By Nathan Miller
Twelve games into the 2012 season, the Denver Broncos appear to be a more legitimate contender than a year ago. By record, they are two wins improved. By observation, it appears to be much more. They are division champions, and clicking on a Manning-led offense that is significantly different in style and substance.
It has come as no surprise that the offense under Manning has developed in record time. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas has demonstrated noted improvement. The third-year Bronco told the media during the offseason that he needed to learn the rest of the route tree. With Manning at the helm, this was not a goal as much as it was a demand. Thomas has responded as such and his improvement has been tremendous. He is easily having the best year of his young career.
In terms of the popular, but overstated, third-year theory for receiver development, Thomas is chronologically behind the curve. His first two years of development time were spent in an environment of constant change, and he was battling back from a career-threatening injury. This analysis highlights the difference in Thomas’ route skills between last year and this year.
Thomas spent the majority of the 2011 season running curl and fade routes. These routes suite Thomas well because of his athletic gifts and he is adept at gaining yards after the catch. Later in the year, he began to see more targets on crossing routes. Watching tape of these routes from 2011, what sticks out is Thomas’ lack of precision. It’s nothing glaring, but it’s details like these below that Manning takes seriously and learning them has made a big difference in this young receiver’s game.
On this play against Buffalo last year, Thomas runs an intermediate crossing route.
Thomas run 10 yards up field and needs to cut in (blue line) on this crosser.
Instead of making a sharp cut to the center of the field (blue line), Thomas veers into the route.
The “rounding” of the cut allows the cornerback to ease into better coverage, and it also gives an early cue to the safety over top.
Thomas makes the reception, but his route gives him little room to work.
The play was designed for a sharp cut to the inside at 10 yards. As seen in this view, the play design provides for an open area between the numbers if Thomas makes the cut instead of veering. This would have provided him an extra step on the defender and allowed the receiver on top to make a block, giving Thomas a chance to utilize his yards-after-catch ability.
With Peyton Manning under center this year, here is Thomas running a 15-yard crossing route against the Patriots.
He sells the deep route with a strong release up field.
He hits the 15-yard mark and cuts hard to the inside. On this crosser, Thomas doesn’t ease up and there is no veering of the route. A shallow route by another receiver draws two defenders down, leaving the middle of the field open.
Thomas’ cut is hard and precise. Look at the how his knees are bent and his hips are bent down. He is on his way to the center of the field by the time the cornerback reacts to the change of direction.
Thomas exploits the undefended middle of the field. Manning’s pass is slightly behind Thomas and this forces the receiver to lose his momentum. If this ball is placed in front of Thomas, he likely doubles his yardage with his speed and strength as a ball carrier after the catch.
Another area where Thomas needed improvement were routes where he breaks back to the quarterback. He has often lacked follow-through to work back to the quarterback after the break on these routes that can expose the ball in a vulnerable position for the defender to intercept.
On this play against the Texans, Thomas runs an intermediate curl route. He hits his mark and turns for the pass. Unfortunately, he doesn’t make a move on the ball. Instead Thomas waits for the ball to come to him. Against a formidable Houston defense led by Jonathan Joseph, this play nearly results in a turnover. Joseph and the safety made a read on Thomas’ route and react quickly.
Thomas comes back about a yard as his quarterback delivers the ball, but the safety and cornerback each traverse over five yards of space.
Fortunately for Denver, the safety is unable to make the interception and the result for Denver is a welcome gift: an incomplete pass. Thomas needs to come back to the ball on this route and attack the pass, especially against an athletic secondary.
Just four games later against the Saints, Thomas makes an above-average effort to claim what is his. Thomas faces off-man coverage and begins the play with a hard release up field.
Once he gets 15 yards up field, he makes a swift cutback on the curl.
He works over four yards back to the ball, earning Thomas a safe cushion on the corner and he does a good job of going the distance to protect the pass from the defense. Coming back for the catch and attacking the ball like this is a simple but significant improvement that can be taught over a short period of time. Thomas does a good job learning this lesson.
Athletic corners have had success containing Thomas with press coverage, executing a stiff jam at the line of scrimmage. While Thomas has shown an ability to overcome it because he’s a naturally strong and swift receiver with imposing size, defenders willing to go toe-to-toe with Thomas have won plays against the young receiver on more occasions than he should.
In this Week 8 match-up against New Orleans, the defender successfully disrupts the timing of the catch and prevents a touchdown. The play begins with the defender lining up tight on Thomas.
After the snap, the defender lunges forward to make contact. There is a significant bump, and residual friction after the hit. This happens because the defender is first to get his hands into the receiver’s body. Thomas does little on this play to limit the surface area of his torso.
Thomas is forced to use brute strength over technique, throwing the defender aside.
Although Thomas is a physical specimen and his strength is impressive, the defender has won this battle because the jam disrupts the timing between Manning and Thomas. This is a case where strength cannot be the answer. It takes too long. Thomas had to learn to use a resource other than force because on this play Manning overthrew Thomas by a few yards. This is an example why technique overrules athleticism once a player has proven he possess the baseline amount necessary to compete in the league.
Two games later, Thomas shows improvement. This time with a Panthers’ defender in press technique, Thomas uses a quick double move to get around his opponent.
Thomas begins his release with a hard stab to the outside.
The move to the outside causes the defender to shift his hips and gives Thomas room to come back to the inside and get around the defender. The corner is left in a position where he has to re-position his feet and accelerate to catch up.
With Thomas’ athletic ability, this foot race is over before it begins because Thomas’ inside position is all that he needs to gain separation.
The Saints defender’s successful jam two examples ago was more physical style of press than Thomas usually sees. The defender hits the receiver enough to knock Thomas off balance. This forces the receiver to run through the defender. Again, this is what slowed Thomas’ route and disrupted the timing, preventing a touchdown.
I mention this play again because a found a play from 2011 where Thomas executes a move against the Vikings corner who tries the same thing. After repeat viewings of the play, Thomas did a better job of reducing the available surface area of his body to prevent the aggressive jam from slowing him down as much, but he still has room for improvement.
Vikings cornerback Cedric Griffin will engage Thomas at the line with a swift jam. However, in this instance Thomas absorbs and redirects the hit.
Griffin makes the initial contact with Thomas.
Thomas pushes him to the outside while taking a bounce-back step and then then slides around the defender as soon as he re-establishes his footing. Thomas still needs to learn to avoid the jam or attack the defender first to establish immediate control. If Thomas were first to get his hands on the defender he could have discarded the corner while moving down field the entire time.
Thomas accelerates up field on a corner route.
Thomas makes the reception near the 40 yard line with ample space ahead for a 30-yard gain.
In his first two years, Thomas displayed moments of excellence when he was able to rely on his immense athleticism. Under Manning, he is improving his technical skills thanks to refining his craft as a route runner. The Manning effect is not to be understated. It is evident is his preparation, visible in his performance, and relevant in his stats.
Through 12 games, Thomas has eclipsed his prior two-year totals in receptions, yardage, and touchdowns. Project for the remaining games, and his stats should be impressive by any standard.
Thomas has improved his game in 2012 by developing his skills within the full route tree. Crossers, drags, digs, outs, comebacks, posts, hitches, streaks, and corners are all gaining precision. Thomas’ crossers are notably more precise, and he is also selling double moves on deeper routes, which is allowing him better positioning to make plays. On curls, he is coming back to the ball and spinning into position around defenders. Not only is his technique improving, but he is integrating the fundamentals into the instinctive and athletic components of his talents.
DOUBLE MOVES AND MANIPULATION
On third-and-10 from the 30 yard line against the Vikings last year, Thomas runs a corner route with the defender covering deep.
Thomas runs a straight down field and makes no attempt to adjust his route to mislead or realign the two covering defenders.
The result is an incomplete pass because the defender has no problem maintaining close coverage that makes a difference between a reception and a drop. If Thomas ran a route where he forced the cornerback to turn his hips away from the ball as the receiver released from the line, the receiver would have had a better chance to buy a step on the corner.
This year, Thomas demonstrates that refined ability. On a deep post route against the Patriots this year, Thomas executes an initial misdirection stem before breaking to the post. Although simple, it easily buys the receiver a step.
Coming off the line, Thomas heads at the defender and takes a slight outside angle to move the defender.
Reading an outside route, the defender turns his hips to the sideline.
As soon as the defender turns, Thomas breaks inside, cutting between the backsides of two defenders.
Thomas makes his way to the middle of the field in excellent position for a reception.
Thomas has the ball knocked loose, but the route was good enough to afford him a better opportunity to attack the ball while shielding the defender.
Thomas illustrates more improvement with his route technique against the Falcons. This is a veteran play in a clutch situation, a third-and-goal at the Falcons’ 17 yard line with 0:14 left in the half and the Broncos down 20-0. The corner is playing deep against Thomas with safety help nearby.
Thomas runs hard during the first five yards of his release, changes course inside for a yard, and then straightens out. This moves the defensive backs to the inside because they read a post route.
Thomas then takes a hard stab to the inside near the goal line. The cornerback reacts and shifts to the inside.
Thomas then executes the second move and breaks to the outside.
The double move manipulates the positioning of the defender and Manning makes an excellent throw high and outside for Thomas to make a play.
One foot down, drags the second, and Thomas makes the play for a touchdown.
Thomas’ use of double moves is much more prevalent under Manning and the receiver is showing great improvement with executing new routes. He’s also incorporating timely fakes and breaks that allow him better opportunities for big plays.
With continued work and tutelage from Manning, the ceiling for Thomas’ success is great. He already has the athletic talent that is better than many of his peers. As long as he and Manning stay healthy, Thomas can be an elite player for years to come.
Nathan Miller can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @Revel_Nathan, or visit www.revelationsports.com for more information and analysis.