Can the Dallas Cowboys stop Peyton Manning?
At 37, he’s aged like classic American muscle, still full of horsepower and great detail. He’s on pace for record-breaking numbers, having racked up 16 flawless touchdowns, no interceptions, and a mind-boggling 138.0 passer rating at more than nine yards per attempt. Defenses haven’t had an answer for him thus far, but that doesn’t mean he’s indefensible.
He’s had bad games in the past, such as Week 2 against the Atlanta Falcons in 2012. There’s a chance he has a bad one this weekend against the Cowboys. The last time he faced Big D, in 2010, he did.
In a 38-35 loss, he threw four interceptions and was hurried 16 times, according to Pro Football Focus. He was uncomfortable and failed to get into a rhythm on crucial downs and distances, which is the key to slowing down the superstar.
“I thought we did a good job of getting at least some pressure on him and making him move around a little bit,” star linebacker Sean Lee told the Star-Telegram when recalling the game. “With any quarterback, pressure is huge. With your coverage against a great quarterback, you have to be detailed with your fundamentals.”
Lee was a key in the big win. He held his own in coverage, deflecting two passes and intercepting two more. One of them came while playing in the morphing five-under, two-deep Tampa 2 coverage, a part of the team’s defensive package under then-defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni. Now under Monte Kiffin, the defense relies more on a zone-based concept and will look to sit on Manning’s throws, hoping to force turnovers.
To force those turnovers, the secondary will need help from the front four, particularly the defensive tackles. Nick Hayden and Jason Hatcher have been the two most common forces along the interior, combining for 411 snaps. Hatcher’s been the pass-rushing monster of the two, compiling three sacks, three quarterback hits, and 11 pressures on the year, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s the three technique in Kiffin’s scheme, the “under” tackle who makes the engine run and the key to making Manning sweat.
He only played 22 snaps and registered one hurry in the 2010 game, but he can penetrate the pocket and make Manning move from the center of the pocket where he loves to operate. Moving him disrupts the rhythm of the throw and, like Tom Brady, makes him very uncomfortable, as New York Giants defensive back Antrell Rolle said in September.
“You have to do things to make him uncomfortable,” Rolle told the New York Daily News. “You have to rush him. You have to get some hits on him. Peyton does not like to be hit. That’s one thing I’m sure of, he hates to be hit. He doesn’t like to be sacked. And just jump the ball. If he puts it out there, make a play on the ball.
Once the pressure starts coming, the sacks and turnovers likely will as well. Interior pressure will either force Manning to walk back into a DeMarcus Ware sack or force a throw from a restricted pocket, which is difficult to step through throws and drive the ball. Consequently, there’s less velocity and more travel time, giving the defense time to get their hands on the ball. The Cowboys did this in 2010 and made the most of their opportunities. They’ll have to do the same this time around, but they won’t have to be exotic in their defensive design to do so.
“I’ve studied a lot of different defensive coordinators, how they tried to stop Peyton,” Bill Davis, the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, told Philly.com prior to their Week 4 game against Manning. “The teams that beat them execute their defensive techniques and they get turnovers. Turnovers are key if you’re going to have success against a Peyton Manning offense, or slow it down at least.”
Davis’ defense went on to give up 52 points to Manning and the Broncos’ offense, but he made salient points before the game nonetheless.
“There’s really nothing new,” Davis said. “You’re not inventing coverages out here. It’s really about how you’re putting some pressure on him. You have to get around him, not let him get in rhythm like most offenses. Then in the way you play your coverages, you have to be on point, be where you’re supposed to be, and right technique in order to have success.”
Manning is not often duped into a turnover. He’s far too cerebral to let that happen. Rather, defenses need to play their coverages fundamentally and technically sound, and they’ll have a chance at slowing him down.
Playing “your” coverages, as Davis put it, also limits the chances of blown assignments and mixups in coverage, which the Cowboys have been prone to in the past. The more a defense does conceptually, the more likely it is to struggle. Hence why it’s best to get back to fundamentals and get eyes on the ball. It’ll force turnovers and have defenders playing with confidence, which the Cowboys can do by sticking to their Tampa 2 and single-high coverages.
It may not be enough to stop Manning, but it will slow him down, and that’s all the Cowboys’ defense can do if they hope to pull off an upset win in Arlington this Sunday.