Passing Judgment on Super Bowl Offenses

carousel, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning (18) and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) CBS/AP

This story was written by CBSSports.com Senior Writer Pete Prisco


Both offenses light up scoreboards like the seconds on a digital clock, their footballs filling the air with aggression not seen by most NFL teams, two passing games as good as any you'll see.

As the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints prepare to play Super Bowl XLIV, their pass-heavy offenses are the focal point of much of the talk this week. Get ready for the Miami Air show.

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That's understandable with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees -- the league MVP and runner-up -- at quarterback. Those two have a lot in common: Pinpoint accuracy. Pocket presence. The ability to scan the field, getting to open reads. Coaches who let them loose.

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Surprisingly, despite the same high-flying passing games, the offenses themselves aren't all that similar.

The defensive coaches and players interviewed for this story all came to the same conclusion when breaking down the two offenses:

The Colts run a simple passing game, while the Saints are much more complicated.

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"The Colts do what they do and they do it well," New England safety Brandon Meriweather said. "They're not going to try and trick you with a million different formations like the Saints do when they make you stop to think what's going on. They just run their plays and run them well.

"New Orleans will give you 1,000 formations. They might run four verticals out of 13 different formations. The Colts will run four verticals out of two. One coach is a little more creative than the other, while the other believes that if you do it right you'll be OK."

It's hard to imagine the Colts and their aerial success being considered simple. After all, isn't Manning the thinking-man's quarterback, the line maestro who conducts every single play?

He is that, which is why the Colts offense can be so simple. His ability to read defenses at the line is how Indianapolis can operate so well without much movement before the snaps, and with limited formations.

"They don't do a lot of motioning because it's Peyton's game," Dallas Cowboys secondary coach Dave Campo said. "They do what they do, and they don't care what you do. With the Saints, they do what they have to do."

The Saints are a multiple-look team. Coach Sean Payton is a formation freak. He can run 20 different formations to open a game, while the Colts might use four. Payton likes bunches and stacks, but the Colts are pretty much a two-by-two team, which means two eligible receivers on one side and two on the other.

The Saints look like a stepped-on ant pile before the snap, with a lot of frenzied movement on both sides of the quarterback.

"They want to get you thinking before the ball is snapped," Dolphins safety Yeremiah Bell, who played both offenses this season, said of the Saints. "Once they get you thinking for that split second, they have you. You've already lost. You just have to process the information quickly and not get caught up in all their movement."

That movement makes defenders think, which can lead to blown coverage, which can lead to big plays.

"They come out and run the same play out of two or three different formations," Campo said. "They mask things. We tell our guys that when they're doing all the movement, whether the back is moving or the receivers or moving or whatever, when they set in the stack, a stack is a stack is a stack. That means don't get all fazed by the movement. You have to be aware of where they end up."

Those formations can make it tough to prepare to play the Saints. Film work is always a must, but even more so against a team with a ton of formations.

"The Saints are more complicated," said Jets corner Darrelle Revis, who also faced both offenses this season. "With both, you have to stay tuned to your film work and try and pick up little keys. But the Saints use more motion, which makes it tougher."

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Another difference in the offenses is the ability of the two quarterbacks at the line of scrimmage. Brees is good. Manning is great.

Manning calls virtually every play from the line of scrimmage. The Saints aren't a big audible team. Once the Saints get set after the movement, they usually run the play that is called, the defensive players and coaches said.

"Nobody is better than Peyton at the line of scrimmage," Meriweather said.

"Brees is not a big check-out guy," Campo said. "They pretty much set their stuff and they'll do some pass-run checks, depending on if they see six or seven in the box, but they're not a big 'check with me at the line of scrimmage' team. We know Peyton makes the calls at the line for the Colts."

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Manning's ability to call plays at the line of scrimmage is part of his greatness. Some have frowned on his pre-snap theatrics, but it's what makes him what he is as a quarterback.

He sees it as well as anybody who's played the game. Opposing players rave about his ability to see something once and take advantage of it. Both Bell and Meriweather say that Manning got them on checks at the line of scrimmage in their games this season.

Bell spoke of the game-winning touchdown in the Colts' 27-23 victory in Week 2. The Dolphins had a double A-gap blitz up the middle; Manning saw it, read it and checked to a different play.

"He checked out right away, and we knew it, but we couldn't check out of ours," Bell said. "He hit Pierre Garcon for a quick screen that ended up as a touchdown."

Meriweather said he got Manning with a sneaky move early in New England's 35-34 loss on Nov. 15. But Manning got even.

"We were in man coverage with one person, me, over the top," Meriweather said. "He pump-faked me to one side and threw to the other side for a touchdown. I got him a couple of times, but he realized what I was doing and got me."

The main concern for Manning at the line is the protections, the players and coaches said. He isn't as much concerned with the back people because his film work has prepared him for what they do.

It's the fronts that concern him. Where are the blitzes coming from?

"His whole thing is if he knows he has time to throw, he's OK," Bell said. "That's why the protections are so important for him."

Said Campo: "The thing that is most confusing to him is when you're moving your front around. He doesn't want to get hit. So that's how you can get to him sometimes. It can take him a while to get it sorted out."

Both quarterbacks get the ball out quickly, which is why it's tough to sack them. Even though the offensive lines aren't great, these quarterbacks don't get sacked much. Indianapolis allowed just 13, the best in the league, while the Saints gave up 20, which was third best.

That means the coverage is key. But what kind is best?

"I think you have to mix it up with both," Meriweather said.

The thinking by some defensive players is that it can be lethal to play zone coverage against the Saints since Brees and his receivers are so good at reading the coverage.

"They're so good at finding soft spot in the zone that I think if you can play man coverage, you have a better chance," Campo said. "We played a lot of man against them when we beat them [on Dec. 19] and had success."

But Bell thinks they Saints are dangerous against man coverage as well.

"They throw the back-shoulder fade as well as any team," Bell said. "That makes it really tough to play man coverage."

The key to slowing the Colts is doing what you do and doing it better than they do. If you play zone, make sure it's the best. If you play man, make sure that's as good as it can be.

"There's nothing you can show them that Peyton hasn't seen," Revis said. "You just have to make sure you play as well as you can. That's what makes it such a challenge."

They are two passing offenses that keep the pressure on a defense. But as similar as the results are, they are definitely different offenses, with one major exception: The guys throwing the passes are the key.

"It's all Brees and Manning," Cardinals safety Antrel Rolle said. "They make it go. Whatever they do, it's all them that makes it work."

The Colts' simple approach or the frenetic ways the Saints scheme things up all come back to the quarterbacks.

And that is why we have these two teams playing for a chance at a ring.

It's not the offensive styles that really matter. As always, it's the guys throwing the passes.

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