It's been a staple of conventional football wisdom for years now -- if you're going to come after Peyton Manning(notes), you'd best get to him, or the holes left in your pass coverage by those aggressive defenders up front will provide easy pickings for #18. While it's true that the combination of Manning's quick release and ability to read defenses at an interstellar level have opposing defenses thinking twice before bringing the house, there are also ways in which the Colts use routes to exploit pressure concepts and make defenses play for any manner of aggression. Tight end Dallas Clark(notes) was the point man in just such a play on a touchdown pass with 8:52 left in the AFC Championship game.
The Colts had come back from a 17-6 deficit to lead the game, 20-17, and they had driven down to the New York Jets' 15-yard line. On the play in question, they faced second-and-6. The Colts lined up in their usual three-receiver set with Clark (44) tight left. Pre-snap, safety Kerry Rhodes(notes) (25) brought a blitz look to the line before dropping into deeper coverage. This move probably gave the Colts two looks that they would not have had with intermediate coverage -- first, that Clark could shoot off the line and beat any press coverage, and second, that an inside route could beat a deep safety.
At the snap, Clark ran a narrow circle route outside of end Calvin Pace(notes) (97). Pace rushed inside, which was exactly what the Colts wanted -- that was step one in getting Clark a free release. Indy ran a nice tackle/guard combo on the left side, which allowed guard Ryan Lilja(notes) (65) to pick up Pace before he got to Manning. Both Jets linebackers bit a step on Manning's play fake out of shotgun to Joseph Addai(notes), which allowed the clear middle Clark needed to run his route without a linebacker impeding his progress. Safety Jim Leonhard(notes) (36) wasn't in deep coverage because he was hanging in to help cornerback Drew Coleman(notes) (30) with coverage of Austin Collie(notes) (17). With nobody covering the deep middle, Clark trucked into the end zone with no trouble. Rhodes was deep, but not where he needed to be to stop the score from happening.
The play worked because Manning was able to diagnose that the Jets' pressure concepts could be beaten deep with the right kind of downfield route. Against a more "vanilla" defensive formation like the one the Jets presented here, Clark was able to find his way around defenders and be open for the quick route and the 15-yard touchdown.
This is what the Saints will have to deal with all day. It's not just that the Colts are so good at evading pressure; it's that they've learned to invite it and use it to their advantage with different routes and blocking schemes. And Manning's ability to sell play action, even out of the shotgun, makes an already dangerous quarterback absolutely lethal. New Orleans' linebackers are excellent in coverage when they're asked to drop back and do so, but if they bite even for an instant on those fakes, they're done. It's the kind of perfect execution required to beat a near-perfect offense.