ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- All season long the Denver Broncos have talked about the ideas that there are only one happy team when the season is over, that they want to be playing their best football into the playoffs and that they want to be in the season's last game.
And after a long look at the game video from Sunday's win, here are some thoughts on the Broncos' offense:
Talk to defensive coaches around the league and one of the things, beyond quarterback Peyton Manning, that makes the Broncos' offense so tough to match up against is the variety of ways they often align their pass catchers. The Broncos often take their top three wide receivers -- Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker -- and line them up on the same side of the formation. Often, the Broncos bunch the three so the defensive backs have to back off a bit to sort it out after the snap, and it gives the three the room they need to get a free release. It also forces the defense to put at least four defensive backs, including usually the top three coverage players in the formation, on that side as well. The Broncos then take tight end Julius Thomas and line him wide on the other side of the formation and almost always create a 1-on-1 matchup that Julius Thomas can win -- especially if a linebacker is out there with him. A textbook example, against one of the better defensive minds in Bill Belichick, can be seen in the fourth quarter. The Broncos lined up the three receivers to offensive right and put Thomas out wide left. The Patriots chose to match-up rookie linebacker Jamie Collins on Julius Thomas. Collins, a former prep quarterback and college safety, had handled the job against the Colts' Coby Fleener well the week before. But Julius Thomas, in this offense, at this point in his development, is a different deal. Thomas went by Collins and Manning hit him immediately for a 37-yard gain, on a second-and-10 play, that led to Matt Prater's 54-yard field goal.
Through the years, Belichick has routinely answered Manning with more players in coverage and by going a little light in the middle of the field. In the Nov. 24 loss to the Patriots, the Broncos rushed for 280 yards against the look. But when a punt bounced off Broncos cornerback Tony Carter's leg in overtime, putting the Patriots in position for the game-winning field goal, the popular, yet illogical, theory from some in the Boston area was that Belichick had "lured" the Broncos into pounding out almost three bills worth of rushing yardage. But on a picture-perfect day in Denver Sunday, Belichick went with many of the same looks. Manning was spectacularly accurate and the Patriots still couldn't hold up in coverage. They also left plenty of six-man fronts behind -- what Broncos running backs coach Eric Studesville calls "friendly boxes." The Broncos got just that on a third-and-10 from the Patriots' 39-yard line in the second quarter. With the Patriots having five defenders on the line of scrimmage and six in between the tackles, Manning checked to a run, the Broncos' Manny Ramirez and Zane Beadles created the alley when they double-teamed Chandler Jones and Knowshon Moreno rolled to a 28-yard gain on the play.
Sometimes you can see coordinator Adam Gase's offensive roots at work. Gase apprenticed under Mike Martz when Martz was the offensive coordinator for San Francisco and Detroit. But when Martz' "Greatest Show on Turf" offense in St. Louis was piling up the points, the shallow cross route, a receiver coming across the formation at about the depth of the middle linebacker, was a staple. And it's been a quality staple for the Broncos as well, who routinely will sneak a receiver right past that middle linebacker with little or no contact. Manning found Decker for a 21-yard gain on one such play Sunday, and it's a play that will be intriguing to watch in the Super Bowl given the Seahawks' size in the secondary and strong safety Kam Chancellor's knack for altering receivers' routes in the middle of the field.
Though the Broncos ran sets with multiple tight ends for just 10 snaps, they continue to have a high efficiency rate when they do it. It is the variety of the players they put in the formation, with Julius Thomas' athleticism to go with Jacob Tamme's ability to play like a slot receiver to go with a power player like Virgil Green. On Tamme's 1-yard touchdown reception -- a designed rollout for Manning out of a run-first look with three tight ends to go with defensive tackle Mitch Unrein in the backfield -- both Tamme and Green were open on the play. Tamme was at the front side of the end zone while Green was back near the end line.
In the two playoff wins, the Broncos have stuck to what they like the most on offense. They were in a three-wide look for 65 snaps against the Patriots, including penalty plays -- all but 11 plays, counting the kneel-down at the game's end. Against the Chargers in the divisional round they were in a three-wide set for all 75 snaps on offense, including penalty plays and excluding the kneel down to end the game.
Against the Patriots, Manning worked to a variety of depths with 14 completions for 10 or fewer yards, 10 completions between 11 and 20 yards and six completions between 21 and 30 yards.