Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
A lot has been made about various coaching decisions in regards to situational football and playcalling from Saturday's home playoff loss. I'm going to address one of the hotter issues: 3rd and 7 at the end of the 4th quarter.
People have been overly critical of the decision to not try and pass the ball for a 1st down here. I understand the second guessing, but I think it's misplaced. I don't mind a run here as chewing 40 seconds off the clock is more preferable to throwing an incompletion. I'm not going to go off the deep end and assume a turnover is in play. It could be, but even then the Ravens still have to score. Even if you do complete the pass, no guarantee it's for a first down. What I take issue with is the personnel grouping, not running playaction at least once either on 1st or 2nd down, and the assumption by lazy reporters that assume Manning audibled into a run on that play.
Let's address these one at a time.
The Broncos have a lot of ways they can approach this. They can come out in 12 personnel of course, have their two TE's be Dreessen and Green, and then be very flexible with a run/pass option. They did this frequently against the Ravens the first time and it worked well. With the off coverage that was there a lot in the game, intermediate routes were open. But I'm getting ahead of myself here----the point is both Green and Dreessen are good blockers and both can catch. You still essentially have 4 receivers and an outlet (RB). You can run the ball, pass the ball, and the Ravens have to be more careful in their defense.
The Broncos instead came out in 22 with Hillman, Hester, Chris Clark (essentially a 3rd Tackle), and Virgil Green. You aren't passing out of this formation at all, Decker, Green, and a back are your options but again, it is highly unlikely given the Broncos tendencies in the past. But no big deal, it's first down. Hillman gains 5. On 2nd down, the Broncos change it back to 12 with Green and Dreessen, and of course Decker and Thomas are back on the field. Hillman gets 8 and the first down. The Ravens are really keying run, and even though there's 8 in the box to begin, they crash at the snap and there are 10 guys.
Now we have the first down, and the Ravens use their 2nd timeout. The Broncos pick up a first here and it's pretty much a done deal. So on 1st they come with their 22 set again. And again Decker is the only receiver. In my opinion, it's still ok to run here, though you could definitely choose playaction. My contention is that Clark shouldn't be in the game. Again, both Dreessen and Green are good blockers, and most importantly both could catch. Wanna run 22? Have those guys in there. Ravens will key on the run and you have at least three good receiving options from that group.
Here's where I have an issue on 2nd down. The Ravens just took their 2nd timeout which leaves them one and the two minute warning. A first down essentially means four plays to burn two timeouts (2nd down itself + the next series) and it also means he Broncos could milk 80 seconds off the clock leaving the Ravens with about 30-35 in which to go down the field. Clark is in the game, but the Broncos are back to a single RB. It's 12 but with Clark who will never catch a pass. Great, here's an awesome time to run playaction even though Clark is here. The Ravens cues here are Clark. He's been in the entire series and only comes into the game in some form of a jumbo package. You have Green, plus the receivers, and the Ravens now have 9 in the box with 7 on the LOS. The safeties crash and then back up deep. There are two LB's who depending on the call will man up on the back and TE. I trust Green and Hillman to get separation with those matchups if nothing else, and there's still Decker as a 3rd option. Even if it is only a 3-5 yard gain, it still leaves you with a manageable 3rd and 3-5 yards to convert.
Instead the Broncos run for 1 yard leaving 3rd and 7.
I think the use of personnel, even though it was changed up frequently was a mistake. I would have left both Dreessen and Green in. Even if you use 22 personnel, you still have two TE and 1 receiver to catch plus one outlet.
The final thing I want to look at is the assumption that's been held that Manning audibled into the run on 3rd and 7. That is nothing more than lazy reporting. In fact I watched the presser and found the clip that everyone grabbed onto when questioning the decision making on Manning's part. Here's the quote:
Reporter: 3rd and 7, You decided to run the football. Did you feel like you wish the game was in your hands at that point?
Manning: What was that, in the 3rd Quarter? 4th Quarter? Oh. I don't know. Any plays that we call, it's our job as players, to execute. To try to get the 1st down. It was an audible, um, actually I called that play, so don't put that on Mike (McCoy). We just...just didn't do much with it.
Now, I listened very, very, carefully and it never sounded like the reporter clarified his question. It also seemed like Manning was in a bit of a daze and fumbling for words. What in all honesty I think he's referring to is the call in the 3rd quarter when the Broncos ran it on 3rd and 5 near midfield. This was indeed an audible, and it was a poor decision. However, when looking back at the film there is no indication to me that Manning audibled into the run on 3rd and 7 and here's why:
- They break the huddle in 22 formation, walk straight to the line. Manning waves his arms as all the players are facing forward so it isn't a hand gesture for his WR's, it is to the crowd to quiet down.
- They walk straight to the line of scrimmage and snap the ball right away. There's not any communication between Manning, the backs, his line, the receivers NONE. This was a called run all the way, and it was not audibled.
It can be argued whether or not Manning was just covering for the coaches or whether he was referring to that 3rd quarter play. The former is more tabloid garbage that fans can debate---I don't care. Bottom line is the Broncos NEVER call a pass from this formation, the only exception is in goal line situations. You wouldn't call a pass from this formation in this situation even as a playaction, and it is fallacy to believe the Broncos were holding out to try and fool the Ravens---that's not how their offense works.
This was never a pass and Manning never audibled at the line. Reporters grabbed this soundclip and now we have false information out there.
A lot can be taken from the sequence here. Again I don't mind run on 3rd and 7 to ensure 40+ seconds are burned off the clock. I do mind not taking any sort of playaction shot on 1st or 2nd down when the Ravens were crowding the line. I'm not even referring to a bomb down the field. But with the relative success of our TE's and WR's over the middle of the field, it is a better option than running the ball for a 5th straight time.
Discuss your reactions in the comments, I cannot state this clearly enough---3rd and 7 was never a pass play changed by Peyton Manning.