Analysis Notebook – Opening Day Edition

We're only one game into the 2013 season but we've already seen one of the prettiest plays of the season. Sam Monson breaks it down

| 4 years ago
Manning TD 3

Analysis Notebook – Opening Day Edition

analysis notebook copyFootball is BACK!

Somehow it seems fitting that Peyton Manning adds to his ever-expanding list of records and achievements in the NFL by tying the all-time single-game record of seven touchdown passes. There is no surer sign of football returning than a Manning touchdown pass, let alone seven of them.

One of the first things I was asked to check in our Analysis Review session of this game was the first of those touchdowns thrown by Manning, and what I found was one of the prettiest play designs you will see all year, and it happened just 18 minutes into the regular season.

Many of the plays we choose to highlight in our Analysis Notebook feature outstanding individual performances, or new and innovative schematic changes that force a win for one side or the other, and it’s often easy to overlook simple, outstanding play design. This is an example of how one play has been designed to open up a yawning chasm in the defense by forcing defenders to react to one thing and then hitting them with something else entirely. The Broncos execute it to perfection and Manning naturally takes advantage. So let’s take a look at how it unfolded.

Baltimore Ravens @ Denver Broncos, Opening Day, Q2, 11.40.

Manning TD 1

It all starts on the right side of the Denver formation with a simple bubble-screen fake. The Broncos fake the quick pass to RWR Eric Decker which starts the dominoes tumbling on the Ravens’ defense. When teams run this kind of screen pass the defensive secondary usually has to orchestrate a quick switch between the outside corner and the slot corner to his inside. The offense will usually try to block the guy lined up over the intended receiver with the slot receiver, leaving the inside corner as the man with the unblocked path to the ball. When Denver shows this fake, both corners make for the football, with LCB Lardarius Webb shooting at speed to try and beat the anticipated block from Wes Welker, and slot corner Corey Graham coming up to shut it down from the inside.

The problem is that Welker isn’t planning to throw a block at all, he’s running his own route. He takes a path towards Webb as if to block but then breaks deep towards the end zone. This topples another domino.

Manning TD 2With both corners now out of the picture, the safety to that side of the field, Michael Huff, sees the danger immediately and knowing he has help to his inside, takes off to try and prevent an easy pitch and catch to Welker by the pylon. Unfortunately, doing this takes him out of his zone, and opens up a huge hole to the middle of the field, just waiting for a Denver receiver to break into. The deep is supposed to be covered by two deep safeties splitting the field in half, but there is no way the backside safety can know Huff has been dragged out of position and move across to fill the gap. The play is designed to pull just one side of the defense out of alignment, because that’s all it needs to do.

For this play to work, Denver still needs one more domino to fall, and it comes in the form of the underneath man coverage of LB Daryl Smith, a perennial PFF favorite.

Manning TD 3

Smith reads the out pattern by the TE Julius Thomas, but doesn’t react well enough when he turns the route into an out-and-up. Just as the pressure gets to Manning he delivers the perfect pass into a huge area of space in the middle of the Ravens’ defense. The touchdown ends up right in the center of the field, and the player with the biggest portion of blame on that defense is Smith, who was beaten by his man in coverage. However, the elegance of the play design has taken at least three other defenders out of position and caused that huge area of uncovered space in the middle of the field making it an easy throw for Manning to make, even with an imminent hit coming right at him.

We’re only one game into the new 2013 NFL season, but it may be some time before you see a play design as simple and refined as this.

Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam 




| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.


    great breakdown

  • Whizzer Wilkins

    Thanks for the analysis, Sam. The commentators were adamant this was an example of a changed Manning audible confusing the Ravens defense who expected it to mean something different, so it’s good to see a real explanation of precisely how and why it worked.

    • infemous

      How do you know that it wasn’t a combination of the two of them?

      Great play design and capitalising on an assumed hand signal that had been reappropriated to something else??

      • mike jones

        Occam’s razor. Plus of course there was no evidence supporting Collinsworth’s theory. It was pure conjecture. The question shouldn’t be how do you not know that didn’t play apart. It should be why am I pushing for a theory that has no evidence.

      • PFFSamMonson

        Well the logic Collinsworth was using was that there were 3 ex-Manning teammates on that D and Manning was using fake audibles to fool them. The 3 guys who could conceivably have been fooled on that play weren’t ex-Manning teammates, so I think that theory is pretty paper thin from the get-go.

        • George McDowell

          Except that they reacted on Manning’s call at the line of scrimmage (you can watch the CB move further towards the sideline). The truth is, we cannot be certain. But Manning has done this in the past.

          • PFFSamMonson

            The CB reacted to the WR moving and changing his alignment. He’s also a corner that was not a Manning teammate in the past. As Mike below points out – it’s vaguely feasible, but so are a number of things with zero evidence to back them up. Why are we assuming he’s right just because Cris Collinsworth makes it up on the spot?

        • infemous

          Likely, but Manning’s audibles/fake audibles are a complete mystery.

          Just because the 3 guys who got beat or sucked into the play weren’t ex Manning teammates does not mean that those teammates or even the coaches, may have said that an audible may mean a particular thing.

  • JW_Redmon

    I have to go with Sam’s analysis over Cris’s theory. Collingsworth is a very capable analysts, who is always well prepared for a broadcast, but he is making his conjecture on a spur of the moment. Sam spent time analyzing the game tape, advantage Sam. Since this is an analytics site, probabilities of being correct are; Sam 95%, Cris 3%, other 2%.

    • DragonPie

      Collinsworth noticed the pump fake and thought that the defense was expecting a man in the flat. As somebody who plays attention to the Broncos, we know that they play bubble screens like that fairly often, so it’s not such a surprise to see the defense react to it and to react to the pump fake.

      That makes me buy into this idea that they were reacting to the bubble screen fake, but I give kudos to Collinsworth for his attempt at analysis on the fly. Most announcers don’t offer this sort of analysis at all and they rob us of the intricacies of the game. He noticed how the defense was fooled by the pump fake and just didn’t quite see what the defense read.