Peyton Manning has a word to describe the process he goes through to produce his surgically precise defensive dissections each Sunday. He calls it "grinding."
At least that's what the Colts quarterback said he did in order to decipher the Jets' complex defense on the way to a 30-17 AFC championship victory just over a week ago in Indianapolis. "We grinded on these guys all week hard," Manning said after passing for 377 yards and three touchdowns against the NFL's No. 1 defense. "I studied a lot of film."
The opponent, as Manning saw it, really was Jets coach Rex Ryan, the architect of the Jets' attack-style defense, a scheme the Colts had faced previously when Ryan was an assistant with Baltimore. "I studied the 2005 Colts-Ravens game," said Manning, referring to a 24-7 Indianapolis victory in the opener that marked Ryan's debut as Ravens defensive coordinator. "You just kind of pick a game, and you kind of say, 'I think they might play this defense.'
"That is kind of what they did. He has his style of defense, and he goes back to things that work. I grinded on them."
In other words, Manning knew the Jets had to change up from the looks they gave him in their Week 16 upset victory when Colts coach Jim Caldwell pulled him in the third quarter to save him for the playoff run. So, he not only went through lots of Jets tape from this season but also Ryan tape from four previous meetings against Baltimore. Manning basically climbed in Ryan's head and figured out the basis for the scheme the Jets coach tried to disguise in the AFC title matchup.
The Colts trailed 17-6, but when they scored in the final two minutes of the first half, covering 80 yards in 58 seconds, you knew Manning had it all figured out. After the game, Manning said he was mentally exhausted from all the film study, adding that he was happy to have two weeks to prepare for Super Bowl XLIV and a New Orleans defense led by safety Darren Sharper.
Manning with two weeks to grind? Pity the poor Saints. They have a fine defense, and Sharper is a ball hawk who often takes his interceptions to the end zone. But Manning is the best at finding a weakness and exposing it.
The Jets used All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis to basically eliminate top wide receiver Reggie Wayne as an option, and they focused the rest of their coverage on tight end Dallas Clark. The Colts came out in a two-tight-end set, trying to force the Jets to play the run, but they ignored it and stuck to their plan to use nickel and dime coverages with extra defensive backs. So, Manning adjusted by going with a three-wide-receiver formation, and he spent most of the game throwing to rookies Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie.
Garcon caught 11 passes for 151 yards and one touchdown, and Collie had seven receptions for 123 yards and a touchdown. It didn't matter that they were rookies playing the biggest game of their lives. Manning put it where only they could catch it.
"He has a way of making everyone around him better," Caldwell said. "He's like a great point guard that can get you the ball at the right time in the right place so that you can do something with it. Get them a 'runner's ball,' I call it."
Whatever the Saints' defense gives him, Manning will be sure to take maximum advantage no matter where it takes him with the ball. He's had plenty of time to grind that defense to a pulp in the video room. New Orleans' best hope on Super Sunday is for quarterback Drew Brees to match Manning on the scoreboard, and that is a very tall order.