Last weekend, Tim Tebow played the best game of his NFL career for one reason, and one reason only: he threw the ball exceptionally well.
In the NFL, high level quarterback play results from passing the ball, and in the Wild Card round, Tebow was remarkably accurate on almost all his intermediate and deeper throws.
There’s a larger context, of course, one that’s compelling both in the short term as Denver prepares for its rematch with the Patriots, and in the long run, as Tebow’s performance is further analyzed and evaluated.
A quick recap of the Broncos Week 15 loss to New England reveals some important tactical patterns. In the first half, the Patriots played predominantly zone coverage, featuring “cover 3” with a single high safety, and “cover 2”, with 2 deep safeties. They played very few snaps of man coverage. Tebow had great success with the Broncos staple pass play: the flash play action (both under center and from the shotgun) followed by the quick in-breaking throws to both Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker. Denver also ran for 182 yards. Overall, the Broncos had 5 plays of more than 20 yards, and two others for 19 yards.
In the second half, the Patriots adjusted. They played primarily man coverage. It was “man free” (man-to-man versus all 5 eligible receivers with a single free safety) behind a 4 man controlled pass rush. That concept also had a free defender in the short middle, in position to play in-breaking routes and react to Tebow when he moved. The strategic change proved effective, both for the Patriots in their 40-23 victory, and more importantly as a template for other teams to defend Tebow and the Broncos offense.
New England’s general principle was as follows: 8 defenders in the box to play the run, man coverage on the outside with a single deep safety, a free defender near the line of scrimmage to minimize Tebow’s improvisational movement. The Bears, Bills and Chiefs executed this concept extremely well. It was based on a detailed film breakdown of Tebow. What Tebow had put on tape much of the season, and more prominently in recent weeks, was a reluctant and inaccurate passer uncomfortable throwing the ball unless the primary read was wide open.
Preparation in the NFL is based on probability and tendency, so the Steelers took a similar tactical approach, with one exception: they played many snaps with no safety in the deep middle. Both Troy Polamalu and Ryan Mundy at times attacked the line of scrimmage as primary run defenders. Pittsburgh’s foundation was clearly to defend the run with a loaded box, and play man-to-man on the outside — an addition to what previous teams had done, but still based on the same unmistakable tape study conclusion: Tebow had not shown he was a good enough passer to make throws against man coverage.
Against the Steelers, for the first time, Tebow made those throws from the pocket with consistency. He was accurate on his intermediate and downfield passes. That was supplemented by Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s brilliant game plan in which he designed some pass plays that required no progression reading and little anticipation. That’s outstanding coaching: minimize and camouflage Tebow’s passing limitations.
Tebow’s game winning touchdown pass to Thomas was the same flash play action, in-breaking throw he had success with against the Patriots “cover 3” zone. The difference against Pittsburgh was it came versus man coverage with no deep safety in the middle. A throw expected to gain 20 yards became an 80 yard exclamation point.
Tebow is clearly the reason the Broncos will be playing this weekend in a rematch with the Patriots, and he’s at the center of the single most compelling story line of Divisional Playoff Weekend: How will his performance against the Steelers impact Bill Belichick’s game plan? Is Tebow the overwhelming majority of his throws this season, or is he the 6 terrific throws he made last Sunday?