Manning takes apart weird scheme
Denver's weird defensive scheme didn't faze the Colts and Peyton Manning, John Clayton writes.
INDIANAPOLIS -- As soon as the eight-man inactive list was distributed Sunday afternoon, the Broncos were in trouble, and it had nothing to do with wide receiver Javon Walker and safety John Lynch being scratched because of injuries.
Mike Shanahan tipped off that it was going to be tough to beat the Colts (4-0) in the RCA Dome. During the offseason, the Denver head coach hired Jim Bates to restructure his defense, trying to get bigger and tougher at defensive tackle. But because the Broncos were playing Peyton Manning's no-huddle offense, Shanahan scratched starting defensive tackles Sam Adams and Amon Gordon. Instead, the Broncos lined up in a weird alignment in which they started four defensive ends, one of whom (rookie Jarvis Moss) played as a stand-up defensive tackle.
The Broncos went vegetarian when they needed some beef and were blown off the line of scrimmage and out of the game 38-20. But that's what happens when coaches face Manning. The Colts' quarterback gets into coaches' heads so much that they become unconventional. Shanahan -- who lost to the Colts by 31 and 25 the past two times they met in the playoffs -- is no different.
"We knew going into the game we had to limit Indy's possessions," Shanahan said. "I think we did limit their possessions, but obviously they did a great job of making some plays, running and throwing the ball.''
A Denver television reporter, who watched Manning put 41 and 49 points against Shanahan in the past two playoff meetings, joked: "They made progress by forcing them to punt twice." That was about the only moral victory Sunday for the Broncos, who fell to 2-2 and face the Chargers (1-3) next week at home.
The defensive alignment Denver used is called "Frisco.'' It took a little more than a quarter for Manning to study the pictures along the sidelines and come up with answers. Before long, "Frisco"' looked like the San Andreas Fault as Manning worked his play-action game and every running back on the roster ran through gaping holes to beat the defense.
How worried was Shanahan about Manning's ability to mentally beat opponents? The Broncos signed Adams to be one of their main run-stuffers, but age and injuries limit his playing time and force him to need breaks on long drives. Shanahan was worried Adams wouldn't be able to get off the field before the Colts ran a play. Fearing a 5-yard penalty for having 12 men on the field, he put Adams on the inactive list. Now, that's getting into a coach's head.
The "Frisco" alignment had Simeon Rice and Elvis Dumervil -- both of whom weigh less than 270 pounds -- as the ends and John Engelberger -- who weighs 260 -- at nose tackle. Defensive end Tim Crowder, who weighs 275, was the nose tackle, and Moss, who checks in at 265, played stand-up defensive tackle. For a while, the ploy worked. The Broncos won the toss, rushed Travis Henry and jumped to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter.
"We had to figure out what they were doing," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "We knew it would be a little bit different. Once we got a chance to look at the pictures and everybody got comfortable, we got in our minds we're going to run the ball.''
And run they did. Joseph Addai rushed for 136 yards on 19 carries. Backup Kenton Keith had 80 yards on 10 carries. Things got so bad for the Broncos that third-stringer Luke Lawton had 13 yards on four carries.
"It was something we've seen before throughout our years here, but we have never seen that from them,'' Manning said. "It's not a major adjustment.''
The more Manning studied the pictures, the more he realized this was going to be a big day for his backs. He noticed safeties Nick Ferguson and Domonique Foxworth were playing in a two-deep, trying to limit the Colts' ability to make big plays.
"We've been seeing that look for the last two weeks, but we haven't been able to get a run longer than 12 yards,'' Manning said. "With safeties deep like that, that really shouldn't be the case. That was a real challenge today: to finish the longer runs and create some holes.''
The Colts had 226 yards on 37 runs, allowing Manning to throw only 27 passes and make the most out of them. The blowout was inevitable.
Unlike in years past, the Colts don't panic when they trail early. "That is two weeks in a row we have been down early in the game, and certainly it's not a panic situation,'' Manning said.
Jay Cutler and the Broncos' offense couldn't do much better than they did Sunday. Henry rushed for 67 yards on nine carries in the first quarter. He had 106 yards on 20 carries by halftime, and the Broncos had 160 yards rushing by the half. The difference in the game was that Cutler couldn't convert drives into more touchdowns.
Despite Denver's near-perfect half, Manning went to the locker room with a 14-13 lead. The Colts delivered a knockout punch by taking the second-half kickoff and marching 73 yards for a touchdown, a 1-yard Manning run.
"When you have the opportunities inside the 20, you've got to turn them into touchdowns, not field goals,'' Shanahan said. "We had a couple of opportunities down there and couldn't convert."
Give Shanahan credit for trying, though. He had cornerbacks Dre Bly and Champ Bailey take away the play-making abilities of Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison with man coverage. He tried to have either a linebacker or a safety man up against whichever receiver or tight end the Colts put in the slot.
Naturally, Manning had an adjustment. He put tight end Dallas Clark in an outside receiver position, and he beat man coverage for two touchdowns.
"It's not just all about him (Manning),'' Ferguson said. "He is not the offensive coordinator making the calls. Those guys did well as a unit making adjustments. So you can't give Peyton all the credit.''
The Broncos just weren't going to beat the Colts this day. You sensed it from the beginning.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.