manning AFC2

In his 18 games so far this season including the playoffs, Peyton Manning has faced only two top 10 passing defenses: the Giants (10th), and Texans (third). By contrast, Manning has also passed against a whole pile of steaming crap, as 10 of those games have come against pass defenses ranked 25th or worse during the regular season (he faced the Chargers three times, two apiece against the Raiders and Chiefs, and then once against the Cowboys, Jaguars, and the league-worst Eagles).

That’s an unfathomable amount of awful he’s been given the opportunity to pick apart. On the high end of the suck is the Jaguars at 247.6 passing yards per game allowed, and at the lowest of the low are the Eagles at 289.8 allowed per game. Put another much more comical way, those six teams combined for an average passing yards allowed per game of 264.4. If we were to mash them all into one team and call them the San OakDal City CowChiegles, that monstrosity of a team’s pass defense would rank 29th this year.

Now, before you go about thinking I’m some sort of crazed Manning non-believer, I assure you that’s not the case. Firstly, Manning factored into those pass defenses ranking as horribly as they did when he and his juggernaut offense cut them up, and he did it multiple times. But more importantly, that observation is intended as a complimentary nod towards the Seahawks’ defense, followed shortly thereafter with a head scratch as we attempt to diagnose how Manning, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker et al will do against a highly physical and imposing secondary, the likes of which they haven’t seen often this season.

Look at that mashed together combined average per game number again, and then go look at the Seahawks’ number in the same category which is, oh, nearly 100 yards lower (92.4). Schematically, the Broncos will likely try to offset the physical play of the Seahawks’ defensive backs by creating both space and confusion through the frequent use of trips and bunch sets. When I looked back on the preseason meeting between the two teams in which most starters played the entire first half, that was a common theme.

But how will Manning himself fare against an elite cover corner like Richard Sherman? He’s now been complemented nicely by Byron Maxwell, and respectively they’ve allowed a freakish opposing passer rating of 45.9 and 47.9. That’s pretty unpleasant.

Well, there’s no other Richard Sherman in the NFL, or anywhere else in America for that matter (yeah, that’s a complete lie…related digression: it must be something between interesting and horrible to share that name right now). But even with their general secondary cupcake schedule, Manning and his offense still faced some corners who happily provided difficult one-on-one matchups.

Specifically, two, and they’re both Pro Bowlers.

Brandon Flowers (weeks 11 and 13): The Broncos won these two games as they did most of their games, but the margins of victory (first 10 points, and then only a touchdown) were much tighter than the majority of Denver’s trucking this season. Flowers was selected to the Pro Bowl to the chagrin of some, but quickly during the Chiefs’ first-round playoff catastrophe against the Colts we saw how vitally important he is still. He sat out for most of the fourth quarter, when the Colts scored 14 points on their way to the second largest comeback in post-season history (28 points in total).

Flowers was on the outside in the Chiefs’ base defense, but he spent most of his season shifting into the slot when they went to their nickel package, a new role he adjusted to as the year went on. That meant during both meetings against the Broncos, he was lined up against Wes Welker for most of the afternoon with how frequently the Broncos use three-wideout sets. That resulted in 110 yards for Welker over the two games, only 38 of which came in the second meeting. In that game Manning was only able to target Welker five times, a season low. Flowers then also contributed to Manning finishing with just — “just” — 22 completions in Week 13, the second lowest single-game total of his season, though it mattered so very little when he threw for 400 yards at a season-high pace of 11.5 per attempt.

In the Super Bowl Welker will mostly draw Walter Thurmond III in the slot.

Alterraun Verner (Week 14): Verner led the league in passes defensed with 23, and he was stupid good this year. So good that in Week five and through a quarter of the season, he was allowing a passer rating of just 12.9 when targeted by opposing quarterbacks. But in this game Manning was able to pick him apart while he spent most of the afternoon lined up across from Eric Decker, who finished with 117 receiving yards (one of his four +100 yard games), including a 24-yard catch with Verner in coverage, and a touchdown (though in fairness, it looked like Verner was expecting safety help on that play).

Despite Verner’s blanketing, Decker was one of just two 1oo-yard wide receivers the Titans allowed all season.

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I would have included Johnathan Joseph here, as he was a key part of that strong Texans secondary. But he tore a ligament in his toe against the Broncos, leaving in the second quarter. And I would have included Lardarius Webb, who finished just behind Verner with 22 passes defensed. But he wasn’t at all himself quite yet way back on opening night in Week 1, and it still took time for him to fully recover from an ACL tear last year. Ditto for Aqib Talib later in the season, who wasn’t really the same after a hip injury.

If we can glean anything from this tiny sample size against top tier corners provided by Verner and Flowers, it’s that the only way to match the Broncos’ extreme offensive depth is with secondary depth of your own. The Broncos won all three games against the Chiefs and Titans while scoring an average of 37.7 points, and Manning passed for a total of 1,123 yards with 10 touchdowns.

Depth isn’t a problem for Seattle, as every defensive back who sees regular snaps is allowing a passer rating of less than 80.0. Of course, regardless of the coverage and who he’s throwing to, Manning has felt quite cozy with the time he’s been given lately.