FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Quarterback is the most important position on the field, and luckily for the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts, they have two of the best in the NFL. Drew Brees and Peyton Manning are classic drop-back passers, so yet another Super Bowl has arrived without any sign of a run-around, "athlete"-type QB taking his team to the championship.
Brees and Manning have similar launch points, with most throws coming between the tackles and, more likely than not, between the guards. They want to beat defenses with a quick read of coverages and an even quicker release of the ball with pinpoint accuracy.
Defensive coordinators Larry Coyer (Colts) and Gregg Williams (Saints) must try to stop these quarterbacks by disguising enough coverages and pressure calls without being caught. If Manning or Brees see what the defense is doing, they will dissect it. Combined, these two surgeons posted 16 300-yard passing games (Manning nine, Brees seven) en route to Super Bowl XLIV.
Examining their first-down passing numbers reveals how difficult it is to slow down these quarterbacks. Both the Saints and Colts have run the ball more than they've thrown it on first down, but Brees and Manning still have enjoyed great passing success. The Colts are 54 percent run and 46 percent pass on first downs, but Manning has completed 66 percent of his throws for 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions with just four sacks. The Saints are 55 percent run and 45 percent pass on first downs, but Brees has completed 71 percent of his throws for 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions with seven sacks. That means the defenses will be challenged to blitz on first down.
The Colts have blitzed on first down just 13 percent of the time this season, and I'd be surprised to see that tendency rise after Coyer examines Brees on film. That said, Coyer may have to blitz a little more throughout if defensive end Dwight Freeney can't play, as has been reported. Clint Session could be the linebacker Coyer uses if he chooses to blitz more.
Brees has thrown a touchdown pass once every 12 first-down attempts this season. Compounding matters is the fact the Saints scored 28 first-quarter points in their two previous playoff games, so I expect the Colts to try to keep the offense in front of them on early downs as well as early in the game.
The Saints' defense is much more aggressive on first down. It has called for pressure on 45 percent of first downs, and that number only grows on other downs and distances. But as Archie Manning once told me about his son, "He's kind of like a hunting dog, always sniffing for that blitz." Manning surely will look for pressure on first downs, so the Saints must be careful.
Third down -- also known as the money down -- is a critical spot to study these QBs. Manning has a slight edge on this down, completing 71 percent of his throws and being sacked just three times in 149 pass plays during the regular season. He has been sacked only once in 19 third-down pass plays during the playoffs. Brees connected on 64 percent of his third-down passes during the regular season and hasn't been sacked once in 18 third-down throws during the playoffs.
Part of the reason for the high third-down conversion rates is that both QBs rely on the short passing game to move the chains. Combined, Brees and Manning have converted 11 third downs with passes of less than 10 yards, making it tough for defenses to send pressure that will reach the quarterback in time. Look for the shotgun, three-step pass game, which will likely put a lot of defenders working near the first-down marker.
The conflict for Williams is that his attacking Saints defense has blitzed on 55 percent of all third downs with a good degree of success, but Manning has two weeks to prepare for it. Therefore, Williams probably will have to settle for hits on Manning to disrupt his timing as much as anything else. The Saints administered a beating on Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre during the NFC Championship Game, but a few of those hits could have drawn penalty flags. It wouldn't be surprising to see a few early flags in the Super Bowl if Manning is hit like Favre was.
Manning clearly relies on the pass more than Brees does. Manning has run 87 pass plays in his two playoff games, completing 56 throws for 623 yards, five touchdowns and one interception with four sacks. The Saints must mix up their defensive calls for the probable 40-plus passes from Manning. Brees has called 64 pass plays -- nearly 12 less per playoff game than Manning -- and his six touchdowns with no interceptions and only one sack are machine-like. Colts defensive end Robert Mathis needs to change the clock in Brees' head or he will find a tough-to-stop rhythm. With Freeney's status in doubt, Mathis could have more pressure to perform.
One thing the defenses don't have to worry about is Brees or Manning running. They have run the ball a combined seven times for minus-5 yards during the playoffs, and it's really just four times when you take away quarterback sneaks. The lack of a running threat means outside pass rushers will not be afraid to lose containment in order to get to the quarterback, making it tough for the offensive tackles to know if the defenders will rush inside or outside.
Brees checks down to his running backs slightly more than Manning does, and that's partly because the Saints have Reggie Bush. However, in certain game plans, Manning has gone to Joseph Addai enough that the Saints' linebackers would be challenged if they drop too deep in zone coverage. Look for close to 75 passes to be attempted in this game, and about 600 yards combined from Brees and Manning.