Skip to main content
Original Issue

Head Games

Sure, the Saints can prevail. All their defense has to do is outsmart Peyton Manning

This Super Bowl is reminiscent of the Patriots-Giants matchup two years ago in one regard: The only way the underdog can turn the game in its favor is to rattle the superstar quarterback by shredding his trusted offensive line and presenting so many defensive looks that the final whistle blows before he can figure out how to respond.

It worked for New York when it shocked New England and Tom Brady. Will it work for the Saints against the Colts and Peyton Manning?

Nobody can diagnose and dissect a scheme better than Manning. Witness his most recent bit of surgery, against the Jets' top-ranked defense in the AFC Championship Game. Coach Rex Ryan, the leader of so many ferocious outfits with the Ravens, had the Jets come out playing with at least one extra defensive back, daring Indianapolis to run. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore obliged, calling for more rushing plays. But after probing without much success for most of the first half, Manning sensed an opportunity to strike through the air—and he did. Trailing 17--6 late in the second quarter, he connected with wideout Austin Collie on three straight completions, for 80 yards, the last of which went for a touchdown. That began a roll that saw Indy put up 17 points in its next four series to seal a 30--17 victory.

The Colts know the key to beating New Orleans will be their ability to counter whatever über-aggressive scheme defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has prepared in the two weeks before Super Sunday. The Saints know it too, which is why the usually loquacious Williams was unavailable to the media last week after proclaiming in a radio interview on Jan. 26 that he hoped his defense would put some "remember-me shots" on Manning. "They've got me on lockdown," Williams said via text-message last Saturday. "See you in Miami."

Much of what the 51-year-old Williams knows about his job he learned in 1993 while serving as special teams coach alongside Oilers defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan, whose 46 defense revolutionized the NFL in the '80s. "When Buddy left to coach the Cardinals the next season," Williams said in October, "he wanted me to come with him, to sort of tutor his two boys [Rex and Rob] in the pro game. I wanted to go, but I couldn't get out of my contract. I liked how Buddy challenged his own team and every offense he played."

Like his mentor, Williams does that primarily by getting after the quarterback. Following the Saints' 31--28 victory over the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game, during which New Orleans attacked Brett Favre with a variety of blitzes and cloud coverages in the secondary, safety Darren Sharper said the plan had been to beat the tar out of Minnesota's 40-year-old quarterback, hoping the hits would pay off at game's end. The Saints believe Favre's careless interception on the Vikings' final play was a consequence of the cumulative beating they had administered.

But Manning rarely takes the kind of killer shot Favre left himself exposed to on at least six occasions, when he waited until the last second to throw. During Indy's 20--3 beatdown of the Ravens in the divisional round, 345-pound defensive tackle Haloti Ngata came free at Manning and prepared to knock him into next week—until Manning dived to the turf in the fetal position. He doesn't need to take the big hit just to show how brave he is. Manning is also more mobile than the Cardinals' Kurt Warner, whom New Orleans tormented during a 45--14 romp in the divisional playoff game. And while he's not as fond of throwing on the run as Favre is, Manning is exceptional at allowing the edge-rushing traffic to buzz around him as he steps up in the pocket to find his third or fourth target.

In the victory over Arizona, the New Orleans front four, led by 307-pound tackle Sedrick Ellis, repeatedly pushed Warner's offensive line back into his face. The matchup between Ellis and the interior of Indy's line, anchored by center Jeff Saturday, will be pivotal. The Colts must also pick up safety blitzes from Sharper, who got a huge lick on Favre coming up the middle. "Against Arizona the Saints did a great job collapsing the pocket," says Saturday. "The quarterback can't get in a comfortable lane then. They're very opportunistic when they do that."

Manning is 5--2 against teams Williams either coached (Buffalo) or coordinated (Tennessee, Washington, Jacksonville). One loss came in Manning's first playoff game; the other came in Week 3 of 2008, 23--21 to the Jaguars, when Manning was still ailing after two midsummer arthroscopic procedures on his left knee. In the last six meetings the Colts have averaged 28.3 points while Manning has completed 69.2% of his throws and been sacked only seven times.

Last week SI asked four players formerly coached by Williams, plus three NFL coaches, what his D will have to do. They said that all 11 Saints will have to show phony coverages and remain in them even as the ball is snapped to have any hope of confusing Manning, whose gyrations at the line are intended to induce defenses to tip their hand. Can New Orleans present a Cover Two, then instantly morph into man without blowing any coverage? Much of the Saints' success will depend on middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, whom Williams empowers to change defensive schemes either in the huddle or just before the snap. Manning, from his wide-scanning looks out of the shotgun, will be reading Vilma. Vilma will be reading Manning, making Vilma as valuable to New Orleans's cause as Drew Brees.

"The misunderstood thing about Gregg is he's all pressure," says Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who worked under Williams in 1999 and 2000, when the latter was the Titans' defensive coordinator. "He knows all pressure won't work against Peyton. Playing Peyton is like using that Chinese finger trap—the harder you pull, the tighter the trap gets. He usually figures out what you're trying to do." That's why Manning, and his team, will prevail on Sunday.



THE SIGNAL CORPS Both Vilma (51, left) and Manning (18, above) will be telling their mates who goes where.



[See caption above]



[See caption above]



[See caption above]