AFC West: James Laurinaitis
Mathematicians have drilled those five words into our heads for centuries. They provide minimal comfort, of course, for NFL teams charged with slowing what to this point in 2013 has been The Perfect Quarterback.
Peyton Manning has led the Denver Broncos to a 4-0 start by throwing for more yards (1,470) and touchdowns (16) than any quarterback has over a season's first four games. He has completed 75 percent of his passes, the second-best mark after four games in history, hasn't thrown an interception and has taken just five sacks in 161 dropbacks. According to ESPN Stats & Information video charting, only 14 of Manning's 39 incompletions have been off-target. The rest were deemed catchable or throwaways.
Every problem has a solution.
What about a problem that seems to counter at every step?
Defenses have played two deep safeties extensively this season, guarding against big downfield plays. Manning has adjusted by emphasizing underneath routes. His average pass has traveled a modest 7.9 yards past the line of scrimmage, ranking No. 21 among NFL starters, and his receivers have accounted for an NFL-high 723 yards after the catch.
When opponents use a "light" box of six defenders or fewer, putting more defenders in pass coverage, Manning has checked into running plays. About two-thirds of the Broncos' total rushing yards (314 of 477) have come against those favorable alignments, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only four NFL teams have more carries against light boxes.
Every problem has a solution.
How to solve this one? It's worth remembering what the German philosopher/mathematician Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: "The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have known since long."
What have we long since known about Manning? For one, that his typically stellar regular seasons have usually been stopped in the playoffs, where the league's best defenses await.
The 11 teams that have handed Manning playoff losses had an average rank of No. 8 in scoring defense in their respective seasons. Six were in the top six and 10 of the 11 were among the top 15. As a result, Manning's teams have averaged 16.1 points in those 11 games.
Every problem has a solution.
Well, almost always. In 2006, Manning and the Indianapolis Colts won Super Bowl XLI by scoring 29 points against a Chicago Bears defense that finished the season ranked No. 3 in scoring defense.
So what can good defenses do to slow down Peyton Manning in 2013? What is his kryptonite? Here is what NFL Nation says:
Score faster than a speeding bullet
"Boy, I tell you what, hope he has a bad day," Rivera said at the time.
Rivera saw Manning have a couple of his worst days when he was with San Diego and Manning was at Indianapolis. The first came in 2007, when Manning threw a career-high six interceptions in a 23-21 loss. The second came in 2010, when Manning threw four interceptions in a 36-14 loss.
Manning has had four seasons in which he has thrown 10 or fewer interceptions, and he's working on another with none through four games. Rivera saw him have 10 in two games.
"There are some things that you can do against him, but you've got to have a group of guys that can handle it," Rivera said on Wednesday.
Rivera would not go into specifics, but he was adamant it was not all about schemes.
"People want to look at those games and say, 'Oh, defense, defense,'" Rivera said. "But … we scored points and put them in position where he had to throw the ball."
Rivera was the inside linebackers coach on that rainy November night. Manning still passed for 328 yards and two touchdowns, and had the Colts within a missed 29-yard field goal of winning.
"We tried to attack the way they protected, and tried to get immediate pressure on him and make him throw the ball before he wanted," Rivera said. "But as far as all the other stuff, it's an encompassing team effort."
The same was true in 2010 when Rivera was the defensive coordinator. Of Manning's four interceptions, two were returned for touchdowns.
The Panthers were too inexperienced and fell behind too far, too fast (29-7) to have a chance last season as Manning passed for 301 yards and a touchdown in a 36-14 victory in Charlotte.
"To beat a Peyton Manning team it's got to be a complete effort," Rivera said.
-- David Newton, Carolina Panthers reporter
Slow down the locomotive's rhythm
Because Manning has traditionally been one of the toughest quarterbacks to sack, with his ability to diagnose defensive intentions early and get rid of the ball quickly, one of the more effective tactics for the Patriots has been physical play against his receivers. By decisively jamming them at the line of scrimmage, it can affect the quick rhythm and preciseness that is a trademark of any Manning-led offense.
That physicality theme usually resonates any week the Patriots are preparing to face Manning.
One of the classic examples came in a 2001 Patriots-Colts game when linebacker Bryan Cox delivered a thunderous hit on receiver Jerome Pathon that some pointed to as a catalyst for the team’s turnaround that season. The Patriots were 0-2 at the time, a second-year quarterback named Tom Brady was making his first career start, and the defense had to pick up more of the slack. The Patriots pummeled Manning and his receivers to post a 44-13 win.
In addition to physicality, Patriots players past and present discussed the importance of mixing packages and coverages because Manning is so smart.
Add it up and it’s no wonder that, in 2010, former Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel was dubbed as “Peyton Manning’s kryptonite” by SI.com. The title was deserved considering there was a stretch of six straight games from 2001-2004 in which New England beat Manning, and Manning turned in some of the worst games of his career over that stretch.
A big part of that was that the Patriots had a talented defense, and NFL rulebook didn’t favor the offense as heavily then as it does now. Some bone-chilling New England weather helped too.
But most of all, it was the ability to disrupt the rhythm of the passing game, usually with a heavy dose of physical play.
-- Mike Reiss, New England Patriots reporter
Force his vision to the middle
So do the Broncos. In back-to-back playoff losses to close out the 2003 and 2004 seasons, they largely attacked Manning with man coverage in the secondary and tried to spice some pressure up front. Former offensive coordinator Larry Coyer said he would try to "unleash mortal hell" in 2004. The totals for the two games: 49-of-59 passing for 835 yards and nine touchdowns.
Former Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who coached the team in each of those playoff losses to Manning, also coached Manning at the Pro Bowl following the 2005 season. He has said, even in that informal setting, Manning was "trying to pick the brains of every player there to learn something he could come back to later … and a lot of people learn in the present, but he learns and retains. He doesn’t just memorize, he learns and can apply it later."
But, no, he is not perfect. He has a 9-11 playoff record and lost his first game of a postseason eight times -- he misses throws, he tosses interceptions, things happen. It is just, as many defensive coaches around the league say, that you have to be in the right spot when he is wrong.
Those who find a way to get pressure in the middle of the field -- with a four-man rush so seven defenders can remain in the pattern -- fare the best against him. Manning tends to see edge pressure coming long before the snap and rarely holds the ball long enough for the outside blitzer to get there.
But those who prevent him from sliding forward as he works through his progressions can get him off his rhythm. Teams that have chosen coverage over pressure have fared better, at times, if they get a little weather on their side as well. But the defensive backs cannot make mistakes and have to limit the catch-and-run opportunities.
Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, who started the Broncos’ playoff loss against Manning to close out the ’04 season, has been to 12 Pro Bowls in his career and has seen some of the game’s best quarterbacks come and go. He always speaks of Manning’s ability to solve defensive riddles in seconds at the line of scrimmage. He also says the quarterback’s accuracy may be under-valued because so much attention is paid to how Manning thinks the game.
"He always, especially right now, but always puts the ball where it needs to be," Bailey said. "You can have the right technique, have good footwork, body position, maybe even beat the receiver to the spot, but he fits the ball in the one place it needs to be. So, he wins a play when you did everything right on defense. So, he wins all of them when you make a mistake, because he always finds the mistakes, and then he wins a lot of them when you do everything right. Add it up and you do what he’s done."
-- Jeff Legwold, Denver Broncos reporter
Find strength in success
They can just punch in Dec. 5, 2010, on a Google search for a refresher course as they are being reminded this week that the Broncos quarterback is playing better than any quarterback in the history of the game.
"It’s the Indianapolis Colts instead of the Denver Broncos, he’s a different kind of player -- all that kind of stuff -- different supporting cast," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "But you know, you go back to games when you’ve had some success against a player or against a team or a scheme and you evaluate that, and you also evaluate when you haven’t had success and make sure that you remedy those things."
The Cowboys did not sack Manning in that game, but they did move him around and show him different looks. He also happened to be in a major funk. In three straight losses to New England, San Diego and the Cowboys, Manning was intercepted 11 times.
"I thought we did a good job of executing and getting at least some pressure on him and making him move around a little bit," said linebacker Sean Lee, who had two picks of Manning and returned one for a touchdown. "With any quarterback, pressure is huge. With your coverage against a great quarterback you have to be detailed with your fundamentals. That’s something we’re going to have to be."
It was not a virtuoso defensive performance. Manning completed 36 of 48 passes for 365 yards and two touchdowns. Despite Manning’s four interceptions, the Cowboys still needed overtime to beat the Indianapolis Colts that day 38-35, but they were playing with backup quarterback Jon Kitna and lost Dez Bryant to an ankle injury in the game.
"They scored 35 points on us," cornerback Orlando Scandrick said. "I don’t want to trade four interceptions for 35 points though."
In the 24 games he has played since seeing the Cowboys, Manning has only three regular-season games with more than one interception.
The Cowboys are in a different scheme now than they were in then, and only the starters from that game who will start Sunday are DeMarcus Ware and Scandrick, who returned an interception 40 yards for a score against the Colts. Lee, was a backup, as were Jason Hatcher and Barry Church.
-- Todd Archer, Dallas Cowboys reporter
Rely on divine powers?
If there is an answer to be found in stopping Manning or even slowing him down, it is not to be found in St. Louis. From 2008-2010, Rams coach Jeff Fisher suffered a five-game losing streak against Manning when he was coach at Tennessee and Manning was leading the Colts.
In 18 meetings, Manning had a career record of 13-5 against Fisher’s Titans. He threw for 4,559 yards, 31 touchdowns, 13 interceptions, a 70 percent completion rate and a 101.2 quarterback rating.
The Rams have not played Manning in a regular-season game since he got to Denver but they did play him this past preseason. In that game, Manning pushed the pace at a rate that had Rams defenders grasping for air in Denver's altitude -- ticking off 30 plays in the first quarter and 49 for 290 yards in the first half.
While Manning likes to go fast, it seems the biggest thing is not so much the speed as it is the way it's used to create an advantage.
When Manning wants to slow things down, he forces defenses to be more patient than they are usually willing to be and as soon as one defender makes a move, Manning identifies it and takes advantage of the pre-snap read.
“He kind of reads your mail, so to speak,” middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said. “He knows how to get defenses to show their hand and tries to get them in the best play possible.”
Still, it seems as though the best way to deal with the tempo is to be as patient as possible and to try to find the right timing to attack the snap count.
For teams looking to slow Manning, the best answer is to take advantage of the rare occasions when Manning makes a mistake. In that preseason meeting, the Rams forced a pair of turnovers, including an interception by Alec Ogletree. It left the Broncos with a 20-10 halftime deficit.
One other suggestion that was offered and probably isn’t a new one for teams dealing with Manning: prayer.
-- Nick Wagoner, St. Louis Rams reporter
A breath of freezing air
In an AFC divisional playoff game in Baltimore, the Ravens kept Manning and the Colts' offense from reaching the end zone and picked him off twice. The Ravens lost 15-6, but they took pride in holding Manning to 15-for-30 passing for 170 yards.
Their lone win over Manning over the past six years came in last season's AFC divisional playoff game in Denver. Baltimore intercepted Manning twice and held him to one touchdown pass in the second half. That dropped Manning to 0-4 in playoff games when the game-time temperature dips below 40 degrees.
Manning is a quarterback who played most of his career in a dome in Indianapolis and has a history of not performing well in less-than-ideal weather. He is also a 37-year-old quarterback whose arm is not as strong in January as it is in September and October.
-- Jamison Hensley, Baltimore Ravens reporter
Team needs: Safety, inside linebacker, defensive end, right tackle
|Tim Larson/Icon SMI|
|San Diego could consider LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson if he is available at No. 16.|
Dream scenario: San Diego is working from a position of strength. Yes, the Chargers have needs, but they won't be pigeonholed into selecting any one position. Because San Diego doesn't have a second-round pick, it could potentially trade down from the No. 16 spot down 5-7 picks (maybe to take advantage of a team trying to catch a falling star such as a quarterback) to pick up a second-round pick and still be able to find a player who could help right away. Expect the Chargers to seriously consider USC linebacker Rey Maualuga and LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson if they are on the board. If Alabama tackle Andre Smith, who is slipping down the board, tumbles all the way to No. 16, San Diego could take him and move him to right tackle, giving it a nasty offensive line.
Plan B: If there are no trade options available and Maualuga, Jackson and Smith are all off the board, the Chargers will still have plenty of options because of no pressing needs. They could look at Ohio State inside linebacker James Laurinaitis to solidify the linebacking crew. There is also some thought that the Chargers could pull the trigger on a running back, even though they have nearly $13 million in 2009 salary tied up in LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles. The team is visiting with both Knowshon Moreno of Georgia and Chris "Beanie" Wells of Ohio State prior to the draft. The Chargers are clearly looking at their post-Tomlinson life, but seeing them draft a running back would be a surprise because of the lack of an immediate need. Still, whatever San Diego does, it should be able to help itself.
Scouts Inc. take: "I believe San Diego's biggest need is strong safety, but there is no one available who'll be worth taking at No. 16. The Chargers may address that need later in the draft. Some people say they may no longer need an inside linebacker after signing Kevin Burnett from Dallas. But I think it would be hard for them to pass up Rey Maualuga if he was there. Maualuga is a great two-down player and Burnett is a very good coverage linebacker who can help on third down. I think that would be a good combination there." -- Matt Williamson, Scouts Inc.
Who has final say: A.J. Smith enters his seventh draft as the Chargers' general manager.
Now On the Clock: Houston Texans, April 1.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
The Chargers are still interested in taking Tomlinson's eventual replacement, but there is no rush. Plus, with Tomlinson and backup Darren Sproles both on the books for more than $6 million apiece, it is doubtful the Chargers will invest first-round money in another tailback this year. San Diego has other needs.
Here is a look at some of the players who could intrigue the Chargers in the first round. San Diego has the No. 16 pick:
USC linebacker Brian Cushing: The Chargers have a need at linebacker. Cushing will likely be taken right around where the Chargers select. He could be the impact player defensive coordinator Ron Rivera is looking for.
LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson: If the Chargers want to fill a hole on the defensive line, the athletic Jackson could be the ticket.
Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis: He likely won't be the top choice but if the Chargers are bent on taking a linebacker and Laurinaitis is the best available, he could be the choice.
USC linebacker Rey Maualuga: If Maualuga is on the board, he could be staying in Southern California. He is an impact player who would fit in with the Chargers very well.
Mississippi tackle Michael Oher: If other top San Diego targets weren't on the board, and Oher slipped down the board, he could be a good bargain and the team could use him at right tackle or as injury insurance for left tackle Marcus McNeill.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
With the NFL combine going on for the next several days in Indianapolis, here is a look at the key goals of each team in the AFC West. Free agency (which begins Feb. 27) and the draft (April 25-26) are looming.
The Broncos cut five defensive starters earlier this week and carved several million dollars in salary-cap room, so the team is at the combine in full reload mode.
The combine is supposed to be about the draft, but it is just as much about free agency. With free agency a week away, many teams spend the time in Indianapolis finalizing their game plans for free agency. That's what Denver surely is doing.
The Broncos need five or six defensive starters and they need help at every layer of their defense. The list could include nose tackle Grady Jackson and cornerback Ronald Bartell. The draft is also of major importance to Denver, so its scouting department will be keeping a keen eye on what's happening on the field in Indianapolis.
The Broncos have the No. 12 overall pick and nine draft picks total. Like in free agency, expect defense to be the focus. Players Denver will study the most are Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji and USC middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. Denver would likely be thrilled to draft either player.
Kansas City has the No. 3 pick and what it does with it will help define the early portion of the Scott Pioli and Todd Haley era.
Expect the Chiefs to seriously eye quarterbacks. The Chiefs may not take one because of the presence of Tyler Thigpen, who's a capable player, and their huge need for impact players on defense. But the Chiefs may be romanced by the memory of what last year's No. 3 pick, quarterback Matt Ryan, did for Atlanta.
The Chiefs will no doubt spend a lot of time with Georgia's Matt Stafford and USC's Mark Sanchez, the top quarterback prospects. There is also the idea of trading for New England's Matt Cassel, who obviously has a history with Pioli.
Also expect the Chiefs to spend a lot of time with Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry this week. He could be the best defensive player available.
Other burning issues for Kansas City in Indianapolis include the likelihood of the Chiefs talking to teams about trading for Johnson. Because of his price tag and off-field baggage, Johnson may difficult to move. He may end up getting cut.
The Raiders' job is fairly simple. They must pick up an impact offensive player with the No. 7 pick. Because there are about eight can't-miss offensive players, Oakland, which has failed often this decade with its first choices, has a chance to get a quality player who can make an instant impact on offense.
The Raiders will likely choose between a receiver and an offensive tackle with the No. 7 pick. The top choices at receiver are Texas Tech's Michael Crabtree and Missouri's Jeremy Maclin. Seattle may take Crabtree at No. 4; otherwise, Oakland might be able to choose between the two receivers.
Still, Oakland needs a dominant left tackle nearly as much as it needs a game-breaking receiver. The top tackles available are Alabama's Andre Smith, Baylor's Jason Smith and Virginia's Eugene Monroe. One of these three tackles, at least, should be available. So, the Raiders should be able to pick between at least two of five players who could instantly help them. This week's work will help Oakland decipher what it wants to do in the draft.
The Chargers are going to have an interesting weekend as they try to resolve the LaDainian Tomlinson situation and prepare for the future.
The team is expected to have serious talks with Tomlinson's agent. The two sides are expected to try to hash out a restructured contract that will keep Tomlinson in San Diego. If a new deal can't be reworked by Thursday night, Tomlinson will be released. But both sides want to avoid that sad scenario.
A new deal may be tricky but not impossible. The in-person talks in Indianapolis could have the team and Tomlinson come to a resolution. Also, it wouldn't be a shock if the Chargers continue talks about a long-term deal with quarterback Philip Rivers while at the combine.
As far as draft business this weekend, the Chargers, who have the No. 16 overall pick, have plenty of options. If Tomlinson returns, the team will likely not pursue a running back such as Georgia's Knowshon Moreno or Ohio State's Chris Wells.
The Chargers will likely focus on linebackers this weekend, including Maualuga and his USC teammate, Brian Cushing, and Ohio State's James Laurinaitis.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
This is the fourth in a series looking at the potential draft direction of the teams in the AFC West:
Needs: Linebacker, defensive line, safety, offensive line, running back
Possible first-round picks
James Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State: The Chargers would love to see USC's Rey Maualuga slip, but he likely won't. Laurinaitis could be there when the Chargers pick. The team could use another inside linebacker. With Shawne Merriman coming back, this pick could solidify a strong linebacking crew.
Taylor Mays, S, USC: Like Maualuga, the Chargers may be picking too late to grab Mays who is rising up draft boards. But he'd make a perfect pair with Eric Weddle at safety in San Diego.
B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College: It isn't their greatest need, but the Chargers wouldn't mind adding another big body in the middle of their defensive line. Raji could be a nice complement for Jamal Williams.
Wild card: The Chargers could be tempted to take LaDainian Tomlinson's eventual replacement. It would be luxury pick but if the team falls in love with Ohio State's Chris Wells or Georgia's Knowshon Moreno, this could be the time to make a move.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
This is the third in a series looking at the potential draft direction of the teams in the AFC West.
Needs: Linebacker, defensive line, safety, running back
Possible first-round picks
Rey Maualuga, LB, USC: He is a standout player who would bring legitimate help to Denver's linebacking crew. The Broncos could also look at Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis. The Broncos were hoping both players would come out in the draft last year when they were picking 12th.
Taylor Mays, S, USC: We've seen play-making safeties change the look of an entire defense and Mays could be that player for the Broncos. Denver has longed for a stud safety all decade. It could get its man this year.
B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College: He is a huge plugger in the middle and Denver has been looking for his type of body for years. Raji could a good start to a defensive facelift.
Wild card: If Ohio State running back Chris Wells is on the board, Denver could be tempted. Now that Mike Shanahan is no longer in the fold, the team needs a true standout at running back. But the team's defensive needs are great.
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
Denver quarterback Jay Cutler told reporters Monday, a day after the Broncos lost in San Diego to complete their three-week collapse in the AFC West, that he expects Denver to end a three-year playoff drought next season.
"Yes, I do. I think with (head coach) Mike (Shanahan) and the front office, they are going to make some moves and try to improve us as a whole team," Cutler said. "I love the direction the offense is going with Jeremy (Bates) leading us, the coaching, the offensive line and the receivers. I think we have a real chance next year."
The Broncos need to make some defensive improvements. But the team has to get over the hangover from their collapse first.
The letdown did have a silver lining for Denver. It is now picking 12th in the April draft. It is the same slot in which Denver drafted star left tackle Ryan Clady earlier this year.
Denver will look at defense next spring with linebackers Rey Maualuga (USC) and James Laurinaitis (Ohio State), defensive tackle B.J. Raji (Boston College) and safety Taylor Mays (USC) as early possibilities.
Denver signed the following six practice squad players to future contracts: defensive tackle Matthias Askew, guard Mitch Erickson, wide receiver Jayson Foster, defensive tackle Ryan McBean, cornerback Rashod Moulton and wide receiver Matt Willis.
Here are Denver's home and away opponents for 2009. The dates will be announced in the spring:
Home: Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Cleveland Browns, Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants.
Away: Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Redskins.