Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow did it again on Sunday, leading a dramatic late-game victory over the heavily-favored Pittsburgh Steelers that ended with a simple strike to wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who ran a Dig route into the open field and pulled away from Ike Taylor. The throw was one of many big ones that quieted critics for at least one week and gave the Broncos another opportunity to reach their ultimate goal of the Super Bowl.
Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has done a good job of building the passing game off of similar formations and tendencies that show up when the Broncos run the ball. That’s benefited Tebow and allowed him to get out of the pocket where he’s most accurate, and it’s also given him the opportunity to stay in the pocket and simplify his reads. Although his mechanics are different and include dropping the ball down to his hip and looping it, Tebow has continued to make accurate downfield throws that give the Broncos offense “chunk yardage” off of the aforementioned play action.
An example of this was seen late in the second quarter when Tebow hit Thomas deep for 58 yards. On this play, the Broncos lined up in a three-tight end set look with a single receiver and a tight end on the weak side of the formation, suggesting a run and forcing the Steelers to walk their safeties down into the box as they read tendencies picked up in film study. Once the safeties walked down into the box, there wasn’t any deep inside help for Taylor, who was left out on an island in straight man coverage on Thomas.
At the snap of the ball, Tebow and running back Willis McGahee executed a fake of the inside zone run concept, which had the uncovered (by a defensive lineman) offensive lineman combination block with the covered offensive lineman, while the running back read the hip of the play-side guard and made his cut off of it. However, instead of receiving the handoff and making the cut, McGahee stood up and pass blocked while Tebow turned his head around after the fake and patiently waited for Thomas to develop his route.
With the underneath defenders out of the picture due to the over-aggressive read of the play action, Thomas and Taylor were left in a one-on-one matchup downfield. Taylor, who initially had Thomas pinned against the sideline, would lose his leverage when Thomas planted his outside foot and ran inside of him.
Once Thomas got back inside of Taylor, he would execute a double-move, sinking his hips as if he was running a Curl before breaking it back up the field and leaving the Steelers defensive back behind.
Once Thomas got ahead of Taylor, Tebow delivered a well-placed pass that allowed him to continue to make forward progress and get inside the red zone.
Knowing the Steelers would be aggressive against the run, McCoy would continue to call for more deep shots off of play action, with one coming only two series later in the second quarter. The Broncos’ personnel group on this next play is simply known as “13″ in coaching circles, implying there is a single running back and three tight ends — one of which is aligned as a fullback. The difference between this formation and the previous one is the third tight end in the backfield, who is aligned on the strong side of the formation instead of the weak side.
Despite the same Denver personnel package, the Steelers defended this play differently by keeping a safety deep. However, they would run into a similar problem…
Pittsburgh’s continued over-aggressive play in this game came back to bite them numerous times, as McCoy sent in the right plays at the right time. On this play, the Broncos executed another play action to the strong side, but this time Tebow rolled out to the weak side of the formation in the direction of Thomas, who ran an actual comeback route. The third tight end in the backfield would go on to run a flat route into the weak side of the field, which made the play look eerily similar to the previous one.
There would be one slight tweak though; the two tight ends on the strong side, one on the line with the other aligned one yard off, would end up running a deep dig (by the #2) and a shallow cross which adjusted to a post route if the single-high safety (Polamalu) in Cover 3 lost discipline, which is what ended up happening.
With five passes of more than 30 yards, McCoy, Tebow and Thomas did an excellent job of executing the game plan, which appeared to focus on using the aggressiveness of the Steelers defenders to their advantage. Next week, Denver will face the Bill Belichick-led Patriots, who almost certainly will have a game plan to slow down the Broncos, but may not be able to execute it with a pass defense that has struggled significantly all season long.