— To figure out what’s wrong with Peyton Manning these days, you have to understand what has made him one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
Manning’s game is based upon timing and discipline. When it comes to reading coverage, finding a weakness and getting the ball to a receiver the split-second he escapes his defender, Manning is the best there ever has been. That timing comes from the chemistry Manning developed with receivers Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and others over the years. Manning’s pocket discipline also grew from the trust he had in his receivers: If he threw to a spot on the field, he knew Wayne or Clark would get there at the same time as the ball.
Harrison is retired, and injuries have taken away Clark, Austin Collie, Anthony Gonzalez and Joseph Addai, four players who had the rapport with Manning that the Colts need to make their offense work. Any quarterback’s production would drop with so many weapons gone, but Manning has gone on an uncharacteristic interception binge: 11 picks in the past three weeks. All of the inexperienced faces on offense finally have taken their toll on Manning. His timing is off, and it has affected his discipline.
A look at the game tape shows that he often is staring down the one receiver on the field who he can really trust.
Leading the defense to the ball
For example, take Manning’s second interception of the Cowboys game, the one Orlando Scandrick returned for a touchdown, as shown in the diagram to the right. Before the snap, Manning should have read this defense as Tampa-2 coverage: two safeties covering deep zones, four defenders covering short zones, and a linebacker covering a lane up the middle of the field called the seam. There were plenty of indicators that the Cowboys were running Tampa-2: The cornerbacks were aligned outside the receivers (so they can defend passes along the sidelines), the safeties were deep, and one inside linebacker was a few yards deeper than normal so he could hurry back into coverage.
Manning has faced Tampa-2 defenses his entire career: It is the base defense that Tony Dungy brought from the Buccaneers to the Colts, and Jim Caldwell still frequently uses it, so Manning sees it in practice. The key to beating Tampa-2 is not letting defenders know where the ball is going until it is in the air. That means that a quarterback must not look at his intended receiver until he is ready to throw. When Manning is at his best, he purposely looks to another part of the field before passing. He could look off defenders because he always knew where his corps of veteran receivers would be when he turned to throw.
On this play, Manning did the opposite of looking off the defense: He led defenders to the ball by staring down Reggie Wayne, his primary receiver. By the time Manning checked down from Wayne to Blair White, Scandrick was already drifting in the direction of the pass. Had Manning looked to the middle of the field before throwing — say, toward tight end Jacob Tamme — he would have drawn Scandrick away from White and completed the pass.
Staring down Wayne has become a regular problem for Manning the past three weeks.
Bad timing, bad decision
In the Colts' loss to the Chargers in Week 12, Eric Weddle returned Manning’s third interception for a touchdown. Once again, the Chargers gave Manning an easy pre-snap read: They were in man coverage, and they were blitzing, as shown in the diagram below. The two cornerbacks lined up directly over the receivers on the right side of the formation proved that the Chargers were in man-to-man coverage, and the extra linebackers at the line of scrimmage were a good hint that the blitz is coming.
The only mystery is on Wayne’s side of the field, where the cornerback is far off the ball. The Chargers were playing soft, bracket coverage on Wayne: The cornerback covers any routes Wayne runs along the sideline, while Weddle takes responsibility for Wayne if he crosses the field. That’s not an easy coverage to spot before the snap, and the Chargers could be doing something tricky on that side of the field. For instance, one of the “blitzing” linebackers could drop into coverage to help stop Wayne. Manning has made a career out of breaking down this kind of coverage, which is why his behavior on this play was so baffling.
At the snap, the linebacker blitzed, while Wayne’s cornerback stayed deep as Wayne released toward the middle of the field. Wayne was wide open for a second, but Manning decided not to throw for 10 easy yards on third-and-9. Instead, he hesitated until a blitzing defender forced him to step up in the pocket. By the time Manning found Wayne running a crossing route, Weddle already had picked up the coverage and was in great position to jump in front of the pass. Wayne slipped and fell, but it had nothing to do with the interception: Weddle was already in front of him and ready to make the catch.
Manning looked at Wayne, and only Wayne, for this entire play. This is not how the Colts offense is supposed to work. But close examination of the Weddle interception shows why Manning has gotten sloppy about staring down his best receiver. Three other Colts receivers ran routes against man coverage on this play, but none of them got open. Players such as White, Tamme, Pierre Garcon and Donald Brown aren’t terrible, but opponents know they can be locked down with simple coverage, and Manning has stopped looking their way at crucial moments.
Backs against the wall
It’s important to note that Manning also has thrown for eight touchdowns and 1,046 yards in the past two weeks, and that he kept the Patriots and Cowboys games close despite all of the turnovers. Even when he’s bad, he’s pretty good, and no quarterback in the league studies and adjusts like Manning.
The Colts face the stumbling Titans twice in the final month. The division-leading Jaguars beat the Colts early in the season, but they have one of the league’s worst pass defenses, so it’s hard to imagine a sweep. The Raiders are tougher than usual, but their pass defense is suspect with Nnamdi Asomugha hurt. A 3-1 finish would leave the Colts at 9-7, and if the Ravens stumble, that record could still land the Colts in the postseason.
If the Colts do make the playoffs, you can bet that Manning will have solved his interception problems and will be ready to make some noise.