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Bell: Seahawks in a rush to get after Peyton Manning

7:44 PM, Jan 31, 2014   |    comments
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JERSEY CITY - Cliff Avril has lined up opposite Peyton Manning just once during his six-year NFL career, a late-season contest during a winless season with the Detroit Lions in 2008.

It left a lasting impression that is so relevant this week, with Super Bowl XLVIII looming.

"What did I learn from it? That everything is timing with Peyton," Avril, the Seattle Seahawks speed-rushing defensive end, told USA TODAY Sports. "There were two times I remember getting pass rushes on him and hitting him, and one time he got a deep pass on us.

"So once again, it's all about timing. No wasted motion, that's for sure."

Manning, then with the Indianapolis Colts, passed for 318 yards and was sacked once in that December 2008 game. Avril, a huge playmaker in his first season on the Seahawks dominating defense, never sacked Manning that day but was credited with a game-high three quarterback hits - which is not always an ideal consolation prize against a quarterback whose record-setting prowess is wrapped with his keen ability to frustrate rushers by getting rid of the ball quickly.

Avril, whose eight sacks during the regular season was a half-sack shy of Michael Bennett's team-high tally, will get a few more cracks at Manning on Sunday.

And he will find that Manning is as difficult to take down as ever.

The Denver Broncos allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL during the season (20, two of them on backup Brock Osweiler), and during two playoff games Manning wasn't sacked a single time on 79 dropbacks.

This is what happens with a quick release. Manning, collaborating with a solid offensive line, helps protect himself.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, Manning's average time from snap to release is 2.4 seconds - third-fastest in the league during the 2013 campaign.

That statistic underscores just how crucial of a variable that time - broken down into fractions of seconds - will be inside a matchup pitting the highest-scoring offense in NFL history against a defense that allowed the fewest points in the league in 2013.

"It's really about his timing," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He's so quick with the football and his decision-making is so precise, that the ball's just not in his hands long enough to get there, for the most part. We can't give into that.

"We have to rush the passer, we have to try to get him off the spot, we have to try to move him, and to get that done, we're going to have to cover them very well. We're going to have to get him to hold the football some and at least make him go to his second or third decision. If we can do that, it gives us a chance."

The clock, real or imagined, will matter all over the place. It will tick inside Manning's head, and it will be essential for the physical Seahawks defensive backs challenged to hold coverage against the Broncos' bevy of targets. It will weigh on Denver's O-line, including young left tackle Chris Clark, the blind-side protector, trying to hold off the multiple platoons of fresh pass-rushers.

The Seahawks tied for eighth in the NFL with 44 sacks, but that number doesn't reflect the true effectiveness of a D-line that helped Seattle lead the league in quarterback hurries - which can often be as effective as a sack in forcing mistakes and getting passers off their spot.

And Manning, Mr. Omaha himself, will try to buy some extra time at the line of scrimmage with the hard counts and dummy calls that might force rushers to hesitate in coming off the snap.

"Everything is about the first two steps in a pass rush," said Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long. "It's how quickly can I get off the ball? And that's certainly the case with Seattle.

"I think Peyton's ability to vary the tempo, to work with the double cadence, false cadence, it puts your defensive front in a bind."

Avril acknowledges the night-and-day difference that Manning, a pocket passer, presents after the Seahawks chased mobile San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the NFC title game.

"Obviously, you have to rush differently, compared to rushing Kaepernick because Peyton doesn't run the ball, and he will be in the pocket," Avril said. "But everything is timing, so there is no wasted motion. You can't try to get to your second or third pass-rush moves."

Blitzing doesn't appear to be the answer. One of the impressive features of the Seattle defense is that it rarely blitzes, instead bringing the heat with a defense that attacks in two waves. Avril and Bennett, for instance, come off the bench - and in addition to leading the team in sacks, they tallied the highest snap counts among the linemen in the NFC title game.

The real key could rest with how long the Seahawks secondary - including corners Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond - can hold their coverage.

Quentin Jammer knows. The Broncos veteran cornerback faced Manning at least a half-dozen times while playing the first 11 seasons of his 12-year career with the San Diego Chargers. On several occasions, Jammer had the task of trying to contain Marvin Harrison, the precise receiver who is among finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame class that will be selected on Saturday.

Reminded this week of those cat-and-mouse encounters against Manning, Jammer remembered what generally constituted doing his job in covering Harrison.

"The clock is right at three seconds," Jammer told USA TODAY Sports. "Anything after that is bad."

The Seahawks - who led the NFL with 20 penalties for pass interference, illegal contact and defensive holding - will undoubtedly look to employ some of the same aggressive tactics that Jammer tried in covering Manning's receivers. It's in the blueprint for facing Manning: Use press coverage to jam receivers and disrupt the timing of their routes. A slight alteration could force Manning to go to the next target as he rifles through his progression reads.

But there's always risk.

"In a football game, you can jam a guy and sometimes he gets loose," Jammer said. "And the next thing you know, the ball is over your head. The clock, you can't really worry about it because different things can happen on different plays, and anything goes."

Still, three seconds is a long time. And that goes both ways.

While a defensive back can lose coverage in that span of time, if Manning still has the football in his hand three seconds after the snap, that's enough time for pass-rushers like Avril to bring him down.

Quick, short passes that allow the receivers to collect yards after the catch has been the ticket for Denver's efficient passing game. No team has done that better this season.

On the other hand, no defense has been as stingy in limiting the extra yards like Seattle's defense.

Something must give. And one thing will be certain on Super Sunday from both sides of the equation: one way or another, everyone will be in a hurry to make it happen.

(Copyright © 2014 USA TODAY)

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