Peyton Manning could do no wrong in Week 1 as he dropped the curtain on the Steelers defense throw after throw, play after play.
Three plays into Week 2, he did it all wrong by throwing a costly interception in his own territory. Another three plays passed, another interception came. Then the third drive started and quickly ended with, you guessed it, another interception. He seemed to be rushing with his reads and, dare I say, confused. Both of these problems were the result of a roaming Atlanta Falcons defense, a unit that seemed as confused as Manning was until the snap — when they knew everything and where every throw was going.
So, what exactly was Manning looking at as he dropped back?
The first interception on the opening drive saw a lot of communication from the defense and a fast paced Broncos quarterback who looked to quickly get the ball in his hands and exploit the vacant real estate downfield. Manning was in a shotgun alignment and had “12″ personnel with him, which suggests one tailback and two tight ends. One of the tight ends — Jacob Tamme in the slot — was going to be running a vertical route, and would be the focus of Manning’s throw.
Defensively, the Falcons were communicating before the snap and seemed uncertain about their responsibilities. Admittedly, I was uncertain about it as well until after the snap, when safety William Moore dropped late in coverage. This amounted to what appeared to be Cover 4 — also known as “Quarters,” a four deep traditional zone coverage.
Manning caught the ball after the snap and looked to Tamme in the slot, who appeared to be open — except he wasn’t because Moore was reading Manning and dropping into the same exact area where the ball was destined. This resulted in an interception.
The next drive saw more late movement from the safety positions and another decision from Manning that proved to be costly.
The Falcons showed a two-deep safety shell and soft coverage from the cornerbacks against the Broncos “11″ personnel (one tailback, one tight end) package. Manning’s target on this play was once again the slot receiver, who this time ran a deep inside breaking “bend” route.
The key on this play for the Falcons was Moore once again (towards the top of the screen) who appeared as if he was going to drop underneath in coverage with his initial forward movement. However, once Moore recognized the route and read Manning’s eyes, he essentially played a “robber” in Cover 3, and turned around to blanket slot receiver Brandon Stokley’s route by running inside of him. Despite this, Manning attempted to fit the throw in and consequently was intercepted by free safety Thomas DeCoud, who rotated from the short side to the middle of the field.
The final interception from Manning came against Cover 3 and was a smart play from reserve cornerback Robert McClain, who dropped into his assigned deep third before jumping in front of the seam throw. The Falcons showed no deep safeties before the snap, which led Manning into thinking he could attack the seam with three verticals. He was fooled again because the Falcons rotated the strong safety into the middle of the field to form a three deep coverage set with four underneath defenders.
Manning’s target was Stokley, the No. 2 receiver (starting from the sideline-in). Stokley was running a vertical route and would be open if two things happened: 1. the outside receiver was wide enough in his route to keep the cornerback wide and 2. the safety was late rotating over.
The safety was not quite late rotating over, but Manning still had the space to drop the ball in. However, cornerback Robert McClain wasn’t widened out, as instead he was able to work from his outside position to the inside and “split the difference” as coaches say between the outside and slot (No. 2) receiver. This allowed him to track the ball and make a play on it, which he did when he intercepted Manning for a third time.
Throughout the rest of the game Manning fared much better. He didn’t throw any interceptions, and he led the Broncos on three scoring drives that made the game close until the end.
The reason for his improvements were three -fold: he was in more control of the offense, he was going through his reads as coached, and the Falcons defense became less confusing. It seemed as if the Falcons, to some degree, showed all their looks early, and Manning did a better job of figuring out who was covering who in the second half. He was also able to buy himself more time by climbing the pocket and delivering simple, but smart throws such as checkdowns against the Falcons’ Cover 2. This may not seem ideal, but it’s exactly what you want against Cover 2.
Manning will have to throw fewer interceptions and make more throws downfield that pick apart defenses. History suggests he will, but it’s still quite reasonable to wonder if we’re looking at the same Manning that we’ve seen in past years.