With Demaryius Thomas franchise tagged and Peyton Manning officially returning to Denver for 2015, let’s take a deeper look into the QB-WR duo that has combined for nearly 300 Catches, 4,500 yards, and 35 TD’s in the past three seasons. Peyton gets the ball to Demaryius in a variety of ways, but particularly loves three Pass Concepts designed specifically to get the ball to his favorite Receiver: The Tunnel Screen, the “Now” Slant, and the Trips X-Drag.
The Broncos run the Tunnel Screen (a/k/a Jailbreak Screen) more than any team in the NFL, with 6’3 230 Thomas on the receiving end almost every time. Denver runs the play from a variety of formations. Below is the play, with Denver is in Trips tight:
Above, the Broncos fake stretch play action going left, with the Tunnel Screen coming from the right. In order to execute the Tunnel Screen, Demaryius Thomas must first create space between him and the cornerback lined up over him by so the next inside Wide Receiver can block out his man. Thomas does this by selling hard vertically for 2-3 yards to drive back the cornerback before bending back to the ball with shoulders square to Manning. The inside most Wide Receiver here then arc blocks to the next inside defender (here, it is #29 Safety Eric Berry). This area is also known as “the sidewalk.” This creates the lane for Demaryius Thomas to run inside of:
Now, the inside of the defense must be sealed off to give Thomas a lane to run. Both the right guard and right tackle take their outside zone step to the left to sell the play action stretch, and then widen out to their blocking assignment. The right tackle blocks the first player outside the box (the alley), and the right guard blocks the next inside player (here, the outside linebacker). This creates the lane or “Tunnel” (depicted in blue in first picture) to run through. After he sells vertical (driving back the corner nearly 7 years) and bends back square, he catches the ball and finds the crease between where the Safety and Corner have been blocked out and where the right guard and tackle have sealed off the defense:
Denver can also run Tunnel Screen from a 2-WR or 1-WR 1-TE set to a side:
The Tunnel Screen works especially well here because of the Rams blitz, which makes it easier for the right guard and tackle to identify who to block in space:
Denver also runs the play with the Center pulling, depending on the front 7 look the defense is giving. Here the Tunnel Screen is once again run with a play action stretch fake going the other way. The #2 Receiver blocks the defender over Thomas, with the Right Tackle blocking the “sidewalk”, the right guard blocking the “alley”, and the center going straight down the middle of the field looking for someone to block:
The Tunnel Screen has become a staple of the Broncos offense; Manning loves to call it against blitzes, in short yardage when the box is loaded, and against both press and off coverage. Overall, it’s a great way to get a big fast Wideout an easy catch and have the ball in space.
The “Now” slant (Or no step slant) isn’t a screen, but it functions similarly to the Tunnel screen by getting the ball to Demaryius Thomas on an easy catch in space with a head of steam. The Broncos run the “now” slant with Thomas from various formations. Thomas is always the outside most Receiver and either one or two inside Receivers clear out the space within the first five yards of the line of scrimmage for him. Thomas takes one jab step outside without going upfield and runs his slant route:
The play is particularly effective against Man coverage and blitzes because as long as Thomas beats his man with the outside jab, he’ll catch the ball on the run with the space vacated by other defenders:
Thomas does an excellent job of planting a foot in the ground and getting upfield almost immediately after the catch. The play is extremely simple yet incredibly effective for the Broncos. Denver especially likes the “now” slant in the red zone, serving almost as an extended handoff but gaining almost 7 yards a pop. While the above cutup has Wes Welker running a route, toward the goal line it appears as if the Bronco Receivers are just clearing out to block:
The Broncos like the Trips X-Drag in 3rd and more than 7. Demaryius Thomas is the lone receiver on the backside of Trips (or Tight End Trips), with the Running back as #4 strong, meaning he is also to the side of the Trips. Thomas runs a drag route across the formation, while the 3 Receivers on the other side push vertical but really look to block, as they know the ball will be out quickly to Thomas with a head of steam. Also take note of the running back, who runs an angle route but is also clearly looking to block. The running back is specifically looking to pick the linebacker or DB who is pursuing Thomas from the middle of the field:
A few clips of the Broncos running Trips X-Drag, picking up yards on 3rd and long either for a first down or to set up better field position:
These 3 concepts made up around 20% of all of Demaryius Thomas’ production on the 2014 season. They are plays specifically designed to get the ball in his hands, as no other Bronco runs them. Even with some questioning Peyton Manning’s health, notice that all these pass concepts are short throws and actually highlight Manning’s greatest strength: assessing the defense and calling the right play. When Manning notices a blitz or off coverage, the Tunnel Screen is a great audible. When Manning sees Cover 0, Cover 1, or an edge blitz from the secondary, the “now” slant is a perfect check. Be sure to notice them while watching Denver next season!