Going into the Jets' first-round playoff game against Indianapolis Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, all eyes -- especially the ones belonging to the Jets' defense -- are focused on Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. Now, pan down just a bit to that guy bent over in front of Manning with one hand on the football.
That guy is Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, and he's the key cog in an offensive line that has allowed a league-low 16 sacks of a quarterback who threw an NFL-high 679 passes. Saturday is the front of the shield that holds off the pass-rushing hordes just long enough to allow Manning to step into his throws. It doesn't take very long because Manning is the NFL's best at getting the ball away in a hurry even if it's to avoid taking a sack.
The Jets got to Manning twice in the first quarter of the AFC championship game when linebacker David Harris was credited with two sacks, even though Manning actually went down on his own once when he had no receivers open. The man doesn't like to get hit (Yeah, who does?). But Manning, Saturday and the rest of the offensive line adjusted, and the rest was history in a 30-17 Colts victory.
People talk about quarterback-receiver combinations, but Manning and Saturday (pictured in their usual pose) have been the Colts' most durable pairing, covering 12 of the quarterback's 13 NFL seasons. "They do a great job playing together, Peyton setting the calls and Jeff Saturday being a very smart, experienced guy, a really tough player and then the whole offensive line working together," Jets defensive tackle Mike DeVito said. "They really know what's going on, so, it's a challenge for us up front to put pressure up the middle.
"You've got to keep evolving and changing because Saturday is so smart and Peyton, too. They'll switch stuff up to adapt to what you do, so, you've got to keep changing stuff up to be one step ahead of them. You have to feel like eventually, if you get him moving or not being able to step into his throws, incompletes or interceptions are just like sacks for us. It's all about not getting frustrated because we know there's going to be times when you come clean, and it's not going to be close [to a sack]. You just have to keep on rushing."
Throughout the week leading up to the rematch of last year's AFC title game, the Jets have sounded noticeably confident. There's a sense the players like the game plan, and they certainly should benefit from playing in Lucas Oil Stadium twice at the end of last season. They won the first game when Manning was pulled at halftime after the Colts had clinched top seed in the AFC, and they led the conference championship 17-13 at halftime.
"It's great when you can go back in a playoff situation and look at the tape of that game," DeVito said. "It was the second-most important game other than the Super Bowl, and you get to see what they really want to do when it's crunch time. So, it's really great to have that asset. Yeah, guys are really confident, and we had a great week of prep. Guys put in a lot of extra time, so, we're ready to go."
The Colts' offense will be without slot receiver Austin Collie and tight end Dallas Clark, both of whom hurt the Jets last year but are out with injuries this time around. Ordinarily, that would inspire more confidence, but their replacements, Blair White and Jacob Tamme, are performing just as productively.
"Injuries definitely hurt teams, but with Peyton Manning, just like with Tom Brady and Brett Favre and all those guys, it doesn't matter who they have," DeVito said. "They turn nobodies into superstars. When Manning is there, injuries don't matter. You've got to stop him because that's the team."
If the Jets want to get to Manning, they have to find a way to go through Saturday. As Elton John once sang, "Saturday night's for fighting."