In between icy glares, rhetorical head bobs, defiant shoulder shrugs, lip smacks, throat clearing and the occasional pneumatic nasal burst, head coach Bill Belichick deigned to field questions during his mid-week press conference (per Patriots.com). Not surprisingly, he was asked what his Patriots needed to do in order to stop Manning’s Broncos. His initial response was brilliantly monotonous, laconic and succinct:
“Gotta play good team defense. I mean, that’s all there is to it.”
If you asked him, Belichick would probably tell you the secret to scoring touchdowns is crossing the goal line, that you win a game if you outscore your opponent and the best way to take your coffee is orally.
If only life were that simple.
Sadly, short of coaxing Ty Law out of retirement, lacing Manning’s pregame meal with Ex-lax or using Wes Welker as a Trojan horse to sabotage the offense, the Patriots probably can’t stop Denver offensively. Right now nobody can.
With Manning throwing 34 touchdown passes through the season’s first 10 games, the Patriots can only hope to slow him down. Many teams have tried, and so far, most have failed.
The good news for New England, though, is that Manning looks mortal for the first time all year. After leading Denver’s offense to over 30 points in each of its first eight games, he’s been held under that threshold in consecutive games since the Broncos’ bye week.
The hooded one knows a thing or two about frustrating one of the game’s all-time greats. The first time Manning faced Belichick’s Patriots, he was intercepted three times in a losing effort. In 2001, Manning led his Colts into New England on the same day a guy named Brady happened to be making his first career start. He once again tossed a trio of picks in a losing effort.
In three playoff matchups against the Patriots, Manning’s totaled more interceptions (six) than touchdowns (two).
Of course, those were different times and different Patriots teams. The NFL has shifted into a passing-oriented, offensive league. New England can’t manhandle Manning and his receivers like it used to, but it can still throw a wet blanket on the red-hot Broncos offense by playing with discipline and physicality.
The Patriots can set that tone starting on offense. Not even Peyton Manning can score from the sidelines, so the Patriots need to keep him there for as long as possible. They’ll need to rely on Shane Vereen and—gulp—Stevan Ridley to establish an effective rushing attack and keep the clock moving.
Obviously, though, the real burden falls on New England’s defense.
With Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly already on injured reserve, the Patriots entered their practice week perilously shorthanded—and that was before the Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe reported that starting cornerback Alfonzo Dennard will likely miss his second straight game with a knee injury.
With starting safety Steve Gregory nursing a broken thumb and cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Kyle Arrington dealing with lingering injuries as well, New England’s margin for error is razor thin.
The Patriots need to pressure Manning, but they can’t leave their secondary exposed as they do it. With so many explosive weapons in Denver’s passing game, the Patriots will need to find ways to help their secondary account for everyone. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that creating pressure forces early throws, so the defensive backs and linebackers don’t need to hold their coverage for as long.
Of course, pressuring Manning is easier said than done.
Last week against the Chiefs, Denver made protecting Manning its top priority and it worked masterfully. Kansas City went into Denver leading the NFL with 36 sacks. When the Chiefs left Denver, they still had 36 sacks. They literally didn’t hit Manning once.
Manning helped his own cause by speeding up his release and getting the ball out even quicker than usual.
Jason Lisk of The Big Lead ran a very interesting piece documenting Manning’s release time during the game. According to Lisk, Manning only attempted three passes all night that were in his hand longer than three seconds. Half of Manning’s 40 pass attempts left his hand in less than two seconds.
It’s hard for the pass rush to hit home when the opposing quarterback gets the ball out faster than a fully automatic Nerf gun.
To beat Manning’s internal clock, the Patriots need to create direct pressure up the middle. Chandler Jones has been a beast on the end, but unless he’s completely unblocked, he simply has too much ground to cover to consistently create pressure before Manning unloads.
The key player on the defensive line will be Chris Jones.
Here's Jones during the Week 4 loss to Cincinnati.
If Jones has similar success against the Broncos, Manning will face a similar fate to Dalton on this sack.
Jones has done a tremendous job penetrating up the middle this season, with five sacks in seven games (five starts). He consistently stands out on game film as a potential difference-maker in the middle. He’s the all-or-nothing sort and has issues maintaining gap integrity, which creates problems against athletic quarterbacks like Cam Newton, but Manning’s no threat to run.
Jones will be free to skewer the pocket with reckless abandon. If he breaks through, Manning will be forced off his spot, creating more precious time for New England’s edge-rushers to hit home, assuming he doesn’t bring Manning down himself.
With that pressure comes the added benefit of disrupting Manning’s timing with his receivers. Enough has been made of Manning’s cerebral approach that he’s effectively been branded as football’s Einstein, but even he can’t manipulate time. What he can—and usually does—do is make outstanding pre-snap reads to determine where he’s going to throw before the play ever begins. That level of precision requires exact timing from all parties involved.
The difference of just a half-second can be monumental in the NFL. It can be the difference between hitting a receiver in stride and throwing behind him. It can be the difference between a perfectly thrown underneath pass and an interception.
Here we see Manning's target, Wes Welker, lined up against man coverage.
As the play develops, Welker breaks across the middle. Manning has him teed up for an easy gain.
Instead, Manning is hit as he throws and the ball sails for an interception to linebacker Pat Angerer. If Manning had released the ball a half-step earlier, the pass would likely have been complete to his newest wide receiver.
Speaking of Denver’s receivers, I expect the Patriots to focus more on disrupting them than on Manning himself. Yes, Belichick obviously wants to pressure the likely MVP and take him out of his comfort zone, but from a schematic standpoint, Belichick’s defenses tend to focus more on skill-position players than quarterbacks.
All the way back in 2001, the Patriots were facing another unstoppable offense in the Super Bowl. St. Louis’ “Greatest Show on Turf” was piloted by another future Hall of Fame quarterback in Kurt Warner, but Belichick focused instead on locking down the weapons around him, particularly running back Marshall Faulk.
Here's Jones, facing Talib in man coverage.
Locked onto Jones, Talib presses him and prevents him from getting a clean release at the line of scrimmage. Ryan's pass is on target, but because Jones got jammed, he couldn't gain separation and the pass was incomplete.
Once it became apparent that Atlanta's best option that night was Tony Gonzalez, Belichick moved his players around to take Gonzalez out of the play in key situations. Here he is on the game's final drive, facing double coverage.
With two defenders pressing him from the start, Gonzalez never gets going. He's Ryan's top option, but Matty Ice has zero chance of hitting him.
In Cincinnati, the Patriots once again used their defensive line the generate pressure while they played man coverage on Andy Dalton’s receivers. Aqib Talib held superstar wide receiver A.J. Green to 61 yards on five catches. Both totals were team highs.
Talib once again lines up in man coverage on Graham.
Brees is clearly looking for Graham, but Talib is all over him within the first few yards.
Instead, Brees is forced to look elsewhere and ends up throwing an incomplete pass.
Graham entered the game as the NFL’s leading receiver with 593 yards in his first five games. The Patriots held him without a catch, and with his biggest weapon out of the picture, Brees struggled, finishing with 236 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Denver has more weapons than any team in the league right now, but I still expect the Patriots to find ways to throw off its timing and keep Manning from finding his rhythm. If his pre-snap read isn’t where Manning expects when he expects it to be there, he’ll be forced to make adjustments, allowing more time for the pass rush to reach him and for defensive backs to break on the ball.
Here, during Denver's only loss of the season, Manning is once again looking for Welker, who is disrupted as he enters his break.
With Welker unavailable, Manning is forced to adjust and rolls out of the pocket to try and buy more time.
Unfortunately for Denver, by the time Manning resets himself outside the pocket, Robert Mathis is breathing down his neck, eventually forcing a fumble and recording a safety.
Former Patriot Ty Law knows how important that timing is. With nine career interceptions off Manning, he remains to this day the most successful cornerback against him.
In an article by ESPN’s Greg Garber, Law highlighted exactly why disrupting his receivers is so critical when he revealed, "Peyton’s one of the few guys that will try and drop it in there, even when you’re all over the receiver."
Law’s point, in essence, was that Manning follows through on his pre-snap reads often enough that altering his main target’s path or timing will create opportunities for defensive backs to limit completions and cause turnovers.
The Chiefs were able to hold Denver to a season-low 27 points last Sunday by doing just that.
Look how little space Kansas City's defensive backs were allowing Manning's receivers. They played mostly man-press coverage with safety help over the top during the game.
Demaryius Thomas is trying to cut back inside, using the other receiver to set a pick and free him for big yards. The Chiefs, though, jammed both players at the line of scrimmage and kept Thomas from getting a clean release.
As a result, Thomas is late coming out of his break and isn't in position when Manning releases the ball.
The pass, which should have hit Thomas square in the chest, ends up landing just outside his reach because the tight coverage disrupted the timing of the route.
Normally, playing so much one-on-one coverage would be a risky proposition for the Patriots' banged-up secondary, but the Broncos are battling injuries of their own.
Tight end Julius Thomas left last week’s game with a hyperextended knee, and Wes Welker’s return to Foxboro could be postponed thanks to a concussion. Neither player practiced on Wednesday according to the official injury report. Thomas is day-to-day and Welker will need to pass a full battery of tests before being cleared to play.
That, and he’ll also need to escape from his snow globe at that dollar store.
If those two are forced to miss action, the Patriots can comfortably play man-to-man on Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker and jam them at the snap.
If they do play man-to-man, the Patriots will need to pick their poison based on the situation, but they will likely still utilize a physical approach at the line of scrimmage to keep Denver’s receivers—and by extension Manning—from getting into any rhythm.
Talib figures to draw Demaryius Thomas. Beyond that, expect to see a group effort from the entire secondary and linebacking corps to account for Julius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno, Decker and Welker.
Whatever the Patriots do run, don’t expect to see them make many pre-snap changes to their defensive alignment. While referring to last season’s playoff win over Manning’s Broncos, Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees told Garber in his ESPN piece that he didn’t waste time trying to trick Manning or disguise his defenses: "We’ll take for granted that they know what [defense] we’re in. We’ll just assume it...you might as well line up and play what you’re going to play."
Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi added that it’s best to play your intended defense as planned, regardless of Manning’s pre-snap theatrics. Bruschi called most of it meaningless, noting, "A lot of it is nonsense that he’s talking about."
Law also added, “All that running around, shifting. You can’t get too sexy with Peyton...Don’t bother. It’s just a lot of wasted steps. You’re not fooling them.”
The Patriots will certainly have their hands full this weekend, but Belichick has proven time and time again that his defenses are capable of frustrating Manning.
That’s when the legendary “Manning face” makes an appearance; an ugly sight that never looks so pretty as when it’s in New England.