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» Seventh Day Adventure: Week 13

The biggest game this week is the Iron Bowl, where the playoff hopes of Alabama, Auburn, and Georgia hang in the balance.

12 Mar 2015

Film Room: Peyton Manning's Back, But Same Problems?

by Scott Kacsmar

To the surprise of very few, Peyton Manning is returning for an 18th NFL season. It's hard for an athlete with as much pride as Manning to end his career with a miserable ending like his January playoff performance against Indianapolis. We have seen Denver's prolific offense stumble before, but not like that. Lethargic. Uninspired. Nonsensical. The offense's opening-drive touchdown provided false hope, serving as the only red-zone trip Denver mustered on a dozen drive opportunities. Despite some late-season criticism before the playoffs started, these struggles represented a major reversal. The Broncos had averaged 2.63 points per drive in the final six games, which would have been second in the league over the entire season.

Of course we know Manning played the final month of the season on a torn quad, which combined with his weakened arm was a recipe for a less effective version of the future Hall of Famer. Manning had four games with at least four touchdowns in Weeks 1-12, then just four touchdowns combined in the final four Broncos games of the regular season. It is rare to decline that significantly and that suddenly without the presence of some injury.

With Manning healthy once again, the Broncos remain on the short list of Super Bowl favorites for 2015. At 39 years old, Manning will try to join Warren Moon, Doug Flutie and Brett Favre (twice) as the only quarterbacks to start a full season at that age (or older). If Gary Kubiak, Manning's fifth head coach in the NFL, can provide his usual boost to the running game, then that should help lighten Manning's workload and keep his body fresher for the playoff grind.

John Elway has built a team with enough talent to earn three straight first-round byes, but a Super Bowl victory has yet to materialize. The Indianapolis loss was the most unexpected yet. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas referenced the injuries prior to the Super Bowl, but Denver actually had the NFL's lowest total in Adjusted Games Lost this season. The problem was that Manning's injury came at the worst time. Thomas also let the cat out of the bag by mentioning how some of his teammates overlooked the Colts, a team the Broncos jumped out to a 24-0 lead on in Week 1. The Colts struggled all year with highly-ranked offenses and Denver's eight-best offensive games were all at home. Furthermore, offensive coordinator Adam Gase and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio began interviewing for head coaching jobs during the team's bye week. There was also a report on game day from Jay Glazer that coach John Fox could be fired with a loss to the Colts. These were all certainly factors that may help explain the letdown against Indianapolis.

But to blame the Indianapolis loss on Manning's quad and players looking ahead to New England would be totally unfair. To think all this team needs to get over the hump in 2015 is a healthy quarterback would also be wrong. That Indianapolis loss exposed some of the same flaws that have been present in other Denver failures over the last three years. When defenses are able to play tight coverage on the receivers, this quick passing game fails to generate yards after the catch. If a defense manages to combine that coverage with some timely pressure on Manning, then you can get results like Seattle had in Super Bowl XLVIII. Disrupting the passing game's timing has always been a blueprint to beat a Manning offense, which is why the Broncos could face the exact same problem in 2015 even if Manning has a clean bill of health in the playoffs.

Reviewing the Playoff Loss

I both previewed and charted this game for Football Outsiders. I am still stunned with the results, including some things we won't analyze here (including poor blocking for C.J. Anderson, Denver's ghastly pass rush, and Chris Harris not drawing the assignment on T.Y. Hilton). The biggest story was the complete and utter ineffectiveness of Denver's passing game after the first drive, which would have been a three-and-out if not for a roughing the passer penalty. Whatever Manning and Gase tried, the Colts had no problem shutting down, despite a minimal pass rush. Due to his quick release, Manning was rarely pressured, though Jonathan Newsome had a big strip-sack in the second quarter.

Here is an excerpt from the preview I wrote for this game in January:

Short passes should be the approach anyway since the Colts rank sixth against deep passes (thrown to receivers more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage) and 30th against short passes. When Manning struggled in the second and third quarters in Indianapolis last year, it was with vertical throws down the sideline to his wideouts.

What did Denver do in the first half? Manning threw 10 deep passes and only hit on two, often overthrowing his receivers. There was a stretch of five plays where Manning threw four passes with a minimum length of 34 yards each. He missed all four. It's absolutely shocking that this was the plan of attack, because the strength of the opponent was the outside coverage down the field with cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Greg Toler. Yet that's where Manning continued to throw, with even less success than he had against the Colts the year before.

Here are some advanced passing splits on Manning in this game for each half. "AIR" is simply air yards, measured by how far the pass traveled relative to the line of scrimmage. "YAC" is yards after catch. "PYD" is the average air yards per throw. "FC" is Failed Completions, which are completed passes that fail to gain enough yardage to count as a successful play based on these guidelines: 45 percent of needed yards on first down, 60 percent on second down, or 100 percent on third/fourth down. Spikes are excluded. Intentional grounding is removed from the PYD average.

Peyton Manning vs. 2014 Colts in AFC Divisional
Half Att. Comp. Yards AIR YAC PYD YAC% YAC/Rec. FC FC Pct.
First 18 7 71 296 25 16.4 35.2% 3.57 3 42.9%
Second 27 19 140 179 53 6.6 37.9% 2.79 12 63.2%

Including the playoffs, Manning has started 53 games with Denver. That ridiculous 16.4 PYD in the first half would have easily been his most vertical game, beating out the 13.5 PYD in Baltimore in 2012. Manning's most vertical game in 2013 was also against the Colts (10.9 PYD). Perhaps a wild theory, but could this be the result of Manning trying to show his former team that he can still hit the big passes? The numbers certainly do not support targeting the Colts that way.

You can see how Denver adjusted in the second half, dropping all the way to 6.6 PYD. That would have been the seventh-shortest average in Manning's time with Denver, so there was no happy medium reached here. It was bombs away in the first half, dink-and-dunk in the second half, and both approaches were very ineffective.

The second half is what really stood out in the way Indianapolis suffocated the impotent Denver passing game. Logic would say Manning's first-half approach alerted the Colts to look for the deep ball, but the second half looked like Denver was playing on a shrunken field. Neither team really tried anything out of the ordinary in regards to personnel, with over 80 percent of the matchup played between Denver's three-wide sets and nickel defense from Indianapolis. The Colts were not blitz-happy by any means, but they were consistent with playing man coverage.

The following review looks at every passing play from the second half. Every pass was from the shotgun. I charted Manning's snap-to-release (STR) time to see how long he held the ball. I also noted when Manning threw a pass before any of his receivers were more than 10 yards down the field. That's the binary "WI10?" column.

Peyton Manning's Second Half vs. 2014 Colts in AFC Divisional
Pass QT Time Down ToGo Side LOS Yards Recept. Direction Intended PYD YAC STR WI10?
1-1 3 14:31 2 9 DEN 21 4 COMP short right 85-V.Green 2 2 2.17 1
1-2 3 13:54 3 5 DEN 25 0 INC deep right 10-E.Sanders 25 - 4.54 0
2-1 3 8:21 1 10 DEN 20 3 COMP short left 10-E.Sanders 3 0 1.87 1
2-2 3 7:14 3 5 DEN 25 0 INC short middle 83-W.Welker 9 - 2.37 1
3-1 3 5:13 1 10 DEN 24 1 COMP short right 10-E.Sanders -1 2 1.55 1
3-2 3 4:40 2 9 DEN 25 4 COMP short right 80-J.Thomas 3 1 1.94 1
3-3 3 3:20 1 10 DEN 35 6 COMP short middle 80-J.Thomas 5 1 2.97 1
3-4 3 2:56 2 4 DEN 41 4 COMP short middle 80-J.Thomas 4 0 2.54 1
3-5 3 2:32 1 10 DEN 45 10 COMP short left 88-D.Thomas 10 0 2.82 0
3-6 3 1:38 2 9 IND 44 0 DROP short right 85-V.Green 0 - 1.89 1
3-7 3 1:36 3 9 IND 44 8 COMP short right 88-D.Thomas 8 0 2.69 1
3-8 4 14:31 2 9 IND 28 5 COMP short left 10-E.Sanders 4 1 1.82 1
3-9 4 13:59 3 4 IND 23 0 INC short right 10-E.Sanders 4 - 2.29 1
4-1 4 13:21 1 10 DEN 33 0 INC short left 10-E.Sanders 11 - 2.97 0
4-2 4 13:16 2 10 DEN 33 3 COMP short right 10-E.Sanders 2 1 1.80 1
4-3 4 12:34 3 7 DEN 36 0 INC short left 10-E.Sanders 12 - 2.45 0
5-1 4 4:06 1 10 DEN 20 4 COMP short right 80-J.Thomas 4 0 2.04 1
5-2 4 4:02 2 6 DEN 24 20 COMP short middle 83-W.Welker 6 14 2.75 0
5-3 4 3:39 1 10 DEN 44 2 COMP short right 22-C.Anderson 1 1 3.29 0
5-4 4 3:14 2 8 DEN 46 0 INC deep middle 12-A.Caldwell 16 - 2.99 0
5-5 4 3:09 3 8 DEN 46 0 INC short middle 88-D.Thomas 15 - 3.09 0
5-6 4 3:04 4 8 DEN 46 7 COMP short middle 22-C.Anderson 4 3 2.12 1
6-1 4 1:52 1 10 DEN 20 16 COMP short middle 88-D.Thomas 14 2 2.27 1
6-2 4 1:42 1 10 DEN 36 1 COMP short left 22-C.Anderson 1 0 4.30 0
6-3 4 1:16 2 9 DEN 37 3 COMP short middle 80-J.Thomas 3 0 2.35 1
6-4 4 0:54 3 6 DEN 40 15 COMP short middle 22-C.Anderson 0 15 2.54 1
6-5 4 0:09 3 12 IND 47 24 COMP short left 88-D.Thomas 14 10 2.69 0

Again, this is all about the second half. Manning's average STR was 2.56 seconds, which is fast, but probably longer than usual for him due to a few plays we'll look at. He only had four passes where he held the ball longer than 3.0 seconds.

Manning threw 17 of the 27 passes before any of his eligible receivers were more than 10 yards down the field. That includes 13 of the first 17 plays of the half when Denver oddly chose to shrink the field against itself. I wish I had lots of data to compare this to, but this was the first time I ever tracked such a thing. Just from this game alone we know that's a major departure from the first half, when Manning threw 10 passes at least 16 yards down the field.

(Note: When it comes to reviewing a play, I do my best not to make assumptions about what the play call was supposed to be, or where the ball was meant to go. I also try not to use the all-22 footage in a "he should have thrown to this open guy" manner, because that can be very misleading. Sometimes the quarterback may have been moving to the right, so asking him to throw to someone on the left when he wasn't looking there is not my cup of tea. I do not want to bend the physics of the play.)

Unless noted otherwise, all still images (courtesy of NFL Game Rewind) are captured at the precise moment the ball was caught.

Drive One

1-1: A good predictor of things to come, Manning started the half with a pass in the flat for a short gain to Virgil Green.

1-2: This is really the biggest mistake Manning made in the entire second half. On third-and-5, he did a good job to escape the pocket, but instead of running for the first down with no one in sight, he threw a 25-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders near the sideline. Sanders caught the ball on a solid throw, but he couldn't get the second foot down in bounds. That was a quick three-and-out and the Colts capitalized with a long touchdown drive to take a 21-10 lead. Maybe the quad was in Manning's head, but he is such a pass-first player that I'm not even sure he scrambles if healthy. But on third down, you have to run there. The defender with the best chance to get Manning actually gets tripped up by his own teammate. Manning, torn quad and all, should have been able to run for at least 10 yards here. It was a brutal decision to throw.

Drive Two

2-1: Denver emptied the backfield, but D'Qwell Jackson was all over Sanders on the short throw.

2-2: This shot is shortly after Manning released the quick pass, but the All-22 angle shows how well Indianapolis matched up in man coverage with Denver's four receivers. Any throw was going to be tight. Wes Welker was the correct decision over the middle, but Manning's pass was low and behind the receiver. If he led Welker to the ball, this may have worked for a third-down conversion instead of a consecutive three-and-out drive.

Drive Three

3-1: Denver opened with a wide-receiver screen to Sanders, but Demaryius Thomas made a business decision not to engage Jerrell Freeman, who made the tackle on a 1-yard gain. This was not Thomas' finest game (two drops), and this drive actually would have gone for naught without C.J. Anderson's incredible effort on a fourth-and-1 run. Thomas and Sanders were standing around after their blocks while Anderson broke multiple tackles.

3-2: Julius Thomas was the quick read in the flat, but Greg Toler was strong with the low tackle to limit the YAC to one yard.

3-3: Manning had a very clean pocket against a four-man rush, but none of Denver's receivers ran a route deeper than 10 yards. Manning fit a tight throw into Julius with Jackson giving the receiver no breathing room.

3-4: Denver tried a quick snap and sent all five receivers near the sticks with four yards to go for a first down. This time Julius tried on LaRon Landry as a coat. The arms may have been a little too big. The spot was indisputably more than generous for a first down.

3-5: Vontae Davis had a fantastic game for Indianapolis. This 10-yard catch was the longest he allowed in the game and the only catch he allowed to Demaryius Thomas. It was also only the second time Manning threw a pass at least 10 yards in the third quarter.

3-6: Blocking tight end Virgil Green dropped a pass while turning upfield, but he would have been lucky to gain a yard anyway with the defender right there. This looked like another designed play. Manning released the pass so quickly that no receiver was even beyond five yards from the line of scrimmage. A pass to the running back coming out of the flat may have been the best gain here.

3-7: Manning picked the right receiver on third-and-9, but Demaryius ran the route a little short of the marker and Toler made the tackle to bring up fourth-and-1. Cue Anderson's drive-saving run. The third quarter ended with Denver still trailing 21-10.

3-8: So much for momentum. Anderson gained a yard on his next carry and Manning's quick pass to Sanders only gained five yards against Davis.

3-9: Manning really needed to turn this long drive into a touchdown, but his third-and-4 pass was knocked away by Darius Butler. The only other real option on the play was Welker over the middle, but the Colts defended well again and the Broncos settled for a field goal.

Drive Four

4-1: Opening with play-action, Manning's mechanics looked off in trying to deliver this throw to a sliding Sanders. Davis had little trouble knocking the pass down.

4-2: Landry thwarted the wide-receiver screen by getting to Sanders before any of the offensive linemen could block him.

4-3: Manning went back to Sanders, but Davis had very tight coverage and defended another pass. The Colts rushed five, but the pass protection was holding up. This is a play where you have to wonder if Manning held the ball a little longer if he would have had something easier open up. Welker made Butler stumble with one of his classic cuts in the slot, but did he still have the speed to make the catch over the middle and pick up the first down on third-and-7? It's hard to say when Butler recovered so quickly and Welker stopped running full speed when he saw the pass had been thrown. You also have to appreciate the attention the Colts paid Demaryius on this play, not allowing a free release.

This three-and-out proved disastrous as the Colts burned off 8:14 to add a field goal and take a 24-13 lead. Manning had 4:06 left to score 11 points on a day where nothing worked.

Drive Five

5-1: With time an issue, Julius made sure to get out of bounds after a 4-yard gain in the flat.

5-2: What's this, a Denver receiver running with the ball? Freeman took a bad angle and Welker gained 14 YAC down the middle of the field. Manning's 13 previous completions gained just nine YAC. Welker made a pretty good catch here too.

5-3: For the first time since Manning's second play of the half, he held the ball for more than 3.0 seconds. This was because he double-clutched before dumping off a pass to Anderson for two yards.

5-4: Manning finished with zero interceptions on 46 pass attempts, but he got lucky here after going down the field. Davis literally ran Andre Caldwell's route for him, but dropped the interception. That was Caldwell's only offensive snap of the game.

5-5: I have not been mentioning pass pressure, because there was really none to speak of. The Colts finally got a rush here from ex-Bronco Shaun Phillips, but Manning avoided the sack and threw behind a cutting Demaryius. That was basically a throwaway, but at this point Manning was 1-for-13 at converting on third down in the game.

5-6: This call for a slant to Anderson on fourth-and-7 made no sense, but the back almost pulled off another miracle play. Denver even challenged the spot, but Anderson was a yard short and Denver turned the ball over on downs with 2:50 left.

Drive Six

6-1: We have reached that point in the game where the hurry-up offense and prevent defense show up. The Colts definitely loosened up a bit with the two-score lead in the final two minutes, and Denver started the drive with a 16-yard gain to Demaryius.

6-2: Manning held the ball long after a pump-fake, but checked down to Anderson for just a 1-yard gain.

6-3: Even with Julius getting a running start across the middle, Davis made the tackle for no YAC for the second play in a row. That was the 10th completion of the game where Denver had zero YAC.

6-4: With the Colts defending for the big play, an uncovered Anderson picked up 15 YAC, the most Denver had on any play in the game. Manning then spiked the ball to stop the clock. He was sacked by Erik Walden, but we are only looking at passes thrown here.

6-5: Demaryius was left wide open with the Colts protecting the end zone. He could have stepped out of bounds with seconds remaining, but he stayed in and picked up 10 YAC to mercifully end the game there. That 24-yard completion put Manning over 200 yards, but he still only averaged 4.59 yards per attempt, the sixth-lowest game in his career (minimum 10 attempts).

Familiar Outcomes

Denver had just 53 YAC on 19 completions in the second half, and 25 of those yards came in the final minute on meaningless plays. This was a clinic on coverage and tackling, but I still get the sense the Broncos did little to help themselves schematically after halftime with little route variation. Indianapolis was able to keep everything in front of the defensive backs while Manning kept throwing short passes for nominal gains.

Manning had a whopping 15 failed completions, or five more than he's had in any of his previous 52 games. The following table shows his highest rate of failed completions in a game with Denver.

Peyton Manning: Highest Rates of Failed Completions, 2012-14
Year Week Opp AIR YAC Comp Att Yards PYD YAC% YAC/Rec. FC Pct.
2014 AFC-D IND 475 78 26 45 211 10.56 37.0% 3.00 15 57.7%
2013 6 JAC 280 130 28 42 295 6.67 44.1% 4.64 10 35.7%
2012 15 BAL 379 38 17 28 204 13.54 18.6% 2.24 6 35.3%
2013 7 IND 533 116 29 49 386 10.88 30.1% 4.00 9 31.0%
2013 SB 48 SEA 359 134 34 49 280 7.33 47.9% 3.94 10 29.4%
2014 10 OAK 224 191 31 44 340 5.21 56.2% 6.16 9 29.0%
2014 14 BUF 220 60 14 20 173 11.00 34.7% 4.29 4 28.6%

There are some little trends here. Three of the games were in the second half of last season. The 2013 Jacksonville game is when Manning suffered a high ankle sprain that definitely altered his play for a stretch, including a game the very next week in Indianapolis. Gus Bradley's Jaguars also run a defense similar to Seattle's, but without all the great talent. We've seen how well Seattle has handled Denver's passing game, blanketing the receivers again in 2014. Finally, the Week 15 game against the 2012 Ravens was actually great foreshadowing for the playoffs despite Denver's blowout win. The 18.6 YAC percentage is the lowest for Denver with Manning. The Ravens also forced seven three-and-outs that day, a season-worst for the Broncos. In the playoffs, the Ravens were healthy and got away with some pass interference on a pick-six early in the game.

That's a big seven points, and in the playoffs, you expect referees to swallow their whistles more on those plays. Many precision passing games crash and burn in the playoffs for that reason, and Manning certainly has experience with that.

Finally, here's a look at the defenses that did the best at limiting Denver's YAC since 2012. You'll notice a lot of the usual suspects again, and all three playoff losses.

Denver Broncos: Lowest Yards After Catch per Reception, 2012-14
Rk Year Week Opp AIR YAC Comp Att Yards PYD YAC% YAC/Rec. FC Pct.
1 2012 15 BAL 379 38 17 28 204 13.54 18.6% 2.24 6 35.3%
2 2014 3 SEA 432 88 31 48 303 9.00 29.0% 2.84 8 25.8%
3 2013 14 TEN 467 114 39 58 397 8.05 28.7% 2.92 8 20.5%
4 2014 6 NYJ 287 66 22 32 237 8.97 27.8% 3.00 5 22.7%
5 2014 AFC-D IND 475 78 26 45 211 10.56 37.0% 3.00 15 57.7%
6 2012 14 OAK 318 85 26 36 310 8.83 27.4% 3.27 7 26.9%
7 2012 13 TB 255 94 27 38 242 6.71 38.8% 3.48 4 14.8%
8 2013 12 NE 223 68 19 36 150 6.37 45.3% 3.58 5 26.3%
9 2013 16 HOU 512 115 32 51 400 10.04 28.8% 3.59 5 15.6%
10 2014 2 KC 175 78 21 26 242 6.73 32.2% 3.71 5 23.8%
11 2013 SB 48 SEA 359 134 34 49 280 7.33 47.9% 3.94 10 29.4%
12 2012 AFC-D BAL 296 111 28 43 290 6.88 38.3% 3.96 6 21.4%

Should the Old Dog Learn Some New Tricks?

According to Steve Palazzolo (Pro Football Focus), Manning had the most attempts in 2014 against press coverage with 78 passes. It's not like teams do not know how to defend this offense, but only a select few have the right personnel to limit the big plays both deep and after the catch. Chances are Denver will have to go through at least one of Indianapolis, New England or Seattle to win a Super Bowl this year. Baltimore should probably be included in that list, unless the Ravens place five cornerbacks on injured reserve again. Those teams have been the dream-killers for Denver. (The Patriots will likely play a different defensive style in 2015 with Darrelle Revis decamped for New York, but note that the Patriots game on the "Lowest YAC" table is from 2013, not 2014.)

In his 18th season, Manning's probably not going to drastically alter the way he plays the position. He's still going to get rid of the ball within three seconds on nearly every play. He's still going to run a lot of the same concepts and formations he's always been comfortable with.

On the other hand, Kubiak is the first true offensive-minded coach Manning has had. Jim Mora, Tony Dungy and John Fox all had a heavy defensive background. (Some may suggest Jim Caldwell, but let's be honest, that whole tenure had a Weekend at Bernie's feel to it with Bill Polian manipulating the corpse.) How much control will Kubiak hand over to the quarterback known for doing the most pre-snap work? How many tweaks will Kubiak push for in the passing game? Manning has shown acceptance to change in Denver. His receivers actually move around, unlike in Indianapolis when you could always count on Reggie Wayne to the left and Marvin Harrison to the right. A big sticking point may be that Kubiak rarely used shotgun with Joe Flacco in Baltimore last year, but Manning has practically lived in the shotgun/pistol in Denver. We likely won't see those famous bootleg passes with the 39-year-old passer either.

The age is more than just a number in this case. Manning's durability is no longer what it used to be, and it's unrealistic to expect him to throw 600-plus passes again this season, which could be the last of his career. He may have to make some changes to his game, but it should come as a positive for the team. Manning may actually play with a fullback, because that's what could help the running game with C.J. Anderson. The zone-blocking scheme that Kubiak will bring to Denver has produced great statistics from Terrell Davis to Mike Anderson to Arian Foster to Justin Forsett. Anderson could easily explode in this offense, and that's a legit prediction this time, unlike the Montee Ball experiment last year. Help Manning on offense by running the ball more and running it better.

Julius Thomas left for Jacksonville, but Owen Daniels can fill a lot of that production. Emmanuel Sanders was fantastic last year and Demaryius Thomas is playing under the franchise tag. The passing game is going to be fine, but it shouldn't have to carry the team as much in 2015.

For Denver to achieve its goal, it's the parts outside of the passing game that need to improve most through the coaching changes. Jack Del Rio's infrequent blitzing was always picked apart by Tom Brady and the Patriots. Maybe new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips takes all of this talent and turns it into a stronger unit that plays to its full potential.

Manning should go down as the most consistent player in NFL history. You can pretty much book his team for 12 wins and a highly-ranked offense each season. Unfortunately, that consistency also means the same flaws return year after year, and you can probably pick the couple of opponents that will give his team the most problems. In his physical prime with the Colts (2003-09), that meant nine high-profile losses to the Patriots and Chargers, along with some one-shot losses to teams that ran similar schemes such as Pittsburgh and Dallas. We already highlighted which teams fit that role today for Denver, which will host Baltimore and New England and go to Indianapolis during the 2015 regular season.

The stage is set for quite a farewell tour for Manning, but the actions of his new coaches will ultimately decide if his swan song is going to be a moment of elation or sorrow.

Posted by: Scott Kacsmar on 12 Mar 2015

28 comments, Last at 20 Mar 2015, 3:59pm by Grendel13G

Comments

1
by Hang50 :: Thu, 03/12/2015 - 3:56pm

My recollection about Peyton's long (over)throws in the Indy game is that his receivers were often pretty open. My intuition at the time was the Gase was trying to counter the press coverage by sending his receivers on long routes. Had those been successful, my thinking went, the Indy defenders may have had to back off coverage somewhat, opening up the short routes.

4
by Dave Bernreuther :: Thu, 03/12/2015 - 6:52pm

This is correct. I thought their game plan and those route combinations were both fine, but Peyton couldn't reliably hit them. Without much pass rush, and even against good coverage, guys will get open given enough time, and they were. To my eyes, that 2015 game was much different from the 2013 one in Indy where the receivers truly were wearing Indy DB blankets around the field. Guys were open, but he missed them. It was legitimately the first game I've ever seen where Manning legitimately and actively cost his team a chance to win.

What I recall (without re-watching) being odd was that he - the man with the noodle arm - was missing them all long. I attribute that to what I noticed to be him really winding up and flinging his entire body into the throws, as if he was trying to win the olympic shot put or something. Clearly the quad had something to do with it, but it was still unexpected even being aware of the injury.

7
by Grendel13G :: Thu, 03/12/2015 - 8:17pm

Agreed about this being the only big game I've seen (though I didn't watch his early years) that Manning legitimately and actively cost his team a chance to win. It was as if all the Broncos' coaches and (too many) Pro Bowl players had a contest to see who could have the worst game, but Manning schooled them all. THIS IS HOW YOU COST YOUR TEAM, BOYS!

23
by carljm :: Mon, 03/16/2015 - 4:29pm

The idea that "weak arm" == "will be short on deep throws" makes intuitive sense, but is wrong. Pretty much any NFL QB can hurl the ball a long way, but it takes a strong arm to do so with the mechanics and control needed for deep-ball accuracy. A weak-armed thrower is just as likely to miss his deep throws too-long as too-short.

20
by turbohappy :: Fri, 03/13/2015 - 11:02am

My impression was that the Colts thought based on film study and such that he was going to have a hard time hitting them. You can't cover everything so they sat on the shorter routes and challenge him to hit the long ones. Which they just couldn't do.

2
by Grendel13G :: Thu, 03/12/2015 - 5:22pm

Ugh. I had written off this game as a delusional fever dream that never happened (Scott hit the nail on the head with "lethargic," "uninspired," and "nonsensical"), but going through the second half snap-by-snap was morbidly fascinating.

I don't think I'm ready to accept an NFL without an effective Peyton Manning. Heck, if durability/wear is the issue, just trot him out for home games and hope the backup goes 3-5 in away games.

3
by Scott Kacsmar :: Thu, 03/12/2015 - 5:46pm

Or he could just play in the red zone on the road. Remember when that red-zone plan was mentioned during the Colts' 2011 season? That would have been crazy to see.

5
by Grendel13G :: Thu, 03/12/2015 - 8:11pm

My first thought: That really would be crazy!

...some time passes...

My second thought: Would that really be any crazier than the Broncos alternating QBs (Tommy Maddox and Shawn Moore) every snap against the America's Team-era Cowboys? It almost worked, despite the -5 turnover differential. http://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/199212060den.htm

My third thought: Never mind.

6
by Grendel13G :: Thu, 03/12/2015 - 8:11pm

My first taste of the double-post monster.

11
by Bobman :: Fri, 03/13/2015 - 12:16am

Scott, I DO remember that, but how many times did they actually get into the red zone in 2011? Like a dozen all season?

It was also an insane pipe dream--if the concern was about his neck and nerve damage, all it might have taken was one hit--anywhere, any time, clean or dirty--to end a great career prematurely. And for what, to turn a 2-14 season into a 6-10 one? I think everyone is glad that never happened.

8
by theslothook :: Thu, 03/12/2015 - 8:22pm

I'm not sure Manning is ultimately dissimilar from any pass first qb that runs into a tough coverage unit. Nasty pass defenses are good at that for a reason. Personally, Manning's injury/age in the second half bit the broncos in the ass big time.

On a related note - Scott did nail something down - Manning's approach is fundamentally the same against any team in any season. Read the coverages, dial an optimal play, and hope the receiver wins and the blocking holds out just enough. When it works, great. When it fails, there's no adjustment because that's the basic design.

This is where I have to give Brady/the pats credit. They don't have a one dimensional philosophy to their offense. The SB showed it so plainly - although I've heard arguments that if the injuries hadn't happened, this approach would also have failed. To which I reply, "maybe, but every other team that has tried to pass on Seattle conventionally has failed spectacularly." Better to fail in an untested way than to fail the way everyone else before had.

10
by PaddyPat :: Thu, 03/12/2015 - 11:33pm

It was my sense too from reading this piece that to some extent we are talking about route patterns and offensive design and the general inflexibility of the Petyon Manning offense. Creative route combinations and repeated variation in offensive focus is what enabled the New England attack to run in the Super Bowl. (It's fair to note that it would have failed had the Seahawks all been healthy, but then, it's also very fair to note that both of Tom's interceptions were bad, unforced errors. Scratch a few of the Seattle injuries and give Brady back the two picks, and I think the Pats likely still win.) To me, it has often seemed over the years that Peyton's offense is conceptually very linear--find the schematic flaw in the defense and audible to a play that targets it. If the physical match-ups don't work or the defense somehow successfully conceals its plays (a la, divisional playoffs 2004) the offense stumbles.

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by Bobman :: Fri, 03/13/2015 - 12:29am

slothook, This was probably my biggest complaint for almost a decade with Indy--particularly in those big losses to SD and NE. The "I know what I'm gonna do. You know what I'm gonna do. We usually out-execute you, so let's go" mentality. They'd be sputtering down the stretch and everyone in America could see the outcome (or Manning would be pointlessly audibling the shit out of the situation vs the Pats' "amoeba" defense) and I'd be yelling at the TV "Just run a play! Any Play! Preferably an illogical one so they can't predict you next time!"

To no avail, as my TV was not a two-way transmitter to 18's helmet.

The 2003 AFCCG loss really underlined that for me--Indy failed to adapt their game to the obviously "different" reffing approach than they were expecting and used to. Dude, they're mugging your receivers and you're not getting flags, so ditch the timing routes, go five-wide and run Edge, bring in a FB, go jumbo four downs in a row to throw them off. But no, just like the FBI in "Die Hard" they used their standard play book.

The offensive flexibility/game mastery of the Pats, IMO, is insane. To me it looks like they have two game plans for every game--it's hard enough implementing just ONE successfully, but they look like they can run it 50 times or pass it 50 times, pass all long, or all short, do it one way in the 1st half and when the opponent "adjusts" do it the OTHER way the second half. (which would be my goal, if I were coaching--always have a completely different Plan B). To quote a famous Sicilian philosopher/kidnapper, it's inconceivable.

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by theslothook :: Fri, 03/13/2015 - 12:47am

Well. I don't want to knock PM too hard. His postseason numbers are still quite good(surprising I know, given the reputation). The problem is, his regular season numbers are so otherworldly that being merely good isn't good enough.

Manning the computer is like a hard coded algorithm, it can optimize, but when the basic structure doesn't work, it fails. In the past, I have blamed the receivers/olinemen for failing Manning. And in sense, that is true. Harrison couldn't shake Ty Law, the offensive line was terrible, the special teams and defense stunk, etc etc. But I also should have blamed Manning the coordinator for not anticipating these breakdowns.

I sometimes wonder what might have happened had Manning been coached by BB. I'm convinced, the majority of coaches would have deferred to Manning's expertise since his offenses, consistency wise, are the best in nfl history. But BB would have had the force of character to get him to adjust, especially when he knew the matchups just weren't there to play this out execution game.

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by commissionerleaf :: Wed, 03/18/2015 - 3:32pm

I don't think the problem is the "Manning" offense. I think the problem is that the Denver offense has become progressively more tricky and gimmicky since Manning arrived, and that what they need to do is stick Manning back under center, and actually run "levels" and smash corners with 11 personnel.

The route I kept waiting for was the 4-verticals sideline comeback to DeMaryius, which should have been open all day given the tight coverage but which was thrown, maybe, once. That is where I'm worried that diminished arm strength since the surgery is hurting Manning, not fly routes.

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by Grendel13G :: Fri, 03/20/2015 - 3:59pm

Not being very familiar with PM's years in Indy, this has been an illuminating discussion. Thanks to all for the insight.

9
by ansum :: Thu, 03/12/2015 - 9:47pm

(Some may suggest Jim Caldwell, but let's be honest, that whole tenure had a Weekend at Bernie's feel to it with Bill Polian manipulating the corpse.)

Almost spit my beer out haha.

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by Bobman :: Fri, 03/13/2015 - 12:31am

ansum, It was so funny that I almost spit your beer out, too.

Scott, Great article. This was even better than your usual excellent articles, and to top it all off you included a few Tanier-worthy jokes, like the Weekend at Bernie's and "wearing a Laron Landry coat, the arms might be too big" lines. Always appreciated.

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by Scott Kacsmar :: Fri, 03/13/2015 - 1:27am

Thanks guys. I eased up in the final section, because this is probably going to be a topic we revisit this offseason. But I was hinting at the idea that the gameplan is really always the same from a Manning offense, and it's going to feature him. So are the 2015 Broncos just going to be another Manning offense that is nearly unstoppable against 80% of the NFL, or will Kubiak actually make some significant changes to combat the 20% of defenses that can slow things down with textbook coverage and tackling?

I don't want to make it sound like Manning can't adjust. We don't need to list all the comebacks from big deficits after halftime in his career. But there's always a couple of teams out there that have him figured out better than the rest of the league.

More than anything, Denver needs to get back to being more competitive against those tough teams. Yeah, the Rahim Moore-Jacoby Jones game was a crushing loss, but that was a wild game. You take that one on the chin and move on. The last two years, those were horrific exits in the Super Bowl and this Indy game. The 43-21 game in NE this year was a disaster. The Week 3 Seattle game looked pretty bad for about three quarters. Despite all the additions the last few years, I still believe the 2012 Broncos were the best team Denver has had with Manning. They had the best shot to win a championship, but really messed up that ending against Baltimore.

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by theslothook :: Fri, 03/13/2015 - 2:04am

I'm not sure how well Manning's offense will blend with Kubiak. Kubkiak seems to run a very structured type of offense, built off running the ball with passing game as the ancillary. Manning has always been a rhythm qb.

Look, at the end of the day, A Manning led offense is good enough most of the time. The colts probably lose that playoff game if Manning is healthy. Do they beat Seattle? I doubt it.

I don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong with Peyton Manning as the qb. We've seen Aaron Rogers struggle in the playoffs too.

The reason Manning's playoffs gets mentioned has much to do with Tom Brady as anything else. I dislike comparing them since stylistically, they feel so different, but it seems inevitable. In my opinion, I think in a vacuum, Tom Brady is as great a qb as PM or any other GOAT qb you want to mention. I say that, not because of strict numbers, but because he has certain qualities that are truly special. But his career arch went the way it did because BB is such a great coach. Namely, you can be the best qb in the nfl or close to it, but to win 4 sbs, get to 2 more, and be in the playoffs year in and year out is a testament to the coaching staff as well. I think this explains why Montana ended with 4 rings and Young "only" 1.

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by Scott Kacsmar :: Fri, 03/13/2015 - 1:31am

I was going to wait until the Failed Completions article for this, but might as well add it here.

The 15 failed completions by Manning against the Colts marks a single-game high in 2014. Including playoffs, that's 267 games and 534 offenses.

Only 7 offenses had 12-14 FC in a game. Manning had 12 in the second half alone. So call it an outlier, but I don't think it was entirely all about his health. On so many of those plays, I think if he threw it to a different receiver, the result would have been the same: a short completion with almost no YAC.

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by mbmxyz :: Fri, 03/13/2015 - 3:24am

Watching the IND/DEN playoff game, I thought I was watching a QB playing with a dead arm, probably caused by nerve damage from a herniated disk or some insult to the back or neck. I know the reports are all that PM had a bum leg, and he probably did. But the shot-put-like throwing motion reminded me of how I used my arm when a herniated disk in my neck robbed my right arm of its strength. My range of arm motion was unaffected but if I tried to throw something it traveled only a few feet. So I would twist myself to where I could get my back and hips and legs and feet all behind my arm to push it forward. The result looked kind of like a little pop-up, or a shot put throw by a skinny little kid, a throw where the arm goes forward but the ball goes up. PM's throws against Indy looked a little like that, which made me think 'bad back'. (This is hardly diagnostic, and I am not qualified to make such a diagnosis, but I am suspicious.) Back problems can come on fast. I went from doing 20 push-ups in a session to not being able to push myself off the floor, all in a couple of weeks. Good luck to PM. I hope his back and neck are all good. I just do not think they are.

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by Waverly :: Fri, 03/13/2015 - 1:06pm

Maybe that's why this article is titled: "Peyton Manning's Back"?
But sometimes double entendres are unintended.

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by mbmxyz :: Fri, 03/13/2015 - 3:39am

To me, failed completions with no YAC indicate late throws, or inaccurate throws where the receiver has to either double-back or stop running to make a catch. There are numerous possible explanations for inaccurate passes, and one is lack of control of the direction of arm movement, from perhaps some damaged nerves somewhere.

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by PaddyPat :: Fri, 03/13/2015 - 1:27pm

He was getting the ball out super fast on many of these though. There were also just a lot of poorly designed plays and poorly implemented plays, eg. a play that might work if the series of plays preceding it had obliged the defense to play differently.

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by commissionerleaf :: Wed, 03/18/2015 - 3:38pm

The throws weren't inaccurate or late though; the defenders were just having no trouble draping themselves gently over the pelvises of Manning's receivers. I don't know if it is the receivers or the play design, but New England had no trouble getting open the next week with receivers everyone laughs at (apart from Gronk, who had 3 catches).

Brady's numbers weren't great, but watching the game the separation New England had in pass routes was night and day.

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by commissionerleaf :: Thu, 03/19/2015 - 6:38pm

If Adam Gase is back with the Broncos, someone needs to pin a note to the end of his baseball cap that says "You have the best intermediate-passing quarterback in the history of the NFL. Quit trying to turn him into Drew Brees."

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by duh :: Fri, 03/20/2015 - 1:25pm

Went to the Bears with Fox.