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Super Bowl XLVIII: Peyton Manning's deadly arsenal

How Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas helped Manning set NFL records for passing and touchdowns. SB Nation 2014 NFL Playoff Coverage

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Broncos are an offensive passing juggernaut on a historic level. Maybe you realize this as someone who's followed them closely this season. Maybe you've just heard some of the hype about it as a fan of another team, but that's the only way to describe this team. It's why they're in the Super Bowl. They scored 161 more points than the second-best scoring team. That's 10 more points per game than the next team. Absurd.

Peyton Manning threw 55 touchdown passes. That's an NFL record. He threw for 5,477 yards. That's an NFL record. To say the Broncos are a passing juggernaut is probably an understatement. They're the best passing offense in history.

It's only fitting that their opponent in the Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks, had the NFL's best pass defense this season, and perhaps, one of the best pass defenses in history. With three All-Pros patrolling the secondary, the Seahawks gave up the fewest pass yards per game and fewest yards per pass attempt -- not to mention the fewest points, fewest yards per play, fewest yards per game, and had the most interceptions and forced fumbles.

The Broncos had four pass catchers who scored 10 or more touchdowns through the air this season. The Seahawks gave up 16 passing touchdowns, total.

Super Bowl XLVIII is truly a strength-on-strength matchup. It'll be fun finding out who's better at what they do best.

The Broncos' scary-ass passing game

I could write about the Seahawks' defense and how it helped get them to the Super Bowl all day, but today's column is about the Broncos. At the center of everything is a guy you might've heard about, Peyton Manning. Manning is 37 years old, two years removed from major neck surgery, and he just wrapped up the best regular season for any quarterback ever ... in his 16th season in the league. How did this happen?

Well, Manning is obviously very good, but he has some help. The Broncos' somewhat unique and potent combination of skill players came together to create a cauldron of efficiency and talent like the league's never seen. The 30,000-foot view is that Peyton Manning is the chess master, and he's got bigger, faster, stronger and smarter pawns than you. As for the closer-up perspective, it boils down to creating and exploiting matchups.

This is an approach that's been taken by some of the best offenses in recent memory. These teams had a versatile and talented nucleus of players whose sum was greater than its parts.

It's all about creating matchups -- how do you scare opposing coordinators?

When you think about the Saints, you think Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Darren Sproles. Graham's a moveable chess piece at tight end, Colston a huge slot receiver, Sproles a hybrid receiver/running back who can run routes or rush from the backfield. A defense has to pick its poison. They all present matchup issues.

Things have changed, obviously, but up until this season, when you'd think of the Patriots, you'd think about Tom Brady with Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez and Wes Welker. You'd picture their seemingly indefensible offense, characterized by those two tight ends, and their ability to create mismatches and disguise intentions.

When you think about the Packers of recent years, you picture Aaron Rodgers with an arsenal that included Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, the joker Jermichael Finley and the X-factor Randall Cobb. Matchup nightmare-type athletes who can play multiple spots and win wherever they're asked to line up.

For the Broncos, their offense is designed around five skill players -- Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Wes Welker, Julius Thomas and Knowshon Moreno -- and all play a role in the scheme. For this specific offensive attack, it's overwhelmingly done out of "11" personnel, or three receivers, one tight end and one back, and there's no end to the combination of how they're used.

Terminology: The X, (slot) and Y - Z

The mnemonic phrase that I've seen thrown out to help you remember the different wide receiver positions as coaches would refer to them is:

"X and Y Z".

In general terms, when you're talking about playbook terminology, the X receiver (also known as the split end) is on the line and aligned wide, away from the formation. The "and" in the phrase represents the offensive line, leaving "Y Z" on the other side. So that means again, generally, you find the Z receiver (also known as the flanker) aligned outside the tight end (Y), off the line of scrimmage. This phrase doesn't account for slot receivers, because they're wild cards who can be aligned anywhere (and often moving around).

In Seattle, former NFL vet Hugh Millen, who does regular radio analysis, took the time to break down, in detail, the different receiver positions on the air last year (download here). I found it very illuminating.

"I think it's a lot like in baseball, you know, the difference between a second baseman and a third baseman," said Millen, in reference to the differences between X and Z. "You know, they're both infielders, but their job duties are much different ... so it goes with wide receiver. It's also like in basketball -- everyone knows who the '3' and the '4' are, and that's been committed to the average fan's memory, but I always thought that X and Z would be similarly committed to memory as well."

I would say that's probably not the case.

"The X receiver is the split end," said Millen. "He is the widest receiver away from the tight end. What's unique about him -- as opposed to the Z receiver, who is the flanker, and the other wide receiver -- is that the X receiver, the split end, in most formations -- he is tethered to the line of scrimmage."

"He's on the line of scrimmage. He cannot go in motion, and so, when he's facing a cornerback, as he almost always is, the cornerback can jam him at the line. So, your X receiver, he better have the profile of a guy that has the speed to get down the sideline, he better have the quickness to get away from the corner, and he better be good coming off a press."

It's not a coincidence that in many cases, a team's X receiver is also considered its " No. 1." Why?

As Millen explains, it comes down to the difficult job an X has. "Now, who is a corner?" Millen asks. "In the NFL, the corner is the guy on the playground, when you play tag, that always won. He's got that great agility. He is the cheetah running down the gazelle on the Serengeti. The corner is the best athlete on the football field, and I'll even include receivers and running backs in that group, because think about the skill set for a cornerback. He doesn't have to have great hand-eye coordination. He just has to be able to follow you. And so, those guys are hard to beat, and particularly for an X receiver, if he's getting a jam on you, you gotta have that ability to get off the line of scrimmage."

In the Broncos' system, very generally, Demaryius Thomas is the X, or split end.

Demaryius Thomas: 92 receptions, 1,430 yards, 15.5 yards/rec, 14 TD

Thomas is the true definition of an X receiver; he's extremely difficult to defend one-on-one.

The key to this particular play is getting off the line of scrimmage and getting off any jam you might encounter. Here's what the greats have to say about that:

Here, Thomas channels a combination of Michael Irvin and Cris Carter to jab his cornerback outside, to get him even further out away from his help, then use a subtle push-off to gain some separation. Alfonzo Dennard never has a chance on this play from last week's AFC Championship Game.

Below, Thomas uses the Irvin release, getting his arm into the shoulder of the DB to go right through him. He then leaps to make the grab with strong hands and great concentration.

Thomas' physicality and size are a couple of his best attributes, and so are his strong hands. He's also a savvy and technically sound route runner.

One of the best route runners of all time, Jerry Rice, explains some of the nuances of the position to DeSean Jackson below:

As you can see below, even a subtle outside corner jab (the shake) gets the cornerback turned around so Thomas can run his skinny post upfield. It's all about getting the corner to think you're going one way and then go the other.

Here's the thing, though: part of what makes the Broncos so dangerous on offense is that that they've got multiple players who can play the "X position" and often they'll have both of their wide receivers on the line. Opposite Demaryius Thomas is Eric Decker.

Eric Decker: 87 receptions, 1,288 yards, 14.8 yards/rec, 11 TD

Like Thomas, Decker is physical and quick enough to get off the line, and can win one-on-one. He could be an X in any system.

Hall of Famer Michael Irvin, on "separation":

"When you'[re] matched up against a great corner, you can't beat him early. You have to beat him as late as possible. So, it doesn't require you to be masterful in your feet, your ins, your cuts; it requires you to be masterful in your understanding of timing. I need to be open at the last second, when the ball's arriving, because I'm only going to be open for that second with this kind of a guy."

Exhibit A:

"These guys, they keep trying to run away from people and think 'I'm going to get wide open,'" says Irvin. "There is no such thing as ‘wide open' when you're playing [great]. They're always going to be tight on you. So you're complaining, because you beat them too early, and they get back there right around the time the ball is getting there. That's why you beat him late, and you're the only person there when the ball gets there. For the corner, it's too late for you to recover, because [he] pushed off at the last possible second."

It also helps when your quarterback can drop the ball into a bucket 30 yards downfield.

Back to the Michael Irvin school of getting off the jam:

Below, Decker shows Demaryius-esque ability to set up his corner inside then get outside, controlling the boundary to reel in Manning's catch.

As for the "Z" receiver, here's what Millen had to say:

"Now, the Z receiver, the 'flanker,' who is on the opposite side of the split end in most formations, is going to be off the line of scrimmage a few yards. That enables the tight end to be eligible, because if the Z receiver were on the line, it would make the tight end ineligible."

"That flanker, that Z receiver -- and again, those terms are synonymous -- that is still a wide receiver. He's going against cornerbacks. He has to be able to have the speed and the acceleration to beat cornerbacks. But from time to time, you can run him in motion because he's off the line of scrimmage, you can get him down in the slot and run for passes over the middle ... there's a little bit of the characteristics of a slot receiver inherent in the Z receiver. But, by and large, those guys are much different than the slot receiver."

As with many schemes, the Broncos heavily alternate roles, and both Thomas and Decker play the X and Z. One thing that I found when watching these guys play is that both are very strong over the middle and fearless going up to get passes in traffic. Both these characteristics are vital for the Z/flanker because he's going to be moved around and going in motion more often. The "Z" has some "characteristics of a slot receiver," as Millen says, and that's how these guys are used at times. You see a lot of drag and crossing routes, and a fair share of slants. These guys can win outside but they are also adept in the slot or over the middle.

Speaking of the slot, the Broncos have one of the most prolific players at that position in NFL history. Because they're greedy.

Wes Welker: 73 receptions, 778 yards, 10.7 yards/rec, 10 TD

Speaking in generalities, Welker is extremely valuable on third down and near the goal line, because he has otherworldly short-area quickness, balance and agility. He's also very adept at finding soft spots in zones, exploiting mismatches, and he's very intelligent when it comes to choosing the correct option in a route.

Welker is savvy, and while his controversial "pick/rub" route on Aqib Talib is at the forefront this week, most of the time when the Broncos run that type of play he does it with enough subtlety to avoid such results. Welker understands the game of football, and the little things he does to get open are what make him such a great player.

Below, you can see him stalk block on the DB who's lined up across from him. This gets that DB to look into the backfield, expecting a run, and that moment of hesitation is all Welker needs. This just seems so ridiculously easy, but in reality it's a highly skilled athletic movement by Welker.

That brings us to Julius Thomas -- the joker. The Y, if you're going by playbook jargon. Thomas is a key component to this system, because he's a player who Peyton Manning can move around depending on certain looks, and ultimately, Thomas plays each of the X, Z and slot receiver positions with aplomb.

Check him out below. Manning and OC Adam Gase have aligned Thomas outside on the wing. Against Oakland's particular defensive personnel grouping, that means he finds himself matched up with OLB Kevin Burnett. That's a mismatch for the uber-athletic Thomas, who proceeds to do this:

It just almost doesn't seem fair.

How 'bout matching him up in man on the outside against one of the most athletic outside linebackers in football?

I mean ... what do you do? This is the constant battle for defensive coordinators. You can bring out a defensive back to match up with Thomas, but then you may see Peyton check to a run call with Thomas blocking on the edge, which gives the Broncos back the advantage.

As I said, Denver likes to use Thomas in a multitude of ways. Against the Pats last week, he was active as a chip-and-release receiving option.

Just a matchup nightmare.

Thomas' role in the Denver offense goes along with the Cosell Doctrine

NFL Films scion and noted football enthusiast Greg Cosell dubbed this "matchups" strategy "The Cosell Doctrine" last summer in talking about what the Rams and Seahawks were/are planning on doing with Tavon Austin and Percy Harvin. He brought up known examples of the Patriots with Aaron Hernandez and the Packers with Randall Cobb. Obviously, Hernandez is now in prison. Cobb and Harvin were injured most of the year, and Austin is still learning the NFL ropes. I think Denver is a great example of this theory at play, because of Thomas.

As Cosell frames it:

"I believe Austin, Hernandez, Cobb and Harvin are representative of where NFL teams would like to go with their personnel, and their passing concepts. The objective is to have five receivers, and certainly four, who can align all over the formation."

"Traditionally, they can be wide receivers, tight ends or running backs. It can be the Patriots with their "12" personnel. Or the Packers, with their four-wide receiver personnel. From a schematic perspective, it doesn't matter how you define them by position. The overriding, and superseding point is that they are all movable chess pieces, all "Jokers", to use the term that I've used before and I think is aptly descriptive.

That's the "Cosell Doctrine", and that's the direction I see the NFL game trending. It's about passing, and how you can create, and ultimately dictate favorable matchups. You do that with players that are amorphous and fluid in their ability to be utilized in ways both multiple and expansive, yet somewhat unstructured based on conventional definitions."


The only conclusion I can come to after studying the Broncos' offense is that Seattle's defensive secondary better be ready to avoid picks, play suffocating man coverage, play tight zone and hope its defensive line can get after Peyton Manning and force him to throw into tough spots. This, as I said, is a historically great passing offense rooted in versatility and adaptability. The playbook is complex and expansive, so the Hawks just have to be disciplined and sound.

It's going to be a great matchup -- one of the all-time best pass offenses going up against one of the all-time best pass defenses. You couldn't ask for anything more in the Super Bowl.

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