Super Bowl Profile: Peyton Manning

| January 31, 2014

SB-profile-feature-manningAfter 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.

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Deep Ducks

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.

Decision-Making

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.

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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.

Follow Pete on Twitter: @PFF_Pete

Comments (11)

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  1. Jason Williams says:

    I still want Joe Montana over anyone as the best QB ever. Montana was a cold blooded killer in the clutch. Manning quite simply is not.

    • Josh Freeman says:

      Clutchness is very subjective and has a lot to do with what the media forces you to believe. For example, if Tom Brady throws a game-ending interception, they won’t talk about it very much (maybe a little, but not much). If the Patriots have a comeback win, they’ll talk about Brady’s clutchness nonstop. Likewise, if Tony Romo throws a game-ending pick, they’ll talk about that nonstop the rest of the week (and probably longer). But if the Cowboys come back and win, they hardly say a word. By no means am I comparing Brady and Romo directly, I’m just using them as examples. As a result, it becomes ingrained in people’s minds that Brady is clutch no matter what and Romo is a choker no matter what. Once the media gives you a reputation, it becomes nearly impossible to get rid of it no matter what you do. My point is that clutchness is just too subjective to evaluate since our memories are pretty selective.

      • nogoodnamesleft90210 says:

        I have a couple issues with the whole ideal of clutch-ness:
        1) If the player truly plays at a higher level when “the game is on the line”…why is he not playing to that level the ENTIRE game? It’s not like a quarterback needs to pace himself to prevent physical exhaustion. They should be capable of playing with 100% effort and 100% focus for 60-70 snaps a game. Now, say a defensive end, I could understand if he might take a few downs off to conserve his energy for a late game pass rush. But have you ever heard of a DE being called “clutch”?
        2) Far too often players are called clutch for making winning plays in the 4th quarter, despite poor play on their own part is what made the comeback necessary! Case in point, Adam Vinatieri in the 2004 Super Bowl. Goes 1-3 in FG, but his one make was the game winner. Yet this guy is called by some as the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history??

        • Josh Freeman says:

          You’re exactly right on the money with both points. Another factor that contributes greatly to the clutch label is at what point in their careers they make the said plays. If they make clutch plays earlier in their careers, they likely keep the clutch label for as long as they play even if they “choke” later in their careers. Conversely, if a player “chokes” early in their career, they’d have to spend the rest of their career making clutch plays in order to shed that label. But when you look holistically at both the career paths I described, they’d be pretty similar, but one gets called clutch and one gets called choker because of what happened early in their careers.

        • antirepug3 says:

          “…why is he not playing to that level the ENTIRE game?”

          That is an hugely excellent point!

  2. Mylegacy says:

    I am a huge Manning fan. That this guy, with a fused neck and a wonky ankle, can even play as a regular at QB for an NFL Championship caliber team should warrant considerable praise. That he can – in his present physical state – command an unmatched season for the ages is almost beyond comprehension. I love the guy!

    However, I love the Seahawks more. Were I consulted by Coach Carroll (which to date I have not been – his loss I conjecture) as to how to defend the Indefensible Mr. Manning my answer would be short.

    Pete, may I call you Pete? Pete, we have the greatest defense at least since the 1950’s – trust them. Don’t change anything. Do not be overly concerned the way Manning gets his passes off in a record short time. Ignore that. Instead trust that our corners can be lock down and that our line backers and Chancellor (bigger than most linebackers) can dramatically reduce YAC and physically so intimidate their over the middle route runners that by the second half they’ll be gun shy. Like that “mediocre” Crabtree was when he clearly shied away from from catching a crucial 3rd down throw in his final game of this season.

    The KEY however is for our pass rushers (The Magnificent Seven) to rush exactly as they did against Brees (and every other QB this year) and by doing so do not allow Manning time to throw DEEP. Manning will be the least dangerous QB (when he tries to throw deep) that Seattle has faced this year – he is (no disrespect intended) a “statue” who throws accurately “ducks.” Long “ducks” by a hurried QB when defended by the best D in the land spell turnovers for the Hawks.

    The Magnificent Seven, the most underrated linebackers and the Legion will win this game – with a little help from their friends in a very underrated law firm: “DaBeast, DangeRuss, Havin and Associates.”

  3. James Barr says:

    As a Seahawks fan, I hope we see Peyton throw some deep ducks in Sherman’s direction. I think we all know what is likely to happen to floating passes, no matter HOW perfectly placed, that are near Sherman along a deep sideline.

    • PFF_Pete says:

      Keep in mind that I used the term “ducks” in jest. See his pass to Demaryius at 3-0:54 of the AFC Championship, or his perfect lob to Julius Thomas at 4-9:19. Peyton doesn’t need frozen ropes to beat even the best coverage.