USA TODAY Sports Weekly
PANTHERS DEFENSE SEES PEYTON AS ULTIMATE TEST
All the “Omaha!” calls, the hand gestures and other tricks in Peyton Manning’s arsenal are right there on film for any opposing player to figure out.
The problem is Manning switches things up so often, it becomes an exercise in futility.
Is Manning flipping the play to the opposite side of the field? Is he checking from pass to run? Is he just pretending to do something while doing nothing at all?
“When you think you’re on to something (on video), then you find something that discredits it,” Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “So maybe one time he’s saying this word and it’s like, ‘All right, I’ve seen it two or three times and it’s right’ — and then the fourth time, it’s wrong. It’s like, ‘Well, that’s done now.’ ”
With the difficulty in figuring out what exactly Manning is trying to do at the line of scrimmage, the Panthers say they might stick with a simplistic approach for Super Bowl 50: ignoring it.
It seems impossible to crack Manning’s code, so the Panthers will be content to respond to the situation once the ball is snapped.
“You have to hope your players can react to something as the play is unfolding,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
Rivera would know. As defensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers, Rivera’s teams faced the challenge of solving Peyton’s puzzle on a couple occasions. He learned it’s important to play Manning based off instinct and feel, paying attention to “situational football” when calling defenses, Rivera said.
“He is going to anticipate and do things off of what he sees,” Rivera said. “You have to make sure if you’re disguising, you are holding your disguise. He wants to undress the defense as quick as possible and get a feel for where they are going and he will know where to attack.
“I think it really is a great chess match — and not necessarily coordinator against coordinator, but quarterback against defense.”
Kuechly will be the Bobby Fischer leading the charge against the Garry Kasparov wearing a No. 18 jersey. And it’s a challenge he embraces.
“For me, I try to really concentrate on what I’m doing,” Kuechly said. “He’s so smart, he’s got all the checks, the movements and gestures. You can’t worry about that too much because that’s part of his game.
“That’s who Peyton is. ... It’s fun to watch.”
The Panthers dismissed any talk Manning had lost a step or been hurt by old age. They see the same wobbly throws everyone else does, but his situational awareness and knowledge of the game makes up for it.
“He’s going to go down as, if not the greatest, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play this game and you don’t just lose that overnight,” linebacker Thomas Davis said.
“You look at some people talking about his arm strength — but the Patriots game (the AFC Championship Game), it looked pretty good to me.”
Said Kuechly: “He’s still very much Peyton Manning. I don’t care what anyone says: He’s still the guy.”
Then there’s a matter of dealing with the hard snap count, which has made even some of the most veteran players jump offsides. Kawann Short, whose 11 sacks were tied for the NFL lead among defense tackles, said he’d handle Manning’s snap count with three words: “Go off movement.”
“He’s going to hard count you, he’s going to do this and that, but you can’t jump offsides if that ball doesn’t move,” Short said. “That’s what we’ll be focusing on all week.”
It’s often possible to study a quarterback and figure out his cadence, Short said. That way, a player can somewhat jump the snap count. But not with Manning. “We’ve got to be real disciplined this next week when we play against Peyton Manning, because you don’t ever know what word means something to the offensive line,” Short said. “You’re going to have to wait until the ball is snapped and then take care of business after that.”
And that goes back to Rivera’s approach to dealing with Manning: Prepare as much as possible, but then just react to the play.
Maybe Rivera and the rest of the NFL world will figure out what Manning’s words and gestures mean someday, but it won’t be in time for the Super Bowl.
“I told him one time I hope he writes a book and tells us all the truth,” Rivera said. “He does so much and it’s hard, it really is.”