The Broncos racked up 568 yards against one of the best defenses in the league on Sunday. Denver has lots of talent on offense, but their gameplan against Arizona played a significant role in their 41-point performance.
The Cardinals are known for their man coverage on defense. They have one of the NFL’s premiere corners in Patrick Peterson as well as a bevy of talent around him in their defensive backfield. They don’t shy away from any offense, choosing to play man regardless of the competition.
We know this, everyone in the NFL knows this, and the Broncos certainly knew it. Their offensive gameplan focused on beating this coverage. The Broncos used several short crossing routes where receivers rubbed (or picked) defenders, or at very least created traffic that defensive backs had to wade through in order to chase their assigned receiver across the field. Denver used several other man-beating concepts, such as bunching their receivers together and having their routes crisscross at the snap to create more traffic for defenders. Furthermore, they used formations and route concepts that enabled Manning to take advantage of particularly advantageous one-on-one matchups, such as Julius Thomas on a safety, Demaryius Thomas on Antonio Cromartie, and Wes Welker in the slot on cornerback Jerraud Powers with room to maneuver from sideline to sideline.
Accounting for Pressure:
The Cardinals defense is among the most aggressive blitzing units in the league. They use intricate schemes and aren’t afraid to bring the house to get to the quarterback. The Broncos anticipated this pressure. They almost exclusively used 3 wide receiver sets and spread the defense out. This was a departure from Denver’s offensive approach through their first 3 games.
Spreading the defense out prevents it from being able to disguise blitzes well. Defenders have to align over or near the receivers they’re responsible for. If they are actually blitzing, their alignment away from their receiver will allow the quarterback to recognize the pressure more easily. If they align over their receiver and try to blitz from far away, they won’t get to the quarterback in time. Denver’s approach allowed Peyton Manning to quickly recognize and react to Arizona’s pressure schemes. It also prevented the Cardinals from blitzing as frequently.
The staple of Arizona’s blitz schemes is double-A-gap pressure. This means the Cardinals blitz, or at least show blitz, in the two gaps on either side of the center. This type of pressure can confuse blocking assignments or provide immediate pressure up the middle on the quarterback. The Broncos addressed this in many ways, one of which was to align their running back right behind the center. Using this unconventional alignment, the Broncos were able to clearly define which blocker was responsible for which defender. Also, with the running back starting the play near the line of scrimmage, the blitz pressure was blocked several yards away from Manning instead of right next to him. Even when not aligned in this unique formation, Broncos running backs kept Manning clean all day by making sure to attack blitzers near the line of scrimmage instead of waiting for them to get near him.
The Broncos’ scheme on Sunday was well conceived, but don’t forget about the talent they have. Demaryius Thomas is quicker and more explosive than Antonio Cromartie, who struggled to keep up with him all day. Julius Thomas is bigger than any safety covering him, and he has great athleticism. Oh yeah, Peyton Manning, despite his Chad Pennington-like arm strength, is still the most accurate passer in the league and by far the best anticipator. Ultimately, the Broncos combined their talent, gameplan, and execution to dominate a very good Cardinals defense.