Peyton Manning looked helplessly to the sideline. He'd just thrown his third interception of the game, driving a stake through the heart of the Colts' last comeback attempt. Manning and his Colts walked off Bill Belichick's home turf as losers for the seventh time in nine tries.
That was Nov. 21, 2010, the last time Manning faced his old nemesis. Since then, much has changed, but Manning is still Peyton Manning—and Belichick is still Bill Belichick.
As the quarterback of the Colts, Manning's played 15 games against Belichick's Patriots. In the first eight tries, Manning only won once, and never at Foxboro. Manning's inability to crack Belichick's code caused many to conclude he wasn't living up to the hype.
Of course, Manning and the Colts did eventually climb the mountaintop, beating the Patriots at home en route to a Super Bowl championship. But over his career, Manning's thrown 23 interceptions to the Patriots' defense; five more than the next-most team.
What does Bill Belichick do to Manning that causes him to throw it to the wrong jersey?
Disguise the Coverage
Most teams try to hide what they're up to. But few do it so well that Manning throws a pick based entirely on their subterfuge:
Here, the Patriots line up in what looks like a Cover 2 shell:
Manning makes the perfect call against a Cover 2: a deep ball nestled between the zones of the corner and the safety. However, as color commentator Phil Simms points out, the Patriots aren't running a Cover 2. They're actually using a "Quarters" coverage, where both corners and safeties are responsible for one quarter of the field:
Simms points out the 'tell': cornerback Devin McCourty doesn't try to jam intended target Pierre Garçon, as you'd expect in a Cover 2. Instead, he flips his hips and runs the instant the ball is snapped:
Manning is in the midst of executing a play fake right at the snap, so he may have missed McCourty's tell. Garçon didn't, though, and he correctly changes his route. Were the coverage Cover 2, Garçon could run a Go route and attack the space between the corner and safety. This is the pass Manning throws. Instead, Garçon runs a medium-length curl, sitting down short while McCourty flies downfield:
Had Manning made the same adjustment Garçon did, it would have been a sure first down with plenty of room to run. Instead, it's an interception, and another notch on Bill Belichick's belt.
Disguise the Pressure
Manning is one of history's most gifted pocket passers; one of the best ways to get him off his game is to collapse the pocket:
What the Patriots are doing here is simple. It's the base 3-4 they used at the time, with the right outside linebacker blitzing and the other linebackers dropping into coverage:
Shortly after the snap, things seem to be shaping up as usual. The four pass rushers are staying in their lanes, and the pocket is shaping up nicely. Manning is looking to throw it deep to Reggie Wayne, but then things get a bit sideways:
Nose tackle Vince Wilfork goes on a delayed stunt, all 350-plus pounds of him hurtling towards Peyton's blindside. The Colts' offensive line stays home to block the stunting end, letting Wilfork come free. On Peyton's left side, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain is trying to turn the corner.
Once he got the ball, Manning took a step back while reading the field. He shuffled forward, then hopped to his left to avoid the blitzing Banta-Cain.
Unfortunately for Manning, the Patriots' right DE collapses the pocket, almost pushing two offensive linemen backwards into the quarterback. Manning has to hop back away as soon as he lands. Before Manning can settle his feet, he tries to wing it with his wrist.
He's got receiver Blair White coming open on a crossing route, but Manning overcompensates and puts it a foot higher than White can get to. The airmailed pass is easily intercepted.
Disguise the Pressure and the Coverage
Longtime NFL fans are familiar with Peyton's tendency to use the whole play clock before the snap, reading the defense and calling for lots of motions and adjustments. Manning's much more mistake-prone when he doesn't have that luxury:
Belichick is a master of rearranging his front seven into all sorts of exotic looks, and if Manning doesn't know where the heat is coming from, it's much harder to adjust to it.
This was the fateful play, the last pass Manning attempted against Belichick. Time was winding down, and Manning was rushing to the line, forgoing a huddle to get off a play as quickly as possible. That often results in an advantage for the offense, since the defense can't change personnel to adjust.
But in this case, the defense gets the drop on the offense, and adjusts into an unusual 2-4-5 nickel:
The Colts set up in a classic shotgun "doubles" set, with two receivers on either side of the line. Garçon is the flanker to the far right, McCourty is manned up on him. Inside of Garçon is tight end Jacob Tamme, covered by linebacker Gary Guyton. Garçon is going to run a fly route to the end zone, while Tamme runs an out route right at the sticks.
This combination is intended to attack safety James Sanders, who's to provide deep help for McCourty and Guyton. What goes wrong for Manning is twofold:
First, Sanders takes two steps forward, showing he was going to clamp down on Tamme's attempt to get the first down. At the same time, blitzing outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham came free, forcing Manning to step up and change his arm angle.
As Garçon didn't beat McCourty clean downfield, and Tamme was apparently double-covered, Manning tried to hit Garçon's back shoulder, causing his receiver to hit the brakes, come back for the ball and possibly draw a pass-interference call. But Sanders was baiting Manning.
When Manning threw, Sanders backpedaled toward the space Manning was targeting. Manning didn't put quite enough on the throw, either, because of the pressure he didn't anticipate. The combination of disguised coverage and disguised pressure confused Manning enough for Bill Belichick and the Patriots to get the upper hand, yet again.