Cracking the Peyton Manning Code: How the Chiefs can control the Broncos’ offense

Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning threw five touchdown passes against the Chiefs last December. The Chiefs don’t want a repeat performance today in Denver.
Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning threw five touchdown passes against the Chiefs last December. The Chiefs don’t want a repeat performance today in Denver. The Kansas City Star

Before he was released by the Broncos in August, newly signed Chiefs defensive end Kevin Vickerson had the distinct pleasure of watching quarterback Peyton Manning up close for two full seasons.

So Vickerson is uniquely qualified to share the defense’s biggest challenge when the Chiefs face the Broncos at 3:25 p.m. Sunday in Denver.

“It’s crucial we hold our disguised (coverages) and things like that,” Vickerson said.

Why? Because when it comes to reading the defense before the snap, Vickerson — a nine-year pro — says Manning is peerless.

“Best to ever do it,” Vickerson said. “His film study and game-planning really take over on the field and it shows. That’s his advantage, his mind. Especially at his age right now.”

Manning, 38, shows no signs of slowing down. Last season, he broke the NFL’s single-season record for touchdown passes with 55, and in the Broncos’ season-opening win over Indianapolis, he dissected the Colts for 269 yards and three touchdowns while completing 22 of 36 passes (61 percent).

Manning’s arm strength is not what it once was — his passes wobble more following four neck surgeries. But he more than makes up for that with his accuracy and mind.

“It’s rare he misses any kind of subpressures or nickel blitzes or anything like that,” Vickerson said. “That’s what those snap counts and cadences are for — identifying you and making you move before you’re ready to move.

“The hard count … (it’s) hut-hut-hut … then he comes back, checks out of it and it’s ‘here we go.’”

Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton has drilled into his team the necessity of disguising coverages and not taking Manning’s bait.

“We always say, ‘don’t be the “tell,” don’t be the guy that’s telling him what the coverage is,” Sutton said. “Because he’s done a great job over his career recognizing that.”

Unfortunately for the Chiefs, disguising coverages properly is just one part of the weighty challenge that defending the Broncos’ offense poses.

Their two losses against the Broncos last season, in which they gave up a combined 62 points, taught them the necessity of communicating and being sound, technique-wise, on passing plays, and the importance of being disciplined and stout against the run. The latter task could be complicated by an interesting tweak the Broncos made to their offense against the Colts on Sunday.

Sutton knows that if the Chiefs fail to adequately execute either aspect, run or pass, it will be a long day.

“(Peyton’s) real goal is to win, so he really doesn’t care how,” Sutton said. “(He says) if takes me to throw it 50 times, fine. If it takes me 20 and I can win, I’m willing to do that. He’s so sharp on the field, he’s going to do what the defense allows him to do.”

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The Seatle Seahawks laid out the blueprint for controlling Manning and the Broncos’ historically dominant offense in their convincing 43-8 win in the Super Bowl.

With the speedy Earl Thomas patrolling the middle to eliminate big plays over the top, big-hitting strong safety Kam Chancellor wiping out routes over the middle and the Seahawks’ super-long cornerbacks playing tight coverage and communicating to eliminate confusion while defending the Broncos’ myriad of bunch formations, Manning — who also had waves of pass rushers coming at him — simply didn’t have much space to operate.

“If you look at our defense and how well we play down the middle with Earl (Thomas) back there, and for years it’s been that way,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said at the NFL combine. “That’s one of the building blocks that you are really good up top and you don’t let people score fast.”

The challenge for the Chiefs is to emulate Seattle’s blueprint, without the pieces. The Chiefs have given fifth-year safety Eric Berry more responsibility, but he and Husain Abdullah split single-high coverages pretty evenly in their loss to the Titans. It will be on them to prevent the big plays over the top that plagued them against the Broncos last season.

Manning also figures to test the Chiefs’ aptitude for defending pick plays, which was a staple of the Broncos’ offense last season and something Sutton’s unit really struggled with, particularly out of bunch formations.

“When those guys get bunched up, you feel like it’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of quick exchanges, guys going in, guys going out, guys going up the field,” Chiefs nickel back Chris Owens said.

Sutton said last year that defending these types of plays is similar to how a basketball team would defend a pick-and-roll — it takes communication, physically and plenty of reps, and is something the Chiefs have been working on for a while.

“We’ve worked hard in camp at trying to do those jobs,” Sutton said. That’s the style of offensive football today, so you’ve got to be able to do it, you have to deal with them on the move.

“The more you make (defenses) communicate, the higher percentage chance of error. But it’s like anything — you develop a comfort level and confidence.”

Sutton said he was pleased with the improvements the Chiefs showed in this area against the Titans, despite the loss. But at the end of the day, Owens knows they need to be better at recognizing and defending route combinations; after all, if Locker completed 22 of 33 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns against the Chiefs last Sunday, what can Manning do?

“When we see things that are gonna be a problem for our defense, we’ve got to be able to change it on the fly,” Owens said. “Those are things that Peyton is not going to miss, just like Locker didn’t miss.”

But for all the talk about the Broncos’ lethal passing game, Denver’s running game is just as much a concern to the Chiefs.

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When Sutton turned on the film from the Broncos’ season-opening win over the Colts, he noticed something interesting about Denver’s offense, something he didn’t see much of last season.

Here were the Broncos, a team that had primarily run three-wide-receiver sets in 2013, operating primarily in “12” personnel, which features two wide receivers and two tight ends.

A small change, on the surface. But not in the big picture, according to Vickerson, who spent 2010-13 as a starter with the Broncos.

“It’s something they’ve been doing all camp,” Vickerson said. “Another way for them to get an extra guy in the run game and block in the scheme. That run game can be more explosive.”

With the free-agent departure of Knowshon Moreno, who rushed for 1,038 and 10 touchdowns last season and signed with Miami, the Broncos have handed the keys to their running game to 2013 second-round pick Montee Ball, who thrived in a downhill running scheme during a record-setting career at Wisconsin.

Ball only rushed for 67 yards and a touchdown in 23 carries against the Colts, a meager average of 2.9 yards per carry.

But the Broncos gashed the Chiefs for an average of 118 yards on the ground last season, and that was with two veteran run-defenders in inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and defensive end Mike DeVito, who both suffered season-ending injuries last week.

Needless to say, the Chiefs understand the Broncos’ rushing attack could be just as dangerous as Manning’s arm this week.

“Sometimes here in a game like this, you take some body blows because you’re playing more coverage and that and you understand that,” Sutton said.

After all, Sutton remembers how dangerous that run-enabling “12” personnel grouping can be with Manning at the helm.

“Peyton’s M.O. in Indy was they used ‘12’ a lot,” Sutton said.

Sutton said the versatility of tight end Dallas Clark, who was equally comfortable blocking or receiving, was what made that grouping work in Indianapolis. Now it appears Manning has his new Clark in tight end Julius Thomas, who caught seven passes for 104 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts.

Sutton’s problem Sunday will be deciphering whether the amount of “12” personnel they showed last week will hold, or if it was just an aberration.

“There’s no question they used it more in that game than they did last year in any particular game,’ Sutton said. “They might have done it to see what Indy was gonna do with it. They got ahead 24-0, so they might have said let’s move this clock, we’ve got (Andrew) Luck over on the other sideline, let’s keep him right here where we want him.”

As the Chiefs’ nickel cornerback, Owens will be directly affected by how often the Broncos use “12” personnel. But he seems to be less concerned about that than you might think, largely because when you’re preparing for Manning, you can’t worry about anything other than doing your job.

After all, no one wants to be the guy whose lack of focus — pre- or post-snap — gives the league’s best quarterback the advantage, right?

“They showed a lot of ‘12’ personnel, but you’ve got to be ready for everything with Peyton,” Owens said. “He’s the best for a reason. We’ve got to pay attention to all the small details in our game and technique.

“I don’t want to be a cliché, but we’ve got to play a perfect game to beat him.”

To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to Follow him on Twitter at @TerezPaylor.

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