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The Notebook: 5 steps for beating the Broncos

How did the Chargers manage to beat the Broncos last week? Retired NFL defensive end Stephen White takes a closer look at some issues Denver needs to address if they want a shot at the Super Bowl.

Dustin Bradford

Stephen has two pieces coming Wednesday, so stay tuned for lots more this afternoon. - Ed.

I decided to take a deeper look into game film to see how the Chargers managed to upset the Broncos on Thursday night. The film confirmed some of my suspicions about the problems the Chargers caused for the Broncos and enlightened me about some things I hadn't noticed while watching the game live.

The issues I saw were:

1. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning did not take many shots down the field in the passing game. That allowed the Chargers defense to be more aggressive than usual.

2. Broncos center Manny Ramirez did not have a good day at all, and was a major reason why Denver was not able to get the running game going.

3. The Chargers decided to play a lot of man-to-man coverage in the first half and to a lesser extent in the second half. That limited yards after the catch for the Broncos receivers.

4. The Broncos defense lined up more in a true 3-4 with Von Miller back. Their defensive tackles were two gap, even when they were in a 4-man front. They felt the loss of defensive tackles Kevin Vickerson and Derek Wolfe. The guys who played in place of them, Mitch Unrein and Sione Fua, struggled against the run most of the night.

5. Keenan Allen had a huge game. He was aided by a good game plan from Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt. They took advantage of the Broncos playing a lot of man-to-man by having him run routes designed to specifically to beat that coverage.

To help understand some of these things, I also decided to diagram a few of them in the order that they happened in the game and walk you through it. In addition to those five categories, some of these illustrations are plays that I felt like either showed a great individual effort or were just interesting.

First-and-10 (1:22, first quarter)

This first picture is of a Chargers' running play that the Broncos appear to have schemed up well with a blitz.


This pic also shows the two Broncos defenders (in red circles) that should be positioned to knock out Ryan Mathews' run (blue).


There is definitely a hole there, but those two defenders are essentially unblocked.


Unfortunately both defenders take crappy angles that allows Mathews to gain seven yards on a play where he probably shouldn't have gained any. Little mistakes like that killed the Broncos all through the game. A little bit off here and there and the Chargers kept exploiting them.

Third-and-six (9:53, second quarter)


This is a diagram of the route combination the Chargers used to get Keenan Allen open on a crossing route versus man-to-man in the red zone for a touchdown. It's a simple play design, but it is very effective.

They lined up Allen to the left on the single receiver side and put three eligible receivers opposite him on the right side. The two inside receivers on the trips side, Antonio Gates and Eddie Royal, are key to this route combination working because they have to attract the underneath coverage so that they are not in Allen's way as he comes across the field. Both receivers end up in the short middle of the field getting the attention of three Broncos defenders. The receiver lined up wide opposite Allen is also important because he has to run a go route to clear out that cornerback and any safety that might be in the area. That is designed to allow Allen to turn up the field and try to score after he catches the ball. If the corner doesn't buy the go route, then he might in theory be in position to either make a play on the ball with the quarterback never seeing him or put a big hit on Allen as he comes across the middle.

Vincent Brown did his job, and by the time the corner is in the end zone when he notices that Allen has made the catch with little chance of stopping Allen short of the goal line. Allen showed a great individual effort as well, hurdling one guy and then running over the corner to get into the end zone. But he also has to thank his fellow wide receivers for helping to clear a path for him with their routes.

First-and-10 (4:31, second quarter)


The Broncos decided to stunt their defensive linemen inside from the offense's right.


It just so happens that the Chargers had a zone run to the right called on the play. In theory, the Broncos stunting could mess up the zone blocking if the defensive linemen can push up field and not get blocked too far inside. The linebacker (red circle) has a chance to run through the gap here and make a play. He takes an outside track instead, probably because he was worried about the ball bouncing outside with a Chargers tight end on that side and the defensive line stunting inside.


Unfortunately for the Broncos, defensive tackle Sione Fua does get blocked too far inside which opened a huge lane that I could probably run through. This hole opened up like the Red Sea for Mathews and he happily took off through that lane for nine yards.

Third-and-seven (1:12, second quarter)


This is Allen's second touchdown catch, a corner route in the red zone. This particular play design caught my eye because Allen was in a good position to score and the play dictated who would be covering him (not Dominick Rodgers-Cromartie).

Initially, Allen is lined up in a bunch with another receiver on the left side of the formation. At that time, DRC is lined up across from him, presumably in man-to-man. The Chargers then had a third wide receiver motion across the formation to join the bunch which forced the Broncos to react.

The reason is that in order for the defense to keep playing man-to-man in the face of a trips bunch set, they have to have one guy up on the wide receiver who is on the ball and the other two guys have to back off on different levels to make sure that they don't get picked when the receivers start running routes.


DRC backs up and takes the outside most receiver on the shallow crosser across the field (above).


Chris Harris takes the inner most receiver and he runs an out/in route following the outside most wide receiver across the field.

And that leaves Kayvon Webster (below).


The rookie ends up on an island, lined up about four yards off Allen with all that green grass outside of them. To his credit, Webster fights his ass off to recover once he recognizes that Allen is running a corner route, he even makes a play on the ball. However, the play was over before the ball was even snapped because the Chargers dictated with motion and the formation which defensive backs would be covering Allen and giving him way too much room to operate on that corner route.

First-and-10 (11:14, third quarter)

This next set of pictures is all about Chargers left tackle King Dunlap. He put on one of the more impressive displays of blocking down field that I have seen this year on Matthews' 23-yard touchdown up the left sideline. He sealed off one guy up near the line then ran allllll the way down the field to de-cleat another defender near the goal line at the end of the run. Dunlap has a red circle around him in each picture below, so just sit back and enjoy his effort in all its wondrous glory.









I have to admit that I was never much of a fan of King Dunlap. I thought he was never going to live up to his full potential for whatever reason. Now, after watching that play over and over and over, I might be the President of the King Dunlap fan club.

Third-and-five (10:08, third quarter)

Shifting gears to the Chargers defense, this is one of those plays where Manning has an opportunity to take a shot down the field but doesn't take it.

Julius Thomas, who is pretty fast as tight ends go, is running up the seam here past the linebacker and in front of the safety. Instead of Peyton going up top on this play, he instead tried to fit a ball in to Eric Decker who was essentially double covered. The ball fell incomplete and yet another opportunity was lost.



It looked like the Chargers secondary confused Manning at times. I know that sounds like heresy, but it would explain some of the decisions he made during the game to throw the ball to guys who were covered up and avoiding guys who were relatively open.

Of course it could be that his problems with the deep ball have not been overblown, last week's win over the Titans notwithstanding. Maybe it was a combination of both issues that stymied him against the Chargers.

Third-and-six (7:25, third quarter)

The Chargers had one drive that lasted eight minutes and 12 seconds in the third. It was helped by an offsides from Denvers' punt return unit that resulted in a first down. It was helped even more from this third-down conversion. This drive still resulted in a punt. So why am I highlighting it?  Because when the offense can keep Peyton Manning on the sideline for eight minutes and 12 seconds it only helps a team's chances to win the game.

How the Broncos defended this third down play baffles me.

Off the top of your head, if the Chargers need five or six yards to convert a third down, who would you expect the ball to go to?

Most folks would guess it would go to all-world tight end Antonio Gates. Yet for whatever reason this is how the Broncos secondary lined up on that play.


Did they really expect safety Duke Ihenacho to cover Gates to the flat from the other side of the center and 10 yards off the ball and still prevent him from converting that first down?  LUNACY!!!


Simply put, that was dumb coverage design for third-and-six. Sorry, not sorry.

Third-and-seven (2:17, third quarter)

I've been hard on the Broncos defense so far, but props where they are due. On this particular play they fooled Phillip Rivers and forced him into taking a sack.


This is a nice little route combination to run against teams that use a lot of man-to-man. The idea is that the wide receiver takes the cornerback with him on his crossing route, leaving a linebacker or safety to cover Danny Woodhead in space. Woodhead jukes out then breaks in. Rivers has an easy completion in the middle of the field, and Woodhead should have plenty of room to get some yards after the catch with the linebacker chasing him.

That all sounds fine and good ... until the Broncos decided to switch the routes off.


The safety (yellow) comes down to take the crossing route, while DRC hangs outside to take Woodhead one-on-one.


As soon as Rivers notices that its DRC covering Woodhead, he gets nervous and decides not to make that throw.


Once he pulled the ball down Rivers had no time to look for another option. Shaun Phillips sacks him and ends eight-minute drive in the third quarter.

Second-and-7 (15:00, fourth quarter)

Back to Peyton. Here is another one of those shots that he left in chamber. DeMaryius Thomas, in my opinion, is very comparable to Calvin Johnson. Maybe not quite as big or fast, but pretty close. To think that Peyton would see this and not throw it up to him to make a play up the left sideline just doesn't make sense.

Don't get me wrong, the pass up the seam to Decker was money for those 21 yards. But he had no shot to score on that play. At this point in the game, the Broncos were down 14 points. Scoring quickly should have been the goal. No other pass has a higher reward or risk than the deep ball up the seam to the 6'5 receiver with good hands who is probably just has to fight a safety, not a corner,  for the ball.

I'm just saying.



Look at this!

Far be it from me to criticize my former teammate, fellow Vol For Life, Super Bowl winner and future first ballot Hall of Famer, but unless something is truly wrong with your arm and you don't think you can get the ball there, you have to throw this ball to Thomas.

Second-and-five (13:26, fourth quarter)

We all know how well Peyton usually reads a defense, but his play looks to be another case where the the Chargers duped him


The Broncos have seven (!) defenders lined up on the line of scrimmage.

Don't believe me?


Well lets count em together ... 1 2 3 4 5 6 SE'EM.

Yet Peyton audibles to a zone run here. Maybe he was trying to run it to the opposite side of where the blitz was coming from, but when Melvin Ingram does this to the tight end on that side, Julius Thomas, that's going to be a problem.


Result, loss of 2.

Third-and-six (12:41, fourth quarter )

San Diego leads, 24-10.

I'm sure I will get hate mail for this one, but this is an unforgivable missed opportunity by Peyton.

You rarely see a team line up with four receivers on one side, I believe Jonathan Moxon got cussed out by Coach Kilmer for trying to run plays with a formation like that and labeling it the "oopty oop."

The Broncos do just that on this play. Because it is such a rarity, you would expect there to be some confusion on defense, and there was. Look at the count on the side with the four receivers. The fourth guy in coverage to that side would have been a safety lined up deep. The other safety is up near the line ... but he's on the wrong side.


The Chargers screwed up their alignment in coverage, so you should expect at least one receiver on the quads-side to be open. And sure enough ...


Decker is wide-as-heck open up the seam with nobody on him. Peyton never even looks his way, opting instead to try and hit Andre Caldwell on the single receiver side for a deep ball. And it just so happens he is double covered because ONE SAFETY IS ON THE WRONG DAMN SIDE!!!

This was probably a touchdown. At the very least, the Broncos would've had first-and-goal. They did go on to eventually score on this drive, but they wasted almost two minutes. That precious time might have helped them at the end.

Second-and-10 (10:07, fourth 4th quarter)

The score is 24-17.

Back to the Chargers running game and the Broncos missing Vickerson and Wolf on defense. This is a simple zone run to the offense's left side.


As you can see from the diagram above there is a tight end and a wing beside left tackle King Dunlap. The wing guy is going to block Von Miller inside out. The tight end is going to shield the linebacker inside. Dunlap is going to try to reach defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, who is where Vickerson or Wolfe would probably be. That won't be the easiest block in the world because Unrein is lined up head up on the tight end who won't be helping to push him inside.

Or will it?


As you can see, it turns out it wasn't hard at all for Dunlap to get outside leverage on Unrein, and that opened up a huge lane for Mathews.


Mathews ends up getting five yards on this play, and it was mostly Unrein's fault. I have to wonder if things would have been so easy for Dunlap against Vickerson or Wolf.

First-and-10 (8:50, fourth quarter)

It's still 24-17.

I have to say I have no clue how the Chargers weren't called for holding here, and it was a big deal. A holding call makes it first-and-20. The Chargers would have likely ended up punting with quite a bit of time left on the clock to tie it up.


Instead, the play stood. Mathews gained 13 yards on the run. The Chargers extend the drive until they had to punt with 5:57 left in the game.

That back judge should be ashamed of himself!

First-and-10, Denver 33 (5:25, fourth quarter)


Again, another head scratcher from Peyton. Decker points out the blitzer that is coming and runs a short blitz adjust route so that Peyton can hit him and he can run it like a screen play with the other wide receiver leading him up the field. I figure it would have been good for at least 10 yards if Caldwell gets anything close to a good block on the corner to that side.


But Peyton chose to try throw to the other side of the field. With the pass rush bearing down on him floated a ball in the general direction of Julius Thomas that was promptly intercepted by linebacker Thomas Keiser

First-and-10 (5:07, fourth quarter)

Back to the defense and Unrein. This is at the end of the game, right after Manning's interception. The Chargers are trying to run out the clock.

Oh look, Unrein gets reached by Dunlap again!


Unrein getting blocked inside for just that brief moment gives Mathews a small lane to squirt through.


At the last minute, Unrein gets back out of the reach block and almost gets the tackle, but he just can't get enough on Mathews to get him on the ground. The end result is a nine yard run.


That just isn't good enough, son.

Second-and-10, Denver 20-yard line (2:31, fourth quarter)

Same story, different play. Decker is open down the field on a skinny post from the slot. Peyton throws the ball short instead. I get the feeling the Broncos wide receivers might be getting a little frustrated from not seeing the ball coming to them on these deep routes.


Second-and-six, San Diego 24 (0:39, fourth quarter)

On this play, with less than a minute left in the game and the Broncos down seven points, both Decker and Thomas quit on their routes.


Thomas (red circle) was supposed to run a go route to clear out the sideline for Decker. Decker (yellow circle) is supposed to run an out route, catch the ball and then go out of bounds to stop the clock.


The first clue that Thomas didn't run hard on his route is that he and Decker are about at the same yardline when Decker "breaks" out for his out route. I put breaks in quotation marks because he ran a lazy route and didn't get his head around to look for the ball until Peyton had already been forced to throw the pass into the ground to avoid a sack.

Second clue that they dogged it on those routes?


This is Peyton walking toward both of them screaming after the play.

Oh, he was mad. Real mad.

That's my recap of the issues that lead to the Chargers upset of the Broncos. The question now is if the Broncos can fix those problems. I would say not many teams are able to go man like that against the Broncos, but then again I didn't expect the Chargers to be able to do it either.

One thing is for sure, until Wes Welker and Wolfe come back, this Broncos team looks more vulnerable on both sides of the ball.

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