Thus far in the postseason, the New Orleans Saints have only one sack, which came against the Arizona Cardinals in the Divisional round. They did not register a sack on Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the NFC Championship game, but they most definitely pressured Favre and they certainly got their fair share of shots on him.
In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams admitted that he had schemes in mind to give Peyton Manning a few "remember me" shots on Sunday. He said that Manning is too smart and took quick to sack on a consistent basis, but the subtext of the "remember me" shots is that he's looking for his defenders to tee off on Manning just like they teed off on Favre and Kurt Warner the previous two games in these playoffs.
Warner was knocked out of the Divisional round and Favre's body language towards the end of the championship game was one of a man that was beat up and possibly beat down.
Even casual football fans know how important Manning is to the Colts. He was voted as the Most Valuable Player in the league in 2009. The theory behind the Williams subtext is simple: Kill the head and the body will die. If the Saints can deal enough punishment on defense, Manning will be beaten down and will not be able to perform at his usual high level, which will in turn derail the Indianapolis offense.
The Saints may only have one sack in the playoffs — and they finished 2009 with only 35 sacks, which is not a huge amount for a pressure defense — but New Orleans has other ways of leaving an impression on opposing quarterbacks. As Scout.com Senior NFL Analyst Ed Thompson pointed out in November 2009, sacks are not the only stats in play. Quarterback hits are a significant stat when it comes to pressure. The team may not lose a down and yardage, but there is still a physical and mental impact on the quarterback when he gets hit.
Favre was not sacked, but he was hit — and hit hard — six times in the NFC Championship game. Warner and Matt Leinart were only sacked once in the Divisional round, but the Saints defense recorded three quarterback hits. The pressure that they brought may not have gotten their in time, but it was still timely.
Warner was knocked out of the game away from the play trying to defend on an interception return, but he was still harried and bounced around prior to his exit. And New Orleans did not dial back when Leinart came into the game. The Saints defense is relentless and physical and every player on the offense — especially the quarterback — had better be ready for a fight when they line up against this unit.
Williams does deploy a lot of different looks with different personnel, but nothing as exotic as what Rex Ryan of the Jets uses. Williams stresses execution, explosion, and physical play and he has gotten just that from his charges this season. In the game against the Cardinals, Williams brought pressure from the edges and took away Warner's first read.
Warner is very comfortable with defenders in his face in front of him, but tends to want to get rid of the ball quickly when he senses heat from the outside, as he has had problems with fumbling in his career. As a result, end Will Smith got one of the hits, tackle Shaun Ellis got one of them, and outside linebacker Scott Fujita got the last.
In the Vikings game, Williams wanted to attack Favre up the middle because he is no longer as mobile as he was earlier in his career and can no longer bounce away from blitzers to the inside by looping to the outside. He eventually managed to do this after he got beat up in the early going, but the results were obviously not favorable for Minnesota. Williams used more linebacker stunts and safety blitzes in that game, so safety Darren Sharper ended up with two quarterback hits, with Fujita getting another on an inside stunt.
Manning is similar to Favre in that the best way to pressure him is to bring extra attackers on the inside, then cut off escape routes by closing the pocket on the outside. Manning worked with Jim Caldwell on his ability to stretch the play to the outside and the extra sessions he devoted to his footwork have paid off. But, he's still not going to wow anyone in the 40-yard dash and his footwork still leaves a lot to be desired.
The best way for the Colts to combat this approach will be to operate with the same efficiency that they have all season. The central tenet of this defensive philosophy revolves around disrupting timing and execution through violence. If Indianapolis can ignore the shots, deal with the pain, and keep executing, they will be fine. If Manning doesn't see anything there, he should do what he did against the Jets and hit the deck. If the Saints defenders attack him a prone position, that's an automatic 15-yard penalty.
Mike Pereira, Vice President of Officiating for the NFL, said that at least one hit on Favre should have been a roughing the passer penalty, so those kinds of calls will be a point of emphasis on Sunday. The Saints were flagged for two unnecessary roughness penalties and one roughing the passer call in the championship game, but both roughness penalties happened away from the quarterback.
Williams has been in the league as a coach or coordinator since 1999 and has tried this approach before. According to tthis post on 18to88.com, Manning is 5-2 versus Williams defenses with 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions. If Manning hasn't been broken in the last ten years, he probably won't be broken in the most important game of the year and possibly his career.
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