Originally written on Thoughts from the Dark Side  |  Last updated 11/19/14
In lieu of the typical format breaking down both offensive and defensive points, this week, I’m going to focus on the most important player on the field on Monday – Peyton Manning. First, I haven’t been able to scout much of the Denver defense to have a great idea of their strengths and weaknesses, and I don’t want to insult your intelligence by putting out half-completed information. Second, and probably most importantly, this game likely hinges on two men more than any other game this season – Peyton Manning versus Raiders DC Jason Tarver. Manning is the best quarterback of this generation and essentially serves as an offensive coordinator on the field, changing the play at the line based on what the defense does and mixing up plays to confuse the defenders. Manning is so fantastic at reading plays, it’s very difficult to confuse him or throw him things that he hasn’t seen. That doesn’t mean he’s invincible – there are some solid, proven methods to fighting the future Pro Bowler. 1. Resist the big blitz, win with 4-man pressure: Quarterbacks like Manning not only don’t mind when they are blitzed with six players, they encourage it. That’s because elite quarterbacks are so aware of the defensive formations that they can typically see coming when the defense lines up and they know where their “hot” receiver is – the receiver that will be less covered because of the blitz. Instead, the Raiders will need to pressure Manning predominately using 4 and 5 man rushes. This will start with RDE Lamarr Houston, who will be going against backup LT Chris Clark. Clark is a sub-par tackle so Houston must win this battle. If he can, the Broncos will have no hope but to slide protection Houston’s way, and that can open things up for the other defenders to get pressure in man to man situations. 2. Disguise the coverage: Because Manning is so good at reading defensive coverage pre-snap, the best way to hide the teams’ intentions is to disguise the coverage. There are two good ways to do this. The more simple and likely of the two is some delayed blitzes. This will give Manning extra time to throw but it won’t allow him to read the defender’s intentions as quickly. The delayed blitz, if executed well, can get an unblocked defender into the QB a few seconds after the snap and that can start to shake Manning’s timing and confidence. When he does that, he sometimes gets anxious and will force throws that are not typical of him. The less likely but more interesting way is what TMQ calls the “Times Square defense.” That’s when the defense will take snaps in which they don’t get into their down linemen set but instead mill around the line at random and aim to be in a certain area when the ball is snapped, where they go into their assignment – either rushing or coverage. The advantage to this defense is that Manning can’t read much into the position of the defenders because they, themselves, don’t have any design as to where they’re positioned – it’s completely random before the snap. The downside to that coverage is that it’s hard on the defense as they don’t have any time to get ready before the snap and can get hit backwards on running plays.   3. Mix up the coverage: Manning’s offense works because he has great timing with his receivers, something he practices with them almost constantly. The Raiders cornerbacks will want to jam the Broncos receivers at the line of scrimmage in the hopes of redirecting them and knocking off the timing. Typically, that would be in a man scheme but with coverage over the top, in a Cover two man set. The Raiders will need to be as creative on defense as their personnel can handle. Taking a page from the Steelers under Dick LeBeau, some zone blitzes, especially with two safeties over top to prevent big plays, will help the Raiders get some pressure, hopefully, but prevent Manning from burning them for a long pass. This is also a good game to pull out a few new alignments and plays. The Raiders haven’t gone to a 3-4 look much, but the 3-4 has always given Manning more trouble than a 4-3 because he doesn’t know which of the 4 linebackers will be blitzing. In a 4-3, he knows the 4 down-linemen will be rushing basically every play and can plan accordingly.   Manning’s Denver offense will pose quite a challenge for the Raiders but if they can play disciplined and creatively, they can overcome the Broncos for the first time since Manning joined the team.
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