Smart Football Super Bowl Preview: Manning vs. Brees

Give the media two weeks before the Super Bowl and they will find every weird angle to take to fill the void: Who has the best food (uh, not Indianapolis); what U.S. Presidents are like what Super Bowl (In a matchup between Super Bowl III, with Broadway Joe, against Thomas Jefferson, the third President, Jefferson won because he “wanted it more.”); and opinion from every blustery ex-player and coach that can be found. But now that the game is here, there’s one aspect that absolutely is at the top of my list: The game features arguably the two best quarterbacks in the league who run undoubtedly the best — and most interesting offenses.


The show Peyton runs is amazing not only because of its effectiveness, but also because of its simplicity. Indeed, in all but specialty situations they have basically two personnel groups — two wide receivers, two tight-ends, and one running back and three wide receivers, one tight-end and one running back — and they have run the same few plays for the last decade. They rarely shift and instead rely on Peyton to get them to the line and find the appropriate play.

The theory for all this is simple. Although a defense has some options and disguise some things, there are only so many things a defense can do: they might be able to disguise press or loose coverage, or rotate the secondary or send an unexpected blitzer, but they can’t move a cornerback from one side of the field to the other after the snap, and there might be blitzers but there are only so many candidates. As a result Peyton gets his team to the line and surveys the defense. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore typically sends in three plays: two passes and a run or two runs and a pass, and Peyton makes his choice among those three options. Typically, Manning gets the ball snapped with under six seconds left on the play clock; he both wants to take his time surveying the defense and limit late shifts before the snap.

And Manning’s menu of plays are both simple and have been constant for a decade. For runs, he basically has three choices: outside zone (the most common), inside zone, and draw (there are a few others mixed in as well). Believe it or not, the run game comes basically verbatim from what the University of Colorado did in the early 1990s (except for the option runs, of course) — football is not as complicated as people think.

For the passing game, on early downs they run a lot of play-action, where the goal is either to beat the defense deep (through post routes and go routes) or to hit a deep void with a deep crossing route or corner. (The deep crossing route concept is described here.) Another go-to concept is three-verticals, though Manning likes to look for the inside slight off play-action as a quick throw right behind the linebackers. (Video below courtesy of Brophy.)

Play-action from under center:

Play-action from shotgun:

On passing downs and when Peyton is in the shotgun, you’ll see most of the traditional routes that other teams run, but far and away his favorite is the “levels” play. It’s almost idiotically simple — the inside receiver runs a ten-yard in route (often Dallas Clark) while the outside receiver (Reggie Wayne, most typically) runs a five yard in-route. Typically the linebacker runs with the slot and the quick five yarder is open, but once he’s hit that a few times Manning will hit the inside square-in for an easy first down.


I’ve described the “levels” concept (with video) previously here. Below is another diagram showing what typically happens with the coverage:


But what happens when they begin jumping these square in routes? Ah, but then they go with that old classic, the “smash.”


The thing to notice here is how well these concepts work together: When the Colts’ receivers burst off the line — and even when that outside receiver begins to make his break on the five-yard in route — the defense doesn’t know if it’s going to be a deep outside corner route or inside route that threatens them. The rage in defense is “pattern reading,” where the defense practices and tries to anticipate specific combinations of pass patterns, and making pass plays look alike as the receivers burst off the line is how you defeat and confuse such techniques. What the Colts’ offense teaches us is that you don’t have to be complicated to be effective — or confusing to your opponents.


Drew Brees and Sean Payton certainly understand the importance of confusing defenses, and despite many similarities with the Colts’s offense — the heavy reliance on play-action, the elegant design of the plays, and the consistent and often spectacular results — the differences are more interesting. While the Colts eschew the typical NFL offense wisdom, i.e. that you need to be multiple and keep the defense offense off balance, the Saints embrace it and quite simply do it better than everyone else.

The Saints will use the full gamut of offensive personnel and formations, from the I-formation to five wides, and will mix and match them in unique and interesting ways. For example, the Saints and Brees use a no-back or “five wides” formation as effectively as anyone in the NFL (indeed, the Colts rarely use it at all), but they will vary it up with different personnel. The primary two variables are Reggie Bush and Jeremy Shockey: Payton likes to use them in the slot when he thinks he will get a favorable matchup against linebackers, but if the defense subs in a lot of defensive backs he will move one or both of them to the outside. This gives the Saints (1) a physical mismatch on the outside with a bigger more physical player against a smaller corner and (2) mismatches inside as his receivers — Colston, Henderson, and Meachem, primarily — against nickel defensive backs and safeties. And Brees is one of the best at identifying this right off the bat. (Video below courtesy of Brophy.)

Although not from no-backs, another route Brees likes to throw is the all-curl concept, a horizontal stretch play (multiple receivers spread across the field to “stretch” underneath zone defenders). Note how effectively Brees moves defenders with his eyes.

But no conversation about Brees and the Saints’ offense is complete without mention of what makes Brees the quarterback he is: his accuracy. This goes beyond just “hitting the receiver” and instead it gets into “ball placement.” Put another way, Brees doesn’t throw to receivers, he throws to body parts: back shoulders, front elbows, front hips, and so on. A defensive back with his head turned is little better than one who failed to cover the receiver at all. One of the best illustrations of his comes when Brees runs the four verticals play, which I outlined for the New York Times’s Fifth Down blog.


The play itself is simple: He sends four receivers streaking down the field, with the purpose of dividing the deep defenders and finding the gaps in the zones. But it’s effective against man coverage too, and not just to hit a bomb over the top; Brees will identify a defender he thinks is out of position and laser it to the receiver in a place only he can get it, often with the result where the defender gets so turned around he misses the tackle. See the video below:

Of course, all this is not meant to show disrespect for the Colts’ and Saints’ defense, as with such potent offenses it is highly likely that one of those units will end up being the difference in the game. But there’s always a joy in seeing a thing done well, particularly when it is done in different ways. And that’s what you get with the Colts and the Saints: the best of the simple and the best of the complex, with the result being the two best of the best.

  • philkid3

    Question: how good of an OC is Tom Moore if the offense is so simple and effective so much because of his QB?

  • Love your website. This is a very good post as are most of yours on the pro-game.

  • Bob

    Great post. Interesting that the game was virtually decided on a variation of the levels concept. It looks like Manning made a bad read and could have hit Collie on the slot dig, but I heard Steve Young blaming Reggie Wayne. Obviously there was a degree of mutual failure between them but to me it looks like Manning made a rare mistake.

  • It’s my understanding that Manning is basically “co-offensive coordinator” with Moore, and that his role in the strategy goes far beyond picking the best of 3 plays and executing it. I’ve heard all sorts of stories about Manning that suggest he basically runs the Colts franchise and dictates to the players, coaches, and management what he wants done, and that he spends more time on film study than the coaches do. Is this true?

    Tonight’s game was really a great example of the two best QBs in the sport putting on a superb duel. Manning’s interception will go down in infamy, but it was really his only bad throw out of an otherwise excellent passing game.

    However, I do think that Manning’s preference for calling passing games in crucial short yardage situations hurt the Colts in this one as it has in other games from time to time. Tonight the Colts were basically running on the Saints at will when they stuck with it, yet on two separate goal line stands Manning tried to force passes into the endzone and the Colts came away with only 3 points to show for it.

    This is something I’ve watched Manning do quite a bit over the years, especially in big games. Their run/pass ratio in those situations is probably about 20/80. I don’t know if he’s even aware of it.

  • Phil

    on the pick, it looked to me like the corner just guessed on the route and jumped it,

    which I think is one of the big disadvantage of saying you’re just going to be simple and out execute them, the defense gets used to seeing the same thing over and over again, (I’d say the Colts ran the same play successfully at least 10 times earlier) after a while you recognize what’s coming and can gamble on it, which is exactly what happened

  • James

    The Saints defense brought it yesterday. DE Will Smith was a force on almost every player, Johnathon Vilma was awesome, and of course, Terry Porter’s interception sealed the deal. He read the slant beautifully.

  • 4.0 Point Stance

    Hit Em, I thought the same thing you did about the Indianapolis run/pass ratio. Saints D Linemen were flying up the field on almost every play, and the Colts probably averaged 7 or 8 yards a play on those inside traps and delays. Considering how often the Saints were in a 3-3-5, Addai should’ve had far more than 13 carries.

  • Ray

    To phil’s point, one way to overcome this advantage is by tagging the routes, which I am sure the Colts do and have done.

  • The game was lost because of Manning’s insatiable ego. If he would have dialed up more running plays the Colts would have won that game. It became obvious that Manning was going to keep passing and that allowed the Saints to stay in their 3-3-5 and start bringing more pressure. Pey Pey’s huge ego allows the Colts offense to become predictable and it’s a large reason that he has a worse winning percentage in the playoffs than Rodney Peete.

    He REFUSES to ever share the limelight even if it means the team’s chances suffer. That’s why he should NEVER be considered one of the best ever. He is a stat compiler, not a winner.

    P.S. He is also a HUGE coward. I want to throw up everytime he falls to the ground when he sees he’s going to get sacked.

  • James

    Poor post Anthony. Competitors want the ball.

    Regarding tagging of the routes, the Colts actually don’t verbally tag things as much as they make slight, sight-adjustments off their base vertical tree.

    They have their base route package, but there’s a lot of little variation based upon release, depth, and angles.

  • Competitors want the ball to help their team, not for the glory. Competitors don’t keep throwing the ball to set records when their team has a lead late in the game. Look at the play by play breakdowns on games the Colts have big leads in. Manning still passes even though killing hte clock is what’s best for his team. When he set the TD record, he got quite a few of them running up the score like a kid playing Madden.

    The Colts were gashing the Saints with the run. You’re telling me that passing when you are averaging 5+ yards per carry and your D spent the majority of the game on the field was a good idea? It’s a great idea if you are padding stats and trying to win the MVP award. Bad idea if you are trying to win. The results speak for themselves.

  • J.
  • joe83843

    Ray, James, or Chris,

    Can one of you provide a good definition of what “tagging the route” is. I don’t think I’ve heard that terminology used before. Thanks!

  • Mr.Murder

    The smash and levels concepts are huge Colts calls. Usually I’ve thought of levels as the ‘drive’ concept of Walsh terminology, whatever its name, it is simple and effective.

    The “all go” play that is so good for the Saints, one of the main items in it is that they would usually put Meachem on the tightest wideout split to slot side. My belief was that you could cross read the two deep safeties on it to anticipate some of those plays, Bethea’s tackle of the reverse run was an example of that, it was my hope the Saints would have play passed on that specific call.

    Credit Brees with staying on those short passes until the Colts made him do something different(they never really did outside of the first quarter).

    The most interesting item were those Strief calls, he came in as a sixth lineman, to be their tight end. They used him to slow Freeney and the run front down from their “play the run on your way to the quarterback” style. Strangely enough he wasn’t in on thier fourth and one goal line run. That was an attempt to disguise the run call there, even though it failed that time, it allowed them to get Shockey one on one the next time they were in goal line. That because the Colts had to think run first, inside the five yard line, fromt he Saints’ go-for it attempts.

  • Mr.Murder

    “Typically, Manning gets the ball snapped with under six seconds left on the play clock; he both wants to take his time surveying the defense and limit late shifts before the snap.”

    Not on the Garcon TD. He was out early, at 16 seconds they were in formation, to my notice. At eleven seconds, they snapped, I was thinking a quick snap was needed there. It caught the Saints trying to disguise their cover and technique, and left a defensive back out of position to jam Garcon’s release.

    It was my hope the Colts would use the same route(sluggo) in combo with Clark’s slant on the play Manning got intercepted. That way an outside or 3/4 shade would see the inside route and anticipate his own player’s release, thinking the double slants were coming. It would have basically been a time where they flipped the play that Garcon scored on and ran it with Wayne to the other side.

    Tracy Porter credited film study to seeing that and acting quickly off Wayne’s outside release. My own assumption was that it was a bit of pattern reading, accelerated when he could see Clark’s hard inside commitment to the slant. Everything verified they were running dualies on the play.

    It is imperative to run some adjustment or checkdown changes after play stoppages against aggressive teams. Interestingly, Wayne’s letting a defender cross his face was noted by NFL analyst Chris Carter, who thought Reggie’s prior knee injury was at play on that call to explain trouble coming out of his break.

  • With respect to Mr.Kuehn, the Colts were able to run the ball due to a 3-man front, DC Willaims remedied this by returning to the usual 4-man front the Saints normally run. It should be noted that while the Colts AVERAGED a hefty run average, they also suffered a few negative yardage play (which is a cardinal sin in zone running). The Colts run game has not been particularly robust as it has been in the past (this wasn’t the Colts and Addai of 2006).

  • Brophy-
    That’s why the Colts needed to run more, to get the Saints out of the 3-3-5. There are going to be occasional negative plays, but the Colts needed to at least try to keep the defense honest. Go back and watch the film, as soon as the run pass ratio got all out of whack, that’s when the Colts offense ground to a halt.

  • 4.0 Point Stance

    “Strangely enough he wasn’t in on thier fourth and one goal line run. That was an attempt to disguise the run call there, even though it failed that time, it allowed them to get Shockey one on one the next time they were in goal line.”
    Great observation.

  • gary jeff

    I think Anthony Kuehn has a genuine dis-taste for the Indy Colts. Manning is a team player, and one of the Greatest Quarterbacks to ever play the game. Even Don Shula said he reads defenses and dissects them with a surgeons precision. He also has a great arm to go with that. Yes, he used poor judgment on the interception. The field was very open in that general area, and Manning should have put another 5 yards or so on the ball. Either way, the outcome of the game, did not show the reality of the better team. I applaud Coach Peyton’s gutsy call to open the second half. He’s a great coach, and if anything, I believe Indy WAS out coached.Yes, the run game was better than usual, but I have been saying for years, they need more running, which means, PAY and get a GREAT RUNNER! Don’t put all the blame on Manning. Remember, “Polian” took Buffalo to FOUR consecutive Super Bowls, without a win.

  • OldSouth

    I find it wildly implausible that Peyton only pursues “stats” for their “glory” to the detriment of his team. Glory comes from winning super bowls, which comes from playing for the team. It doesn’t come from upping one’s QB rating a miniscule amount.

  • stan

    The Colts have the worst run blocking O-line in the NFL. Their run game is entirely dependent on defenses selling out to stop the pass. Is short yardage, obvious running situations, they are more likely to lose yardage than pick up the first down. Anyone watching the SB saw multiple examples. It’s been that way for years (go back to the way they got stuffed 3 times at the goal line by NE in the 2003 reg season game). Any Colt fan can give you dozens of examples.