Divisional Playoff Recap: Peyton Not the Same

Peyton Manning has not been the same player during the second half of the season. If you watched Sunday’s game with any level of objectivity, it would be absurd to say that his failures against the Colts were part of his alleged inability to play well in the postseason. For whatever reason, whether it’s the injured quad, his nerve, or old age, the Peyton Manning we saw on Sunday and down the final stretch of the season was not the Peyton Manning of old. The Broncos knew it, the Colts knew it, and based on his decision-making, Peyton knew it too.

No Velocity:
You don’t need a cannon to be an NFL quarterback, but you do need a certain level of arm strength to be successful. Since his neck surgery, Manning has been right on the brink of that threshold. He’s been able to perform so well because of his cerebral abilities at the position. To get any velocity on the ball, though, he has had to get his entire body into his throws, using his legs to compensate for his severe lack of arm strength. With his legs impacted by injury, he was firing blanks.

We know that Peyton was aware of his own deficiencies. As we mentioned a few weeks ago, the precipitous drop in his velocity has affected his ability to attack defenses like he has throughout his career. His decision to throw go-route after go-route was an indication that he knew this. To get the ball downfield, Manning needed to get his entire body into his throws. This meant that in a collapsing pocket with no room to step into his throws, he would not be able to get any velocity on the ball. So to push the ball downfield, he had to hit the top of his drop and immediately release the ball before the rush could get anywhere near him.

Instead of being able to sit in the pocket and read through his progressions, Manning effectively had to pre-determine his downfield throws. This goes against everything he is as a quarterback. Manning has made a living out of knowing where everyone on the field is and being able to get the ball where he needs to at any point in the play. He could get to his 4th or 5th read and hit a throw downfield late. More importantly, he could read the entire field, knowing he had every receiver at his disposal because of his anticipation and accuracy. Over the last month, and again on Sunday, we saw a quarterback who knew he couldn’t even get to his 2nd downfield read and have a chance of completing a pass.

Peyton’s lack of arm strength didn’t just change the way he attacked the defense, it affected the accuracy of his throws as well. Manning had to muscle up, and get his entire body into his throws. When a thrower in any sport has to max out to deliver the ball, accuracy decreases. The inability to throw with ease affects the ability to put touch on the ball. Manning, who has been arguably the best touch passer ever (one of the many attributes of which he holds this title), did not have this element to his game on Sunday.

Man Press:
The Colts knew what Peyton knew, and they played a lot of man press as a result. They were fearless against Manning. Vontae Davis stood out with his ability to run routes for Broncos receivers. When Colts defensive backs did fall behind by a step or two to their respective receivers, Manning rarely could make them pay. The lack of velocity on his throws provided more than enough time for Colts DBs to recover.

Poor Game plan:
The mystifying thing is that the Broncos knew about Manning’s arm, yet they did very little to make up for it in the passing game. For instance, in Week 5 against the Cardinals, a team that plays mostly man coverage, the Broncos put on a clinic. They attacked and beat man coverage with short crossing routes, picks, and rubs. This has been a big element of their passing game for the last 3 seasons. Manning can still hit these routes as they are short and easy throws. Yet, these staples of the Broncos passing game were seldom used against the Colts’ man press. The Broncos did nothing aside from vertical routes to attack man coverage, and this is the biggest mystery from Sunday’s game.

Andrew Luck:
On the other side of the ball, Andrew Luck was spectacular once again. He played much better than his stat line showed. His two interceptions were very poor decisions, and he’ll need to eradicate those mistakes from his play this week in Foxborough. Aside from those two throws, he was on the money all day.

The Broncos didn’t play a ton of man press or blitz often (more on that in a minute). The few times they did, Luck found the soft coverage and delivered perfect strikes. He made several other great throws that looked routine on television. His 15-yard touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks came late in the play after the Broncos had won early. Luck fled the pocket because his internal clock went off and he delivered a very firm and accurate throw to Nicks in a tight window. This gave Indy a two-possession lead.

Good Pass Protection or Bad Pass Rush?
The Broncos played a combination of soft man coverage and zone. None of this worked for a couple of reasons. The first is that they didn’t get pressure on Andrew Luck. Denver seldom blitzed, and their front four wasn’t heard from all game. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware were non-factors. The Colts did a good job of helping out back-up right tackle Joe Reitz by either giving him help or sliding to his side. The rest of the offensive line, which has really been in sync recently, kept Denver’s pass rush at bay. When they did get a little pressure, Luck was able to avoid it or deliver the ball before they could get to him.

This brings us to Denver’s passive defensive approach. They rarely blitzed. They did play a fair amount of man, but too often Aqib Talib was playing soft coverage against his man, T.Y. Hilton. He would either align 10 yards off of Hilton or play press but not jam him at the line. If there is one thing we’ve learned about Talib this season, it’s that he is not good in space. He is not good in zone coverage reading and reacting to route combinations. He is not good in zone reacting to isolation routes. His forte is getting his hands on receivers at the line of scrimmage and re-routing or disrupting them. Talib is a much more physical player than Hilton, but Hilton is much shiftier. It’s no surprise that the decision to not have Talib jam more hurt the Broncos. Hilton was able to run free and use his quickness to his advantage.

It makes no sense to use Talib as a zone or soft-man corner. This is not why he was signed in Denver. In fact, with the return of Chris Harris, the signing of Talib, and the drafting of Bradley Roby during the offseason, it seemed like Denver was planning to return to the aggressive man-press style of play that helped their defense dominate in 2012. Given the personnel, it’s hard to understand why Denver decided to use their talent the way they did. It was certainly confusing to see them be so passive on Sunday when it was clear from early in the game that the Broncos offense would not be able to carry them to a win. The Broncos desperately needed their defense to make some big plays to win the game. They struggled to even get any critical stops, though.

Final Thoughts:
Denver appears to be headed for change in 2015. John Fox is already out less than 24 hours after the loss. There are plenty of questions surrounding Peyton Manning and the offense, not to mention the rest of the coaching staff. We could be looking at very different Broncos team next season.

The Colts, on the other hand, will travel to Foxborough in a rematch of their Week 11 home loss to the Patriots. Both the Colts and Patriots are different teams now. With Andrew Luck at the helm and with the Colts defense currently playing at a high level, anything is possible for the Colts.

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