Peyton Manning may not have the laser rocket arm anymore, but he still has the laser accurate arm, and that has helped the Denver Broncos run one of the most efficient precision offenses in the NFL.
So how do you slow that kind of offense down? By getting physical. The New England Patriots should know better than anyone; the blueprint for beating them from 2010-2012 was much the same. The Patriots offense was always slowed down by teams that could jam them at the line of scrimmage and capitalize by getting pressure with a four-man rush.
And in that simple truth, the Patriots have their game plan for how to slow down the Broncos offense. The Patriots must find a way to mess with Manning's internal clock with hits on both him and his receivers.
Manning is in the midst of an historic season, but not because he's launching the ball down field. In fact, his deep accuracy is about average this season. He has hit his intended target on 43.1 percent of his attempts of 20 yards or more downfield, which ranks 15th of 36 qualifying quarterbacks this year.
It's no surprise, then, that 2013's most prolific passer is getting the ball out of his hand quicker than any other quarterback in the NFL. Beyond the schematic aspect of jamming receivers and disrupting the timing, there's a fundamental aspect to slowing down the Broncos offense: tackling.
Those quick passes have defined the Broncos offense this year. They rank first in the NFL in total yards after catch with 1,891 -- roughly 53 percent of their total receiving yards -- and third in the league with 6.57 yards after catch per reception.
One of their favorite plays -- to Manning's favorite receiver, Demaryius Thomas -- is based entirely on yards after the catch. That usually works its best when there's a comfortable cushion on the outside for the receiver, allowing him to turn for the pass and turn upfield with blockers getting in front of him in time for a big play.
Thomas is simply too fast, and his linemen too quick to get out in space, to be stopped before a short pass turns into a big play. One bad angle by Ravens safety Michael Huff (now, coincidentally, with the Broncos) freed up the lane Thomas needed for a 78-yard touchdown.
The Colts cornerbacks were aggressive with the Broncos receivers from the get-go, almost to the point of being penalized (they drew one contact penalty and one pass interference).
There were 33 plays in which the Colts played straight press coverage in the secondary. They played "off" seven times, and had some kind of a mix of coverage on another seven plays. Only once did they run zone coverage. There were another five plays in which the Broncos offense came out in a bunch formation, forcing the Colts out of press coverage.
Defensive backs can't be successful when they give receivers a huge window underneath. They must affect the receiver.
One problem with that, however, is that getting too far upfield can allow a receiver to get behind the defense, which would expose them to the big play. Manning tried to exploit this with long passes; he went 5-of-13 on throws 20 yards or more downfield, and those 13 deep attempts are still more than twice as many as his next closest (he's had six deep attempts in three games this year, and averages just over five per game).
A good jam followed by great downfield is the stuff a defensive coordinator's dreams are made of. Colts cornerback Vontae Davis made that dream a reality in Week 8 against the Broncos, and on this play, he re-routed Thomas to the outside and stayed with the receiver stride for stride down the field.
As a result, he was able to break up the pass despite being interfered with by Thomas.
Granted, that interference by Thomas was in an effort to prevent Davis from intercepting the pass, but it was also probably a sign of frustration with how that night went for the Broncos overall.
One of the flaws of such a coverage scheme was exposed in that game, however. The Colts cornerbacks were locked in a physical battle with other physical players, which wore them down after awhile. Both Vontae Davis and Darius Butler had to leave the game with injuries.
If Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington were all at 100 percent, they would have a puncher's chance of doing what the Colts did. With Dennard possibly out, and Talib and Arrington both battling through injuries, it's fair to wonder what to expect -- and how much playing time the Patriots will get -- out of those guys.
If the Patriots are going to execute the necessary game plan for slowing down the Broncos, players like Marquice Cole and Logan Ryan may have to step up in bigger roles than they're used to.
The way this season has gone, though, is it any shock?
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