Every Play Counts: Colts QB Peyton Manning Lights Up the Ravens


Every Play Counts is Michael David Smith's weekly look at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game.

Peyton Manning

Through the first four games of the year, Manning had five touchdown passes, putting him on pace for a career low, and five interceptions, putting him on pace for his most in seven years. His completion percentage was the lowest it had been since his second year in the league.

And with the Ravens coming to town, things weren't likely to get any easier. Through the first four games of the season, Baltimore had the best defense in the league. And so, of course, Manning proceeded to complete 19 of 28 passes for 271 yards, with three touchdowns and no turnovers, and the Colts blew out the Ravens, 31-3.

So how did it Manning do it? I'll explore that in this week's Every Play Counts.

It didn't start well for Manning. The first time he dropped back to pass, he threw incomplete to Reggie Wayne into tight coverage. The second time, he was inundated by the Ravens' rush and sacked by Ray Lewis. The third, he threw incomplete through the arms of Marvin Harrison.

And then Manning proceeded to pick apart the Ravens' defense like they were a bunch of high school kids. It started on a third-and-8 on the Colts' second drive, when Ravens linebacker Bart Scott came on a blitz and Colts running back Dominic Rhodes ran a short route past Scott. Ordinarily, a quarterback in that position would dump the ball off to the running back, but Manning didn't think Rhodes could pick up eight yards, so he hung in the pocket and took a hard shot from Scott, but not until after he had delivered the ball to Reggie Wayne on the other side of the field for a 10-yard gain.

The pass on the next play was probably Manning's best of the day. After freezing the Ravens' linebackers with a play action fake, Manning dropped back and uncorked one to Marvin Harrison. Manning's right foot was planted on the 25-yard line in the middle of the field when he released it, and Harrison was at the other 27-yard line near the right sideline when he caught it. Traveling more than 50 yards in the air, the ball hit Harrison in the hands without him having to break stride, and he took it in the rest of the way for a 67-yard touchdown that they made look easy.

As great as Manning's deep balls look, however, I was equally impressed on Sunday with the way he took all the short passes the Ravens would give him. On a second-and-4 in the first quarter, Manning saw that the Ravens were rushing five, while free safety Ed Reed was lined up 12 yards off the line of scrimmage. That guaranteed that there would be something short open, and he hit Reggie Wayne on a quick slant for eight yards.

During the TV broadcast of the game, it was revealed for the first time that Manning actually had two knee surgeries during the off-season. Manning said he was finally ready to admit that his knee injury was worse than he previously let on because he now feels completely healthy and isn't concerned about it anymore, and he certainly looked like he was moving around well on Sunday.

On a second-and-11 in the first quarter, the Colts seriously botched their pass protection. Rhodes was supposed to come over and help out with Ravens defensive end Trevor Pryce, but he ended up missing Pryce completely and colliding with his own teammate, left tackle Charlie Johnson. That allowed Pryce to rush around the edge and also gave Scott room to pressure Manning from the inside, and Manning had to roll out. But Manning had no trouble with that, running to his right, throwing on the move, and hitting Wayne right on the money for a first down.

In fact, far from being concerned about his limited mobility, Manning looked most comfortable when the Ravens were pressuring him. On a third-and-10 from the 22-yard line, the Ravens rushed seven and Manning threw one high and to the corner of the field. Wayne ran under it for an easy touchdown.

It had to be an extremely frustrating day to be a member of the Ravens' front seven. On a first down in the second quarter, Ravens linebacker Jarret Johnson beat Colts left tackle Charlie Johnson and was about to get Manning, only to have Manning lob the ball right into the flat that Jarret Johnson had vacated for an easy pickup of 18 yards by running back Mike Hart.

Manning did all this, by the way, without any threat of a running game. Joseph Addai got hurt and finished with two carries for three yards; his replacement, Rhodes, did break a 38-yarder but did next to nothing other than that, gaining a total of 35 yards the other 24 times he ran the ball.

The way Manning picked apart the Ravens reminded me a lot of the way he picked apart the blitzing of the Philadelphia Eagles in 2002. In that game, he completed 18 of 23 passes for 319 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions, and the Eagles never sacked him, even though they blitzed him a lot and always looked like they were just one step away from bringing him down.

Blitzing Manning just doesn't make very much sense. He's too good at getting the ball away quickly and finding the right spots in the secondary. The Colts' offensive line isn't very good, and opposing defenses need to be confident that they can pressure Manning simply by beating that Indianapolis line with their own defensive line. If you bring linebackers and safeties against Manning, you're asking for trouble.

If there's anything that opposing defenses can do to Manning, it's to force him to throw to someone other than Wayne, who is by far the Colts' best receiver. When the Ravens were matching up Wayne one-on-one with Corey Ivy, it was like Manning and Wayne were playing catch. When the Ravens were giving safety help to the cornerback on Wayne, things weren't quite as easy.

And make no mistake, despite Harrison's two touchdown catches on Sunday, he's just not a very good receiver anymore. Harrison only caught three of the eight passes Manning threw him on Sunday, whereas Wayne caught eight of the 10 passes Manning threw him. The best chance a defense has of stopping the Colts' passing game is to make that passing game go through Harrison.

But even then, it won't be easy. Based on the way Manning played on Sunday, I'd have to say that his knee problems are behind him, he's shaken off the rust that came from missing all of training camp and the entire preseason, and that we should expect a typical Peyton Manning season from here on out.

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