Why the AFC title game won’t come down to Tom Brady vs. Peyton Manning

Flipping on the coach’s tape to review the Broncos’ divisional-round victory over the Steelers, I was a bit surprised with the coverages Pittsburgh chose to use against the 2015 Peyton Manning-led offense.

Most of what the Steelers ran would be consistent with facing Manning of years past — more zone coverage than man, defending most routes from the top down. This is the kind of approach a defense will typically use to prevent explosive plays and keep a quarterback guessing on the matches in the intermediate part of the field.

That was the best you could expect back when Manning his dominant self. For whatever reason, it looked like the Steelers were still willing to give him his old coverage grace — bizarre considering where his physical abilities are today. 

Now the Patriots must fashion a game plan against this Broncos offense for a chance to go back to the Super Bowl. I suspect letting Manning peck away on the only routes you know he can complete in the winter weather won’t be their choice.

SUPER BOWL MOMENTS

Don’t be fooled, Manning is still a capable NFL quarterback, but he no longer warrants priority status in a defensive game plan — he has clear weaknesses. The Patriots unprecedented stretch of success has been built on forcing teams to play to their weakness. For the first time in many Patriots-Broncos matchups, Manning carving up the New England defense isn’t a realistic concern.

There is no magic pill in defensive football. Every coverage has a weakness. This is something every defensive coordinator from high school to the NFL knows by heart. A coverage decision is largely based on a player or area of the field you want to take away. But built into that choice is a concession of where you’re willing to risk the offense won’t hurt you.

In Cover 1 (man-to-man), a top passer can toast a coverage by delivering balls in that brief opening at the top of a route’s break. Another vulnerability to Cover 1 is deep and to the outside. Cover 2 is well known for being weak in the deep-middle part of the field, while Cover 3 has more trouble covering up the seams. Cover 4 sacrifices one underneath zone coverage body to put four defenders in the deep part of the field.

Each of these has its own give and take.

Considering the noticeable lack of velocity on Manning’s throws this season, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and the Patriots defensive staff are almost certain to make their coverage choices with that first in mind. Manning’s timing and accuracy have always been top-notch, and that part of his game isn’t something age affects as much. The question is simply whether he get the ball to his location before defenders arrive.

In the following graphic, you can see the kinds of routes Manning has been relying upon since his return to the starting lineup in Week 17. Not surprisingly, these are shorter routes, largely between the numbers and hashmarks. A number of various hooks, sits, and curls are the most common routes New England should expect to see — routes that require a shorter throw and that aren’t moving away from Manning when the ball is delivered (below).<pic 1>

In both of the examples above, you’ll notice the defenders are "on top" of the routes — in other words, the receiver is between them and Manning. This kind of approach creates a window for Manning if he can drive the ball in to his spot before the defender can come down and hit the receiver. These are typically zone coverage (Cover 2, 3 or 4) and provide opportunities for Manning the Patriots are less likely to concede.

The most difficult throws on a football field are deep and to the outside — they have to travel farther so there’s a split second more time for the defender to break on a pass lacking zip. Manning attempted a handful of these against the Steelers, but of his 21 completions in the game only a couple were of the more difficult variety.

Beyond just looking for short holes in the middle of the field, the outside of the field isn’t totally off-limits to Manning. Short and to the outside was an area he pecked away at throughout the game. Again, it was odd to watch the Steelers concede these routes and overplay the more difficult areas of the field, where Manning wasn’t completing balls anyhow (below).  <pic 2>

What this means is the Patriots likely will employ a far more aggressive man-to-man scheme. That kind of approach will get defenders down into the low parts of the field to challenge the routes early and not concede the one part of the field Manning can consistently exploit. There are several variations of man-to-man defense, but low coverage that plays with inside leverage to force receivers to outside-breaking routes is the best possible scenario for New England. Very simply, the Patriots need to make sure every throw Manning makes is uncomfortable. No bunnies.

Taking away the Broncos’ running game will be the No. 1 priority for the Patriots against Denver, which feels weird to acknowledge considering the history of the guy throwing the football and the number of times I’ve sat in team meetings hearing the exact opposite message.

Forcing the Broncos into passing situations is Step 1, but the most important thing from there is not conceding the area in the passing game that Manning needs. Football is a game of give and take. For the first time in a long time, the Patriots can afford to give Manning the thing he used to take from opponents.

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Matt Chatham played for the Patriots and Jets for nine NFL seasons, winning three Super Bowls. He is also the founder of footballbyfootball.com. You can follow him on Twitter.