When asking who are the smartest quarterbacks in the NFL today, three names come to mind. AFC field generals Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will naturally dominate this conversation. They are joined by that diminutive dissector of defenses, Drew Brees.
More than any others, the principle trio of Brady, Manning and Brees exemplify the cerebral approach to winning football.
Their ability to read pressure looks and manipulate coverages frequently defeats the best laid plans of defensive coordinators. Here are some of the best ways they do it.
Brady and Brees Reading Formations and Exploiting Individual Defenders in Coverage
No NFL quarterback is as ruthlessly efficient at exploiting individual defenders in coverage as Brady. A perfect example was displayed in the New England Patriots' 49-19 demolition of the New York Jets from Week 12.
Jets head coach Rex Ryan presented Brady with a 4-2-5 nickel look, showing man coverage with a single-high safety. Brady decided to manipulate one side of the formation, exploiting two underneath defenders to create an opening for running back Shane Vereen.
Brady would target inside linebacker Bart Scott and safety Eric Smith. He will move them out of position by bringing wideout Wes Welker across in short motion. Vereen will run a swing route into the area Welker has vacated.
Brady wants to run Smith and Scott off the line of scrimmage and into the middle, away from Vereen's sideline pattern.
That is the plan. The next step for a smart quarterback to make that plan a reality by moving the principle players on both sides of the ball into place.
Brady starts by shifting Welker into his new position. He reads the man coverage look and gestures for Welker to move in motion.
Brady knows this will occupy the attentions of Scott and keep him away from Vereen's route. But Brady still must keep Scott concentrating on Welker long enough for Vereen to release.
That is achieved by using his eyes to lock onto Welker pre-snap. This convinces the Jets defense that Welker is the primary receiver.
You can see Brady eyeing Welker and Scott following Brady's look. Brady has fooled Scott about the direction of the play and moved him away from his real intended receiver.
Once the ball is snapped, Brady knows the Jets will focus on Welker. They won't just leave a linebacker on him, Smith will come over to help.
Brady's manipulation of the formation leaves Vereen wide open on the outside. He would complete an 83-yard scoring reception.
Brady smartly manipulated the formation and the personnel to take advantage of the Jets' man coverage. Because they were in man, Scott and Smith went to Welker and ran with him, turning their backs on Vereen until it was too late.
While Brady accepted the coverage look and moved his personnel around to defeat it, savvy quarterbacks will also scheme ways to pull an initial coverage look apart.
Brees showed just how it is done in a Week 10 win over the Atlanta Falcons. The Saints were at the Atlanta 29-yard line and faced with a similar 4-2-5 nickel, but with a Cover 2 look behind it.
Brees intends to run tight end Jimmy Graham from the slot to attack the deep middle. He will create a huge gap by drawing a safety to the line to attack a supposed wide receiver screen.
That will also bring the middle linebacker into play and leave Graham free in the middle.
Like Brady, Brees will use pre-snap mechanics to create his deception. The first part of the process is to stare down the wide receiver screen route.
Once the ball is snapped, Brees will use a quick and short pump fake to draw the defense to the screen pass.
This trickery works to perfection. Both the safety and the middle linebacker scamper to the screen route, leaving Graham with a clear path through the deep middle.
Brees would connect with his tight end for a simple 29-yard touchdown pass.
Both Brady and Brees demonstrated how the smartest quarterbacks can not only use a defense's intentions against them, but can also shift defensive personnel around to create the perfect matchups.
A typical defensive response is to try to unsettle the thought process behind this kind of manipulation with pressure. However, teams blitz the NFL's quarterback brain trust at their peril.
Peyton Manning and Beating the Blitz
It is always a risk to blitz a quarterback who enjoys exploiting pressure as much as Peyton Manning does. Manning's pre-snap histrionics are not just intended to distract defenders.
In among all of the pointing and adjusting, Manning is usually identifying the main weakness in a defense. When it is a blitz, that usually involves throwing behind the pressure.
Manning provided a simple, but devastating example of this when the Denver Broncos beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 1.
Facing 2nd-and-10 at his own 29-yard line, Manning reads a blitz off one edge of Pittsburgh's base 3-4 look and decides to run a wide receiver screen behind it.
First, Manning spots the outside blitzer and calls his adjustment. The O-line now knows the screen is in place.
Once the ball is snapped, two blockers shift out to block for the screen. Manning quickly throws behind the pressure to his hot read, who will be wideout Demaryius Thomas.
Manning has called the perfect adjustment against an edge blitz. With the Steelers outnumbered down the field, Thomas had a clear opening to the end zone and a 71-yard touchdown reception.
Smart quarterbacks like Manning and Brady react so quickly to pressure looks. When faced with an obvious blitz, they adjust to the most favorable matchup.
As the video below shows, Brady makes a quick adjustment to a maximum pressure look from the Jets. He chooses a quick-tempo slant pass.
The Jets blitz won't have time to beat Brady's quick throw. Just like when he manipulates coverage, Brady moves his personnel around to create a weakness behind the pressure.
The example from Manning features his old Indianapolis Colts connection with Pierre Garcon. It is exactly the same play Manning and Thomas beat the Steelers with this season.
The route is the same, the downfield blocking is the same, Manning's throw behind the pressure is the same. It is the same play run on the other side of the field.
Speed of Thought Defines the Smartest Quarterbacks
It is not necessarily overly complex reads that define smart quarterbacks like Brady, Manning and Brees. It is speed of thought and quickness of adaptation.
The smartest quarterbacks make their reads quicker than the rest. They then adjust to those reads with simple, decisive choices.
Those adjustments are usually made possible by pre-snap mechanics. This is where a smart quarterback's eyes are more important than his arm.
In a game so obviously defined by dominant physicality, whenever Brady, Manning and Brees take the field, brains usually win over brawn.
All screen shots courtesy of Fox Sports, NBC Sports and NFL.com Gamepass.