The last time the Eagles faced Peyton Manning was in 2010, during what proved to be his final season as the starting quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts. The defense deployed a variety of exotic blitz and coverage packages to confuse Manning and get him off his game.
He finished 31-of-51 for 294 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a 67.0 quarterback rating in one of his worst performances of the season, and the Eagles emerged with a gutsy, hard-fought 26-24 victory.
Practically everything has changed for the next matchup against Manning, now a Denver Bronco, as the Eagles employ different coaches, schemes and personnel. Yet there are four Eagles in Nate Allen, Trent Cole, Kurt Coleman and Brandon Graham who still remain from the defense that gave Manning fits in 2010. They recalled what must be done in order to slow him down, and it all stems from properly disguising pre-snap looks, staying disciplined and getting quick pressure.
"I just remember (in 2010) that we were getting back there (into the backfield)," Cole said. "We were hitting (Manning), but he was getting the ball off so fast. I can remember him just reading the whole (defensive) backfield, I could see his eyes flicking back and forth. He didn't even stand up (from under center), he was just looking (side to side). I saw his eyes cranking back over, he was just trying to disguise what he was reading. It was crazy, but – and I can't give away the secret – I remember we did jump on him for a minute. We did something to distract him, and, I remember it now, I'm going to go tell (defensive coordinator Bill Davis). I think you can get on him if you apply pressure, disguise (your looks) and get after it."
"You just have to make sure you hold your water against (Manning)," Graham said, which means staying disciplined as a defense and not revealing the play-call's intention before the snap. "Once he finds out what you're doing, he's going to pick you apart. We have to make sure as a front that we get to him. As soon as his first read is gone, we should be there. We have to take away that first read and make sure we get some pressure on him and get him off his spot."
"We just have to disguise (our play calls)," Allen said. "That was a big emphasis – it's crazy, I can remember that – it was a big emphasis back then (in 2010). (Manning) goes out there and he starts checking stuff. He's looking at the safeties to see where you're moving, see where guys are coming down (to the line of scrimmage). … We just have to try to hold a look as long as we can and also not let it affect us coverage-wise and get caught on things because he'll pick you apart, that's for sure. … You just have to be disciplined playing against him and you have to be smart. You just have to hold your looks, that's the main thing. We just have to have tight coverage and make plays."
At the age of 37 and now in his second season back after missing a full year due to multiple neck surgeries, Manning looks even more precise and dangerous than he did in directing the Broncos to 11 straight wins to end the 2012 regular season. The notion is as terrifying as it is true. Through three games thus far, Manning is putting up absurd numbers and leads the NFL in every statistical passing category: passing yards (1,143), completions (89), completion percentage (73.0), yards per attempt (9.37), touchdowns (12) and quarterback rating (134.7). He has not thrown a single interception and committed just one turnover, which came on a sack-fumble against the Oakland Raiders. Manning remains as proficient as ever against the blitz, too, completing 14-of-22 (63.6 percent) passes for 242 yards, 11 first downs, four touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 140.5, which is why it is more imperative than usual for the Eagles to generate a ferocious pass rush.
With Manning's recognition skills and wealth of weapons on offense, the heightened risk of sending extra rushers and leaving the defensive backfield vulnerable rarely outweighs the rewards. As Cole and Graham mentioned,the group up front has to get on Manning in a hurry and rattle him so he cannot sit back in the pocket and dissect the defense. The entire unit – the defensive line, linebackers and secondary – has to be in tune and function seamlessly, which requires each player to be on point with individual responsibilities and elevate his game.
"Everybody, individually, has to step up," Cole said. "They have to do what they're supposed to do, play their keys and we have to apply that right pressure up front and jump on top of (Manning)."
Another especially crucial task for the Eagles defense is to be solid and sound in its tackling. Though the Broncos rank first in yards through the air with 744 and 10th in yards after the catch with 399, Manning has historically relied on a lot of quick throws that enable his playmakers to get out in space and make defenders miss. With options like Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, slot receiver extraordinaire Wes Welker and breakout tight end Julius Thomas, the Broncos offense is outfitted with tremendous firepower. Given how the Eagles were unable to tackle well in big spots against the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs, it figures that Manning will try to exploit them that way.
"That's huge, being able to tackle, because he does get the ball out (quickly)," cornerback Brandon Boykin said. "It might be a one-on-one situation in the flat or across the middle – a broken tackle can take it from a 5-yard gain to a 25- or 30-yard gain, and that has happened a lot of times. (Tackling is) very important for us, knowing that (Manning) will get it out quick. The rush might not get there, but we have to trust ourselves to make those tackles."
Cornerback Cary Williams has experience in effectively confounding Manning, as he was part of a Baltimore Ravens defense that stifled the Hall of Fame quarterback and forced him to throw two interceptions – the second of which led to the game-winning field goal in double overtime – in last season's AFC Divisional Playoff Game. Manning is a rhythm quarterback, and the best way to get him off his game, aside from an excellent pass rush, is by playing tight, jamming receivers and throwing off the timing of routes. That extra split second the receiver does not come open and Manning is forced to hold the ball could make all the difference and lead to sacks, deflections and interceptions.
"You don't want to gamble against (Manning)," Williams said. "You want to play within the confines of the defense. You want to focus on your technique, you want to rely on those things and hope that your training during the offseason has paid off. He's a great quarterback. He's going to make his checks. He's going to get his throws and get his yards. That's just what he's going to do. The only thing you can do is try to play tight on the wide receivers, play close, jam. Maybe you can get your hands on some balls, maybe you might get a lucky tip, things like that. … Don't give (Manning) any easy reads. You want to disguise as much as possible, throw different looks at him and come out of them (before the snap). You may want to blitz him, but not show the blitz."
The Eagles defense, which is still attempting to mesh into a cohesive unit and form an identity, faces its most daunting challenge against Peyton Manning, but the matchup also poses an opportunity for the unit to legitimize itself and use the performance as a springboard for the rest of the season. This could be the game the Eagles look back upon months from now and point to as the one that turned everything around.
"You just go out there and compete your tail off," Williams said. "That's all you can do."
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