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Tales from the Tape: Emmanuel Sanders thrives in the slot this preseason

With additional wide receiver depth this year, Denver has the luxury of moving Sanders to where he is most effective.

NFL: Denver Broncos at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As the team releases their first official 53-man roster and depth chart, we are taking a look at guys who have been locked in from the start and are poised to make a big impact this season.

Since the 3rd preseason game is typically the closest to the regular season schematically and from a snaps perspective, we are using that tape for this series.

Last week we examined Justin Simmons and where he has been lining up, this week Keenum’s favorite target, Emmanuel Sanders is up.

This preseason has seen a huge uptick in slot snaps for Emmanuel Sanders. With the emergence of Courtland Sutton on the outside, Denver has slid Sanders into the slot with Sutton on the outside in the majority of their 3+ wide receiver sets.

I charted the 3rd preseason game against Washington and here was the breakdown of Sanders’ snaps:

Total - 30

Slot - 20

Outside 2WR sets - 6

Outside 3+WR sets - 4

It is significant that Denver has been playing Sanders in the slot more, and plan to play him primarily there in the regular season for two reasons:

Sanders is measurably more effective in the slot

Every year, Football Outsiders puts out an index of wide receiver efficiency from the slot against their efficiency when lined up outside. In 2017, Sanders ranked 4th in the league with some of the best improvement in the slot versus being lined up outside.

His DVOA rose 44.8% when he was in the slot, yet he was only in the slot for 37% of his targets last year.

Credit the coaching staff for seeing where he was most effective and making sure he was utilized there as much as possible this upcoming season.

As an aside, Demaryius Thomas’ numbers were nearly the opposite. His DVOA went down nearly 25% when shifted into the slot.

Keenum is more effective when targeting the slot

In a similar breakdown, Football Outsiders also charts quarterback efficiency on outside and slot routes. They found that Keenum, while outshining most of his peers on efficiency on outside routes, he was still slightly more efficient when targeting the slot, seeing a 2.2% increase in DVOA on slot targets versus outside.

Combine that with the fact that Keenum and Sanders have established a great connection so far this off-season, and you can see how Sanders is poised for a massive year in his new role.

So let’s dive into how that played out on the field in week 3 of the preseason.

Play #1

This one is a great example of Sanders getting to pick on players who have no business covering him. As the far inside receiver on this all verticals concept, he draws the linebacker and strong safety in zone coverage, and perfectly splits them for a big 3rd down conversion.

Play #2

This one is my favorite and is a great application of the slant/flat combo that I covered in a previous breakdown. Sanders is aligned in the slot in a trips left formation, and both Sutton and Demaryius Thomas will run slant routes, with Sanders breaking to the flat.

As I describe in the breakdown, the point of this concept is a quick read and throw to wherever the defense isn’t. In this instance the outside corner plays way off, and Sutton’s slant creates a natural pick, so Sanders has some room to work.

That’s why this concept works. Here you have one defender trying to cover two routes, so one will be open. If Keenum had a bit more time, he could have waited for the slant to come open, but this was designed to get out quickly as the tackles are cutting their defenders.

This may seem like a simple 7 yard gain, but I love this because it not only picks up nice yardage on first down but also puts the ball in the hands of one of your best play-makers to make something happen. These kinds of plays can easily be broken for big gains with just one missed tackle.

Additionally, it utilizes each receiver’s strengths. Let the big bodies of Sutton and Thomas go over the middle on a slant route, while the shiftier Sanders works in space.

Play #3

What the short routes to Sanders in the slot also do is setup big plays. Here Sanders will run what looks like an out route combo’d with Sutton on a slant. However, Sanders turns it upfield on an out n’ up and Sutton breaks back outside.

Keenum places a perfect ball and Sanders hauls in an impressive catch, but this was setup by the defense expecting the shorter routes, and Sanders/Musgrave catching them.

Play #4

Lastly, although 3 of his 4 catches during this game came from the slot, Sanders is still plenty effective on the outside, and this play was another fun reminder of what he can do with the ball in his hands in space, something I talked about as a strength of Denver’s earlier this year.

It’s great to see our coaches on both the defensive and offensive side utilizing players in a manner that best fits their skillset.

If you’re into playing fantasy football, I would suggest drafting Emmanuel Sanders. If real football is more your style, kick back and enjoy what I believe will be the best year of Sanders’ career.

Note: thanks for the suggestions for future topics. I really want to dig into the offensive line, but the preseason footage is pretty limited with only the broadcast angle. Once we get some All-22 footage, I will be digging into Veldheer and McGovern specifically, and keeping a close eye on our offensive line as a whole.