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|
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|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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).
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|
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|
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.)
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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.