A look at fourth-down decision making in 2014 highlights Sean Payton, Marc Trestman, and... wait, this can't be right... Jim Caldwell? Plus: Chip Kelly may be less aggressive than you think he is.
23 Jan 2014
by Cian Fahey
The most famous play of Demaryius Thomas’ career happened a little more than two years ago in the wild card round of the playoffs: Thomas caught an 80-yard touchdown pass on the first play of overtime against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was the first ever game played under the new overtime rules, and it was the final memorable moment of the Tim Tebow era.
To that point in his career, Thomas had only shown flashes of ability. The Broncos had selected him with the 22nd pick of the 2010 draft, but his impact during his first two seasons was limited. He only managed 21 regular season appearances during his first two seasons because of injuries. As a raw receiver coming out of college, that missed time severely hampered his development. Furthermore, playing with quarterbacks such as Tebow and Kyle Orton limited the opportunities he received when he was healthy.
It wasn't until Peyton Manning arrived that Thomas began to scratch his potential.
During Manning's first season, Thomas wasn't just healthy for 16 games, he was one of the most productive receivers in the NFL. He finished the season with 94 receptions for 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns. In comparison, he had just 54 receptions for 834 yards and six touchdowns during his first two seasons combined. In spite of the rise of Julius Thomas and the addition of Wes Welker, Thomas improved on his production this season: he ended the year with 92 receptions for 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound receiver has firmly established himself as one of the most productive players in the NFL. Now, Thomas needs to prove that he can produce against the very best secondary, on the biggest stage in the NFL. In the AFC Championship Game, Thomas had seven receptions for 134 yards and a touchdown. The Seahawks will provide a completely different challenge.
A huge amount of Thomas' production during the regular season came on screen passes and underneath routes against soft coverage. Rarely did Thomas produce anything when defensive backs jammed him at the line of scrimmage and played aggressive man coverage through his route. Because the Seahawks will want to disrupt the timing of the Broncos offense, they should play a lot of man coverage. Their defensive philosophy will dictate that they look to be very aggressive with the Broncos receivers.
Much of the talk surrounding Thomas entering this game will focus on his "matchup" with Richard Sherman. However, the Seahawks star cornerback doesn't typically follow receivers around the field. Sherman will stay on the defensive left side of the field. Unless the Broncos decide to use a hurry-up offense early in the game, Thomas should move around the formation. Avoiding frequent matchups with Sherman is a positive, but dealing with Byron Maxwell or Walter Thurmond won't be easy for Thomas, since they will relish the opportunity to jam Thomas at the line and be aggressive with him in man coverage.
Against the San Francisco 49ers, Sherman, Maxwell, Thurmond and both of the team's starting safeties played very aggressive football. Even though Sherman was penalized once for holding, each member of the secondary was able to pool his aggressiveness and intelligence. This allowed them to compete for almost every pass that went down the field, and put more pressure on receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree to make difficult catches.
While the Broncos have very impressive talents at the receiver position, they don't have players who specialize in making contested catches. Welker, Julius Thomas, Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker can absorb big hits and hold onto the ball, but none relish contact the way the Seahawks defensive backs do. Of the Broncos main receivers, Demaryius Thomas is the least reliable when trying to make contested catches or fight through physical coverage.
Thomas is 6-foot-3 and well over 200 pounds. He has as much athletic ability as almost any receiver in the NFL. However, he is not a very physical receiver. His athleticism gives him the ability to adjust to the ball in the air and make plays against tight coverage when the defensive back is notably smaller than him. His mentality makes those occasions rarer than they should be, especially against better, bigger defensive backs. Even when Thomas was challenged by average defensive backs during the regular season, he too often gave up position on the ball without much of a fight.
Against Washington's DeAngelo Hall, Thomas was responsible for two interceptions.
On the first play, he is lined up at the bottom of the screen. Hall is lined up directly across from him, in press coverage. In these situations, Thomas had his most success with a 5-yard in-route. He is very decisive coming out of the break in that route, with a hard outside step that drags the defender away from the middle of the field. But before he can even think about his route, he needs to release from the line of scrimmage.
There are times when Thomas beautifully manipulates the defensive back at the line of scrimmage to escape into his route. There are also times when he is too lazy with his feet and allows the defensive back to jam him at the line of scrimmage. Therefore, he was rarely targeted in these situations. This was one of the occasions where Thomas’ release was lazy and indecisive.
Thomas attempts to take an outside step to drag Hall towards the sideline. He doesn't step wide enough, so Hall never has to adjust his feet before engaging with Thomas. Thomas was trying to create a free release past his inside shoulder, but instead he had to fight through contact to get into his route. This disrupted the timing of the play, and more importantly, it led to Thomas falling down before the ball arrived.
Hall sticks to Thomas throughout the route and he pulls at the receiver's shoulder as he breaks inside. Hall could easily have been called for interference, but Thomas should never have gone to ground so easily.
Manning is throwing the ball blind because he wants to hit his receiver on a timing route. As the ball arrives, Thomas is lying on the ground and Hall has an easy interception. That interception turns into a touchdown because Thomas isn't in a position to tackle him after the turnover. At the very worst, Thomas should have been able to fight with Hall and disrupt the catch. Hall is a crafty cornerback, but he's also not anywhere near the level of the Seahawks defensive backs.
Nobody can question Thomas' ability to make big plays down the sideline or turn short passes into huge gains with his ability after the catch. However, when those catches down the sideline are contested, he has a timid mentality. On numerous occasions throughout the season Thomas dropped passes he should have caught because of an incoming safety. Those plays were unimpressive, but understandable because the defensive backs typically timed their hits well and exploded through Thomas' body.
While running down the sideline against Hall, Manning forced a pass that floated in his direction. When the ball arrived, it was a 50-50 situation between the defensive back and the receiver. Hall had played good coverage to that point in the route and he turned his head around just as the ball arrived. Hall missed the ball as it arrived into Thomas' hands. Thomas did well to extend his hands and go for the football instead of waiting on it, but after that point he failed to fight for the football.
Hall is falling in the air and has just one hand on the ball initially. Thomas has two hands, but he allows Hall to rip it away from him because he is too timid. Instead of moving towards the ball and pulling it into his chest with his hands, Thomas leaned backwards and tried to pull it away with his fingers. At worst, Thomas should have created a simultaneous possession situation. Instead, Hall came away with an easy interception he should never have had.
Unless Thomas recognizes the flight of the football and separates from the defender before he can react, he won't make the reception. Being an athletic receiver is important in these situations, but often it's the player who wants the ball more who comes away with it. Too often Thomas shies away from contact and avoids making contested catches. Even on the occasions when he got in position or Manning threw a pass to a point where only he could catch it, Thomas couldn't make a catch with a defender on him
Thomas showed off the ability to make contested catches once every few weeks. In the Super Bowl, he may be asked to make contested catches once every few plays.
This issue would be lessened if Thomas excelled at creating separation. In spite of his huge production during the regular season and excellent display in the AFC Championship game, Thomas is still refining his skill set as a receiver. His route running alone isn't enough to create separation against man coverage. He primarily relies on his speed and he can use his strength against smaller defenders in space. However, against better cover cornerbacks, route running becomes more important because they can match him physically.
Where Thomas really excels is with the ball in his hands. Thomas averaged 7.7 yards after the catch this season, the highest figure for any wide receiver with at least 20 receptions. (Golden Tate of the Seahawks, incidentally, was second at 7.6; Jermaine Kearse of the Seahawks was last at 1.7.) Most of that yardage came on plays that were specifically designed to put Thomas in space. A huge percentage of his targets came on screen passes, pick plays, against off-man coverage or against soft zone coverage. Thomas didn't need to run crisp routes or make contested catches in those situations. Instead he could just focus on catching the ball and finding space with the ball in his hands.
Against the Seahawks, these opportunities could be very rare. Seattle's defense is very fast. There is rarely much space for receivers to work in underneath, and when there is, that space is often closed quickly with a big hit from a linebacker or safety Kam Chancellor. If the Broncos can put Thomas in space during this game, they should be able to have success because Seattle's tackling on the second level isn't always reliable.
It appears that Thomas is going to be a boom-or-bust receiver in this game. On paper, the Seahawks should be able to handle him without overcommitting their coverage to him. On the field, Thomas' explosive ability could easily allow him to make a handful of big plays that give the Broncos victory. As often as he has been reliant on specific situations for his production this season, it also can't be overlooked that Thomas has made big plays in big games against press man coverage.
Just like he did against the Steelers two years ago, Thomas made some huge plays against the Patriots last week and most notably against Marcus Cooper of the Kansas City Chiefs during the regular season.
While the Broncos don't desperately need Thomas to have a huge game, a positive display from their best receiver would go a long way to helping them win the Super Bowl. Even with Julius Thomas, Welker and Decker around him, the Broncos can't afford to have Demaryius Thomas be a non-factor.
For that reason, the boom-or-bust potential of his play makes him a fascinating player to watch in New York.
56 comments, Last at 25 Jan 2014, 12:55pm by Will Allen