Marquee Matchups: Tebow’s Challenge in Minnesota
Marquee Matchups: Tebow’s Challenge in Minnesota
He has been the story of the second half of the season so far; a quarterback willing his team to win without contributing as a passer. It has purists furious that a quarterback who can’t consistently hit simple throws is being seen as revolutionary player, while many neutral fans are simply enjoying the ride as Tim Tebow defies what many see as logic and continues to win.
That was until this week, as against the Minnesota Vikings he was held in check as a runner and forced to make the difference as a passer.
The Vikings made a concerted effort to curtail Tebow’s running threat and it worked; he only carried the ball on one designed run outside of his kneel-down ahead of the game-winning field goal. What this heavy run defense effort opened up, though, was deep passing against man coverage and a single-high safety. When teams choose to clamp down on Tebow the runner, these are the throws that are likely to be presented to Tebow the passer. The question has always been: can he make the throws?
This week Tebow answered those questions, beating the Vikings deep and making them pay for offering up these throws to him and Demaryius Thomas. For the first time in this winning streak, Tebow couldn’t just wait until late to mount one or two scoring drives. The Vikings put up 32 points and, though he did get help from a defensive score, Tebow needed to prove he could do more than stumble his way to a running-led 20 points. He responded by proving he could lead this team to a win that required 35 points and this week we turn Marquee Matchups over to a look at how Tebow and the Broncos were able to beat the Vikings’ defense on a target-by-target basis.
First Half – 4-of-6 for 29 yards
As with most of his teammates on offense, Tebow’s first half was somewhat uninspiring as the Vikings had by far the better of the opening periods of the game. His first aimed pass started off all of the alarm bells about his accuracy on short, simple throws as he was off the mark on a slot screen to Demaryius Thomas. On a pass that should be simple for an NFL quarterback to hit his receiver for some cheap yards Tebow was too far out in front leaving the Broncos stuck in 2nd-and-10 from a play that was set up to pick up at least 5 yards. Tebow did, however, respond making some solid short throws against underneath coverage for completions and his only other incompletion came on a forceout by Cedric Griffin on a sideline throw to Thomas once again at the 9:46 mark of the second quarter.
Q3 – 14:56 – 17-yard completion to Eric Decker
It was in the second half where things started to open and come together for Tebow in the passing game, and it began on the Broncos’ first play from scrimmage of the half. This play set the tone for the remainder of the game, with the Vikings rolling a safety down and Tebow and the Broncos responding by running play-action to freeze the linebackers and open-up the Vikings’ one-deep look. The play-fake to fullback Spencer Larsen froze the linebackers just enough to get Eric Decker’s post route in behind them. This opened-up a relatively easy deep throw in front of right corner Cedric Griffin, but Tebow still had to hit it and he did. It wasn’t a perfect throw as Eric Decker had to lay out to an extent to bring it in – a better throw would have allowed Decker to run on to the ball and challenge deep safety Mistral Raymond – but this was the first of many Tebow throws to beat the Vikings’ one-high approach.
Q3 – 12:10 – Incomplete pass to Eric Decker
Tebow’s second pass of the third quarter was a mirror of his first. This time the fake to Larsen is left-to-right and the post by Decker comes from the right side of the formation. This time, however, the Vikings’ box safety, Mistral Raymond on this occasion, drops out to give a two-deep look and despite finding the window behind the linebackers, Tebow’s accuracy is a little off and the pass falls to the turf from Decker’s hands. Tebow still put the ball in a catchable spot, but with the safeties frozen, the throw location could have been slightly more helpful for the receiver.
Q3 – 11:24 – 21-yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas
The first of Tebow’s touchdown passes was from the pocket and offered up another answer to his critics about whether he can make defenses pay for breakdowns in coverage. Whether this was a blown coverage by Cedric Griffin or a miscommunication on the level of help between Griffin and Jamarca Sanford, Tebow has a golden opportunity to hit Thomas for a deep touchdown and he finds him. This is not a challenging throw, Thomas is wide open deep but the most aggressive naysayers have questioned Tebow’s ability to make even the simplest of throws. This is the sort of opportunity you can’t pass up as an NFL QB and Tebow doesn’t. Six points on the board and the Broncos back within a score on the opening drive of the second half, just what they needed.
Q3 – 3:03 – 41-yard touchdown to Demaryius Thomas
If this game was all about Tebow as a pocket passer, then for this play at least, this was Tebow at his unorthodox, mercurial best. Tebow moves from the pocket to the left without pressure looking for a better passing lane but then runs into pressure from both Jared Allen and Erin Henderson, two of the league’s better defensive players this season. He gets help from his left tackle, Ryan Clady, to avoid Allen before stiff-arming the younger Henderson to the ground. Having extended the play, Tebow finds Thomas wide open up the left numbers on a coverage bust resulting from his scramble. Thomas then does his utmost to “do a Tebow”, making the free safety Sanford miss with a cut before riding the tackle of Brandon Burton into the end zone for the score.
Q4 – 9:35 – 42-yard completion to Demaryius Thomas
Into the fourth quarter and we find Tebow and the Broncos in desperate need to respond to a Viking scoring drive, down a touchdown and a two points conversion. Once again the Vikings roll a safety down into the box very late pre-snap and, off of a play action fake as Thomas beats the press coverage of Cedric Griffin at the line again, Tebow is met with a golden opportunity for a big play. Continuing with his hot hand from the third quarter, Tebow finds Thomas deep for his longest completion of the day. This is an excellent deep throw by Tebow, finding Thomas in stride with Griffin and Sanford both beaten on the play. The only real question here is why Thomas doesn’t try to turn on the jets and beat Sanford to the end zone?
Irrespective of whether Thomas spurns the chance for a score, Willis McGahee would ensure that the Broncos finished-off their quick-strike drive with an outstanding effort to score on the subsequent running play. Tebow would tie the game with his only real contribution to the game as a runner, finding a crease in the Vikings’ defense for the conversion.
Q4 – 2:59 – 12-yard completion to Matt Willis
After a throw away to start another drive where the Vikings have established a lead, Tebow comes back on second down and finds Matt Willis on a crossing route. This is a simple short throw, the kind that Tebow has to make more consistently than he has for much of the season. He hits Willis in stride and Willis converts, turning the corner for a 12-yard gain and getting out of bounds to stop the clock.
Q4 – 2:51 – 40-yard completion to Demaryius Thomas
There came a point in this game where the Vikings needed to learn that the gameplan that many had suggested as the one to stop Tebow (load the box and play press man wide) hasn’t worked and you need to get away from it. Tebow burned the Vikings on this play often enough in the second half that they should have stepped away from the stove, but Tebow catches them again. As with many of the plays in the second half, as much credit needs to go to Thomas for beating the press at the line and getting open down the field, but credit to Tebow again for finding the open man. Making these throws consistently works to keep defenses honest and he did more than keep the Vikings honest this week. This 40-yard strike got the Broncos into field-goal range and set-up the game-tying score.
After one last deep heave, an incompletion just prevented from being a touchdown by Cedric Griffin, Tebow’s passing day was done and so was the damage to the Vikings. It is important not to overstate this display by Tebow, this was not a polished quarterback performance where he was on target and on rhythm all day in the conventional manner. It is safe to assume and widely accepted that Tebow is never going to be that type of quarterback. What Tebow showed by this performance is that he is not the one-dimensional player that many have suggested and that he is not an easy out that lets teams run a simple run-stopping gameplan and assume he can’t beat them with the pass.
A team was going to press Tebow in this manner at some point and he had to come through. A poor showing this week and the pressure on Tebow would have rapidly ratcheted-up from sections of the media, Denver, and neutral fans. But Tebow and his offense beat what was put in front of them and he made a team respect his ability to throw the ball when they looked to close him down as a runner.
Suffice to say the Vikings, if they ever come across Tebow again, will only be taking certain pages out of this defensive gameplan. They didn’t respect Tebow’s passing to the extent that they only gave him two or three looks all game and didn’t expect him to beat them, but he did. This is Step 1 in Tebow’s maturation as a passer, teams will learn from this and develop the next level for Tebow to beat.
With only one week to prepare for him, it will be an impressive effort to take away Tebow and this constantly-evolving offense this season. The true judgment on Tebow may not come until next season when teams, particularly those in the AFC West, have had a full offseason to study him and his offense to come up with their attempt at a definitive plan. That said, with three games of his next four coming against Lovie Smith, Bill Belichick and Romeo Crennel coached defenses, he will be sternly tested in the remainder of the 2011 season as well.
Will one of those three coaches – each one recognized as a great defensive mind -find the key to stopping Tebow completely? That remains to be seen, but what is for sure is that right now Tim Tebow is one of the hardest matchups for any defense and defensive coordinator in the NFL right now.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.