There are certain players who have a swagger and, whether fans like them or not, they have to show them their due respect. Adrian Peterson is one of those players. Brett Favre taught Vikings fans how the quarterback position should be played. Aaron Rodgers has it. J.J. Watt has it. As a team, the New England Patriots have it.
Peyton Manning is one of those players. A case can be made that he is the greatest quarterback of all time despite winning just one Super Bowl title. There are quarterbacks who are students of the game. Manning teaches 500-level classes and the results have spoken for themselves.
“Peyton Manning is one of the great quarterbacks, you’ve got to say it like it is,” defensive end Everson Griffen said. “He’s going to be in the Hall of Fame someday. He’s got his team rolling. The biggest thing for us is to go out there and play our style of ball – go out there, get to him, make him feel uncomfortable in the pocket, stop the run first and foremost, and go out there and execute our calls.”
Part of facing Manning is being willing to play the chess master at his own game, while not overthinking it too much. Manning’s pre-snap machinations have become legendary, with some players believing he’s calling audibles on every play and others believing the calling out of numbers and pointing is merely window dressing for a call they’re still going to run.
The reason for the divide in opinion is that Manning picks up on how defenders are lining up and makes plays in the weakness in the formation with maddening regularity. As a result, the Vikings are going to try to beat Manning at his own game, showing one formation pre-snap and then switching at the last moment into what they’re really planning for that play.
“That’s definitely going to be a huge part of what we’re doing,” linebacker Gerald Hodges said. “We have to disguise things. We’ve got to be hitting all our keys. That’s the main part. If the Vikings are hitting all keys and on all cylinders – not just on defense, but all areas of the football team – we’ll be fine.”
The only way to combat Manning is to fight fire with fire. If he’s going to zing out quick passes, you need to shoot gaps and put him on the ground. When Manning has lost, he has had a tendency to lose big, especially in the postseason because an opponent has confused him by showing formations and blitz pressures he hasn’t seen on tape.
Head coach Mike Zimmer is likely to take the game plan defensively as a personal challenge, showing that he can be a chess master as well. Cornerback Captain Munnerlyn hinted that the Vikings are going to try to use his own brand of subterfuge to force Manning into several of those ugly crappie-flop drops to the ground to avoid taking a big hit and live to play another down.
“I know Coach Zim is going to have a great game plan in – a special game plan – to try to get the ball out of his hand fast and try to disrupt him a little bit,” Munnerlyn said. “You can’t think that he’s not going to throw it to that guy. You can be covering a guy and he still might throw the ball. He still thinks he might be able to put it in there. He’s one of the greats. He’s a Hall of Famer.”
What has separated Manning from the vast majority of NFL quarterbacks, even some of the greats, is that he leaves the huddle with a play in mind, but has a Plan B, C and possibly D in mind. If it looks like the called play isn’t there, he is equipped to make a change to something else that almost always turns out to be the better play call.
“He probably has three or four play-calls when he walks up to the ball,” Griffen said. “He’s a master when it comes to getting teams to jump offside, to get out of balance and to get you out of gaps. He’s just a master of that stuff.”
With Manning looking to take advantage of defensive weakness, the Vikings’ goal is to try to show him perceived weaknesses, get him to commit to changing the play and then moving into the actual defensive formation as the play clock rolls under five or six seconds – too late on most plays to change back to the original call.
It may not be things that are readily noticeable to casual fans, but it’s part of the X’s and O’s second-level thinking that is required when going up against a mad genius.
“We definitely have to try to disguise well on the back end,” Munnerlyn said. “We talk about that during the week – when they like snapping the ball so I can know when to start changing my leverage up, things like that. With this guy, he’s special. He’ll sit there and wait all day. I’m sure he’s already studied everybody in the secondary and sees when we touch our gloves what we’re playing. We’ve definitely got to do a great job switching things up this week.”
One of the facets of his game that makes Manning unique in the elite group of the all-timers is that he is willing to throw a ball into a tight window or take a risk that most quarterbacks are taught not to make.
Last Sunday against Detroit, the Broncos were leading 17-12 deep in Detroit territory and he saw what he thought was an exploitable matchup for tight end Owen Daniels. He made a line adjustment with the play clock ticking down that would leave Lions pass rusher Ziggy Ansah unblocked with a free ride into the backfield. He instructed his offensive line to all slide right to increase protection. He took the snap, rolled to his right and uncorked a perfect pass to Daniels for a touchdown that ended the game.
Almost every other quarterback would call a safe play that would likely set up a short field goal to give Denver an eight-point lead. Manning took a chance, threw a textbook pass for a touchdown and the game was over with a 24-12 lead.
“A guy like Peyton Manning can be scary at times,” Hodges said. “You look at guys like him, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, those guys make the big throws that most other quarterbacks don’t make or don’t even try. You have to play tight coverage, because if you ever give him room to throw, he’ll make it work and squeeze it in there.”
At 39, there isn’t a lot of gas left in Manning’s tank. He struggled down the stretch last season and has only been effective in short spurts this season. There are some who believe that Manning is a shell of his former self and that injuries have taken a toll on his velocity and accuracy. Then again, people said the same thing about Favre heading into the 2009 season and he proved everyone wrong.
Those who were proclaiming the end of Manning’s career have been forced to swallow their words. One thing is certain: When the Vikings face Manning on Sunday, they won’t like him. They may even hate him. But, to a man, they respect him.
“I feel like he’s still got it,” Munnerlyn said. “A lot of guys are saying, ‘He can’t throw the ball more than 30 yards no more.’ I don’t see that at all. When they played Kansas City on the short week everybody was saying he didn’t look the same. When you play those Thursday night games, nobody is the same. Then he came out against Detroit and was throwing the ball very well. He made every throw. He’s still got it and he’s doing a great job of throwing the ball.”