After a blissful year without him, AFC contenders again have to think about the best ways to frustrate Peyton Manning.
The cerebral passing ace has already earned the Denver Broncos a playoff spot. Thanks to Manning's return to his best form, the AFC West champions are looking more Super Bowl-worthy each week.
Here are three of the best ways to frustrate Manning.
All screen shots courtesy of CBS Sports and GamePass.
Use deep zone shells to force Manning to settle for check downs
Defensive play-callers must often abandon their attacking instincts for a patient approach against Manning. That approach calls for a disciplined, deep-zone shell designed to force Manning underneath into short-range check-downs.
The Houston Texans provided a perfect example of this tactic in action in Week 3.
In the screen shot below, the Texans are in their dime package. They are presenting Manning with a standard Cover-4 shell, or "Quarters" look.
The four-across secondary is expected to take deep drops once the ball is snapped. These drops are indicated by the red lines.
This will naturally force Manning underneath. However, Manning's main desire is to go deep to his slot receiver, Brandon Stokley, shown in the highlighted portion.
At the snap, the Texans make their drops, shown in the screen shot below.
Notice how deep they get. Every one of Manning's potential receivers are consigned to the underneath zones.
The strong safety is lying over the top of Stokley's path. He is covering the deep area on both routes to his side, indicated by the black arrows.
Stokley is now covered underneath and over the top, forcing Manning to the other side of the field. Here he only has one receiver to aim for.
That receiver, Demaryius Thomas, is forced into a short-range out pattern. He is doubled by the deep drop of the cornerback and the free safety over the top. This is shown in the highlighted portion.
Manning fires a short pass to the sideline which falls incomplete, with Thomas pressured by both defenders.
By adopting a deep, disciplined shell, the Texans consistently forced Manning to settle for intermediate throws. This contributed to an 83.0 passer rating and only 6.3 yards per completion, Manning's lowest mark of the season.
Defend the middle
The entire basis for frustrating Manning depends on defending the middle. He just loves to attack the hook and curl zones deep.
Coverage should be based from the inside to outside. Holding the inside first is the priority.
Most of Manning's receivers run patterns that begin outside but soon break to the middle. If the deep middle is not there, Manning soon becomes frustrated.
Fewer coaches do a better job of this against Manning than Romeo Crennel. In 2010, Sports Illustrated's Kerry J. Byrne, dubbed Crennel "Manning's kryptonite."
From his days as defensive coordinator of the New England Patriots, Crennel has mastered frustrating Manning. Week 12 provided two excellent examples of Crennel taking the middle away from Manning.
In the first screen shot below, the Chiefs are in a dime defense.
They are showing Manning a standard 2-deep, man-under look. The man coverage is indicated by the blue lines.
From here, Crennel's defense attempts to disguise its intention with movement. The screen shot below shows how.
The first highlighted portion shows linebacker Derrick Johnson move into a more natural Mike position. The second highlighted portion shows safety Abram Elam apparently walking up into the underneath coverage.
At the snap, Elam drops back to his deep position, shown in the screen shot below.
The blue line indicates Elam's deep drop. The black line shows the other safety, Kendrick Lewis, slice across over Manning's three receivers to his side.
The effect of this movement means the Chiefs have over-the-top help for the deep middle. They have double coverage on routes to the inside, on both sides of the field.
Take a look at the screen shot below to see how this limits Manning's options.
Notice how routes to the inside and anything deep are threatened by the position of both safeties. The highlighted box shows Manning's underneath receivers bracketed.
He is left with no obvious target and the Chiefs are daring him to throw into coverage. Manning duly obliged, forcing a deep ball down the middle.
The pass was almost intercepted, but eventually ruled incomplete and the Broncos promptly punted. Next time, Manning wasn't so lucky.
The screen shot below shows the Chiefs still in their dime front, again showing a 2-deep, man-under look.
They have bracketed the middle with the deep safeties, shown in the highlighted portions. They are over the top of man coverage underneath on both inside receivers, shown by the black lines.
The Chiefs are daring Manning to force a throw into the middle and he does. The screen shot below shows how he plays directly into the coverage.
At the snap, tight end Joel Dreessen stays in to block Justin Houston, shown in the highlighted portion. This allows strong safety Elam to rotate deep and help cover Eric Decker on the outside. His movement is shown by the black line.
Once Dreessen blocks down, underneath safety Eric Berry quickly waves Elam deep at the 50-yard line. Manning takes the bait and thinks his pass can beat Elam to his deep drop.
Trying to beat the safety, Manning overthrew the ball and was intercepted by cornerback Brandon Flowers.
The Chiefs had stayed in their same, simple deep zone over the top. They were confident Manning couldn't stay patient against this bend-don't-break style for long.
Bring middle Pressure
Pressure is important, but not essential against Manning. More specifically, it is the timing and direction of pressure that is the key against the Broncos' star.
Just as coverage schemes should be designed to defend the middle, pressure against Manning should attack it. In Week 5, the New England Patriots gave a perfect demonstration.
In the screen shot below, the Patriots are in a base nickel defense. They are showing that same 2-deep, man-under coverage shell.
However, just as the Chiefs did with their coverage, the Patriots use disguise to fool Manning and get pressure.
Notice how inside linebacker Brandon Spikes has cheated up to the line of scrimmage, showing blitz. Spikes is shown in the highlighted portion.
The Patriots are doubling the slot receiver with safety help. Manning hopes to use his tight end to draw the safety away and create a one-on-one matchup on that side. This is shown by the black lines.
On the other side, Manning sees double coverage on Thomas, shown by the blue lines. This look makes Manning think he can exploit single coverage on his three-receiver side.
The Patriots have enticed Manning with an apparent three-on-three matchup and the trap is set.
In the screen shot below, that trap is sprung.
At the snap, the free safety rolls to the deep middle and drifts towards the three-receiver side. The Patriots now have single-high safety help over Manning's trips set.
You can see the safety making his move in the highlighted portion. Not anticipating this, Manning has ignored Thomas, who is in fact his only real one-on-one matchup.
The Patriots' zone look becomes man coverage. The single-high safety delays the pass, as the pocket collapses around Manning.
The pocket collapses because of the cross blitz by Spikes and Jerod Mayo, shown in the screen shot below.
This immediate pressure up the middle denies Manning a clear picture down the field. It prevents him from seeing Thomas one-on-one and forces a potentially disastrous heave into coverage on the other side.
Mayo sacked Manning for a five-yard loss. Yet even if he hadn't, Manning would have thrown into double coverage thanks to the late-breaking free safety.
This play perfectly combined the best elements for frustrating Manning. The pressure forced him into a quick decision, but the smart coverage disguise meant he couldn't get rid of the ball.
It was either take a sack, or risk an interception.
There's a great irony at the heart of Manning's playing style. As much as he personifies ruthless precision, Manning also has an itch to scratch.
That itch is the almost maniacal need to gash a defense with the big play. While nine parts efficiency, the 10th part of Manning will launch a ball into coverage.
It's up to defenses to make him settle for check downs long enough.
If defenses stay patient with a disciplined zone base that crowds the deep middle, Manning can be forced into mistakes.