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|The Ravens didn't worry about disguising coverages against Peyton Manning in last season's playoffs.|
For years, the NFL's finest gathered in early February at the outside pool bar at the JW Marriott Ihilani Resort & Spa. The Pacific Ocean surrounding the Hawaiian island of Oahu is unspeakably blue, the sun warms your skin and the palm trees actually sway in the breeze.
Somehow, that just makes the mai tais taste even better.
Ten years ago, Patriots Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law was sitting out there with some of his buddies -- and a guy named Peyton Manning.
"Peyton's got the tab and he's just feeding us drinks, feeding us drinks," Law remembers. "The season's over. We're not thinking about football, just talking, hanging out. When he walks away for a minute, one of the guys says, 'Who's going to bring up football first?'
"Everybody said Peyton's name."
Sure enough, after a few more rounds, the Colts' quarterback leaned into Law and grilled him about a specific interception earlier in the season.
"What were you thinking?" Manning asked. "What were you reading? How did you know where it was going?"
"Hey," Law said, laughing, "I ain't talking no football. There's no secret sauce, but if there was, I wouldn't tell you."
A decade later, Ty Law is still laughing.
"That's Peyton, a student of the game," Law said last week from his Florida home.
That would make Law, who played 15 NFL seasons, 10 of them with the Patriots, a professor emeritus. No player has more than his nine interceptions against Manning. On Sunday, he'll be lecturing again on Comcast SportsNet New England's pregame and postgame shows for the Patriots-Broncos game.
|Ty Law recorded nine career picks against Manning, including three in the 2003 AFC Championship Game.|
It's not surprising to learn that Manning and Tom Brady are both exceedingly fussy guys. They like their receivers on time and in the proper place. They want their teammates reading -- seeing -- the defense the same way they are. If there is a late change on the defensive side, they get exasperated if the receiver doesn't make the appropriate sight adjustment. Instantly.
ESPN Insider Gary Horton worked 10 years as an NFL scout. He has spent a lot of time watching these two players on film. He is struck by the similarities of their games. This has been a tough year for Brady, Horton said, because he's been without so many of his customary weapons.
"Say the route is called to go inside," Horton explained, "and Brady sees the safety overplaying it and anticipates the receiver breaking an out route. But the kid doesn't see it -- and the ball just goes out into space.
"That's what makes Wes Welker so great. If the guy steps inside, he breaks outside. Peyton hits him every time. Now that [tight end Rob] Gronkowski is back, you're starting to see better adjustments by the [New England] offense to the defense."
It takes a special defense to make Brady and Manning consistently uncomfortable. The Ravens did it in back-to-back games in last season's playoffs. Manning and Brady combined to throw three touchdown passes and three interceptions in the losses that sent Baltimore to the Super Bowl.
"I didn't trick them," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees acknowledged. "We out-executed them. The thing that too many people try to do is to be too coy. It doesn't work.
"We'll take for granted that they know what [defense] we're in. We'll just assume it. You don't want to use a linebacker to cover because he's trying to disguise something. No. Look, you just might as well line up and play what you're going to play."
After winning three Super Bowl rings in his past four years with the Patriots, Law signed with the AFC East-rival New York Jets in 2005. In a late December game, Law stepped in front of Patriots receiver David Givens and went 74 yards with a pick-six, the longest of his career.
"Tom called me the next day," Law said. "That interception bothered the heck out of him. He was like, 'What'd I do? What did you see?'
|Applying inside pressure and taking away the middle of the field is the best way to frustrate Tom Brady.|
"I told him I had played there for a long time, kind of knew how he operates. On that play, he goes short motion and flashes a look to the other side of the field. Well, I was watching him and he over-exaggerated the short motion and the look, completely oversold it. Usually when he does that they go across the field or run a short out. So I knew he was coming back to me.
"I told him, 'You shouldn't try to do to me what you do to everybody else.' He was like, 'I know, I know.'"
Trent Dilfer, an ESPN analyst with a Super Bowl ring, has spent hours upon hours studying Manning and Brady. He, more than most, knows what they don't like.
"Tom," Dilfer said, "doesn't like inside push pressure. If you can get up in his face and take away his middle-of-the-field dominance, you can succeed. He's not as effective when he's forced to reset his platform. The goal is to make him hold the ball and move laterally.
"With Peyton, it's disrupting his timing. When he's not quite sure what the defense is -- maybe 20 percent of the time -- he has to play after the snap. Good defenses work hard to confuse him a little bit by disrupting the flow of his offense. They get their hands on the tight end and the receivers. The term I've been using is roughhousing."
Horton sees the same thing on film.
"Both of these passing games, if you can be physical with them and rough them up at the line of scrimmage, you can beat them," Horton said. "If I can bump you on the line of scrimmage, I can disrupt the timing by making the receiver late. Hits and sacks come from when the defense gets physical."
Law finished his career with 59 interceptions, including the postseason, but the nine against Manning cost him many hours of film work. For most games, he'd spend an hour after practice watching film. With Manning, he'd go 90 minutes or so and then get the film guys to give him all of the season's "cut-ups" so he could bring them home. After dinner, he'd watch them for another 90 minutes or so, taking notes.
"I admit I had to put in overtime for Peyton," Law said. "You're there after everyone else leaves. You don't want to be the guy in the ESPN highlights. That was always in the back of my mind. You knew what the consequences were if you didn't study. I had a fear of that."
Law and former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi might know these two future Hall of Famers as well as anyone.
The Patriots' offense, according to Bruschi, changes dramatically from week to week -- the hurry-up, the two-tight-end package, five wideouts -- depending on what the opposing defense is trying to do. By and large, they stick with their plan.
"Peyton," Bruschi said, "it's almost like he's formulating his game plan during the game, based on what he sees. Are there calls they plan to run in advance? Sure. But he sees six in the box, he'll change it to a run. He sees man coverage, he'll change a certain pass to a certain run."
|Tedy Bruschi quickly learned not to be suckered by the terms Manning barks out before the snap.|
Manning, he added, likes his receivers mostly stationary, so he can see what the defense is doing -- and what they're doing changes with across-the-ball motion. The goal for the defense is to force him to throw where he doesn't want to throw. The only way to do that is have the pass rush pressure him, have the defensive backs jam the receivers and disguise the overall coverage.
"Getting all that to work simultaneously, it's hard to do," Bruschi said. "We had a lot of smart guys -- [Rodney] Harrison, [Willie] McGinest, [Mike] Vrabel, Ty, myself and [Roman] Phifer."
The one thing Bruschi learned in 11 years of butting heads with Manning was to try to not listen to him at the line of scrimmage.
"Sometimes you think he says a certain city call," Bruschi said, "and you think you have that play down. In one game, it ended up being a quick tear screen to my right. And then I thought I heard him say the same play signal later in the game. And it ended up being a tear screen-go, by the running back. Which means the running back is doing the same thing, going up to the same angle to block, but then he turns up the field. And that's when I knew that was the last time I'd ever guess.
"So a lot of it is nonsense he's talking about."
There are plays that Manning runs now that are from 10 years ago.
"Like the zee-do-lay," Bruschi said. "You have a two-receiver set, the Z is the outside receiver, the inside receiver runs a vertical, and as he's running, the outside receiver will wait for him to clear then just bend underneath. If it's man [coverage], the guy will be trailing and it will be kind of a pick route. I've seen that this year, the picks that Welker's got for touchdowns. He recognizes man coverage and he'll possibly say, 'Stockton' or 'Malone' and you get some kind of pick n' roll, where the two receivers just cross, a little rub."
Law played for the Patriots for a decade and then spent the next five years in the AFC, trying to stop Brady. Perhaps the biggest difference in the two, Law said, is that Brady doesn't care who's open -- that's where the ball is going. If you took away Randy Moss or Rob Gronkowski or Troy Brown with double coverage, he wasn't going to force it in. Manning usually throws to his main targets, whether they are covered or not.
|Brady rarely forces passes into heavy coverage and knows how to keep his cool under any circumstance.|
That's one reason Law was so successful working against Marvin Harrison. There was no shortage of opportunities.
"Peyton's one of the few guys that will try and drop it in there, even when you're all over the receiver," Law said. "His strongest asset is confidence -- maybe confident to a fault. But that's what makes him great.
"Tom, I think he's a little cooler under pressure. Things can be going to hell, and you'd never know it by looking at him. You never see Tom drop his head. He's been unbelievable this year with the crew he has. Man, give him a receiver -- like Wes Welker."
After the Ravens beat the Broncos in last year's playoffs, Manning was more than ready for the 2013 season opener. He dropped seven touchdown passes on Baltimore in a 49-27 victory.
"Really, this year against Denver, what we gave up was big plays," said Pees, the Ravens' defensive coordinator. "When we executed for 60 plays, we actually played Peyton pretty well.
"We know he knows what we're in. So sometimes you're better in doing that. Now, you line up and look like you're in two-deep and you actually play two-deep. That's a disguise in itself."
Law said playing Manning in his early NFL years was like taking candy from a baby.
"He telegraphed everything," Law said. "Now, he'll eat you alive. He kept evolving. Now, he can look you off, throw it at the last minute. I'd play like I was pressing but it was going to be a zone -- and he knew. All that running around, shifting. You can't get too sexy with Peyton -- or Tom, either.
"Don't bother, it's just a lot of wasted steps. You're not fooling them with that s---."