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Under Surveillance: Peyton's play action

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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As we did in the preseason, Yahoo! Sports is taking a playbook look at the playoffs. Through the Super Bowl, we'll be reviewing what each NFL team does well, or what they might need to do better. We started with the Kansas City Chiefs, who will welcome the Baltimore Ravens to Arrowhead Stadium for the early Sunday game, and you can find that breakdown here. For the second piece, let's take a closer look at a key aspect of Saturday night's Colts-Jets game.

It's been a rough year for Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning(notes). He lost tight end Dallas Clark(notes) - his primary safety valve - for the year in October to a wrist injury, receiver Anthony Gonzalez(notes) in November to a knee injury, and receiver Austin Collie(notes) in December to concussion issues. His offensive line has been porous as usual, and the Colts' rushing attack has been nothing to write home about. In addition, Indy's run defense has had its issues, and the Colts' pass defense allowed the NFL's highest completion percentage (66.5).

Despite all of these possible roadblocks, the Colts enter the playoffs as the AFC's three-seed, and Manning finished the regular season as the league's second-best quarterback per Football Outsiders' advanced metrics. How is this so? The Colts have relied on names like Jacob Tamme(notes) and Blair White(notes) to fill in the gaps. Of course, it helps that Manning still has Reggie Wayne(notes) out there, but it's also easier to defend Wayne now, and everything has been affected by the loss of Clark as that slot/flex wild card that can move defenses around.

When the Colts welcome the New York Jets to Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday afternoon, they'll be facing a defense with multiple looks from every aspect of their defense - different fronts, blitz packages, and personnel groupings. In the past, Indy has responded to such trickeration by throwing vanilla formations (they have run more three-wide/single-back than any other teams in the NFL over the last decade). But one little wrinkle over the last three games makes this matchup interesting for the Colts and problematic for the Jets.

In each of the last three weeks, Indy rushed for over 100 yards - 155 against the Jaguars, 191 yards against the Raiders, and 101 against the Titans. Because the run game has been re-established, Manning can use play action to freeze the intermediate defenders he faces.

"We have committed ourselves to running it more in December. And you can see how that pays dividends," center Jeff Saturday(notes) recently said. "You see how teams are wearing down and we are getting those bigger runs late. It is just consistency. It is very similar to the passing game."

The Colts were great at using run action (play action in which the offensive line fires out in run-blocking looks, including pulls and zone slides) earlier in the season, but now that defenses have to take their run game seriously, it's a bigger issue, and one touchdown against the Titans in the season finale showed just how Manning's doing it.

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This play came with 9:16 left in the third quarter, and the game tied at 13. The Colts went with their usual single-back, three-wide set, with Manning in the shotgun, and the Titans in their usual two-deep 4-3. The Jets will throw far more formations at their opponents, but the effectiveness of the offensive principle is the same against any formation when you have a quarterback like Manning to deal with

The key to this play was the coverage of the weakside slot receiver. When the free safety didn't align over that receiver, Manning could assume in his pre-snap read that the WILL linebacker was playing zone. Thus, if Manning could get that linebacker to bite on play action, he'd have the slant to the slot receiver open at the very least.

That's exactly what happened - in fact, all three linebackers bit on the fake, which opened all kinds of looks for Manning. And because the linebackers were playing zone, the free safety came up in a curl/flat zone coverage, leaving the left cornerback solo on the wideout. And at that point, it's just a footrace led by Manning's precision. That's a bad equation for any defense.

The Jets run multiple coverages, but at heart, they're a downhill front seven with linebackers Bart Scott(notes) and David Harris(notes). Whether man or zone coverage, effective play action (especially as it can be established by early success in the run game) puts those linebackers on a string ... and dictates the ways in which those linebackers play. They are reactive instead of active. They don't dictate what happens on the play, and the quarterback wins, no matter who his targets are.

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