Instead, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan installed a witty game plan, and safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore confused, tricked and even outsmarted Manning into tossing away three interceptions on Denver’s first three drives, eventually tossing away the game.
In Week 1, Brent Grimes—one-third of Atlanta’s new three-man cornerback crew that included Asante Samuel and Dunta Robinson—went down with an Achilles injury and was lost for the season.
With a huge drop-off in talent from Grimes to Christopher Owens and Dominique Franks, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine how Manning, well known as one of the more intelligent quarterbacks in NFL history, would attack the secondary.
Instead of allowing Manning to sit back and carve up Atlanta’s defense, Nolan created a number of ways for the front four and front seven to get pressure on the quarterback.
In head coach Mike Smith’s postgame press conference, Smith praised his defense for continually getting pressure on Manning.
The next step in Nolan’s plan was for DeCoud and Moore to engage in a battle of wits with Manning. With a good bit of pre-snap movement and an evening of disguising the intention of the defense, DeCoud, Moore and Nolan confused the hell out of Manning and forced him into three huge mistakes in the first quarter.
Moore, then DeCoud and Robert McClain—in the game for an injured Samuel—each grabbed interceptions from Manning in the first quarter. Every one of Denver’s first three drives ended with Manning throwing the ball to an Atlanta defender.
World champion and Grandmaster Bobby Fischer would have proud of the tactics the Atlanta defense used to win its chess match with Manning.
Interception No. 1 (14:24 – First Quarter)
Here you can see William Moore after he'd already taken a step or two back from where he initially lined up as a linebacker before the snap.
“I was roaming the field in zone coverage,” said Moore of his interception. “I looked Peyton off a little bit, it was a great call by coach Nolan.”
Nolan’s defense is designed to allow the safeties a lot of free reign after they get the defense set. Part of the plan is for DeCoud and Moore to get the defense aligned much quicker than most teams. After that the two safeties have time to move around in an effort to confuse the opposing quarterback.
DeCoud and Moore may use tactics such as switching sides of the field or altering their depth from a deep cover position all the way up to the line of scrimmage. The duo can handle these decisions on their own in a freestyle-type play calling situation, or Nolan can call the plays in as he did on Moore’s pick.
Once the ball was snapped, Moore roamed back and waited for Manning to go through his progressions. Moore said that he looked the quarterback off, but Manning didn’t do a great job of looking the defense away, locking in on Jacob Tamme early on in his read.
This allowed Moore to stutter-step and bit as he backpedaled and pounce on the pass after Manning let it fly. Moore showed good acceleration in getting to the football because Manning didn’t do enough to hide his intentions, throwing it exactly where the defense wanted him to.
Moore returned the interception to the 1-yard line, setting up a Michael Turner touchdown run three plays later.
Interception No. 2 (11:56 – First Quarter)
Four plays into Denver’s second drive, Manning was picked off again, this time by DeCoud.
The Broncos were having trouble communicating in their no-huddle offense. On the first play of the drive Manning was stepped on and fell down as he tried to drop back into the pocket. A John Abraham offsides penalty negated that play.
Then after a completion, Manning dropped back and expected to hand the ball to a running back, but no one was there. Manning had to eat the football.
Instead of huddling his team up, Manning held a short no-huddle, faux conversation with the unit and went back to work. Maybe the Broncos should have set a play in a huddle because Manning threw his second pick on the next play.
Denver lined up in its “11 personnel” with Demaryius Thomas and Brandon Stokley to the right on the strong side with tight end Joel Dreessen and Eric Decker spread out on the left side.
The Atlanta defense is in its sub package with Owens on as the extra cornerback in the nickel, lined up in the slot. Samuel is lined up on Thomas and Robinson on Decker. Both DeCoud and Moore are 11 yards off the line of scrimmage.
DeCoud had the responsibility of matching a crossing route, saw the ball in the air and went and grabbed it. It helped that Manning’s pass was underthrown, but credit also should go to the defense that got under Manning’s skin and took advantage.
“We felt that if we could rattle him [Manning] early, we could dictate the flow of the game. The main focus was to confuse him all game,” DeCoud said after the game. “He [Nolan] found that there were some things we had him confused on, and we kept going back to it.”
Interception No. 3 (7:09 – First Quarter)
Here we are on Denver’s third drive, and the offense has a little momentum. The Broncos had run six plays, gained 40 yards and were in Atlanta territory for the first time in the game.
Manning lines the Broncos up in the “11 personnel” again, this time with all three wide receivers to his right and the tight end, Dreessen, on the left side of the line.
Atlanta is in its sub package with Robinson on the right and McClain on the left, who was in the game for an injured Samuel. Owens was lined up in the slot and Moore was very deep (11 yards off the line of scrimmage) and shaded to the right. DeCoud was lined up with Stephen Nicholas as a linebacker.
As the play began, DeCoud dropped back in to coverage and he and McClain both were on two-receiver reads. McClain did a good job of reading Manning and jumping the right route. Manning pass was overthrown and McClain came away with the deep ball over the middle that was intended for Stockley.
McClain’s interception of Manning was the final pick of the game for Atlanta, but to take away three passes in the span of eight minutes is a tribute to the execution of Nolan’s game plan.
DeCoud said that Nolan has brought with him a kind of swagger to the defense. “It’s more of an offensive-minded defense,” DeCoud said. “We’re gonna make plays on our terms, in the backfield, wherever that may be.”
Robinson agreed wholeheartedly with his praise for Nolan.
“Coach Nolan always talks about being offensive as a defense, which means taking the football away,” Robinson said. “Making the offense play on our terms. If the ball’s in the air, we feel like it’s ours.”
For the Falcons on Monday Night Football, if the ball was in the air over the middle of the field, it was theirs.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.