After Sunday's game, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning referred to the Broncos third-and-17 completion late in the fourth quarter as "the perfect call against the perfect coverage."
And while it wasn't a very complicated play, in NFL terms, he was right.
The Broncos had a third-and-17 from their own 20 with a little more than three minutes left. San Diego had cut Denver's lead to 24-17. The Broncos needed a first down to keep the clock running.
The Chargers disguised their coverage, starting out in a two-deep shell, but rotated to "Cover 3" zone at the snap (more accurately, it's "Cover 3 lurk," with safety Eric Weddle coming up to be the lurker on the play). The cornerbacks and deep safety are each responsible for a deep third of the field in that coverage.
The route combination by the Broncos on Manning's right is a very common one. It’s a post-wheel. The Saints, for example, run this all the time.
When the Chargers rotated to "Cover 3," the corner to that side, Shareece Wright, was responsible for the No. 1 receiver to that side, Demaryius Thomas. Thomas ran a vertical route into his third of the field.
Thomas ran vertically for about 18 yards before he broke it inside to the post. That’s deep enough to occupy Wright. Wright has to stay with him, because Thomas can just keep running straight down the field on a go route. That area of the field is Wright's responsibility, so Wright can't pass him off if there's a possibility Thomas is going straight down the field.
The Broncos ran Demaryius Thomas’ vertical route to eat up Wright, and then they ran tight end Julius Thomas’ wheel route into the exact same area. Wright can’t cover both routes.
Demaryius Thomas' depth on his post route is key. If he ran it shorter than 18 yards, Wright could pass him off to the safety when he breaks and go to cover Julius Thomas. And you can see Wright being unsure what he should do because it’s distorting his coverage responsibility. Should he stay with Demaryius Thomas or pass him on?
You could make the argument the Chargers linebacker to that side, Bront Bird, should get underneath Julius Thomas' route, and technically he should be expanding in "Cover 3," but he wouldn’t make this play no matter how much he expanded.
The Chargers got some pressure on Manning. If Manning wasn’t under pressure and didn't have to move, this might have been a touchdown because he could have led Julius Thomas on the pass. Given the rush, Julius Thomas is so wide open that Manning just tried to get it out there so he can catch it and get a crucial first down.
And this shows the difference in NFL games: Julius Thomas was in bounds, but he was probably in bounds by about two inches.
Theoretically this route combination also works against "Cover 4" quarters zone. It works against a lot of coverages, but theoretically it works best against "Cover 3." That’s why Manning said it was the perfect play against that coverage. It put the corner in an impossible spot, with two routes coming into his area of responsibility, and the Broncos took advantage of that.
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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.