Tag Archives: Sean Smith

A quadruple Decker

The chess metaphor has become a cliche in sports, but football, at its highest level, requires a similar skill: Your chances of success derive largely from your quarterback’s ability to read the board. When the Broncos play the Chiefs, it’s a pretty crowded board.

For the second time in three weeks, the Chiefs’ starting lineup Sunday against the Broncos was what is known as a dime defense, in which six of the 11 defensive players are cornerbacks and safeties.

Traditionally, a “base” defense consists of four defensive linemen, three linebackers, two cornerbacks and two safeties. Over the years, as rules changes have encouraged the crowd-pleasing passing game, offenses have deployed more receivers and defenses have responded with more defensive backs. The fifth defensive back was called the nickel back. The sixth made it a dime in something of a linguistic non sequitur.

These used to be situational packages. Against Peyton Manning, they are what you start with. At least, if you’re Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, they are. In both matchups, the Chiefs started three cornerbacks (Sean Smith, Brandon Flowers and Marcus Cooper) and three safeties (Eric Berry, Quintin Demps and Kendrick Lewis).

Facing this maze of defensive backs two weeks ago, Manning chose the Cooper Gambit, for reasons not that difficult to divine. On one side of the formation, the defensive right side, the Chiefs deployed Smith, one of the bigger, better defensive backs in the game. In the middle, against Broncos slot receiver Wes Welker, they positioned Flowers, a somewhat overrated but also well-known cover corner. On the other side, the defensive left, they deployed Cooper, a rookie drafted by the San Francisco 49ers three picks before the draft ended, then cut at the end of training camp.

So Manning connected with Demaryius Thomas five times for 121 yards at Mile High in that first matchup, including a 70-yard bomb, on the way to a 27-17 Broncos victory. Thomas started the game split wide left, opposite Smith. When Manning flipped the formation, sending Eric Decker left and Thomas right, Smith stayed where he was and picked up Decker. So Manning feasted on the DT-Cooper matchup.

Afterward, I wondered why the Chiefs wouldn’t tell their best cover corner — Smith — to stick with the Broncos’ best wide receiver no matter where he lined up. Sunday, I learned the answer:

It doesn’t matter.

Decker is equally capable of exploiting a rookie defensive back. When Thomas hurt his shoulder on the Broncos’ first play from scrimmage Sunday, Manning turned to Decker. By the time he was finished, the Broncos had a 35-28 victory, a season sweep of the Chiefs and a clear path to the AFC West title.

On the way, Decker did something no Broncos receiver had ever done before, catching four touchdown passes in a game. He finished with eight catches for 174 yards and became just the 12th player in NFL history to post four receiving touchdowns and at least 170 receiving yards in the same game. Jerry Rice is the only one to do it twice. Other names on the list include Lance Alworth, Bob Hayes and Terrell Owens.

Cooper was covering Decker on two of the touchdowns, Flowers on the other two. Decker routinely fought Cooper off at the line of scrimmage and roamed free. The preview of coming attractions came midway through the second quarter, when he shook off Cooper at the line and beat him on an out-and-up that went for 42 yards to the Chiefs’ 3-yard line as the Broncos fought back from a 21-7 deficit.

“DT got hurt on the first play of the game,” Manning explained afterward.

Actually, he didn’t learn this until the end of the Broncos’ first offensive series, when he tried to pick up where he’d left off two weeks before, exploiting the Thomas-Cooper matchup with one of those jump balls that Thomas routinely snatches out of the air. This time, Thomas reached for it with only hand. The ball rolled down his arm and into the hands of Demps for an interception. Turned out that safety Lewis had slammed Thomas’s left shoulder on his first catch, after he’d beaten Cooper on a short slant.

“That third down to him, in that type of play, usually he can go up and make it,” Manning said. “He couldn’t even reach with his other hand. He goes up with one hand and obviously tips it, and it ends up getting intercepted. I probably told him he could have told me that earlier, that he only has one hand, and I might not have thrown to him.”

After that, it was pretty much Decker on the right side the rest of the way. Occasionally, Welker would come out of the game and Flowers would slide over, but mostly, it was the Cooper Gambit all over again. Even the one-armed Thomas eventually took advantage, catching a 77-yard fly route off him.

The rookie from Rutgers had his moments, including an interception of a Manning floater early in the second quarter, but by the time Decker’s record-setting day was over, it was obvious the master had read the board, found the weakness and battered it once more.

“I’m a corner,” Cooper explained. “That’s just the life I live. Sometimes things are going to work for me, sometimes things aren’t. I just have to keep going at it at practice and continue to learn.”

Asked about getting over such a tough day, Cooper said: “Peyton is a great quarterback. He’s going to make those plays. We just have to limit those. This is a learning experience.”

It was reminiscent of Darrent Williams, the late Broncos cornerback, after Manning, then with the Colts, took him to school back in 2006.

“It’s the great Peyton Manning,” Williams said then, with a smile. “That’s what I call him now.”

Sunday at Arrowhead, Manning completed 22 of 35 passes for 403 yards and five touchdowns. That gives him 41 touchdown passes for the season, breaking the Broncos’ franchise record with four games to play. The record — 37 — was set by Manning last year, his first with the Broncos. He is now nine shy of the NFL record, which is 50, set by Tom Brady in 2007.

Manning declined to acknowledge he targeted the Chiefs’ rookie cornerback for the second time in three weeks. Asked about the matchups, this is as much as he would say:

“They double (Wes) Welker often. In the two games we’ve played, we knew the double Wes was a scenario, so sometimes Eric is going to draw single coverage, and he played well. He ran good routes. I thought Adam (Gase) called some good plays. We were able to get down the field. Protection held up and allowed us to get down the field. Eric was awesome. Hats off to him and the way he played today.”

Decker’s wife and reality television co-star, Jessie James Decker, was somewhat more effusive on Twitter.

“Omg, omg, omg, I am crying,” she tweeted.

Manning was asked a second time about the Cooper Gambit.

“(Decker’s) touchdowns were on two different guys — Flowers, who is a top cover corner, and 31 (Cooper),” he said. “Those guys are good players. Hey, you’re not in the NFL unless you’re a good player. If you run good routes and you have time to make an accurate pass, sometimes it’s tough to defend. I really just give Decker more of the credit as opposed to saying we were going after one particular guy.”

Even with tight end Julius Thomas out with a knee injury and Demaryius Thomas hampered by the shoulder, the Broncos had more than enough offensive weapons. And even with all those defensive backs in the game, the Chiefs had not enough answers.

Once 9-0 and considered the best defense in football, the Chiefs are now 9-3 after being slapped around in consecutive weeks by the Broncos, Chargers and Broncos again. At 10-2, with the tie-breaker by virtue of beating the Chiefs twice, the Broncos have a clear path to the AFC West title and a first-round playoff bye.

As they learned last year, this guarantees them nothing, but it’s better than the alternatives.

“We came into a tough environment and got it done,” Jack Del Rio said after his fourth and final game as interim head coach. John Fox, who underwent open heart surgery four weeks ago to replace a valve, resumes his duties Monday. “I’m really proud of every man in the room and every guy that traveled, in terms of helping us get this win.”

The Broncos still have issues, of course. They surrendered 452 yards of offense to the Chiefs, not to mention a 108-yard kickoff return. They have the usual bumps and bruises of a team three-quarters of the way through a 16-game season.

But they’re back to their old ways, setting records on offense and playing just enough defense to win. When the elements cooperate — it was clear and mild in Kansas City — it’s going to take a pretty good chess player to beat them.


Behind a determined, hobbled quarterback, Broncos hold serve

For the entire 21st century — all thirteen years of it — many folks in Denver with a sense of history have decried the replacement of venerable Mile High Stadium with its thoroughly modern, multi-revenue-streamed, marble-clad successor.

Sure, it allowed the Broncos to remain economically competitive with their peers, all of which were doing the same thing, but the thunder was gone, the shake, rattle and roll, the whole erector set bouncing thing that freaked out novice national broadcasters every time.

Sunday night, it was back. Well, maybe not the erector set bounce, but everything else. The 77,076 who packed the place, many of whom came early and spent the cool, sunny afternoon in sweet anticipation, gave the visiting Kansas City Chiefs a preview of the fourth quarter in the first, roaring and stomping from their very first snap, which, not coincidentally, turned into a penalty for a false start.

In a battle for first place between a highly-admired 8-1 team and a somewhat less admired 9-0 team, the 8-1 team not only won, it also kept its quarterback upright throughout, no small feat against a defense that had sacked opposing quarterbacks more often than any other.

For the Broncos, keeping Peyton Manning upright is the overarching goal because if the 37-year-old quarterback is lost, so is the season. This is the PFM window, and the Broncos have no chance to crawl through it without PFM.

Wearing a brace on the right ankle he re-injured last week in San Diego, Manning and offensive coordinator Adam Gase hobbled a fine line between risking Manning’s health on the one hand and playing it too close to the vest on the other. They ran the ball more than usual and Manning threw fewer touchdown passes than usual. But the Broncos won, 27-17, pulling them into a tie with the Chiefs for now.

“I worked hard all week to get ready to play physically, and certainly, our protection was excellent the entire game,” Manning told KOA afterward.

The Chiefs’ capable duo of edge pass rushers, Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, came into the game with 20 quarterback sacks between them and left with the same number.

“I thought Peyton did a good job getting the ball out fast, and I thought he worked the pocket pretty well,” said Chiefs coach Andy Reid. “There were times where we had pressure and you saw him slide and throw opposite (side), which isn’t an easy thing to do. He’s a pretty good quarterback. He did that and got away with a couple that most guys wouldn’t be able to get away with. But listen, we can do a better job there. We can get more pressure on him, and we’ll work on that.”

For the second consecutive week, the Broncos forced an AFC West opponent to settle for a field goal at a key moment, in this case after a first-and-goal at the Broncos’ 2-yard line. Meanwhile, the Broncos were doing what they’ve done all year — scoring touchdowns.

“I thought our red zone was outstanding,” Manning said after completing 24 of 40 passes for 323 yards and a touchdown. “This team (Kansas City) has been excellent in the red zone. They’ve held a lot of teams to field goals. That has been a big reason why they’ve been winning games. Teams have driven the ball, and they get down there and get three points (or) a turnover down there. The fact we were able to get three touchdowns down in the red zone and the two field goals by Matt (Prater), that was enough to win. That’s something we work on a lot. I thought that was critical. Two weeks in a row, our red zone has been critical.”

One intriguing aspect of the game was the Chiefs’ defensive game plan. In March, they announced they had signed Sean Smith, a big, physical cornerback, to join the accomplished Brandon Flowers in their defensive backfield. This was widely explained as a chess move to defend the Broncos’ Demaryius Thomas, a wide receiver too big and strong and fast to cover with a traditional, small defensive back.

So if it surprised no one else, it surprised me to look up early in the game and see the Chiefs allowing the Broncos to dictate the matchups in their defensive backfield. Rather than have Smith shadow Thomas wherever he went, they had Smith stick to his right cornerback position and cover whoever the Broncos split wide left.

Unsurprisingly, the Broncos sent Eric Decker over there early and deployed Thomas to the opposite side. With Flowers inside covering Wes Welker, rookie Marcus Cooper repeatedly found himself in man-to-man coverage against the most dangerous receiver on the field.

It didn’t take long for Manning to take advantage, hitting DT with a pass down the right sideline that flew almost 50 yards in the air and went for 70 before safety Quintin Demps finally pushed Thomas out of bounds. Two plays later, tight end Julius Thomas caught a short slant for a touchdown and the Broncos had a 10-0 lead.

This was exactly the scenario the low-scoring Chiefs could not abide. Playing catch-up is not their strength.

With the two teams scheduled to meet again in Kansas City in just two weeks, no one was going to disclose anything of even remote strategic significance. But you have to try, so I asked Manning if he expected Smith to shadow Thomas or stick to the right defensive side.

“They’ve done both,” he said. “Certainly, they’ve rotated different guys in the secondary. They’ve had some different guys playing than were playing earlier in the season. Every game you’re never quite sure how their rotation is going to be.”

Cooper, a seventh-round draft choice waived by the 49ers and picked up by the Chiefs just before the season began, has been surprisingly good considering how often he’s been targeted when the Chiefs play man-to-man defense in the secondary. Still, DT made both of his long catches against him and it will be interesting to see if the Chiefs change their strategy for the rematch in K.C.

Besides quarterback sacks, turnovers were the Chiefs’ other strength in building that 9-0 record. They got one early on a fumbled exchange between Manning and rookie running back Montee Ball deep in the Broncos’ territory. But the Denver defense got the ball back on the very next play when linebacker Danny Trevathan separated it from Chiefs fullback Anthony Sherman. So the turnovers canceled out. With neither sacks nor turnovers, the Chiefs couldn’t keep up.

They did manage an 80-yard touchdown drive spanning the end of the first and beginning of the second quarter, and then a 79-yard march on their next possession. That one-yard difference turned out to be pretty important. The Broncos’ much-maligned defense kept the visitors out of the end zone the second time, forcing them to kick a field goal.

“The defense came up big in spurts, and in the end it was enough,” interim head coach Jack Del Rio told KOA.

Turned out, the experts were pretty much on it. Even though the Chiefs came in with a better record, oddsmakers made the Broncos an 8-point favorite, mostly because the Chiefs hadn’t beaten anybody good. The Broncos had the league’s best offense, the Chiefs its best defense.

The Broncos’ 27 points were their lowest output of the season, although just barely, so the Chiefs defense did about as much as it could be expected to do. The offense, managed ably but soporifically by Alex Smith, did the same.

For all the excitement at the replica of the old barn off Federal Boulevard, this thing was little more than a foreword. The next two weekends will offer the Broncos their greatest challenge of the season — consecutive road games against New England and these same Chiefs.

“From a scheduling standpoint, I’m not sure I’ve ever done that before,” Manning told KOA. “There’ll be great familiarity between both teams. Unfortunately, we’ve got a really good team we’ve got to play in between.”

Finishing ahead of the Chiefs is necessary to win the division, a route that offers a slightly smoother road in the postseason, at least in theory. But if the Broncos were to lose these next two, the advantage bestowed by Sunday night’s win would likely disappear.

So this was a necessary but insufficient condition to get where the Broncos want to go.

“We knew when the schedule came out that these were going to be three critical games,” Manning said. “We hoped they were going to be critical. We hoped they were going to matter, because that meant we had taken care of business early in the season. So this was an excellent win. We’ll enjoy it tonight. We’ll be in there tomorrow studying this one and getting a head start on New England.”

As the players and coaches left the field Sunday night, Del Rio circled back to find Gase and congratulate him. Normally, when head coach John Fox is about, these two are peers, coordinating the offensive and defensive game plans. When you consider that they’ve managed these last two division victories in the absence of their head coach, you can understand the joy they felt at keeping the team rolling while Fox recovers from open heart surgery.

“Great, great night of football,” said an enthused Del Rio. “Two very good football teams going at each other. I thought our fans were tremendous. I was told on the way in we only had 74 no-shows, which means that place was full and rocking. It was awesome.”

Imagine how happy he’ll be if they’re still in first place the next time they get to play there.