ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- It is easy to look at Saturday night’s preseason game against the St. Louis Rams and simply see the Denver Broncos faced an NFC West team they’re only going to see once in a great while in the seasonal rotation that is the NFL schedule.
But look a little more closely and you will really see what the template will be for many defenses that face the Broncos and Peyton Manning this season.
Because out of any head coach and high-ranking assistant coach, no combination in the league has likely faced Manning more during the future Hall of Famer’s career behind center than Rams coach Jeff Fisher and Rams assistant head coach Dave McGinnis. Which means, they've tried most everything, including Fisher calling for an onside kick the first three times the Titans kicked off in a game against the Colts.
Fisher faced Manning twice a year in the AFC South since 2002, when the league’s divisional alignment was changed until Fisher’s exit from the Titans following the 2010 season. And McGinnis has been an assistant on Fisher’s staff, in both Nashville and St. Louis since 2004. The current St. Louis staff also includes a former Titans defensive coordinator in Chuck Cecil and a former Titans linebacker in Joe Bowden.
And when they all put their heads together for a rather no-frills defensive gameplan, the Rams' strategy Saturday night was still likely the same Manning will see against teams comfortable enough with their pass rush not to have to blitz him a lot. Nobody really likes blitzing Manning a lot, though teams did try it slightly more against the Broncos than they did in Manning's final two seasons in Indianapolis. The Rams worked back to front, took away the big stuff, especially down the hashmarks, forced patience and hoped for the mistakes that impatience brings.
In short, yards don’t matter, points do. So the yards pile up, but when the offense moved inside the 25-yard line or so, the angles go away, there is less room to work and it can be more difficult to throw into a crowd to score without resorting to corner fade after corner fade.
As a result, Manning threw 34 passes and completed 25 of them for 234 yards in his half of work Saturday. The Broncos, working at breakneck speed as well, ran an astounding 49 plays in the first half, but because of turnovers, a missed field goal and two punts, they had just 10 points to show for all of that.
Manning’s longest completion was a 23-yarder to Andre Caldwell late in the second quarter. He had 12 completions of fewer than 10 yards and 20 of his completions were for 15 or fewer yards. That’s because that’s what the Rams were hoping for as well.
“That’s what they were doing," Manning said. “So, you can throw down the field, I guess, and throw incomplete, but it would be just a waste of time in my opinion if they’re all just sitting back and hanging back."
It does show those who have faced him the most over the years, except the fact Manning knows what they’re up to most of the time and has an answer for it. So, better to take the drum-beat approach and force him to make completion after completion, try to make tackles to limit the catch-and-run damage. Then hope the four-man rush can get there at times to at least get him off the mark once in a while, and hope a mistake or two from the Broncos comes along for the ride as well, be it a fit of impatience, an ill-timed penalty, turnover or missed assignment.
Even Manning’s touchdown pass, a 6-yarder that had to be a GPS job, fit into the smallest of windows to Demaryius Thomas over Cortland Finnegan. In the end, until the Broncos can run the ball well enough to threaten the defensive plan and bring the safeties down toward the line of scrimmage, it is a blueprint others will try to follow. Because with Wes Welker added to the offense, it’s really the only choice they will have, to simply live with the gaudy stats left behind and hope the touchdowns aren’t listed next to them.