FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Dwight Lowery called it "the weirdest thing I've ever experienced on a football field." It was a moment from the AFC Championship Game last January, when Peyton Manning performed one of his brainiac feats on the New York Jets.
Standing at the line of scrimmage on one particular play, the Indianapolis Colts quarterback pointed to each member of the defense and called out the player's specific assignment before the snap, alerting his teammates what to expect.
Manning had it down cold -- every player, every assignment, according to Lowery.
"What should I do?" the Jets cornerback remembered thinking to himself.
Great question for this week: What should the Jets do?
In case you haven't heard, Manning is a smart dude, an X's-and-O's savant. He always outsmarts Rex Ryan's defenses, leading some to believe that the Jets should change their blitz-oriented approach for Saturday night's wild-card game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Former Colts coach Tony Dungy, for one, said Manning is too smart to be affected by pressure schemes.
"I've always felt that when Peyton Manning sees blitzes, and Tom Brady, they know where the one-on-ones are," Dungy, an NBC studio analyst, said on a conference call. "Then it's just a matter of finding the mismatch and exploiting it. I always thought it was a lot more effective to mix coverages and not let him know where the one-on-ones are, make him work for it."
Thing is, the Jets aren't a coverage kind of team. Statistically, they're one of the most blitz-heavy teams in the league. In last season's AFC title game, they unofficially sent more than four rushers on 26 of Manning's 41 dropbacks. They confused Manning for a couple of series, but he eventually figured it out and wound up passing for 377 yards and three touchdowns in the Colts' victory.
Ryan believes in pressuring the quarterback. He learned that style from his father, Buddy, who ran the celebrated '85 Bears defense. The joke around the Jets is that if Rex ever played zone, he'd be removed from Buddy's will.
It's who he is, but part of being a good coach is adapting. Can Ryan put aside his ego, his get-the-quarterback mentality, and take a conservative approach in a high-stakes game?
"We can't change who we are in a week," defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. "We're a pressure defense. We're going to pick and choose when we go after the quarterback, and I don't think this week should be any different. That's our personality. That's what we do."
It's a proven system, not a flavor-of-the-month gimmick, but it doesn't seem to work against Manning. In six games against Ryan-coached defenses, starting in 2005 when Ryan was the Baltimore Ravens' defensive coordinator, Manning is 5-1 -- and the loss really wasn't on Manning. He was pulled with a third-quarter lead last season in Week 16 because the Colts wanted to rest their starters for the playoffs.
"I'm not the only coordinator Peyton has destroyed," said Ryan, defending his rep. "It's being written like I'm his punching bag. Mine, at least it has arms on it. Some of the other guys he plays against, they've got no arms on it. But I plan on swinging back."
By Saturday night, Manning will have studied every Jets game on video. Before facing a Ryan-coached defense for the first time, in the 2005 opener, he actually dug up old videos of Buddy Ryan's Chicago and Philadelphia defenses, looking for clues. Call that the apple-doesn't-fall-far-from-the-tree premise.
In an attempt to throw off Manning, Rex Ryan purposely blitzed throughout the '05 preseason, switching to a coverage-based plan in the opener. Ryan figured it was the perfect setup.
But Manning hit that curveball out of the park, passing for 254 yards and two touchdowns in a 24-7 win.
The key is to vary the plan of attack, mixing pressure with coverage. Pettine acknowledged that although it might be difficult to confuse Manning, it's possible to confuse those around him, disrupting the pass plays that rely on timing. Easier said than done.
"You're not going to stop Peyton Manning," Ryan said, "but we're going to make enough plays, in my opinion, to win this game."