After 16 NFL seasons, countless records, and four (going on five) MVP awards, there’s not much that hasn’t been said about Peyton Manning. Having shattered every notable passing record this season, he’s reached the point where he could lose this Sunday’s Super Bowl and still have a strong case for being the best quarterback in NFL history.
Believe it or not, while this season may go down as the greatest any quarterback has ever had, Manning’s league-leading +43.3 PFF grade still fell short of his 2012 mark. We’ll explain that as we take a deeper dive into how Manning put together his historic campaign and what aspects of his diverse skill set he’ll have to rely on most to capture his second championship ring this Sunday.
The Screen Game
The most memorable moment of Manning’s regular season may have come way back in Week 1, when Demaryius Thomas took a quick screen 78 yards through the Baltimore defense to give Manning his seventh touchdown pass of Kickoff night. That record-tying score was as much historic as it was foreshadowing of a season in which the screen pass would become one of Denver’s greatest weapons. If you’re wondering why Manning’s 2013 grade fell short of his 2012 grade, the fact that he had a league-high 575 yards on screens (after 361 yards last season) explains a lot.
Much of our quarterback grading factors in the difficulty of a throw, and a two-yard toss that a teammate takes 50 yards behind some excellent blocking does not require the same contribution from the quarterback as a 50-yard strike down the sideline. Now there is clearly the hidden element of Manning reading the defense correctly and audibling to the perfect screen call, but we can’t analyze his 2013 success without first crediting the ability of Denver’s receivers and blockers to turn short passes into long gains.
That being said, don’t for a second think that Manning dinked-and-dunked his way to all of this season’s passing records. When we isolate deep passes (throws that traveled more than 20 yards downfield), Manning is still heads above his peers. His 38 deep completions were the second-highest regular season total in the PFF Era (his brother Eli had 43 in 2011). And Manning’s 1,299 yards on deep passes in 2013 were over 150 more than the next highest total, set by Drew Brees. If we ignore yards after catch completely, Manning’s 2,956 yards through the air were also far ahead of Brees for most in the league.
You’ll often hear that the key to stopping Manning is pressuring him (as opposed to every other quarterback?). But Peyton’s biggest struggles this season have come when he’s been unable to connect with his receivers on deep passes. In his three games with negative passing grades this season (Week 8 versus Washington, Week 11 versus Kansas City, and Week 12 at New England), Manning performed decently under pressure but connected on just one of his 11 deep passes. All talk of arm strength and “ducks” aside, no one in the NFL has thrived on the deep ball this season like Manning has.
Sack Me If You Can
Most other teams would be in full-on crisis mode if they’d lost both their starting center and left tackle for the year in mid-September. But the Broncos’ offensive line has performed so well that injuries to Ryan Clady, J.D. Walton, and Dan Koppen have become a mere footnote in a Super Bowl season. Part of that has to do with the clutch play of Chris Clark and Manny Ramirez, but much of the credit also goes to Manning’s lightning-quick release.
His average Time to Throw, of 2.36 seconds, is the lowest of any quarterback this season. If the defense tries to boost its odds by sending an extra rusher, it almost always comes up empty. Consider that in 177 drop backs versus the blitz (including playoffs), Manning has taken just two sacks. Manning can render even the best pass rushers ineffective simply by getting rid of the ball faster than it’s possible for them to reach him.
There are plenty of anecdotes depicting Manning as one of the smartest, most detail-oriented quarterbacks to ever strap on a football helmet, but we have the numbers back that up too. Opponents blitzed him on a league-low 23.7% of his drop backs this season, and for good reason; when the defense did occasionally send an extra rusher at Manning (including playoffs), he had a 61.5% completion rate and 105.6 QB rating. And in those rare cases when the pressure did get to Manning, he still exceeded expectations with a league-leading 58.1% completion rate.
Part of our grading has us chart risky passes; particularly bad throws that are either intercepted, nearly intercepted, or wildly off-target to the point where they never had any hope of being caught. Of the quarterbacks who started 10 games this season, only Nick Foles and Alex Smith had fewer “risky” passes than Manning (in far fewer attempts). Whether he is dodging sacks or avoiding foolish throws, Manning rarely puts his team in a bad position with a poor decision.
Meeting His Match?
As good as Manning has been this season, no team is better suited to counteract his strengths than the Seahawks. Seattle allowed the fewest yards and first downs on screens in the league this season. The 465 yards they allowed on deep passes was also the lowest total in the NFL. Manning feasted on the deep middle of the field this season, but the Seahawks use of Cover-1 and Cover-3 often leaves that option closed by Earl Thomas. Though Manning carves up the blitz, Seattle’s unit rarely sends an extra rusher while still generating pressure on a league-high 38.7% of pass plays when they don’t blitz.
Manning’s best bet may be to test the Seahawks’ linebackers with curl and crossing routes, on which Seattle has given up a third of its yards this season and seven of its 18 passing touchdowns. The curl isn’t Manning’s most frequently-used weapon, but only Philip Rivers collected more yards on crossing routes this season. As good as Seattle has been against the deep ball, their mistakes have been costly ones, with eight touchdowns on deep passes tied for the seventh-highest total in the league.
Good as he is, Thomas has a tendency to lose his man in coverage on extended plays. Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell will likely spend much of their evening in aggressive press-man technique, leaving some shots for Manning to take deep down the sideline, if he dares. Peyton has the patience to take what the Seahawks give him in the intermediate zones, but it’s his deep passing accuracy that may ultimately determine whether he can cap off this historical season with his second championship.
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