Give the media two weeks before the Super Bowl and they will find every weird angle to take to fill the void: Who has the best food (uh, not Indianapolis); what U.S. Presidents are like what Super Bowl (In a matchup between Super Bowl III, with Broadway Joe, against Thomas Jefferson, the third President, Jefferson won because he “wanted it more.”); and opinion from every blustery ex-player and coach that can be found. But now that the game is here, there’s one aspect that absolutely is at the top of my list: The game features arguably the two best quarterbacks in the league who run undoubtedly the best — and most interesting offenses.
The show Peyton runs is amazing not only because of its effectiveness, but also because of its simplicity. Indeed, in all but specialty situations they have basically two personnel groups — two wide receivers, two tight-ends, and one running back and three wide receivers, one tight-end and one running back — and they have run the same few plays for the last decade. They rarely shift and instead rely on Peyton to get them to the line and find the appropriate play.
The theory for all this is simple. Although a defense has some options and disguise some things, there are only so many things a defense can do: they might be able to disguise press or loose coverage, or rotate the secondary or send an unexpected blitzer, but they can’t move a cornerback from one side of the field to the other after the snap, and there might be blitzers but there are only so many candidates. As a result Peyton gets his team to the line and surveys the defense. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore typically sends in three plays: two passes and a run or two runs and a pass, and Peyton makes his choice among those three options. Typically, Manning gets the ball snapped with under six seconds left on the play clock; he both wants to take his time surveying the defense and limit late shifts before the snap.
And Manning’s menu of plays are both simple and have been constant for a decade. For runs, he basically has three choices: outside zone (the most common), inside zone, and draw (there are a few others mixed in as well). Believe it or not, the run game comes basically verbatim from what the University of Colorado did in the early 1990s (except for the option runs, of course) — football is not as complicated as people think.
For the passing game, on early downs they run a lot of play-action, where the goal is either to beat the defense deep (through post routes and go routes) or to hit a deep void with a deep crossing route or corner. (The deep crossing route concept is described here.) Another go-to concept is three-verticals, though Manning likes to look for the inside slight off play-action as a quick throw right behind the linebackers. (Video below courtesy of Brophy.)
Play-action from under center:
Play-action from shotgun:
On passing downs and when Peyton is in the shotgun, you’ll see most of the traditional routes that other teams run, but far and away his favorite is the “levels” play. It’s almost idiotically simple — the inside receiver runs a ten-yard in route (often Dallas Clark) while the outside receiver (Reggie Wayne, most typically) runs a five yard in-route. Typically the linebacker runs with the slot and the quick five yarder is open, but once he’s hit that a few times Manning will hit the inside square-in for an easy first down.
I’ve described the “levels” concept (with video) previously here. Below is another diagram showing what typically happens with the coverage:
But what happens when they begin jumping these square in routes? Ah, but then they go with that old classic, the “smash.”
The thing to notice here is how well these concepts work together: When the Colts’ receivers burst off the line — and even when that outside receiver begins to make his break on the five-yard in route — the defense doesn’t know if it’s going to be a deep outside corner route or inside route that threatens them. The rage in defense is “pattern reading,” where the defense practices and tries to anticipate specific combinations of pass patterns, and making pass plays look alike as the receivers burst off the line is how you defeat and confuse such techniques. What the Colts’ offense teaches us is that you don’t have to be complicated to be effective — or confusing to your opponents.
Drew Brees and Sean Payton certainly understand the importance of confusing defenses, and despite many similarities with the Colts’s offense — the heavy reliance on play-action, the elegant design of the plays, and the consistent and often spectacular results — the differences are more interesting. While the Colts eschew the typical NFL offense wisdom, i.e. that you need to be multiple and keep the defense offense off balance, the Saints embrace it and quite simply do it better than everyone else.
The Saints will use the full gamut of offensive personnel and formations, from the I-formation to five wides, and will mix and match them in unique and interesting ways. For example, the Saints and Brees use a no-back or “five wides” formation as effectively as anyone in the NFL (indeed, the Colts rarely use it at all), but they will vary it up with different personnel. The primary two variables are Reggie Bush and Jeremy Shockey: Payton likes to use them in the slot when he thinks he will get a favorable matchup against linebackers, but if the defense subs in a lot of defensive backs he will move one or both of them to the outside. This gives the Saints (1) a physical mismatch on the outside with a bigger more physical player against a smaller corner and (2) mismatches inside as his receivers — Colston, Henderson, and Meachem, primarily — against nickel defensive backs and safeties. And Brees is one of the best at identifying this right off the bat. (Video below courtesy of Brophy.)
Although not from no-backs, another route Brees likes to throw is the all-curl concept, a horizontal stretch play (multiple receivers spread across the field to “stretch” underneath zone defenders). Note how effectively Brees moves defenders with his eyes.
But no conversation about Brees and the Saints’ offense is complete without mention of what makes Brees the quarterback he is: his accuracy. This goes beyond just “hitting the receiver” and instead it gets into “ball placement.” Put another way, Brees doesn’t throw to receivers, he throws to body parts: back shoulders, front elbows, front hips, and so on. A defensive back with his head turned is little better than one who failed to cover the receiver at all. One of the best illustrations of his comes when Brees runs the four verticals play, which I outlined for the New York Times’s Fifth Down blog.
The play itself is simple: He sends four receivers streaking down the field, with the purpose of dividing the deep defenders and finding the gaps in the zones. But it’s effective against man coverage too, and not just to hit a bomb over the top; Brees will identify a defender he thinks is out of position and laser it to the receiver in a place only he can get it, often with the result where the defender gets so turned around he misses the tackle. See the video below:
Of course, all this is not meant to show disrespect for the Colts’ and Saints’ defense, as with such potent offenses it is highly likely that one of those units will end up being the difference in the game. But there’s always a joy in seeing a thing done well, particularly when it is done in different ways. And that’s what you get with the Colts and the Saints: the best of the simple and the best of the complex, with the result being the two best of the best.