INDIANAPOLIS - On paper, not to mention on broadcast airwaves, cable, the Internet and any other medium you care to name, the Jets have little chance to beat the Colts and quarterback Peyton Manning in the AFC Championship Game Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. But anyone can have a bad day at the office, especially against the NFL's No. 1 defense.
At least that's what the Jets told themselves as they practiced a game plan they believe has some booby traps in store for Manning. Despite his four-time MVP credentials and one Super Bowl ring, he has a .500 record in the playoffs (8-8). What it all comes down to is finding a way to rattle a quarterback who has been sacked only 12 times this season, including one playoff game.
"We know he runs that team," cornerback Donald Strickland said. "If he's not on track, they're not going to win. If we can put pressure on him, force him to be perfect and we hold up in coverage, we think we have a good shot."
No one said it would be easy. Manning reads defenses better than anyone else in the NFL, including many of the defensive coordinators who try to disguise them, and he routinely gets the ball away before the pass rush can reach him.
Before Manning was pulled with a 15-10 lead in the third quarter of a game the Jets came back to win four weeks ago, several members of the Jets' defense said he recognized at least 80 percent of what they were doing.
"That just shows us we need to do a better job," Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. "We've done a self-scout. We looked at that game and what we were doing prior to that game.
"It's like poker. Is there a 'tell?' What's the 'tell' on every play? There's nobody better in the league at finding them [than Manning]. Pre-snap movement is critical for us to make sure that he doesn't know what we're in. It's a lot of little things, and it gets complicated. But we have to really be on point with our details this week."
In their divisional playoff win over San Diego, the Jets did a good job making recognition difficult for Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers with formations such as the "walk-around" blitz, in which the defense stood at the line of scrimmage and seemed to mill about until the moment before the snap. That was the most extreme example, but movement on defense before the snap is a major key.
Executing correctly on defense when you're worried about getting to the right spot in coverage when the ball is snapped is easier said than done. If the Jets show the defense too soon, it's like giving Manning the answers to the test.
"The defense can't get antsy," Strickland said. "We're going to have to do a great job of holding our water and letting him think we're in something ."
The next step when a play begins is for the Jets' secondary to be physical with Colts tight end Dallas Clark and wide receivers Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon and Austin Collie. They're used to it, so they don't back down from a challenge and do a good job getting open for Manning's precise throws. But because it's so hard to sack Manning, roughing up the receivers remains the best way of disrupting the timing of the Colts' pass patterns.
"It's about getting hands on receivers and not letting them get down the field on their deeper routes, more so than the shorter stuff," cornerback Lito Sheppard said. "When we make teams drive the ball consistently on us without hitting the big play, they tend to have a long day."
If the Jets can hold their disguises as long as possible and slow down the receivers off the line of scrimmage, their multiple blitzing schemes have a chance to create pressure on Manning. As safety Kerry Rhodes said, "We've seen some teams that run similar defenses to ours, a 3-4 hybrid-type system, where he's had trouble before. He can get a little erratic if you can get pressure on him. That's the key, but you don't get pressure on him a lot. That's going to be the task."
The versatility of the Jets' players in each layer of the defense allows them to disguise their blitzes. Linebackers Bryan Thomas and Calvin Pace can put their hand on the ground and rush or drop back in pass coverage. Safeties Rhodes and Jim Leonhard can blitz, play like linebackers in the box or cover deep.
They know when one of them has deep responsibility in single-safety formations, they'd better be ready.
"The Colts take as many or more [deep] shots than anybody in the league," Leonhard said. "As a safety, you have to be on top of your game as far as coverage and also disguise. If Peyton understands the coverage, he knows exactly where to go, and it's probably going to be a catchable ball every single time."
Finally, it's up to the defensive line to push Manning's blockers into the pocket and make him move off the spot where he sets up. The rushers often are outnumbered by Colts blockers even when the Jets blitz one or two players. It's frustrating, but they must try to reach Manning even if they don't sack him.
"Sometimes a sack is not necessarily the best thing," Pace said. "Sometimes, get pressure and a hand in his face and hope you affect the throw. Kerry, Jim, Lito, Darrelle [Revis] might pick one off."
It's a tall order, but considering how dominant the Jets' defense has been at times this season, stopping Manning is not impossible.
"With Calvin and [linebackers] David Harris and Bart Scott creating pressure, and then we got Revis covering one side, so take away half of the field," corner Drew Coleman said. "We've got a lot of equal matchups. We've got to play a damn near perfect game, but we know we can play with this team."