Broncos vs. Falcons: Sketching out a Game Plan for Denver

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystSeptember 14, 2012

The Broncos should turn their talented secondary loose against the Falcons.
The Broncos should turn their talented secondary loose against the Falcons.Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE

Peyton Manning is back and headed for a friendly dome game in Atlanta in Week 2. Manning may have to win a shootout versus the high-powered Atlanta Falcons. There’s certainly nothing about Atlanta’s defense that should scare Manning, and the Falcons can throw the ball around with Julio Jones and Roddy White at receiver and the cerebral Matt Ryan at quarterback.  

It’s a relatively simple game plan on defense for the Denver Broncos: Stop Atlanta’s passing attack by getting after Ryan and covering Jones and White as long as possible. On offense: Take advantage of the gaps in Atlanta’s zone coverage.

It’s easier said than done. Doing it will require knowing how to attack Atlanta’s defense and knowing how to limit Atlanta’s offense. Those secrets can only be unlocked by taking a look at what Atlanta did against the Kansas City Chiefs and replicating what worked and avoiding what didn’t work.


On Offense

Manning is more than capable of beating any defense that is put in front of him. If Manning knows what the coverage is and where the pressure is coming from, he’s going to put the offense in a position to make a positive play.

Atlanta’s defense was as incapable of stopping the Chiefs as the Chiefs were the Falcons during the first half on the Week 1 matchup between the two teams. The Chiefs converted first downs with passes on 3rd-and-long on at least three occasions, and they did it by exploiting Atlanta’s zone coverage.

Dwayne Bowe is going to run a deep curl (blue) beyond the first-down marker (green). Dexter McCluster is going to run straight down the seam and split the deep zone. The Falcons drop into zone coverage.

The Falcons drop three defenders deep and have five other defenders playing zone in a line right at the first-down marker forming a wall. Bowe and McCluster are going to get behind the coverage and McCluster is going to split the deep zone between the two defenders.

McCluster is going to clear out the two deep defenders and Bowe is going to settle behind the wall of coverage Atlanta has created. Bowe finds a spot between the defenders so Matt Cassel has a passing lane.

Cassel almost waits too long to get the ball to Bowe, but that will not happen with Manning because he will anticipate the openings in the zone and get the ball there even before the receiver arrives.

The Chiefs ran the play with two wide receivers, but the Broncos could run it with a wide receiver and a tight end. Demaryius Thomas would be the perfect guy to split the zone and Jacob Tamme knows how to find the soft spot in zone coverage.

On this particular play Atlanta dropped eight into coverage, but the Chiefs were still able to convert. This wasn’t the only example of the Chiefs finding soft spots behind and between Atlanta’s zone coverage.

This example happened to be on a vertical concept (clear out), but the Broncos could also use the levels concept that Manning seems to love. For those who aren’t familiar, the levels concept involves running receivers at various depths and therefore forcing defenders to make a choice about which edge of their zone to cover.


On Defense

Champ Bailey and Tracy Porter are going to have their hands full. Jones and White had their way with Kansas City, both when they went to man coverage and zone.

Stanford Routt limited White and Jones in man coverage for the most part, but both had their way with Jacques Reeves. A switch to zone coverage didn’t help Kansas City slow down Jones.

This is one of Kansas City’s attempts to use zone coverage to stop Atlanta’s passing attack. The inside receiver and tight end will run out routes and Jones and White will run the deeper patterns against two deep safeties (not pictured).

Linebacker Derrick Johnson has flat coverage responsibilities and there is a receiver wide open in the flat. Routt also sees the underneath route and hesitates for a split second, allowing Jones to get an inside release.

The slight hesitation by Routt and a safety that was late to react gave Ryan enough room to get Jones the ball for the first down.

The Chiefs had the most success when Routt was in man coverage with safety help over the top, but they didn’t have the same success on both sides of the field. The Broncos are lucky enough to have Bailey and Porter, so they can use man coverage on Jones and White to try to slow them down.

Jones and White might still make a few plays; using man coverage ensures that the Falcons can’t make big plays by finding the deep cracks in zone coverage. Obviously, getting pressure on Ryan is important. If Ryan has too much time, Jones and White will eventually be able to get away from their man.

Bailey and Porter did a good job of limiting a good group of receivers in Pittsburgh on Sunday night, but when they did yield catches it was when Ben Roethlisberger was buying time with his legs or the Broncos were in zone coverage.


The Conclusion

Manning will be able to defeat Atlanta’s zone coverage and should have a big passing night in Atlanta. Pittsburgh flipped between man to zone, and Manning almost seamlessly changed the plays and found open receivers.

Putting Bailey and Porter on an island versus Atlanta’s weapons seems to be the best strategy considering how Atlanta defeated the zone when Kansas City tried it. The Broncos have the talent to cover Jones and White for three seconds, but they will still make plays if the pass rush of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil isn’t forcing the ball to come out of Ryan’s hands quickly.


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