Peyton Manning has long used basic and proven concepts in maintaining his status as one of the NFL’s all time great quarterbacks. The following play from the 2013 AFC Championship game exemplifies the tools he uses to gain information about the defense in order to maximize his team’s chances for success on any given play.
Figure one (below) shows the Broncos in a 5 wide receiver formation, with running back Knowshon Moreno split wide to the left. To the top of the screen, there are three defenders aligned over three receivers, with safety Devin McCourty outside the hash over the top. To the bottom of the screen, however, there is one defender (cornerback Aqib Talib) aligned on Julius Thomas. The second safety (Steve Gregory) splits wide as Moreno walks towards the sideline. Manning has his first clue: he has a numbers disadvantage on his strong side (3 defenders on the line of scrimmage plus 1 safety for 3 receivers) and even numbers on the weak side (1 defender on the line of scrimmage plus 1 safety walking towards the outside to cover 2 receivers).
Next, in what appears to be an innocuous shift, Manning calls Moreno to return to the backfield. As Moreno trots towards Manning’s side, Manning eyes the safety, Gregory. Gregory shades back towards the inside, following Moreno.
Taken in a single snapshot (below), there is no telling what this two high coverage is: it could be cover 2, or cover 2 man, or cover 4, or a safety could drop into the box in a cover 3 or man free (not to mention the many possible split field coverage). But Moreno’s shift and Gregory’s movement has Manning thinking – and hoping – for one thing: that Gregory is in man coverage with Moreno, leaving Aqib Talib alone in man coverage against the bigger Julius Thomas with half a field of space to work with.
Manning gets confirmation of his hopes soon after the snap. Gregory runs towards Moreno, his momentum simultaneously telling Manning that he is in man coverage on Moreno and eliminating him as a possibility to defense Thomas. McCourty is still outside the opposite hash, giving Manning and Thomas the half field of space to work with that they wanted.
As Manning prepares to throw the ball (below), we see Thomas winning leverage to the inside. McCourty is now reading Manning, but he does not have the time to recover to help Talib.
Much has been made of Manning’s declining arm strength. But with his timing, accuracy, and anticipation, he has all the arm that he needs. The ball is accurate and on time. As predicted, Thomas catches the ball before McCourty can make a play.
Everything Peyton Manning does on the field has a purpose in his effort to gain an advantage over the defense. Next time you see a seemingly innocuous shift or motion, watch how the defense reacts, and try to see the clues that Manning sees. It gives insight into the mind of one of the most unique players to ever play the game, and how he maintains (if not improves upon) his level of excellence despite his increasing age and declining physical gifts.