worst games against Vontae Davis, Richard Sherman (Seahawks), and Corey Graham (Bills), and it shouldn’t a be big surprise why he struggled against them. These three players were able to throw Demaryius Thomas off his game. Why? How can they throw Demaryius Thomas off his game? They made him feel uncomfortable; they got right in his face, challenged him from the opening snap and played tough football against them. Let’s look at this example where we see Demaryius Thomas against Richard Sherman.
In this scenario, Sherman is in press coverage (indicated by his feet which are parallel to the line of scrimmage and the fact that he's within 2 yards of Thomas) and going right up against Demaryius Thomas.
As the play starts, Sherman does not move, gets his hands in front in an attempt to slow down Thomas, otherwise known as a jam. Sherman is jamming Thomas and it is slowing down his route.
As the play continues to develop, Sherman is still jamming Thomas down the field, further slowing down his progress. Thomas isn't able to break away from Sherman.
As Manning releases the ball and as the ball is in the air, we see that Sherman is on Thomas' hip with his eyes on the ball. He's in perfect position and that's because of the jam at the beginning of the play.
Manning isn't able to thread the needle here and the pass is nearly impossible to make anyways. Sherman is in perfect position the whole way and Thomas isn't able to break away and make the catch. Manning shouldn't have even targeted Thomas in this situation.
In my opinion, Sherman and Davis were on par in terms of their performances this season. Davis was just as good as Sherman and vice versa. If anything, I'd give an edge to Davis in certain categories. The reason I'm saying that is because if Sherman is able to slow down Thomas with jamming, Davis can as well (especially considering Davis excels in man coverage). Davis needs to jam Thomas, slow him down and make him feel uncomfortable.
Slowing Down CJ Anderson & the Running Game
In my opinion, what makes the Broncos more dangerous on offense this season is that they have a consistent running game led by a good, underrated running back in CJ Anderson. Manning may not be as sharp as last year, and he may not have put up the same numbers, but if ever he’s in trouble he can just hand it off to Anderson. Anderson has won the Broncos some games this year. I went back and watched a couple of the games where Anderson played extensive time. He dominated in the Dolphins game and he struggled in the Bills game. The reason he struggled in the Bills game was straightforward. The Bills have a tough front 7 and they attack hard. Their defensive line open up gaps and their linebackers are always in position to make the tackles. So because of good effort from the defensive line and good tackling from the linebackers, you’re able to contain and essentially shut down Anderson.
Let's take a look at what the Buffalo Bills did on this play and this should serve as the perfect example of what the Colts should do in early down situations and what their mentality against the run should be. It's hard to paint a good picture of how they're supposed to consistently stop the run but this play is a good example of what they must do.
As we can see here (please excuse the bad drawing), each player of the front 7 has a gap they need to control. It's well worked out and each are good, consistent tacklers. The two outside, edge players have contain, the defensive tackles have the 1 and 2 gaps (the most inside gaps), the outside linebackers have gaps 3 and 4 (in between the tackle and guard) and the MIKE linebacker is usually responsible for the running back or if he doesn't have a player responsibility, then he usually sits back and reads the play or he attacks the center.
As the play develops, the defensive tackle Kyle Williams breaks through and is in the backfield due to good penetration. What needs to be noted here is that the right outside linebacker is in perfect position and unblocked, meaning he is in perfect position to stop the play.
We can see more clearly here that the right outside linebacker is perfectly set up and is in position to make the tackle.
He eventually makes the tackle and Anderson only picks up a yard and a half. That's a perfect job by the defensive line in creating penetration and opening up holes for the linebackers.
This is an effective way to stop Anderson from big runs (under the presumption that there will be a minimal amount of missed tackles) and the Colts can properly disguise blitzes if they can keep the linebackers close to the line of scrimmage. They'll need consistent penetration from the defensive line or this could fall flat in their face. If the defensive line is beaten and the Broncos offensive linemen get to the 2nd level, then the Colts could be in trouble. This whole "keeping the linebackers close and gap control" scheme only works if the defensive line gets consistent penetration. They did it well last week and it could work well this week.
What Worked for Indianapolis Against Cincinnati
If we look at the defensive performance against the Bengals, the Colts were nearly perfect. With the exception of the well called second drive by the Bengals, they Colts only allowed 3 points, and those 3 points only happened because of a Dan Herron fumble. Had Herron held onto the football better, the Colts would have allowed only 7 points all game. Nevertheless, their gameplan worked well, and they were they able to shut down the best running back in football in the last 9 games of the season. Andy Dalton is far from an elite quarterback, especially without A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham, but he still averaged around 210 passing yards per game and over a touchdown per game during the season. How were they able to keep him to 155 yards (on 35 attempts), keep his completion percentage to just over 50%, and to not allow any touchdowns? The Colts had a great strategy on defense. In part, they were lucky that A.J. Green wasn’t playing because it allowed the Colts to be more aggressive and to have more guys in the box. The Colts played tough against the Bengals’ receivers, and the safeties played center field perfectly. He’s a great example of Mike Adams playing center field perfectly.
On this play, we'll examine Mike Adams (#29 of the Colts in one of the boxes) and Brandon Tate (#19 of the Bengals in the other box). Adams is playing 8 yards off the line at the time of the screenshot but gets to 10 yards off the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped.
As the play develops, we see Adams is keeping his eyes on Dalton and is staying close to Brandon Tate who is clearly going on a deep route. Keep an eye on the two players in the two boxes.
Brandon Tate makes a double move (fakes the corner and goes deep on a skinny post) and Dalton has released the ball and targeted him. Adams reads this perfectly and is closing his distance to Tate.
Adams is right next to Tate and in the perfect position. He is playing the ball and the man perfectly. This is how you play center field and take away the deep passes.
Brandon Tate trips over Adams' feet (which I can confirm with slow motion) and the ball goes over everyone's head. Adams played the deep ball perfectly and on a side note, Greg Toler did a great job covering Tate and did not bite on the fake.
What Approach Should They Have?
When you’re watching the game on Sunday and one of your buddies asks you "how can you stop Peyton Manning", all you need to say is these three things:
1 – Blitz and Pressure an Immobile Peyton Manning
2 – Slow Down Manning's top target, Demaryius Thomas, by jamming him at the line, slowing his progress and making him feel uncomfortable.
3 – Contain and slow down running back CJ Anderson by getting penetration from their defensive line and keeping the linebackers close to the line of scrimmage.
What game-plan should they have that incorporates those three keys? The Colts should play primarily in man coverage and play tight against these skilled Broncos receivers. The should also take away the deep ball by having the safeties play cautiously and relatively deep on obvious passing downs as well as some early downs. They should bring a lot of blitzes and disguise them well (as shown in the screenshot earlier). And finally, have the linebackers stay close to the line of scrimmage to allow flexibility with blitzes and to make controlling their gaps easier.
This is an aggressive defense. Man coverage is seen as a more aggressive choice and a lot of blitzes with linebackers close to the line of scrimmages is also considered very aggressive. The Colts have shown to have an aggressive coaching staff and they could play aggressively at times. What should be noted is that if the Colts decide to go out with a conservative gampelan with a zone defense and minimal amounts of blitzes, they will be torched! I guarantee it (and if I'm wrong then tweet me)! What should also be noted is that if the Colts come out with soft coverage and too much conservativeness, then the Broncos will properly execute their short passing style of offense. The aggressiveness makes that harder for them to execute. The Colts have to have an aggressive mentality against Peyton Manning and what I described is what hurts the Broncos and that aggressiveness can benefit the Colts in the game.
The Colts will need to slow down the Broncos offense if they expect to win; it won't be easy, but if they follow the steps mentioned in this article, I believe it will give them a great chance of winning.