The return of Manning in the 2012 season has been great for the media and pretty good for the Denver Broncos, too. At 1-2, the Broncos are in the mix of a wild AFC West division, but a blueprint is emerging for how to frustrate and contain Peyton Manning. A defense will struggle to completely stop Peyton, but the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans managed to take his impact out of the game.
How are they doing this?
Step 1: Bracket Coverage with Safeties
The Atlanta Falcons were able to confuse Manning by what they did pre- and post-snap. Here's a great example from Manning's first interception of the three he threw in the first quarter.
We see the Falcons have loaded the box on third down, putting eight men near the line of scrimmage and giving Manning a classic "zero coverage" look. Manning sees this pre-snap and knows he'll have a mismatch in the slot.
After the snap, the Falcons completely change their philosophy. Only four men rush Manning, leaving seven in coverage. We see a classic "quarters" coverage from Atlanta, but with a nice wrinkle of man coverage underneath.
The Falcons bait Manning into an interception by rolling safety William Moore to bracket the receiver Manning is eye-balling.
The key to the play is the "handoff" from the cornerback to the safety in this zone coverage. When the cornerback drops off, Manning sees an opening and fires. Moore is able to quickly jump the route because Manning was thinking man coverage while the Falcons were in a soft zone. Moore's job here is to play center field, and he does so perfectly by reading Manning's eyes and waiting to jump the route.
Step 2: Man Under Works
Manning's three interceptions in the first quarter were all a result of great coverage by the Falcons, but the work was done pre-snap by disguising their coverage responsibilities.
Here is Manning's second pick. The pre-snap look is solid zero coverage—or man—with Manning seeing a mismatch again in the slot. The key after the snap is that the safeties are in a situation to bracket the wide receivers. Each safety is in a position to quickly move to help over the top or undercut the route.
Post-snap, the Falcons roll their coverage again to the heavy side of the route. Manning is still seeing man coverage because the Falcons are playing man under coverage. When the cornerback releases his wide receiver, Manning sees a window of opportunity, but he never sees safety Thomas DeCoud closing in for the interception.
Bracket coverage has worked well against Manning all season as he shakes off the rust of a missed 2011 campaign. Whether it's a lingering affect from neck surgery, a loss of arm strength or Manning being rusty, the fact is that he's overthrowing a lot of passes. With bracket coverage, safeties are in place to capitalize on overthrows.
And if bracket coverage and excellent safety play doesn't work for you, hitting Manning early and often has always been a solid strategy.
There is no fool-proof plan for stopping Peyton Manning, and as the Falcons and Texans learned, Manning is one of the best in the game at making adjustments. The key for both teams in their wins over the Broncos was doing enough damage on defense to build an early lead. From there, it was about hanging on.