Peyton Manning leads the Denver Broncos into Paul Brown Stadium for a Week 9 clash with the Cincinnati Bengals this Sunday. Manning is one of the few players in the NFL who can legitimately be placed ahead of his team in importance. His presence on the Broncos has completely changed the identity of their roster since last season.
After relying on their defense and the hard running of Tim Tebow last season, the Broncos have immediately transitioned into a team that is reliant on a high-powered passing offense. Manning’s move from Indianapolis to Denver in the off-season didn’t just bring a future hall-of-fame quarterback into the fold, but also a completely new system.
That system has heightened the strain that is put on defenses lining up against the Broncos, but not in the ways one would think. Generally an improvement at quarterback means an improved passing game. Every receiver improves, every tight end should be at least relevant and the running game is diversified on minimal carries. However, that is not the way Manning’s offense works. Manning is an outstandingly talented quarterback from a physical point of view, but his intelligence significantly outweighs his arm’s ability. He doesn’t just help his receivers, tight ends and running backs in the passing game, but also puts his teammates in better position as part of a balanced offense.
There is no quarterback in the whole league who understands defenses as well as Manning, and if there are they aren’t as willing to audible to the right play as often as he is. Because he plays the game from the perspective of a coach rather than a player, Manning is always able to find mismatches on the field when they are made available to him. That turns the game into a tactical battle of wits, as defensive coordinators must find formations that can match Manning’s passing ability, while also not giving up big gains in the running game.
Manning is averaging over 300 yards passing per game and has thrown 17 touchdowns, to four interceptions, through seven games this season. Despite those gaudy numbers, Willis McGahee and Ronnie Hillman are both averaging at least 4.4 yards per carry in the running game. On 154 combined attempts, McGahee and Hillman have accounted for 690 yards as part of the team’s 789 total rushing yards. The duo are very different backs, but because they run primarily against nickel defenses, they are able to take advantage of gaping holes in opposing defenses.
This season’s version of the Broncos’ offense is very similar to that of the New England Patriots‘ last year. Both offenses force(d) their opposition to show their hands prior to the snap often, because of their ability to run and pass effectively out of the same formations. While the Patriots relied on their tight ends’ versatility, the Broncos are relying on Manning’s overall passing ability and McGahee’s abrasive running. The only way teams stopped the Patriots last season was with high quality defensive line play. In order to beat Manning, you must have the same quality and win in the trenches.
Defensive linemen get big contracts for being consistent pass rushers, but the very best linemen are those who can rush the passer while also remaining dominant against the run. Much like the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants‘ defensive lines did last season, the Bengals’ defensive line will have to handle the run this week and get to the pass rusher on a consistent basis. However, they must do so without receiving much, if any, help from other levels of the defense.
It is very difficult to blitz Manning, because he reads defenses like a dictionary, and dropping a safety into the box would take away from the team’s ability to cover Denver’s receivers. The Bengals have to be able to shut down Manning by shutting down the run with a safety deep and executing coverage with defenders closer to the line of scrimmage. That can only be done if the defensive line takes control of the trenches. With Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, Devon Still, Michael Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry, the Bengals definitely have the talent upfront, but they need that talent to produce as a unit on almost every single snap.
The Broncos are 4-3, not 7-0, so they can definitely be stopped. In victories against the Steelers, Oakland Raiders, New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers, Manning has been able to dictate the defense with relative ease. Against the Patriots, Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans, each opposing defense was able to win upfront and flourish on the back-end because of that pressure.
Outside of the team’s victory over the Chargers, every victory of the Broncos’ season has come with Manning and McGahee leading in yards passing and rushing. In order to contain those two, and ultimately win the football game, the Bengals will need their defensive line to have a massive game on Sunday.
Cian Fahey writes for RantSports, Irishcentral, The Guardian, Balls.ie and FootballGuys. You can follow him on twitter @Cianaf