Peyton Manning has a philosophy: Skip third down. On second down, get another first down.
Manning opposes third down on principle. To beat him, a team must understand this.
Some offenses play for third downs, strive to get to third-and-2 or third-and-3. They call that “third and manageable.” To get there, they play it safe and call runs on second-and-6 or second-and-7. An incomplete pass on second and long leads to third-and-long and no team wants to face that.
Manning does not play it safe. He wants to pass on second-and-long. Since 2013, the Broncos have passed 100 times more than they have run on second-and-6 to second-and-10.
Why does Manning operate this way? Simple. He’s much better on first and second down than he is on third down. This season, his passer rating on first down is 123, on second down it’s 114 and on third down it’s 90.
He wants to attack the defense downfield when it has to respect the possibility that the Broncos might run. That is not what happens on third down. Third down is a passing down. Manning doesn’t have the mobility or arm strength anymore to shred a defense if it knows he’s passing. On third down he is not special.
Compare Manning to Colin Kaepernick. They’re opposites. Kaepernick is at his best on third down even though the defense knows he has to make a play. Kaepernick’s passer rating on third down this season is 115 and he’s averaging 7.3 yards per carry on third down. His passer rating on first down is 82, and on second down it’s 97 – both inferior to Manning. Kaepernick can do whatever it takes to convert third downs. He can do the things Manning cannot. He is a better third-down quarterback than Manning.
The Broncos have to stop Kaepernick on third down to beat the 49ers. The Niners have to stop Manning on first and second down to beat the Broncos. That’s what this game will come down to.
How can the Niners stop Manning on first and second down?
There are ways.
Look what the Jets did to Manning this past Sunday. They blitzed and forced him to leave the launch point in the pocket, forced him to move and extend the play, which he doesn’t do well. When he had to throw on the run, he bounced balls in front of receivers. He looked washed up.
The Jets did something else, something clever. Instead of blitzing Manning, sometimes they rushed only three defenders and dropped eight into coverage — six underneath and two deep.
Manning is a rhythm quarterback. He taps his feet in the pocket as a timing mechanism and he wants to get the ball out of his hands fast. By dropping six defenders into underneath zone coverage, the Jets clogged the shallow lanes and took away Manning’s favorite passes — the quick passes, the check downs and outlets. Manning had to hold the ball and tap his feet longer than he wanted to. He was out of rhythm.
Rushing only three defenders is asking for trouble against most quarterbacks. Most quarterbacks can run away from three defensive linemen. Try rushing three against Kaepernick. He will scramble for a first down, or he will run around behind the line of scrimmage and extend the play until a receiver breaks open downfield. Manning can’t do that.
So how did the Broncos win against the Jets?
They ran the ball. You must hand it off if eight defenders start backpedaling when the ball is snapped. They’re daring you to run. You take the dare. The Broncos ran 33 times for 138 yards against the Jets. The running game opened up the passing game, not what you expect from a pass-crazy Peyton Manning offense.
Can the Broncos do the same against the Niners Sunday night, run the ball to open up the pass?
Yes, they can. The 49ers won’t have Patrick Willis to run down Ronnie Hillman, the Broncos’ super-fast running back. Willis has a sprained toe. If Hillman runs well on first down, Manning will do what he does on second down and avoid third down. The Broncos will win 30-21.
But if Vic Fangio’s Niners’ defense somehow forces Manning into a series of third downs, the 49ers will win 21-20.
It all comes down to downs.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.