AFC West: NFL Nation Says
Most of us should agree: There will never be another quarterback with Manning's combination of instincts, football intelligence, pocket presence and quick release. Let's not bother with that discussion. But can Luck provide the same essential service to the franchise? Will he guide the Colts at a high level through parts of two decades, as Manning did from 1998-2010?
Luck is off to a good start, having won 15 of his first 22 NFL games. Nine of those victories have come via game-winning drives in the fourth quarter, a topic we will inspect later this week, and he currently is the league's fourth-ranked quarterback via Total QBR. If he continues on that path, history tells us the Colts would have accomplished a rare feat in modern NFL history.
The chart illustrates the immediate transition from each of the nine Hall of Fame quarterbacks whose careers began after 1980. (We took the liberty of adding Brett Favre, eligible in 2016, as a 10th entry. Manning would be No. 11.) Usually, these transitions have failed and teams have taken decades to find a true franchise replacement. (Think: Terry Bradshaw to Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, Dan Fouts to Philip Rivers in San Diego and -- yes -- John Elway to Manning in Denver.)
In some cases, they're still looking. (We're looking at you, Miami and Buffalo.)
The Green Bay Packers have proved to be the exception. If Aaron Rodgers plays out his seven-year contract, the Packers would have achieved 28 consecutive years of elite quarterback play from him and Favre. Can Luck be the Colts' version of Rodgers? Will he add a two-decade career on top of Manning's tenure?
Here's what ESPN's NFL Nation found:
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