The Denver Broncos have strict media regulations when it comes to photography of their practice sessions, especially in regard to formations and player personnel. But when it comes to photos released by the team—photos that can be accessed by every other team in the NFL—it’s a different story.
On Tuesday, the Broncos uploaded the photo seen at the top of this article as the cover photo of their Facebook page (Update: the photo was removed shortly after this article was published). Nothing to see here, right?
The photo actually reveals a lot.
The offense is lined up in a pistol formation, with what appears to be Ronnie Hillman lined up behind quarterback Peyton Manning in the backfield, receivers Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas on the outside and Wes Welker lined up in the slot.
(Update: MileHighReport.com readers have pointed out that it appears to actually be tight end Jacob Tamme lined up in the slot in this particular play.)
To put it simply, the quarterback lines up four yards behind the center in the pistol offense with the running back lined up three yards behind him (as opposed to both being lined up next to each other seven yards behind the line of scrimmage in a traditional shotgun formation).
The pistol formation was popularized in 2006 by former University of Nevada head coach Chris Ault (remember that name) and his quarterback at the time, Colin Kaepernick. Since then, the formation has taken the college and high school levels by storm, where athletic quarterbacks have perfected it.
One of the most successful plays run out of the pistol is the read option, something we don’t expect quarterback Peyton Manning to be running anytime soon. But that’s not to say Peyton isn’t capable of running a QB option, and believe it or not, he can run.
In the video above, Manning is merely goofing off at the Pro Bowl, running a quarterback option run at the 0:29 mark of the video. But Manning knows all about the schemes, formations and misdirection plays that read option runs thrive off of—he ran all of it at Indianapolis.
Last season, the pistol was seen across the NFL in places like San Francisco under the 49ers’ Kaepernick, in Carolina under the Panthers’ Cam Newton, in Seattle under the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson and in Washington, where the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III ran it perhaps the most effectively.
Unlike the other NFL quarterbacks noted above, Peyton’s greatest strength is not his athleticism and mobility. So read options in pistol-heavy offense probably aren’t in Denver’s plans.
But that’s not to say the team may not use the formation this season.
If the Broncos do in fact install pistol looks, Hillman will be the one to benefit most from it.
The running back lined up behind Manning is second-year scat back Ronnie Hillman, who figured to be a third-down back behind rookie Montee Ball this season. While not an every-down runner, Hillman could benefit from a pistol look.
Hillman is a speedster—outside runs, passes in the flats and runs set up by play action are right up his alley. And if there is one thing Peyton does well, it’s play-action passes.
Zone-blocking schemes would work well in pistol runs, something that may be installed by new offensive line consultant Alex Gibbs, who popularized zone blocking in the 1990s.
The pistol is also ideal for play action, which will be set up from running plays out of the formation. It’s a never-ending cycle, as the run sets up the pass. Manning’s passing prowess will cause the defense to relax against the run, which will again open up the running game.
As for the defense seen in the photo, the team appears to be in either a 5-2-4 look or a nickel package with an extra defensive back substituted for the third linebacker in Denver’s 4-3-4 base defense. The Broncos ran 5-2-4 and 4-2-5 looks extensively last season out of their base 4-3-4 package.
(The designation of the numbers listed above simply refers to the number of players at each position in certain defensive packages. The first number represents the defensive lineman; the second number represents the linebackers and the final number represents the secondary. Therefore, in a 4-3-4, the Broncos have four down linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs.)
The defense seen in the photo appears to be the second-team unit. Had it been the starting defense, the two linebackers (presumably) would have been Wesley Woodyard and Nate Irving, with Von Miller lined up on the line of scrimmage to rush (or contain) off the edge.
Down on the line of scrimmage, Miller would most likely be joined by Derek Wolfe and Robert Ayers rushing off the edges. Newcomers Shaun Phillips and Quanterus Smith figure to see time at defensive end but probably won’t earn starting jobs right off the bat.
On this call, Elway has several times reiterated that Robert Ayers is the starting right DE. Shaun Phillips will have role in nickel.— Lindsay Jones (@bylindsayhjones) May 7, 2013
The same goes for tackle Sylvester Williams, who is expected to see a rotational role early on. The leading candidates to win the starting defensive tackles gigs are Terrance Knighton and Kevin Vickerson.
In the secondary, a nickel package would likely consist of Champ Bailey and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (DRC) on the outsides with Chris Harris Jr. covering the slot receiver with Mike Adams and Rahim Moore as the two safeties.
When Denver only uses two cornerbacks, Harris figures to be the guy across from Bailey. But when five and six defensive backs are on the field, there will be fierce competition between DRC, Omar Bolden, Tony Carter and Kayvon Webster to see playing time in a crowed secondary that will also see Quinton Carter and David Bruton returning at the safety position.
Now, back to the offense.
Tennessee found the play, digitized it and sent it to Manning. Seventeen years later, Manning had Denver’s coaching staff install it in their offense. The Broncos practiced the play but never ran it during the regular season.
This may be another case of practicing a certain formation/play but not actually running it on game day.
Or, the Broncos may be preparing to play against the pistol this season.
Chris Ault, the man noted above for popularizing the pistol formation in college, was signed by the Kansas City Chiefs earlier in the offseason as an offensive consultant. The Chiefs are primed to run the pistol this season, and Denver will want to be ready.
Practicing against pistol looks is the only way to prepare to face it. But if Denver was preparing to play against the pistol, having the first team defense go against the scout team would be the most likely scenario (as opposed to the second-team defense going against Manning and the starting offense, as seen in the photo released by the team).
We are taking the photo with a grain of salt—but that’s not to say we would be surprised if Denver uses pistol looks in 2013. Is it September yet?