If Peyton Manning is presented another chance to host “Saturday Night Live,” a skit called “Mr. Clean Pants” may be appropriate.
There is no bigger issue for the Seahawks at Super Bowl XLVIII than trying to knock Manning to the MetLife Stadium turf. Short of that, they have to move, disrupt or at least come close to him to snap the tempo of the Broncos’ passing game.
During the season, and particularly in the playoffs, that’s been the known challenge. But Manning avoids sacks with guile and precision.
In 18 games this season, Manning has been sacked 18 times. None were during the playoffs. He’s been knocked down once in Denver’s two playoff wins. Manning has thrown for 630 yards in the same two games and managed to keep his uniform looking sharp.
“We need to move him,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. “When he’s in rhythm and he’s solid in the pocket, which he is the great majority of the time, then you’re really dealing with the best he has to offer.”
There are various ways to approach this issue with Manning.
Take the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs finished sixth in sacks this year, in part because key members of their rush were injured later in the year. For much of the season, the Chiefs led the league in sacks.
In two games against Manning, the Chiefs did not sack him once despite desperately trying to disguise their pass rush.
Manning is so astute if he sees a linebacker who normally does not put his hands on his thighs place them there, it tells him that the linebacker is preparing to blitz. So he’ll change the play and zip a completion to a receiver who ran his route into the vacated area.
The Chiefs were left with a conundrum. Blitzing linebackers like Tamba Hali or Justin Houston, who combined for 22 sacks on the season, tried to keep still at the start of each play. The byproduct of that was the pair getting late starts off the snap, slowing their path to Manning.
The Seahawks used part of the first bye week in the playoffs to do a self-scout of their “tells” knowing that they could be facing Drew Brees, and ultimately, Manning in the playoffs.
“That was one of the advantages of having that time right at the end of the regular season,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “We had a chance to go back and look at some of the things that we do, things that we do well, and what are some of our own alerts. That was an important time for us to get ready, not just for this game, but the games that lead up to it.”
Only the Baltimore Ravens in the season opener and the Indianapolis Colts, in Week 7, were able to get to Manning. The Ravens sacked him three times, but still lost 49-27. In Indianapolis’ upset of Denver, the Colts sacked Manning four times. In 13 of 18 games this year, Manning has been sacked once or less.
“You’ve got to make sure he’s uncomfortable in the pocket, try to keep pressure on him,” Colts defensive end Robert Mathis, who sacked Manning twice, said. “It’s way easier said then done, but it’s really as simple as that – you’ve got to bring pressure.”
Manning’s gyrations and calls at the line of scrimmage present another issue. Often in the shotgun, Manning will walk up to the line of scrimmage to point then yell. His barking of, “Omaha!” has become famous.
The Seahawks’ secondary will tell you they don’t know what “Omaha” means, nor are they concerned about cracking the code. Only the Broncos know how much of what Manning is saying is fire and not smoke.
“For us it’s more about how we play really than the checks and the information that they’re doing on the other side,” Quinn said.
Those calls from Manning are one of the distinct offensive advantages in football. Quarterback cadence is a craft; how to do it, when to deploy it. It’s part of the reason the Seahawks are in the Super Bowl.
On fourth-and-7 against San Francisco in the NFC title game, Russell Wilson was able to get the 49ers to jump offsides with his hard count at the line. That produced a free play, which turned into Jermaine Kearse’s 35-yard touchdown catch.
“It’s an offensive weapon, the snap count,” Seahawks quarterback coach Carl Smith said. “You have to work that for that to actually work. You’ve got use those snap counts and fake audibles and nobody uses it more than Peyton. So, it’s not something he was taught, it’s something he brought to the position.”
Manning has thrown 59 touchdowns and been intercepted just 11 times this season. His interception percentage is a scant 1.5 percent, the lowest of his Hall of Fame career.
But, there may be one place the Seahawks can exploit him. Manning has 10 fumbles this season, a high rate considering how few times he is hit.
The Seahawks have two defensive ends, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, who excel at stripping quarterbacks. Avril has five forced fumbles this year.
The Seahawks want to “affect” Manning. That’s the term that comes from Carroll, Quinn and any defensive lineman. To do so, they will need cooperation of coverage and rush.
Any extra second, scan or deterrence of a throw brings Avril and Co. one step closer to the head of the beast. Which would put them one large step closer to the first Super Bowl title in franchise history.