INDIANAPOLIS -- The two sacks the Baltimore Ravens got Saturday night weren’t the kind defenders covet. They didn’t burst through the Indianapolis Colts' line or beat someone around the corner and drill Peyton Manning. Manning looked up, saw them coming and basically surrendered.
That might not be your brand of football, but it was prudent for a guy who can’t afford to get hurt as he pursues his second Super Bowl.
The four-time NFL MVP usually avoids sacks thanks to an excellent combination platter of pass protection and the precise-timing offense. By the time a pass-rusher arrives, Manning's thrown the ball. It worked often against the Ravens in the Colts' AFC divisional playoff victory.
Against the blitz-happy New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, he'll be focused on getting rid of it quickly, too.
And while that pass-rusher might take heart that he hurried Manning and influenced a play, he may also wind up frustrated if even the perfect snap manages nothing more than that.
“It's very frustrating,” said Colts Pro Bowl defensive end Robert Mathis of a quarterback who’s able to consistently get rid of the ball in the face of a successful rush. “To be honest with you, if they get the ball out quick, it throws you off your game. But you have to keep swinging. You have to stick to your guns.
“[Manning] just knows the game, so you're obviously not just going to tee off on him. He'll make sure of that."
The precision of Manning and the passing offense have a lot more permutations than just exasperating pass-rushers, of course.
Here are looks at it from a few different angles.
Covering for linemen: Colts left tackle Charlie Johnson said over the course of a regular game there are usually a couple of times when he thinks he might have been beaten only to discover that his fast-acting quarterback has erased the possibility of a negative play.
“You hear pass-rushers say it through the media, it starts to get frustrating when you get close but the ball is already gone,” Johnson said. “I think that has a lot to do with what we do as an offense, just as far as we’re a timing offense and our guys get open fast. I’m sure it can get frustrating.”
Manning takes a great deal of pleasure when he’s able to catch a team with too many men on the field. He probably likes annoying a defensive end or blitzer as well, though he won’t expound on it much.
“I always say that I’m not trying to put anybody through a test out there as to how long you can hold your guy in one-on-one pass protection,” he said. “... I know those guys are doing whatever they can to give me the best chance to do my job. I’m trying to help them do their job well by being on time.”
Said Colts team president Bill Polian: "[Manning] and Tom Brady [and] a few others have an innate feel for where rushers are coming from because they understand the protections and where breakdowns may occur. Sometimes you think they have eyes in the back of their heads. Dan Marino was that way. They avoid the rush and still get a completion when sometimes you may have turned a rusher loose."
Creating limitations: Because the Colts' offense makes things happen so quickly, the opposition's defensive play calling can be restricted. More exotic elements of pass pressure might get tossed on Tuesdays, when game plans are being devised.
“I think that does sort of change what you do,” Colts head coach Jim Caldwell said. “For example, a team that oftentimes would like to disguise and not show and still blitz, a guy that gets the ball out quickly sometimes renders that kind of approach useless because they can’t get home before he gets the ball out. So what it does is force a team to put a blitzer a little closer to the line of scrimmage or employ maybe linebackers as opposed to safeties to try to get pressure on him. I do think it does change the dynamics of a game.”
Anything that limits a defense like that works to Manning’s advantage. There is that much less for him to sort through.
Not a lot of coverage sacks: Manning’s targets play a bigger role than many people realize. When there are only 10 regular-season sacks to be dissected, that’s not only a credit to the line and the quarterback, but to the Colts' receivers. More often than not, they beat the coverage in time for Manning to avoid a sack.
“The only thing we can do is run our routes, get the proper depth and hopefully he gets it to us on time,” Colts wideout Reggie Wayne said. “A lot of that goes with the offensive line. Everybody knows we’re a timing offense and we just want to go out there and strive for perfection. We know it’s going to be tough -- either we get open or he gets sacked. And we definitely don’t want to see him on his back, so we need to figure out a way to get open."
But go a little deeper into an opponent’s pool of pass-rushers, and you’ll find guys who exhaust themselves with often fruitless pursuit against a team that throws as often and as well as the Colts do.
“What it does do is tire them out,” said Polian. “Rushing the passer is a really physically tiring task. And most defensive linemen will tell you that rushing the passer is more tiring than playing the run because it involved so much work with their legs as well as with their upper bodies. ...
“The great ones it doesn’t affect. Vanden Bosch, for example, is going to play just as hard on the last play of the game as the first. If you have a shortage of defensive linemen, they are tired at the end of the game, there are no two ways about that.”
Physical gifts: Manning’s mental acuity is a big part of getting the ball out so fast. But it’s not just smarts, Caldwell said, it’s a physical skill.
When I twisted his arm, Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. rated Manning as having the sixth-quickest release among NFL quarterbacks, behind Philip Rivers, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Kurt Warner and Aaron Rodgers.
“He has a very, very quick release,” Caldwell said of Manning. “I think you find that as somewhat of a common denominator among quarterbacks who have been pretty successful in this league. Quick release is vital. He does indeed have those things.”