The Pittsburgh Steelers' game plan was working seamlessly. They were stopping the run, forcing Peyton Manning to win with his obviously limited arm. A long-time NFL defensive coordinator who watched the game said Pittsburgh impressively disguised its intentions before each snap for much of the game.
When that plan started to crack on the Denver Broncos' 13-play, back-breaking scoring drive in the fourth quarter of their 23-16 playoff win Sunday, Manning knew exactly what to do. Rookie linebacker Bud Dupree backpedaled into coverage too early on a second down. Manning screamed 'Black 80' and checked into a running play. C.J. Anderson burst through Denver's right side, Dupree's side, for a 28-yard gain. A holding penalty negated the play but that wasn't the point. The Broncos had momentum.
Two minutes later, Manning's signature "OMAHA, set-hut" with machine-gun octaves caught James Harrison offside. After throwing all game, the Broncos ran nine times for 33 yards on that drive. Steelers players and coaches admitted afterward that Manning caught them in blitz packages.
"Above-the-neck football," Harrison said of Manning.
Translation in a crawfish-shorts-inspired jingle: Pey-ton-still-wins-with-his-mind.
From cadences to hard counts to run calls, Manning causes problems for a defense before he ever takes the snap, a useful tool for a quarterback without his fastball entering a 17th meeting with Tom Brady.
Diminishing arm strength doesn't curb the value Manning still holds in this area. The Steelers game was proof.
An informal survey of several NFL defensive players and coaches suggests Manning is still the NFL's best at frustrating defenses with his eyes, hands and mouth before a snap, with the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers a close second. Brady, of course, is considered brilliant at the line, too.
"People don't realize how important it is for a guy at the line of scrimmage getting his team into the right play," said former Dallas Cowboys safety Darren Woodson, now an ESPN analyst. "It's a chess match, and Peyton always has a counter."
Woodson's humbled-by-Peyton moment came in 2002 when Mike Zimmer, then the Cowboys' coordinator, prepared all week for blitz packages that would surprise Manning. They had disguises and counters ready for the Indianapolis Colts. Woodson and his teammates wanted to wait until late in the play clock before creeping to the line for a blitz.
That plan lasted about, oh, two series. When Woodson inched closer, Manning countered with a quick screen to Marvin Harrison for a sizable gain. A fire-breathing Zimmer scrapped the entire blitz package in the first quarter. Woodson recalls Manning basically telling the safety with his eyes, "I know exactly where you're going."
That was 13 years ago, and Manning is "not even close" to what he used to be physically, Woodson said. But the mind is still as sharp.
"He still has to complete the pass," Woodson said. "Teams are sitting on routes because they know he can't throw the deep ball. But he can still use his mind to beat teams. He's by far the smartest quarterback we've seen in a while."
Manning's presence at the line is all about misdirection. His "Omaha" is now famous, but other favorites are "taco," "apple" or "arrow." These phrases mix and match with a staccato "set-hut" cue to draw defenders offside.
The numbers are unscientific because of injury, but over the past five years, Manning's teams have drawn 68 offside, encroachment or neutral-zone penalties, the highest number among the remaining playoff quarterbacks, according to ESPN's Stats & Information. Brady's New England Patriots drew 62 penalties, Cam Newton's Carolina Panthers 53 and Carson Palmer's Arizona Cardinals/Oakland Raiders 49. Manning missed the 2011 season in Indianapolis, and Palmer missed 10 games in 2014.
Anyone who watched the Panthers' 44-16 blowout of the Washington Redskins in Week 11 knows Newton's hard count is legit. Washington's linemen were living offside that game. This season, the Panthers have the most penalties drawn among the four remaining teams with 18. The Broncos are second with 13. The Patriots have 12, and the Cardinals eight.
For Manning, drawing penalties is all about disrupting the rhythm of a lineman. Veteran Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robison says Manning will use the same cadence (like Omaha) for several plays, only to suddenly switch to something else, followed by an unsettling hard count.
"Almost like he's lulling you to sleep," Robison said.
"So off balance," he added.
Manning does this, players and coaches say, to dissect the defense. He lets the clock run so defenses will reveal their plans. Meanwhile, he's calling out "hot" colors and numbers to alert his offense, in code, what certain defenders are doing on the play -- like "Black 55" or "Blue 38" or "Gold 26."
Or maybe he's not actually telling his offense anything.
"We felt like 90 percent of his calls were a distraction for him to learn new information or get something else," said Chris Hoke, a Steelers nose tackle from 2001 to '11. "A lot of it is just talking. He's getting you to show your blitzes. When you could hold your disguise until the end, he can't make the check and must call a play."
Even if defenses figure out Manning, his pacing affects the players, switching from hard counts under center to a hurry-up, shotgun offense.
That 28-yard play by Anderson last week was still fresh on Woodson's mind days after the game. Manning saw Dupree backpedal, checked into a run and gashed the Steelers.
But Manning will need more than blitz pickups to find an edge on New England. He'll need help. On some plays, the smarts won't matter. Not anymore.
"His receivers have to win," Woodson said. "It's that simple."
Contributing: Jeff Legwold