TEMPE, Ariz. -- Peyton Manning won’t be the only one trying some trickery at the line of scrimmage Sunday in Denver.
The Cardinals defense believes it’s found the key to slowing down Manning and the Broncos’ 10th-ranked passing attack. All it will take is a hat, a fake mustache and a pair of glasses.
“You can disguise some and you can try to disguise as much as you want,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.
“He’s going to find them out sooner or later.”
The arduous task of disguising the coverages, blitzes and schemes well enough to fool Manning will be left up to defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who has coached against the quarterback five times, beating him just once.
But Bowles-coached secondaries have figured out something about Manning. They’ve intercepted him seven times while allowing just eight touchdown passes -- never more than two in a game. Bowles’ defenses have allowed Manning to throw for more than 300 yards just twice -- the first time he faced Manning in 2000, which also happened to be Arians’ last season as Manning’s quarterback coach in Indianapolis, and the last time in 2009.
This week, Bowles will have some help.
Arians and assistant head coach Tom Moore might know Manning better than any coaching tandem in the league. Arians spent the first three years of Manning’s career as his position coach and Moore was Manning's offensive coordinator in Indianapolis.
Add in cornerback Antonio Cromartie's experience against Manning, which includes four career interceptions -- three of which came in one game -- cornerback Jerraud Powers' three seasons as Manning’s teammate, and linebacker Larry Foote's four games against Manning, and the Cardinals have a deep well of institutional knowledge to draw from this week.
Cromartie and Foote both said the best way to keep Manning guessing is to line up in the same defensive formation on every play.
Just “holding your disguise, holding it,” Foote said with some emphasis. “You ain’t got to show other stuff but just holding it, that helps. A lot of the time he gets the ball out of his hands so fast. He sees something and he goes.”
For the last week-and-a-half, Cromartie has been instilling in the secondary the importance of not tipping their hands to Manning, who’s nine touchdown passes away from tying Brett Favre’s all-time record of 508. On Monday, fourth-year cornerback Patrick Peterson sounded like a young, eager defensive back that’s never faced Manning.
He was 8-years old when Manning took his first NFL snap, but Peterson has been listening intently to Cromartie and Powers, who was Manning’s teammate with the Colts from 2009-2011.
“Make sure every single coverage is the same so we can make sure that we can get into his head versus him getting into ours,” Peterson said.
But, as many defensive backs have learned over Manning’s 16 seasons, that’s a lot easier said than done.
Holding the disguise in blitzes could be the difference between Manning picking apart the Cardinals’ secondary and Arizona leaving Denver 4-0.
Manning has been blitzed 34 times this season and has thrown on 31 of them, according to ESPN Stats & Information. All three of his sacks have come courtesy of a blitz, but he hasn’t thrown an interception when the rush comes full force. His yards per attempt drops from 8.18 to 5.42 when he’s blitzed, however.
The Cardinals have blitzed on 31.2 percent of their snaps, recording two sacks and two interceptions. Considering how much Arizona relies on bringing five or more rushers, not giving Manning time to adjust his progressions or even the presnap call is critical.
“What he likes to do, he will hold that ball until you got to show it and a lot of times what we did in Pittsburgh was we just, during the week, worked on disguises,” Foote said.
With an extra week to study Arizona’s defense, especially the Cards’ blitzes, Manning needs just one hint to burn the Cardinals.
“You’ll hit him with some new blitzes and then he’ll figure out how to protect them,” Arians said. “That’s what his greatness is, is his cerebralness in the game.”