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Overblown? Peyton, Broncos Can Still Win It All

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Peyton Manning has struggled mightily in 2015 and is off to his worst start since his rookie year. Watching him play, it is evident he is no longer the laser rocket-armed passer he was in Indianapolis. Even when he was more successful in Denver, though, he did not have that same great arm strength. How much, then, do arm strength woes explain his 2015 struggles? Is he throwing the ball downfield less than he did back in 2012 and 2013, when he was still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL? Is he throwing the ball downfield less efficiently? Or is the explanation more complicated?

Peyton’s Deep Pass Frequency

The simple explanation would be that Manning is throwing fewer deep passes, those thrown 16 or more yards downfield. Table 1 shows this is not the case.

Table 1. Peyton’s Deep Pass Frequency in Denver

Season Deep Pass Pct.
2012 18.9%
2013 18.7%
2014 19.9%
2015 19.7%

Thus far in 2015, 18.5 percent of passes league-wide have been thrown deep, so Peyton has ranged from around average to a bit above it in terms of deep-pass frequency while in Denver.

The story is similar if you look just at particularly deep passes, those thrown more than 25 yards downfield. Leauge-wide average so far this season is 6.6 percent. Numbers here are more variable than the overall deep pass numbers, but the same trend is present.

Table 2. Peyton’s Bomb (PYD >25) Frequency in Denver

Season Bomb Pct.
2012 6.9%
2013 6.1%
2014 7.6%
2015 6.7%

In the modest sample of six games, he is throwing the ball far downfield less than he did last year, but still at a rate slightly above the league average. Whatever declining arm strength has done to affect Manning’s performance is not apparent in these numbers.

Peyton’s Short Pass Distribution Numbers

Instead, what stands out in 2015 is the percentage of passes he is throwing particularly short distances, those not even past the line of scrimmage. Table 3 shows this picture.

Table 3. Peyton’s Thrown At or Behind Line of Scrimmage Frequency in Denver

Season Very Short Pass Pct.
2012 13.9%
2013 13.6%
2014 12.7%
2015 17.2%

The league average percentage of very short passes is just 18.9 percent, so Peyton has still not thrown as many as the average quarterback has. But for a passer who has spent his entire career attacking defenses aggressively, the difference is striking.

Peyton’s Newly Inefficient Passing Areas

So, Peyton Manning is throwing just as many deep passes, including bombs, and more very short passes this year. We still have not explained his performance decline. To do that, we have to look at his efficiency in throwing particular distances, and how those have changed for this season. Two stand out.

The first is bombs, those passes thrown more than 25 yards downfield. Manning may not be throwing fewer of them, but he is throwing them much less successfully. A simple comparison using success rate, which evaluates offenses based on progression toward gaining a first down, makes the difference clear.

Table 4. Peyton’s Success Rate on Bombs in Denver

Season Bomb Success Rate
2012 49%
2013 49%
2014 52%
2015 19%

Even in 2014, when his problems with arm strength seemed to start, Manning had the second-best success rate in the league on bombs, behind only Aaron Rodgers. This year, he has plummeted to third-worst, ahead of only Joe Flacco and Ryan Fitzpatrick among passers with at least 10 bomb attempts.

The other area where Peyton’s efficiency has fallen is on another form of short passes, those thrown between one and five yards downfield. Table 5 shows this difference, and adds an important piece of information.

Table 5. Peyton’s Success Rate on Passes 1-5 Yards Downfield in Denver

Season Success Rate Yards After Catch
2012 58% 4.6
2013 56% 5.1
2014 53% 4.7
2015 40% 3.5

One to five yards downfield has been the most popular distance for Peyton’s passes the entirety of his time in Denver. This year, 40.3 percent of his passes have gone that far, up a bit from 36.4% over the previous three years.

That has generally been an efficient area for Peyton Manning. One Broncos staple has been the shallow crossing route, often with a natural rub element designed to create yards after the catch. This year, players have not gotten nearly the same yards after catch on short passes. It would be tempting to ascribe the difference to personnel changes, like replacing athletic tight end Julius Thomas with Gary Kubiak veteran mainstay Owen Daniels. Looking just at wide receivers, though, the difference is even bigger, from 4.7 yards after catch in 2014 to just 3.0 despite Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas remaining the primary receivers.

What It Means, Now and Going Forward

Peyton Manning is not throwing fewer deep passes. He is throwing more passes at or behind the line of scrimmage than he has in the past, but still less than an average quarterback. His biggest problems come from the passes he is throwing less efficiently. Deep downfield throws are not being completed nearly as often. Short downfield throws are not nearly as successful, largely because they have included fewer yards after the catch.

It seems likely diminished arm strength is a major contributor to the deep ball problems, and it is probably doubtful Peyton again becomes a great bomb thrower. Reduced ball velocity may be limiting yards after catch opportunities for receivers on short passes, or that may be a result of offensive line issues, defenses crowding the line of scrimmage because of the lack of deep threat, and/or the awkward forced marriage between Peyton Manning’s offense and Gary Kubiak’s offense.

Manning is still just as efficient as he has been in past seasons on intermediate throws, those between 11 and 20 yards downfield. That gives reason for optimism that the problems with short throws might yet get fixed. If they are, combined with the great defense, the Broncos will have the offense to be one of the Super Bowl favorites in a top-heavy 2015 NFL.

Broncos double-digit favorites on Sunday night vs. winless, depleted Giants

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The Denver Broncos head into Sunday night with the largest spread they have had at home after a bye week in at least 25 years. The Broncos are 11.5-point favorites against the winless New York Giants with a 38.5-point total for the Week 6 Sunday Night Football matchup at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

Denver is 6-1 straight-up and against the spread in post-bye week games dating back to 2010. There’s a similar long-running trend of Denver being 7-2 SU and ATS in home games following a bye week since 2003. However, this is the first time since 1996 that Denver has been a double-digit favorite in that scenario.

The Giants, which are 0-5 SU and 2-3 ATS, had three wide receivers, including Odell Beckham Jr., sustain season-ending injuries last week. That has left QB Eli Manning with WR Roger Lewis (15 career catches) and WR Tavarres King as his main outside targets. Slot WR Sterling Shephard (sprained ankle) could be inactive.

While team performances tend to gravitate toward the mean with time, the Giants will need to show something new – with replacement-level personnel – in order to move the ball against a Denver pass defense which allows only 6.2 yards per pass, fifth-best in the NFL.

The Broncos’ top-ranked defense, led by OLB Von Miller, is also first in run defense and has every starter healthy. While NFC teams are a combined 1-10 SU on the road against Denver since 2012, the Giants are a solid 7-3 ATS in their last 10 games against the AFC.

Denver, 3-1 SU and 2-1-1 ATS, has been quietly efficient on offense. The Broncos, with QB Trevor Siemian, are in the middle of the NFL pack in yards per pass, but they are facing a Giants secondary that is minus CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (suspension) and has also had inconsistent play from CB Eli Apple.

Denver, 7-2 ATS over its last nine home games in October, has been good at opening holes for the tandem of C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles, who are each capable of making things happen in the open field if the tackling gets sloppy. New York also won’t have DT Olivier Vernon drawing double teams up front and keeping blockers off MLB Damon Harrison.

Unless the Broncos stop themselves, they should be able to grind out a workmanlike win.

The total has gone over in three of the Giants’ last four games against the Broncos, according to the OddsShark NFL Database. The total has gone over in six of the Broncos’ last seven games as a favorite of 11.0 points or more.

For more info, picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the new OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes, or check it out at OddsShark.libsyn.com.

Watch Indianapolis Colts vs. Seattle Seahawks live on NBC

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The Seattle Seahawks host the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday Night Football as both teams look to get back to .500.

Russell Wilson will be the focal point of the Seahawks offense after throwing for a career-high 373 yards and four touchdowns in a losing effort vs. the Titans in Week 3. Wilson’s ability to avoid the rush and use his legs will be on full display as Seattle’s offensive line continues to struggle.

On the defensive side, the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” will look to get back on track at home in a raucous environment against Colts QB Jacoby Brissett who is filling in for an injured Andrew Luck.

If the Colts have any chance to pull off the upset on the road, Brissett will have to use his legs and connect on some deep throws to T.Y. Hilton.

Football Night in America

Start time: 7:00 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app

Colts vs. Seahawks

Start time: 8:30 p.m. ET

TV channel: NBC

Live stream: NBCSports.com, NBC Sports app