Fifth in a series
Colts QB Peyton Manning vs. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams
It was no secret, even before Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams let the cat out of the bag leading up to the Super Bowl, roughly how the Saints would defend Peyton Manning. Based on the blueprint the Saints delivered in the first two rounds of the playoffs, attacking Kurt Warner and Brett Favre, it would be hard to believe that the Saints won't go after Manning hard.
The problem with that bottom-line theory is that it hasn't played out for 60 minutes this season. The Jets got to Manning early in the AFC title game and had a little success before Manning solved the code and turned it on in the second half. And though the Saints got the ultimate result — a win over the Vikings — Favre tore them up for the better part of four quarters.
Williams said he would like to deliver Manning some "remember-me" hits in the game, a saying he has used through much of his coaching career. And there's no doubt he would like to do just that, even as tough as Manning is. But when you're facing a quarterback who is surgical against the blitz and will find his hot reads off three-step drops, the best pass rush the NFL has seen can't hit Manning before he delivers the pass.
What Williams can accomplish with pressure is disruption. He can force Manning to throw from different arm angles and get him to push the ball off his back foot. Pressure — coupled with press coverage — can alter the timing of the receivers, which has to be in sync with such timing-based throws. Pressure doesn't always mean sacks; a defense can accomplish its goal without taking Manning down or, for that matter, even hitting him in "remember-me" fashion.
It's very likely that Williams' big talk is just that. He might be confident, and some might say arrogant, but he's not stupid. He knows he has to mix coverage and pressure, and do so in a way that will put the odds in the Saints' favor. It's not likely Manning will be confused by what the Saints run, per se, because they are not a big smoke-and-mirrors kind of team. But Manning might be surprised by certain coverages run in spots.
The blitz will be a part of Sunday's game plan, no question about it. Williams will blitz anyone in the back seven, and he'll do it out of his base, nickel and even dime packages. It will be a slot corner on one play on 3rd-and-7 from midfield, and the next time that situation comes up, Williams could blitz the "Mike" linebacker from the same look. That's the kind of disruption he could bring. It's not fancy, but it's a good match for what the Colts do offensively, operating out of two or three basic formations.
But don't be surprised if a little more coverage is thrown in to the game plan. The Saints don't play a lot of cover-2, but you will see some cover-2 "man" defenses (also known as cover-5 to some) and maybe some combination man and zone coverages, with help over the top on WR Reggie Wayne or TE Dallas Clark. They also could play some cover-6 (quarter-quarter-half), which is effective at preventing the big plays. The pressures could come from man-free, their most common defense, to even some zone dogs mixed in. Williams will open the book up and hopes Manning makes a rare mistake reading the field.
Manning is the best in the game at making adjustments at the line. He famously has two pass plays and one run each time be goes to the line and checks to the one he thinks best fits the defensive scheme the defense is running. And because the Saints don't disguise their coverages as much as, say, the Jets or Patriots, he should have a good idea of what to do and what Williams is trying to accomplish on each play.
But an underrated element of Williams' game is that he is very good at adjusting within the game, too. It will be interesting to see if he can be patient enough to keep one or two blitz schemes, something he hasn't shown all game, in his pocket until the fourth quarter. If the Colts are pulling away, Williams might have to use his ace in the hole. But if he can keep a few plays under wraps until the end of the game, he might be able to catch Manning off guard and steal a possession.
Let the chess match begin.
Saturday: Colts TE Dallas Clark vs. Saints SS Roman Harper
PFW has launched its brand-new NFL Draft Newsletter series, with the second issue now ready for mailing and a third issue focusing on underclassmen to be published in the next few weeks. Produced by PFW's player personnel department under the direction of Nolan Nawrocki, the series consists of four information-packed issues. For more info or to subscribe — click here for PDF e-pub or here for print format. You can also find details about other draft-related publications in the PFW store.