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The pass-happy nature of the NFL has forced defensive coordinators to design schemes to disrupt the timing and rhythm of the passing game. Phillips has spent the bulk of his coaching career crafting tactics that enable pass rushers to enjoy free runs to the quarterback. Under his direction, the likes of Bruce Smith in Buffalo, Reggie White in Philadelphia, Shawne Merriman in San Diego, DeMarcus Ware in Dallas and J.J. Watt and cheap jerseys and Mario Williams in Houston have terrorized opponents off the edges and made life miserable for quarterbacks in the pocket.
A staunch proponent of the 3-4, Phillips builds his defense around the talents of his edge players (outside linebackers) or the “five-technique” (3-4 DE) in his scheme. He believes in an aggressive “one-gap” system that encourages players to urgently run through their gaps on the way to the quarterback instead of patiently “reading and reacting” as two-gap players. This allows athletic players to fully utilize their speed, quickness and burst to blow through gaps at the point of attack.
From a critical standpoint, I questioned his game-management skills and diagnostic ability, somewhat due to his limited high-level reps. He wasn’t tasked with a lot of responsibilities at the line, and he looked like the kind of prospect who would need some time to master the nuances of the position as a potential NFL starter. Additionally, Osweiler underperformed in big games at ASU, leading to questions about his immediate potential as a franchise quarterback. Thus, I placed a second-round grade (a developmental prospect who needs a year before earning starter’s reps) on him and compared him to a young Matt Schaub (a two-time Pro Bowler with the Houston Texans).
Over the past few years, I’ve watched Osweiler, who turns 25 on Sunday, show steady progress as a passer and playmaker. He has improved his passer rating during each preseason: 57.5 in 2012, 68.8 in 2013, 84.0 in 2014 and 94.2 in 2015. Most importantly, Osweiler has shown the ability to direct an offense as a precise passer from the pocket, particularly in Gary Kubiak’s system. Studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the young QB’s preseason work, I came away impressed with his accuracy, poise and decisiveness while executing the Broncos’ passing game. He consistently delivered the ball on time to receivers at every level. Additionally, he showed improved footwork on traditional dropbacks (taken under center) and capably executed the movement-based passes from the Pistol formation. I thought Osweiler had the potential to thrive as a starter in the Broncos’ system with a solid supporting cast around him.
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For the Broncos, the overall formula was there from the preseason: play great defense, run the ball well (as Gary Kubiak-coached teams almost always do) and then let No. 18 pull a win out of the fire when the first two things aren’t working. It was a conscious choice to have Manning be a cog in the machine, rather than building an entire offense around him the way the Indianapolis Colts used to do. And there’s precedent for this in Denver: When current GM John Elway won his Super Bowl titles as an aging veteran player in the 1997 and ’98 seasons, the Broncos followed a very similar script.
The original plan for Manning, at this late stage in his career, was to build up a running game and let him work off its success; to have the QB take a lot more snaps under center and run a lot more play-action. Essentially, Denver wanted to avoid the pass-happy seasons that have characterized Manning’s career.
I can’t sit here and tell you that I know Brock Osweiler is going to light up the scoreboard for Denver. He can’t fix Denver’s offensive line. But he did give the Broncos somewhat of a spark on Sunday, after Manning failed to start the fire. Still, this is barely about Osweiler. It’s about Manning’s body of work this year, on the heels of last season’s lackluster play down the stretch. Peyton Manning is hurting the team.
Because this story is wrapped in irony, the Broncos’ next opponent is Chicago, led by old friend John Fox. And the talent-poor Bears are playing a feisty and fiery brand of overachieving football. In this season’s most under-reported storyline, Fox and Adam Gase (Manning’s old coordinator) have saved the career of former Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler.
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Given the Broncos’ formation flexibility out of their “12” personnel package (one running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers), in particular, the use of tempo can exploit the Steelers’ decision to use base or nickel personnel. If the Steelers elect to stay in base against the Broncos’ two-tight end sets, Manning can instruct Owen Daniels or Vernon Davis to align in a slot or flanked position to create a spread formation. This will pit one of their crafty playmakers against a linebacker in space, a matchup that typically results in a positive play for the offense.
If the Steelers use their nickel defense against the “12” personnel grouping, Manning can condense the formation into a one-back power formation or a hybrid two-back formation to attack with a traditional running game directed at the nickel corner. With the Broncos using a fast pace between snaps, Manning can prevent Pittsburgh from substituting defenders and continue to exploit the vulnerability throughout the game.
But this is not merely a story about Kubiak’s ability to inspire a team, to bring everyone together as a family and to empower their thoughts. It is about a team’s quest to overcome a label that says it is unable to grit its way to wins in tough situations.
The first four games of 2015 have drastically changed the narrative about the Broncos and their legendary quarterback. Some might be prone to tag Denver as the team with the least-impressive 4-0 start of the six remaining undefeated teams. Buried beneath that belief, however, is a squad that is doing something so critical.