Break It Down: How Broncos QB Peyton Manning reads a play
JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Watching Peyton Manning play the quarterback position is a singular NFL experience. The audibles, the line adjustments, the constant motion of his feet after the snap — it’s all very distinctive and can be incredibly difficult to deal with for opposing defenses.
“He knows what he wants to do when he goes to the line,” Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane said this week. “He knows what he’s looking for. He knows what his options are and everything like that. I think he’s just great at what he does.”
In hopes of providing a little more insight into Manning’s game, I asked Denver third-string QB Zac Dysert at one of this week’s media sessions to walk me through one of the Broncos’ key completions from the AFC title game win over New England. He agreed, though he was understandably a little guarded about specific play calls and audibles with Super Bowl XLVIII just around the corner.
The play in the spotlight: a 2nd-and-20 from the Denver 10 late in the first half. The Broncos led 10-3 at the time, but New England was threatening to get the ball back with promising field position before halftime. Instead, Manning rifled a 26-yard completion to Demaryius Thomas and then took his team down for a field goal.
A refresher on the pass:
The Broncos initially lined up with Eric Decker and Wes Welker to Manning’s left and Thomas and RB Montee Ball to his right. Ball (boxed in orange below) was split out to the far right sideline. As linebacker Dont’a Hightower (white box) started to make his way out to cover Ball, Manning waved Ball into the backfield.
This was all part of the play call, as opposed to being a Manning audible — Manning eventually faked an inside handoff to Ball before dropping to throw.
“Some stuff’s called, some stuff he’ll do on his own,” Dysert said of Manning’s pre-snap routine. “He’s just trying to get every kind of indicator he can, something from the defense that tells him what they’re doing.”
Pictured below is how the Broncos and Patriots actually lined up for the snap (you’ll notice Ball now next to Manning).
The Patriots had a four-man line, press coverage outside on the Broncos’ three receivers, two linebackers and two deep safeties. Hightower slid back into his usual spot after Ball motioned; Manning, meanwhile, pointed out Collins as a possible blitzer.
“Where the linebackers are can dictate where the safeties are going to go,” Dysert said of the process at this point, “but it just helps you, little things that help you identify the coverage before the snap.”
Often the main focus for Manning before the snap: safeties. Here, both of New England’s safeties were at least 12 yards off the line of scrimmage.
“He’s [looking] more at the safeties than linebackers,” Dysert said. “Pretty much at the snap is where they’re going to move. You can identify just by the positions of the linebacker where they’re going to go. Maybe if [the safeties] are backed up, you can plan for blitz … things like that.”
Hightower’s shift out to mark Ball tipped off Manning here, too, part of the reason the Broncos lined up with their running back outside of Thomas in the first place. With Hightower responsible for Ball and the Patriots playing tight on the remaining receivers, it allowed Manning to pick out Collins as a likely blitzer.
“We know they do a lot at the line of scrimmage, and our challenge for our own players is to make sure we take care of us first and our assignment,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said this week. His team faces the task of slowing Manning on Sunday.
Here, the Patriots left some gaps, which is a crushing mistake against Manning.
Ball released out of the backfield after the play-action, which drew Hightower up in coverage. Behind the Patriots’ collapsing linebacker, Thomas ran a deep slant route against cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. Meanwhile, most importantly, safety Kyle Arrington stepped up on the fake to Ball, then hovered around the 20-yard line as fellow safety Steve Gregory backpedaled.
That sequence was the key to this whole play, according to Dysert.
“You want to go away from rotation [of the safeties] most of the time. Whatever they do, you go off them and do the opposite of what they do,” Dysert said, pointing at Arrington’s positioning. “For Peyton, he probably just needs a little opening to make it through, he’s so accurate.”
The safety movement combined with a slip by Dennard left Thomas with some room downfield.
“He’s pretty open … good route by DT,” Dysert said.
“It doesn’t matter what the ball looks like, it’s always in the right spot,” Thomas said. “That’s the main thing with [Manning]. I still remember the first day I was throwing with Peyton, throwing the ball. It probably wasn’t the prettiest ball, but it was always in the right spot and it was easy to catch. I’ve never had a quarterback like that, so I enjoyed it.”
Also worth noting: Collins was a non-factor as a blitzer, even with Ball running a route (and thus being unavailable to help as a blocker). Denver’s line plus tight end Julius Thomas easily corralled the Patriots’ five-man rush, which provided Manning with a comfortable pocket.
And that’s a variable on this play that ties back to Manning’s pre-snap read and adjustments.
“As a talent evaluator for college and even free agency, the toughest thing to evaluate is process,” Denver QBs coach Gregg Knapp said. “‘Can the guy process in the pocket during the heat of battle?’ [Manning] might be one of the best I’ve ever been around that can process, ‘OK, I’ve got these tools to use, and in 10 seconds I’ve got to make a decision and execute in less than four.’
“That trait he has is so special because it’s not like he’s up there audibling all the time. It might look like it sometimes, but he likes to be given direction. You know, ‘Give me this play and maybe one adjustment.’ But then he also has a tool kit available that if he wants apply, say, ‘I’m going to use this play or this protection change.’ That’s easy to do as a coach. You can create a lot of that stuff in the classroom, but can a guy process and apply it? He does, impressively.”
Seattle will test Manning’s abilities Sunday. “They’ll try to disguise things longer than other teams,” Dysert said.
The Seahawks also do not shy away from using the incredible Earl Thomas as a single-high safety and cramming their other 10 defenders within a compacted area near the line. Being able to counter with his trio of receivers, two pass-catching running backs and tight end Julius Thomas should give Manning a chance to solve the Seahawks’ conundrum.
How successful Manning is may depend on how well he can diagnose situations before the snap. As Dysert, Knapp and plenty of Denver’s previous opponents have stated, few NFL QBs are better in that regard.