USA TODAY Sports Weekly

CAROLINA CRUNCH

PAN­THERS DE­FENSE SEES PEY­TON AS UL­TI­MATE TEST

- Jeff Gluck @Jef­fGluck USA TO­DAY Sports Sports · American Football · NFL Football · Omaha · Peyton Manning · Luke Kuechly · Ron Rivera · San Diego · American Football Conference · NFL · San Diego Chargers · Garry Kasparov · Thomas Davis

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.”

 ?? SAM SHARPE, USA TO­DAY SPORTS ?? “I don’t care what any­one says: He’s still the guy,” the Pan­thers’ Luke Kuechly, above, says of Bron­cos quar­ter­back Pey­ton Man­ning.
SAM SHARPE, USA TO­DAY SPORTS “I don’t care what any­one says: He’s still the guy,” the Pan­thers’ Luke Kuechly, above, says of Bron­cos quar­ter­back Pey­ton Man­ning.

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