Through five weeks of the 2013 NFL season, Peyton Manning and the undefeated Broncos are averaging 46 points a game and just less than 500 total yards of offense every time they take the field. Those are ridiculous numbers when you stack this club up versus the rest of the league.
But what are the Broncos doing within the game plan to target and expose opposing defenses?
Today, let’s go to the All-22 tape, break down some of the top concepts in the Broncos playbook and discuss why this offense is producing at a record rate to start the year.
Short to Intermediate Passing Game
Manning will take some calculated shots down the field off play action, but at the core of this playbook is the short to intermediate route tree that caters to the talents of the Broncos' skill players.
Manning will throw the spot route (corner, curl, flat), levels, the wide receiver screen game (bubble, tunnel), work Hi-Lo concepts and test the inside seams. He is the best in the league at reading coverages and targeting his primary reads based off the pre-snap looks of the secondary.
The Broncos will mix their alignments and use bunch or stack sets to disguise their top concepts, but they come back to the same routes every week to work the ball underneath in their uptempo scheme.
Let’s take a look at some of the routes on the All-22 tape:
Manning will get the ball to Welker on the bubble screen (target No. 2 or slot receiver), but here is a look at the tunnel screen (No. 1 receiver) to Thomas. The Broncos wideout takes a hard step on the release and then works back behind the line of scrimmage. With the slot receiver blocking inside and the right tackle getting out to the second level, the Broncos can create a running lane for Thomas. That makes a short, high-percentage throw for Manning.
I’ve talked about the levels concept before with the Broncos, and we see it often out of 2x2 and 3x1 alignments. A high-to-low read for Manning with No. 1 on the inside smash and No. 2 on the intermediate dig (square-in).
What is the semi-series? Think of an inside seam paired with a curl, comeback, out, etc. Here, the Broncos run the semi-curl from a stack alignment with Thomas on the inside seam and Decker sitting down in the curl.
The Broncos will get to the flood concept from a variety of formations, but the idea is to send three strong. Going back to the win over the Raiders, the Broncos ran the flood from a 2x2 alignment with Manning targeting Welker on the shallow drive route coming back across the field.
Manning is going to target Cover 2 and single-high safety defenses (Cover 1, Cover 3) with the four verticals concept from the gun (or under center) off play action. Force the second-level defenders to the line of scrimmage to target the inside verticals or throw the fade/comeback on the outside. This is a concept opposing defenses have to account for (and limit) if they want to slow down this Denver offense.
Let’s check it out versus the Cowboys and discuss Manning’s quick progression:
The Cowboys are playing 3 Buzz. However, with the strong safety dropping to his hook alignment before the snap, Manning knows the Cowboys are in a three-deep shell. That allows the quarterback to look up the tight end on the inside seam.
Manning reads through to the strong safety, sees the matchup he wants versus the zone defense and targets Thomas on the inside seam.
Manning gets this ball out quick to eliminate the free safety angle from the deep middle of the field and picks up an explosive gain. An easy read for the quarterback because of the defensive look at the snap.
Go back to the slant Manning threw to Julius Thomas for a touchdown Sunday versus the Cowboys Cover 2 (backside of a 3x1 formation), the multiple option routes we have seen from Welker inside the 10-yard line, the one-step fade to Demaryius Thomas or the quick, counter protection play-action scheme that splits the safeties (every time).
Manning gets the matchup he wants inside the 20-yard line and exploits defenses based on what he sees during his pre-snap progressions.
Here is an example of that from the game versus the Raiders.
The Raiders line up in Cover 2. No disguise. No movement. And that’s fine if you play the technique of the defense. However, Manning gets the matchup he can win: Welker versus Charles Woodson in the deep half on the nod route (stick to the out, break back to the post/seam).
Welker sells the stick cut and forces Woodson to open his hips (deep half safety needs to stay square throughout the double move). And with the Mike ‘backer dropping to the passing strength of the formation, Manning can work the ball to the now-vacated hole in the middle of the field.
Manning recognized the matchup within the zone defense and Welker sold the route. And that happens too often for opposing defenses when they line up versus this Denver offense.
Exposing Blitz Coverage
I don’t think defenses should dial down pressure schemes when they play the Broncos. It’s too easy for Manning to move the ball if you sit in coverage all day. However, defenses have to understand that Manning will read the safeties, identify the pressure scheme and get the ball out quickly to hot reads or a matchup that produces positive yardage.
We saw that in Dallas versus six-man pressure.
The Cowboys are sending six, but they are playing with a “peel” technique (edge-rusher is responsible for the running back if he releases). That gives Manning the matchup of Knowshon Moreno versus a defensive end on the rail/wheel route.
Look at Manning’s read. He is already moving off the spot and targeting Moreno versus a defensive end with his back to the ball. As I said above, I do think defenses should be aggressive and pressure the Broncos, but remember that Manning is going to find a key matchup that could you in trouble.
The Run Game/Play-Action Opportunities
It’s easy to forget about the Broncos run game when breaking down this offense. I’m guilty of it when I look at the route concepts, the talent outside and the emergence of Julius Thomas at tight end. So many options to spread the ball around in this system.
But as the Broncos have shown through the first five weeks they will run the inside zone, the trap, the crack toss, etc., with Moreno, Ronnie Hillman and rookie Montee Ball.
Focus on the amount of two-deep looks and the soft run boxes. Those are prime opportunities to run the zone schemes or attack the edge of the defense.
Plus, it creates play-action opportunities for Manning. That goes back to the four verticals concept we talked about above, the outside 9 routes with seven-man protection and the route combinations that show up inside of the 20-yard line.
Denver is averaging 116 yards a game on the ground. This team will run the football if defenses continue to show seven-man fronts.
The production from Welker and Julius Thomas
Welker has been a major addition to this offense because of his ability to win underneath and on the inside seam route. And I always go back to his skill set at the top of the route stem. That’s where he creates separation. He is quick out of his cuts, displays a burst to the football and provides Manning with consistent matchups from the slot that cater to his open-field ability.
With Thomas, the Broncos have an athletic tight end that can match up/win versus a safety in man coverage, run the inside seam versus Cover 2 and produce after the catch on the simple flat route versus three-deep looks. That sells when defenses want to lean on zone looks and sink hard to protect the intermediate routes.
Is there a way to limit the Broncos offense?
I can throw out coverages here and draw up schemes on a chalkboard, but is that the answer? Cover 4? 2-Man? Combination man? Cover 2 in 3rd-and-7 to 3rd-and-10 situations?
The way I see it, if NFL defenses want to compete versus this offense, then the secondary has to challenge receivers at the line of scrimmage.
I know that sounds too simple, but I’m looking at defenses that will impact the release at the line of scrimmage and win throughout the route stem. Be aggressive on the jam, play with technique, use the safety help and showcase a physical style.
Think about the Chiefs or the Seahawks here, two secondaries that line up in press-man with a single high safety in the middle of the field. They get hands on receivers, re-route the initial release and stay in the back pocket throughout the stem.
We have to understand that Manning is going to make plays regardless of the defensive call sheet. And no one dictates the flow of the game quite like he does. It is unique.
But after watching the Broncos' first five games, I haven’t seen much on the tape that convinces me of a specific scheme that is going to shut down this offense. And that’s why I’m looking for secondaries that want to compete consistently and attack his receivers on every snap.
Seven-year veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.