A look at Manning vs. 3-4 base defenses

The Colts' last five playoff exits have come against teams employing a base 3-4 defense. AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jim Caldwell had a handy reference point ready.

There is a widely held perception that Peyton Manning doesn’t play as well against 3-4 base defenses -- like the one he'll see from the New York Jets in Sunday's AFC Championship Game at Lucas Oil Stadium -- as he does against 4-3s.

“You certainly can’t make a blanket statement about that, because I can rattle off a game or two,” the Indianapolis Colts coach said. “Against Baltimore two years ago in Baltimore, he was roughly 25 for 31 for almost 400 yards and four touchdown passes. Those numbers may not be exactly right, but I’m somewhere in the ballpark.”

Manning actually didn’t throw as often or for as many yards as Caldwell remembered. But, yes, he was in the ballpark. The quarterback was 13-for-17 for 249 yards and four touchdowns for a 157.5 passer rating, just below perfect.

Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information researched Manning's work against 3-4 defenses this season, including the Colts' Jan. 16 AFC wild-card victory over the Ravens. In seven instances against teams that play 3-4 defenses, Manning has thrown 17 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. That's right in line with his 18 TD passes and eight interceptions against 4-3s.

The big difference has come in the accuracy department.

Manning won his fourth MVP on the strength of a career-best completion percentage of 68.8.

It was a hard-to-fathom 73.4 against teams that play base 4-3 defenses and 63.5 against 3-4s. A 10-point difference is discussion-provoking, even if the lower mark is still better than the season percentage for Tony Romo, Eli Manning, Donovan McNabb, Joe Flacco, Carson Palmer, David Garrard, Vince Young, Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler, Chad Henne and Matt Hasselbeck, to name a few.

“I can’t tell you what our statistics are against a 3-4 defense. ... I don’t have an answer for you on that; I don’t know what the numbers say,” Manning said, emphasizing that the Jets mix in other looks.

The Colts have won their last eight meetings with the Ravens, a team that has played a good share of 3-4 during that stretch.

So, yes, we certainly agree with Caldwell that no blanket statement about Manning against 3-4s can be made.

Ryan was defensive coordinator of the Ravens for some of those losses, and is coach of the Jets now.

"I love him; he’s the best I’ve ever seen," Ryan said of Manning. "But when we play him, it’s like, 'man.' Because it’s frustrating. He doesn’t let you hit him. He knows exactly where to go with the football. He’s just a real pain in the butt."

We should note, as well, that the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers, two other AFC powerhouses that have had some success against Indianapolis in the postseason, just happen to play 3-4s.

The Colts’ last five playoff exits came against base 3-4 teams.

“I do think that it’s more so the people that are executing that particular scheme is what makes it difficult and [the Jets] do have good personnel,” Caldwell said. “And some teams we’ve faced, [like] New England, have done very well with that particular system. It just depends on how you play on that particular day. We certainly know what to expect. We’ve faced that defense on a number of different occasions, and it’s our job to execute better.”

Here are notes from Kevin Conlon of ESPN Stats & Information about the Colts' five playoff losses to 3-4 teams in the last six years.

2007 and 2008 -- Lost to the San Diego Chargers

The Colts managed just 20.5 points per game, far less than their season averages. ... The Colts lost both games despite having more yards. ... Manning threw two interceptions in the 2007 loss and just one touchdown pass in 2008.

2005 -- Lost to the Steelers

In a divisional playoff game, the Steelers defense held the Colts to just 18 points, sacking Manning five times.

2003 and 2004 -- Lost to the Patriots

In the two games, the Colts combined to score just 17 points. ... In those games, Manning threw just one touchdown pass while being picked off five times and sacked five times.