Peyton Manning is not himself. As good as the Broncos’ running game and defense have been over the last 5 weeks, Denver will not win the Super Bowl (or even a playoff game) without Manning playing better. His arm strength is not even close to what it was just a year ago. Even then, it wasn’t very strong. This has to be a major concern for the Broncos.
Whether the decrease in velocity is due to issues with his nerve, an injury to his lower body, or something else entirely, it is changing the way that Manning is playing the position. The only way he can get the ball downfield now is by getting his entire body into his throws. Even when he does so, he maxes out at about 45 air yards. That’s not from the line of scrimmage, that’s from where he releases the ball.
Playing the quarterback position at the highest level means being able to throw the ball from many different platforms. There isn’t always a perfectly clean pocket, and quarterbacks often have to throw from off-balanced positions. This is why it’s difficult for Manning to get his entire body into every single one of his throws. Because he can’t, in order to get the ball downfield, he either needs to get rid of it immediately at the top of his drop, or he needs perfect pass protection. Even with a clean pocket, he still has to get rid of the ball relatively early.
This means it is getting more and more difficult for Manning to succeed late in the play. One of the many attributes of Manning’s game throughout his career has been that he can read the defense and get to his 3rd or 4th receivers easily regardless of where they are on the field. Now, because he is struggling to push the ball downfield, his options are limited. It’s either an intermediate/downfield pass very early in the play or a check down.
Normally, it’s the young and inexperienced quarterbacks who need the defense to be defined early. Manning may have the best mind of any player in the game, but his physical deficiencies now mean he falls into this category too. If the defense isn’t defined almost immediately, he struggles to get anything more than a check down or a shallow cross. Despite the fact that he can see what’s happening, his body isn’t able to take advantage.
We saw Cincinnati mix up its fronts and coverages on Monday night, delaying Manning’s decision-making and ability to quickly process information. They didn’t necessarily fool him, but when the Bengals did give him exotic looks, it did enough to prevent him from doing much more than throwing it underneath for minimal gains.
When Denver did have success through the air on Monday, it was because the coverages were defined early enough for Manning to take advantage of them physically. He made a few great throws for big plays. One came on a 46-yard post route to Demaryius Thomas off of play-action. Manning had a ton of time because of the play-action, and he used every ounce of his body to throw the ball 45 yards downfield. He also threw a tremendous 33-yard pass on a go-route to Emmanuel Sanders on the outside (who also made an unbelievable one-handed catch). Again, Manning threw quickly on this play and got his entire body behind the ball.
Still, many of Manning’s passes hung in the air for too long. His first interception was behind Julius Thomas and lost velocity towards the end. This was on a short flat route. His final pass looked like a punt. It was almost end-over-end; an absolute duck that hung in the air and was wildly inaccurate. Manning has always thrown his fair share of ducks, even at his best. But the inability to throw a spiral on just about every single pass he’s throw recently suggests that maybe that nerve is acting up again and he’s having trouble feeling the ball out of his hand. This would explain the ducks and the sudden inaccuracy on many of Manning’s attempted touch passes.
Peyton’s other two interceptions against the Bengals reveal more of the problems that his lack of arm strength creates. Manning now forces more passes. This is a product of needing to pick a receiver downfield early, and then live or die with him or check it down. There is little or no time to move to another intermediate or deep route because of the lack of velocity on his throws.
Manning’s 2nd interception of the night came when cornerback Adam Jones was trailing Demaryius Thomas in 2-man. Manning stayed on Demaryius, forced the ball, and didn’t have enough velocity on his throw to fit it in a tight spot. His next interception was another bad decision. Again it was versus man coverage. Instead of Manning moving off his initial receiver, Demaryius Thomas, he tried forcing the ball by throwing it over Thomas’s defender. He threw from an off-balanced position after perceiving pressure that really wasn’t there and got nothing on the ball. The result was an easy pick-6.
These interceptions were not against coverages that fooled Manning. Take our word for it, Manning did not suddenly forget how to read defenses at age 38. The issue is that the physical is effecting the mental. It doesn’t help that his offensive line is not reliable in pass protection. This just adds to why Manning is looking to get rid of the ball early come hell or high water. This has significantly diminished one part of Manning’s game that has made him so exceptional – his ability to find the open receiver no matter where he is on the field.
Manning has been a different quarterback over the 2nd half of this season. No one knows for sure why his arm strength seems to be decreasing so precipitously. Maybe it’s due to a temporary ailment. Maybe it’s permanent and a sign of the end. It’s no secret that since his surgeries, his arm hasn’t been anywhere near as strong as it was when he was in Indianapolis. This is why his performance over the last 3 years has been so remarkable. But there is a certain level of arm strength that even the best quarterback mind we’ve ever seen needs in order to be able to play effectively. Manning might be approaching that threshold, or perhaps he has already dropped below it. If we can spot this, you can be sure that the defensive coordinators of whoever the Broncos play in the playoffs know this too.