FOXBORO, Mass. — There's been some talk this week about Tim Tebow's ability to open it up and throw the deep ball with more precision, and that was definitely the case during the Broncos' 29-23 overtime victory Sunday against the Steelers.
The Broncos racked up five passing plays of at least 30 yards Sunday. How good was Tebow on those big gains? Let's run through the tape.
Second quarter, 14:56, third-and-12 from the Denver 18-yard line
This was the play that got the Broncos' offense going. The original play call was very well-designed with wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, lined up wide left, running a 15-yard hitch route to the soft part of the zone, underneath cornerback Ike Taylor and behind slot cornerback William Gay. The play was designed for Thomas.
Running back Lance Ball, who was lined up to Tebow's left in the shotgun formation, ran a curl route out of the backfield in order to draw Gay away from Thomas. However, Ball chipped linebacker James Harrison at the line to throw off the timing of his route, which would have made it risky for Tebow to throw the pass over Gay. It likely would have been broken up or intercepted, so Tebow held the ball to keep the play alive.
From there, Thomas curled around Taylor and broke up the left sideline past him, and Tebow threw a beautiful pass for a 51-yard gain. The ball traveled 50 yards in the air to increase the level of difficulty.
The improvisation by both Tebow and Thomas made this play happen. If Ball ran free into his route, the play probably would have resulted in a gain of 15-20 yards and a first down, but after it all broke down, the Broncos benefited with their first big play of the day.
Second quarter, 13:31, second-and-9 from the Pittsburgh 30-yard line
This resulted in the Broncos' first lead of the game, but it wouldn't be surprising if Tebow earned a negative grade from the coaching staff on the play. Receiver Matt Willis, who lined up in the left slot, was singled up on safety Troy Polamalu, and he was wide open after a poor read by Polamalu. Willis' stutter step, which coincided with a quick fake from Tebow, caused Polamalu to break on a 10-yard out-route, and it was an ugly read.
But just as Willis broke free, Tebow stared down Eddie Royal, who was lined up wide right. Tebow launched a pass to the end zone for Royal, who maybe had a half step on Gay — and that's being generous. The ball traveled 40 yards in the air, but it was underthrown. Yet, Gay didn't turn his head, which would have given him the chance for an interception. Instead, Royal made a tremendous catch for the touchdown.
If Tebow stayed with his original read and completed the pass to Willis, the Broncos would have at least been inside the 10-yard line, but Willis would have had the chance to break a tackle and score. Obviously, there's no faulting Tebow for throwing a touchdown pass, but there aren't many times when quarterbacks will get away with both a poor decision and poor throw on the same play.
Second quarter, 12:15, second-and-7 from the Denver 30-yard line
This was very well-executed by the Broncos. Pittsburgh had all 11 guys within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and Tebow's play-fake got the linebackers and safeties to bite as they cheated on the run. Thomas, lined up wide left, was singled up on Taylor, who was in man coverage with no safety help. Polamalu was on Taylor's side of the field, but he was in an underneath zone, leaving Taylor on an island.
Thomas actually made three moves, which is rare, to beat Taylor. And Tebow made a perfect read, throwing the ball just as Thomas gained inside leverage on Taylor. The ball traveled 30 yards in the air, and Thomas did the rest of the work on the ground to pick up a 58-yard gain.
All the credit goes to the play call to take advantage of the Steelers' aggressive run fit, as well as Tebow's precise throw. Nice play all the way around.
Second quarter, 4:32, second-and-6 from the Denver 35-yard line
This was another well-executed play, which resulted in a 40-yard pass to tight end Daniel Fells. The Steelers had 10 players within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and Polamalu was nearly 20 yards off the line at the snap. The Broncos were lined up in a heavy run formation with Tebow under center, two tight ends to the right and a fullback in a strong-I formation. Tebow's play-action fake to the running back froze everyone.
Fells, lined up tight right, was untouched off the line and ran an in-cut beyond the two inside linebackers who bit on the play-fake, and Tebow rolled out to his left by design. Polamalu then made another poor read, either by his own aggressiveness or because he was trying to compensate for the inside linebackers who took themselves out of the play with their own poor reads. Plus, the inside linebackers started to follow Tebow as he rolled out, likely in a run-contain assignment. But if that was the case, Polamalu should have been more conservative with his read.
As Fells got to the middle of the field — and as Polamalu sold out on the in-cut — Fells broke off his route into a fly pattern and got behind the defense. The ball traveled 37 yards in the air, and Fells was caught from behind because he's just not that fast.
This was another perfectly designed play that caught the Steelers' over-aggressiveness, and Tebow did a nice job with every aspect of it. It's the type of creative play design that should worry the Patriots, who have to stay honest in pass coverage. Yet, Fells' double move and Tebow's roll-out were both deceiving. Nice job by Denver.
Overtime, 15:00, first-and-10 from the Denver 20-yard line
Thomas deserves the praise on this one, but it was the final example of the Steelers' over-aggressiveness killing their season. Thomas was lined up wide left, and Tebow was in the shotgun. Safety Ryan Mundy cheated up to the line before the snap, and then he bit on Tebow's play-fake to running back Willis McGahee.
Thomas then ran a post pattern at the proper depth to get behind Mundy as he scrambled to get himself back into position, but it was far too late. Taylor was supposed to have outside leverage, while Mundy had to take the inside leverage on Thomas. Since Mundy blew the read, Taylor was hung out to dry, and Thomas ran the perfect route to catch an easy pass from Tebow. The ball traveled 23 yards in the air, and Thomas did the rest. Out of these five plays, this pass traveled the shortest distance in the air.
For whatever reason, Tebow looks more comfortable when he lets it fly, as opposed to the more traditional, chain-moving passes that make him look boxy with his mechanics. Denver designed four of those five plays, with the first one coming on some improvisation, and the designs were impressive.
It shows that the Broncos are trying to take advantage of defenses that either overload against the run or don't value the receivers' ability to run double moves. While the Patriots have to stay disciplined to stop the Broncos' running attack, Sunday's game film against the Steelers shows the Broncos are opening up their passing playbook, too.