Monte Kiffin is preparing himself and the Dallas Cowboys for Peyton Manning
By Matthew Postins
It sets up as one of those classic brain battles. In one corner you have Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, considered the grandfather of the Tampa 2 defense and one of the best game planners in the business. His influence as a coordinator and strategist will permeate pro football for years to come.
In the other corner is Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, considered by some to be the game’s best overall quarterback. We sometimes kid about his line-of-scrimmage gesticulations, but there is no smarter quarterback in the business right now, perhaps ever.
It makes for great theater if you follow pro football. Can one of the game’s best strategists solve one of the game’s great players? The matchup is enhanced by the fact that the pair has only met twice in their long NFL careers.
If history is a guide, Sunday could be a long day for Kiffin.
In those two head-to-head meetings Manning has bested Kiffin’s defense both times.
On Oct.6, 2003, the Colts and Buccaneers met in Tampa. The Bucs were coming off their Super Bowl title. The Colts were still chasing theirs. You remember this game, even if you don’t remember the date. It was a Monday Night game. The Bucs took a 35-14 lead in the fourth quarter and Manning produced an epic rally to tie it at 35-all. Then the Colts won it with a field goal in overtime. To many that follow Tampa Bay, that game was a turning point for the entire franchise.
Four years later nearly to the day, on Oct. 7, 2007, the Bucs and Colts met in Indianapolis. On this day the Colts dominated the Buccaneers from the start, building a 30-7 lead before winning, 33-14.
So what can we learn from these two matchups? Well, this will be their first meeting in six years, and they likely won’t meet again unless it’s a Super Bowl. But there are a few things we can take away from those two matchups, even though Sunday’s game is likely to be its own animal.
Manning’s stats don’t necessarily matter. He can win with gaudy numbers or without them. In the 2003 game Manning, as you might expect with the comeback, had big numbers – 386 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. In 2007, with the game more under his control, threw for 253 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. The result was the same both nights – the Colts won.
He’ll make a mistake. But he won’t make many more. He threw a pick on both games, and Ronde Barber took that pick to the house for a score in the 2003 contest. Kiffin has been able to goad him into a mistake, but he likely won’t goad Manning into the type of day that Peyton’s brother, Eli, had a month ago at AT&T Stadium.
Check the run. I wrote earlier this week about the fact that Knowshon Moreno is a real storyline to follow this week. Here’s why. Manning is smart enough to use his running game, especially close to the goal line. In fact, in those two head-to-head meetings the Colts scored more rushing touchdowns (5) than passing touchdowns (4). Manning doesn’t care what poison you pick. He’s happy to watch you drink it. And if you’re too focused on him, he’s just fine with handing the ball off.
He completes a ton of passes. The Cover 2 is designed to give up yardage, especially outside the hashes, but not scores. Those Bucs teams were worn down by Manning’s ability to consistently complete passes. Manning completed 72 percent of his passes in the first meeting and 78 percent of his passes in the second meeting. He’s not likely to have an off night. In fact, Manning has completed more than 80 percent of his passes in each of his last two games.
He leans left. If Manning has a favorite spot, it’s the short left. He loves to drop back three steps, turn and use his full body to get great spin on a pass to his left. The stats back it up. In 2007 he threw more passes to that area against Tampa Bay than any other. This season, through four games, Manning has thrown the ball in that area more often than any other area. Kiffin has to find a way to make things less comfortable for Manning on that side.
That isn’t much good news for the Cowboys. The 2003 Bucs defense was better than this current Cowboys defense, while this Cowboys defense matches up fairly well with the 2007 Bucs defense. Manning, ultimately, shredded both of those units. He comes into this game hotter than he’s ever been with 16 touchdown passes and no interceptions in four games. Yes, no interceptions. That’s not a typo.
Manning is older and wiser now. So is Kiffin. As they renew their chess match on Sunday, the odds are that Manning, all things being equal, will come out the victor. Again.