Some Clarification is in Order: Manning and the Offense Part 2

In the last article we summarized the offense Manning has been running for the past few years, it's main formations and what types of players best fit this offense. Today we'll be comparing our roster to that template to see how we lineup and what our current roster does well and what areas the players will need to improve in. So late time we looked at:
- Formations
- Play calling

Today we'll be looking at:
- Offensive line responsibilities and skill set
- Skill position responsibilities and skill set

It might best to review the last article, but it's not required for further reading. Now remember this isn't a depth chart, I'm just looking at this roster player by player and seeing how each fits into this style of offense.

Offensive Line Responsibilities and Skill Set:

Overall
One of the main topics we discussed last time dealt with the power of the audible combined with a smart quarterback. The downside to this is requires a very smart offensive line to go along with that quarterback. Luckily one of the good things that came from the McDaniels era was that he had Orton rely heavily on audibles. Ryan Clady and J.D. Walton have both mentioned since the arrival of Manning that they are ready for running the no-huddle and dealing with a lot of audibles because they were so key under Josh McDaniels and Kyle Orton, who ran that style of hurry-up offense a great deal. With that said, I don't expect a big problem with the focus returning to audibles since everyone on the line except for Franklin has experience with them.

Besides audibles there will be some key differences from what we saw from the offensive line with Tim Tebow behind center. Peyton Manning is one of the greatest pocket passers of all time, mostly because he's as slow as mud. With that being said, when an offensive line is running their drills they almost always train by knowing where their quarterback SHOULD be at a given time since most won't be able to see the quarterback during the play. By knowing where your quarterback is makes the lineman's job easier since they know their blocking assignments. One of the issues with mobile quarterbacks is that the lineman don't usually know where their quarterback is. I lost count how many times one of the tackles backed up into Tebow as he was rolling out unexpectedly. With Manning that won't happen.

The reason for this is Manning's incredible mobility within the pocket. Dan Marino was one of the hardest to sack quarterbacks ever because he could avoid a sack with a small side step or shoulder shrug, Manning follows that same mentality, small movements withing the pocket rather than huge roll outs or runs to escape the pressure. The entire blocking scheme of the line is based on this idea.

Center

These past few years in Indianapolis, Jeff Saturday anchored that line, we should expect the center to be the foundation once again here in Denver. With a strong center it begins to form the inside room of that pocket that Manning loves. A center who doesn't shift and can hold his ground will allow Manning to step up knowing that he's protected up front.

Now in terms of pre-call, the center is incredible key since they help recognize the defensive front and communicate this around the offense.

- How do the Broncos players fit?
While J.D. Walton does have work to do at center, we are lucky he has experience with this from when he snapped the ball to Kyle Orton. Walton is a very smart player and if he can improve his pass protection he will have the tools to be successful with Manning behind him. His experience with this type of play calling will compensate for some of his weaknesses. The real question will be if he can improve.

Guards

Not as key to the pocket, but they have the same goal, form a pocket. Being quick to recognize the blitz and pick it up will be more key than physical tools for guards in this offense. Since Peyton Manning rarely keeps the ball longer than 3 seconds, those muscular players that many want on their offensive line aren't as important, Manning just asks that you know who to block and then block him for 3 seconds.

- How do the Broncos players fit?
Chris Kuper is a very solid guard and will be a fine starter next season since he's so well rounded. The real question will be Beadles, who is a smart player, but really lacks some of the tools to be a quality guard. His brains will help him out in this offense, but his job in on the line this season, and he'll need to improve if he wants to keep his position for the future.

Tackles

Over 60% of all Peyton Manning's sacks came from his blind side. The left tackle is a very important position for Peyton Manning because he has control of just about everything he can see, but if he can't see it, that's a problem. Having a reliable left tackle is key for most teams, but with a quarterback who is lighting with his release and decision making, he can avoid pressure just about everywhere, but his backside needs to be protected. Right tackle is actually not that important, relatively speaking, since Manning can step back up into the pocket if the right tackle allows a pressure from the outside.

- How do the Broncos players fit?
We are pretty set actually, while Ryan Clady hasn't returned to his pre-injury form, he's still a good starting left tackle, though Peyton Manning won't put up with all his penalties. As for right tackle, since this isn't a high priority position, letting Franklin continue to develop won't hurt the offense much. Overall the tackle positions are in the best position for the arrival of Manning.

Skill Position Responsibilities and Skill Set:

Now before we begin this I wanted to lay out how the depth chart will likely play out as if the players stay healthy and play at their skill level. This is based on how the player fits the scheme and whether they have the talent to succeed. This isn't based on a best-case or worst-case situational thinking, it's based purely on how things SHOULD play out, but injuries and poor work ethic have been known to get players off-track.

Running Back Wide Receiver Tight End H-Back
1 Willis McGahee Demaryius Thomas Joel Dreessen Virgil Green
2 Knowshon Moreno Eric Decker Jacob Tamme
3 Ronnie Hillman Andre Caldwell Julius Thomas
4 Lance Ball Matt Willis


Running Backs

The Colts have relied on a dual back system since the departure of Edgerrin James, with one back still taking the majority of the rushing snaps while a 2nd back still takes snaps, but most are on 3rd downs. Something that many don't know is that while Peyton Manning was the quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts, they had a 1,000 yard rusher 62% of the seasons, even after James left.

What the Colts look for from their backs are players who can run, block and catch. They prefer balanced backs since spending time substituting players in and out depending on the situation isn't what the offense wants. While this balance is important to the main back since he'll see a lot of passing plays, having a 3rd down back who can catch and block is incredibly basic to this offense. Since 1999, the Colts had a running back who averaged over 350 yards receiving each season, topping 500 yards twice and 300 yards nine times. Compare that to the league average of only about 290 yards per season over that same period. In the Colts passing offense the backs also made up 11.9% of the receiver yards compared to 9.1% for the league. This combination of a back who can power run and another balanced back who can run, catch and block helped create the potent Colts offense we saw for over a decade.

- How do the Broncos players fit?

In a this offense a runner with McGahee's talent is still important and will still likely get around 1,000 yards rushing and even more rushing touchdowns. Combine that with the history of the Colts of still rushing the ball, seeing McGahee top 1,000 yards isn't that strange, especially if he can stay healthy. Willis McGahee will still be the starter, and with his ability to power run and block, he's a solid back to have in this system and will be getting plenty of carries. Add in a much improved passing game will also help McGahee as well, he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and that was with opponents stacking the box. With improved passing safeties won't be up in the box and will strength the run game, especially on the draw.

Now as for the 2nd back in the system, many will look at rookie Ronnie Hillman as that back, but I don't see him as the primary 3rd down back. The reasons for this is he struggles with recognizing blocks and with receiving. While he has improved his pass catching, he isn't a natural receiver. Now having said that Hillman likely will see more than a few snaps in two back formations where he can try and take the ball outside. Hillman will see playing time, but I full expect Knowshon Moreno to lock up that 3rd down back spot. Many will automatically just ignore this because of the name, but if you look at the skill set of an unknown player who is the exact same as Moreno, everony would agree with me.

Last off-season Moreno showed up at training camp in the best form of his life and was seen running faster than he had in college and up to that point in the NFL. With this improved speed Moreno is at the point where he has everything he need to be successful in this offense. Moreno was already the best blocking back last season when compared to Ball, Johnson and McGahee. That hasn't changed this off-season. We also know he's the best receiver of the group and was a big part of the passing game in 2009 and 2010 and in 2011 as well prior to his injury. He has all the tools to be a successful, if not great, alternate back. The biggest question will be his health, if he's back to 100% and stay healthy, he'll be the #2 back on this team without question, he's a better blocker and receiver than the rest of the backs and is still a solid runner.

Players like Lance Ball and Jeremiah Johnson will likely be fighting for that #4 spot, but I predict Ball will win the spot since he's a balanced back who was very reliable, though not outstanding, as the #2 back last season when Moreno went down. As for fullback, don't expect to see one. The pursuit and interest in Peyton Manning is the primary reason we didn't resign Spencer Larsen. The reason for this is because since 1999 the Colts have never carried a pure fullback on the roster. I do expect us to carry a tight end who can move into that fullback spot, but we'll discuss that in the tight end segment.


Wide Receivers

When Peyton Manning decided to come to Denver, the biggest question in my mind was "our wide receivers don't fit what Manning likes, why did he choose here?" Now those questions haven't gone away, but let me explain why I asked myself that question in the first place. The Colts offense is predicated on execution, perfect blocking, perfect throwing and perfect route running. What Manning wants out of a wide out is someone who runs clean, crisp routes. He really doesn't throw it up often, rather he expects you to be where you are supposed to be, and on countless occasion's in preparation for this I saw Manning go talk to a wide receiver after an incompletion and explain what went wrong. Manning has never really had the fastest or biggest wide outs, instead he's had guys who can run perfect routes, be where they should be, and not drop the ball. Guys like Austin Collie, Reggie Wayne, and Marvin Harrison embody this mentality. A side note, the Colts viewed their slot wide receiver (Austin Collie) as a starter since he saw the field on over 50% of offensive snaps, expect Decker or Caldwell in the slot to see a lot of time.

- How do the Broncos players fit?
The Broncos currently have two large, quick wide receivers who can go up and get the ball. Their biggest weakness is crisp route running. The best route runner we may have on the team is Andre Caldwell and he's only average. The 2009 and 2010 roster of wide outs had a number of great route runners in Eddie Royal and Jabar Gaffney. But our current group of wide receivers is more physically talented but are really sloppy with their routes. I expect this to be the focus of the off-season workouts for Manning and the wide outs. While he will make the most of his new receivers size and speed, he will expect crisper routes from our young group of wide receivers. This is the biggest mismatch on the offense, but it can be fixed, and with Manning's own talent, our wide receiver group could have very successful seasons.

Tight Ends

This position requires both pass catching and blocking skill. Dallas Clark is a very good receiver but also a very solid run blocker. The Colts also usually keep another blocking tight end on the roster, in previous years they used pure blocking tight ends like Gijon Robinson to fill that role, and were rarely used as pass catchers. So a basic run down of the Colts is they have a balanced tight end who can block and catch and then a pure blocking tight end.

The Colts do focus on the tight end as a key component of their offense. Having that flexibility at that position allows Manning to play to his strengths and create mismatches in coverages for his tight ends to make plays. Since 1999 the Colts have had their tight ends average 21.4% of the passing offense, up from 17.6% for the league average. Expect the Broncos to see tight ends receiving about what we saw in 2008 and 2009 with Tony Scheffler and Daniel Graham. The Broncos WILL keep a blocking tight end and a balanced tight end, who these are is up for discussion.

- How do the Broncos players fit?
The Broncos currently have a decent blocker in Jacob Tamme who is a primary pass catching tight end. Then you have the most balanced tight end in Joel Dreessen who can catch and block. Dreessen is the best overall tight end on our roster after watching a few games of him, he can catch as well as Tamme but is a better blocker. The more I watch Dreessen, the more I like him. That leaves our younger tight ends. Julius Thomas is similar to Tamme in that he's a more pure pass catching tight end who can do a decent job blocking, but at this point in his career, isn't playing well and needs to improve his work ethic to get on the field. Overall between Dreessen and Tamme we have two solid tight ends who can do a variety of jobs and a young tight end with potential but work to do to catch up with the vets.

That leaves 2nd year tight end Virgil Green. Last season Green actually saw more playing time than fellow rookie Thomas who was taken rounds before him. Now Green isn't a great receiver, seems to lack speed and soft hands, but he's a great pass blocker, and while he's not a great run blocker, he's decent. That leads me to believe he'll continue to be used as an H-back, that is a player who is primarily a blocker who can shift between the tight end and fullback positions depending on what the play call is and what the quarterback sees in the defense. Virgil Green was fairly solid last season on nearly 300 snaps in this role and with another off-season under his belt we can expect to see improvement.

Conclusion:

The only area that I expect to see some adjustment and time to develop will be the wide outs, but with Manning already working with Decker, I think the adjustment time will be short. The tight ends and running backs are already a fit for the offense Manning ran with the Colts and while the offensive line is still developing, the fact they have experience with the no-huddle and audible-heavy offense helps easy the transition. Overall the tools are in place for this offense to get back on track to scoring points. This offense does have weaknesses (possession receiver, weak internal line) but overall Manning can compensate for the weaknesses and maximize the strengths.

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