MIAMI -- Of this, there was little doubt: New Orleans brought a smart and fast defense to Miami. Here was the problem as Super Bowl XLIV approached: Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning was smarter and faster.
(That’s what a few of us thought, anyway.)
And so it was fascinating to watch Sunday night’s game turn when a 23-year-old Saints cornerback outsmarted Manning late in the fourth quarter. Tracy Porter said he knew “immediately” that the Colts were running one of their “bread and butter” 3rd-down plays with 3 minutes, 24 seconds left in the game. Porter stepped in front of receiver Reggie Wayne, intercepted Manning’s pass and returned it 74 yards for a touchdown. The play accounted for the final margin of the Saints’ 31-17 victory.
“I saw it over and over on film the past two weeks,” Porter said. “On third down, the route they ran there was always big for them to convert third downs on. Through numerous amounts of film study we’ve done all week, when the route came, it felt like I was watching it on film. When I saw the ball coming, I knew I was going to be in the end zone.”
The play capped another high-risk, high-reward performance by the Saints defense, one in which they gave up 432 yards but only one score after the first quarter. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams mixed versions of the 4-3 and 3-4 in a calculating way that I’ll detail in a bit
Before examining Williams’ successful game plan, however, let’s take a closer look at the play that won New Orleans its first championship. Remember, Wayne would have had an easy first down at the Saints’ 26-yard line in a one-score game had Porter not made the interception.
If anything, Saints players and coaches seemed surprised at how predictable the Colts were on the crucial play. Manning and offensive coordinator Tom Moore are known for prescient late-game play calling, but multiple Saints defenders identified the route tree before the snap.
“I can tell now that Tracy pays attention in the film room,” safety Darren Sharper said. “Because he read that play well and trusted his instincts.”
Before the snap, Porter noticed receiver Austin Collie as the outside receiver and Wayne in the slot position. “We knew Collie wasn’t normally a guy they liked in that spot,” Porter said.
In previous instances of that formation, Porter said, Collie had gone into late motion and run the slot position’s route. The slot man, in turn, ran what’s known as a “stick route” -- essentially a 6-yard pattern designed to reach the yardage “stick” and convert a first down.
On cue, Wayne ran that route. He had no chance to make the catch.
“It was just a great play by Porter,” Manning said. “That’s all I can really say about it.”
Indeed, everything about the Saints’ defense on that play suggested a stick route would work. Williams blitzed all three linebackers, leaving open the underneath for what should have been an easy conversion. Who would expect a young cornerback, even one who intercepted Minnesota’s Brett Favre late in the fourth quarter in the NFC Championship Game, to take the risk of jumping a route? Had he missed the ball or guessed wrong, Wayne might have scored.
If you watched the Saints’ defense all year, however, it probably wasn’t a surprise. New Orleans ranked second in the NFL with 39 takeaways, a number you don’t normally achieve if you simply sit back in coverage. Williams, in fact, said he has encouraged his players “to be aggressive, to take chances and to jump routes from the first day I got here.”
Williams added: “If you’re afraid to jump routes, if you’re not willing to play aggressively that way, you’re not going to make it.”
Williams took his own calculated risk Sunday, holding back his trademark blitz packages until the fourth quarter. He employed a 3-4 defense in the first quarter, switched to a 4-3 scheme in the second quarter and then mixed those two fronts with a 3-3 nickel scheme.
“Peyton Manning is too smart to just do the same thing the entire game,” Williams said. “We knew we needed a first half game plan and a second half game plan. And if we could split it between quarters, we would do that too. If you keep doing the same thing against him, he’ll pick you apart.
“But we also said this: If we got to a close game at the end of the Super Bowl, we were going to be who we are. And that’s a pressure defense.”
The blitz didn’t get to Manning on the Porter play. “We had it blocked up fine,” Colts center Jeff Saturday said.
But to me, the triple-linebacker blitz was the reason Manning was so quick to throw in Wayne’s direction -- and play right into Porter’s hands.
“He’s so smart that he’ll figure you out if you stay stagnant as a defense,” Sharper said. “We showed something in the first half and then did something different in the second. That’s what we practiced for the past two weeks. I think by the fourth quarter, we did confuse him a little.”
Ultimately, the Saints did what they had done to Arizona and Minnesota in previous weeks -- limit scoring through turnovers despite giving up massive yardage totals. The Cardinals rolled up 359 yards but only 14 points thanks to a pair of turnovers. The Vikings scored 28 points but committed five turnovers amid their 475-yard effort.
“Everybody wanted to predict and say this and say that,” Sharper said. “But we took it personally that everyone believed Peyton was going to dice us up and that it was going to be a scoring fest. To hold an offense like that to 17 points is a testament to our team.”
And, as much as anything, its intelligence. The Saints outsmarted Peyton Manning. Who would have predicted that?