Secondary Preparing For Manning & Co.


CB Charles Woodson gets his fourth interception of the season in the fourth quarter last week at Seattle.

The Green Bay Packers' secondary leads the NFL in interceptions, while the Indianapolis Colts' high-octane offense appears to be hitting its stride.

If there's any matchup that's going to decide Sunday's game at Lambeau Field, it's probably whether Green Bay's cover men or Indy's receivers make more big plays against the other unit.

A couple of weeks ago, it appeared the Packers might have a bit of an edge there, because the Colts were struggling on offense. Quarterback Peyton Manning, who missed the entire preseason following two knee surgeries, got off to a slow start, posting a quarterback rating of 82 or below the first three weeks.

In a season-opening loss to the Bears, Manning had a long pass play of just 20 yards in 49 attempts. The following two games, Manning threw four interceptions, though he rallied the Colts to 18 straight second-half points in the final 16 1/2 minutes to overcome a 15-0 deficit to the Vikings.

But after a bye, the last two weeks have been a different story. First, Manning completed 74 percent of his passes (25-of-34) in a come-from-behind 31-27 triumph over Houston. Then last week against one of the league's top defenses in Baltimore, he posted a season-high 134.7 quarterback rating with 271 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-3 rout.

"Last week for the first time I saw us play our type of game, where we did play with a lot of energy, we were clicking on all cylinders," Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy said. "It's been a long time, it really has, maybe since late in the 2007 season. Hopefully it's a sign of things to come."

Manning is known to have incredible chemistry with his top receivers, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, and it appears it simply has taken longer to recapture that this season after Manning missed so much practice time over the summer.

But last week, helped by some developing continuity on a banged-up offensive line, the passing attack seemed to be clicking. Wayne had eight catches for 118 yards, including a 22-yard TD. Harrison started the game with a 67-yard TD and added a 5-yard score later, getting three receptions for 83 yards total.

"They're obviously a group you know has played together a lot," linebacker Brady Poppinga said. "The timing is down, coming back to them. They had sort of a lag there because they hadn't played with each other for a while because of Peyton Manning's injury, but they're coming back on their own.

"They're getting their rhythm back, they're on the same page, and that's a tough recipe to deal with as a defense."

The Packers plan on their secondary posing an adequate challenge. Green Bay is tied for first in the league with 11 interceptions, with all of the picks recorded by defensive backs (Charles Woodson 4, Tramon Williams 3, Nick Collins 3, Atari Bigby 1). Tampa Bay also has 11 interceptions, with three by linebackers and two by a defensive end.

Head Coach Mike McCarthy said the defense's high takeaway total is not an accident. Every day there's a practice period devoted to ball security, which for the defense means taking the ball away. In individual drills, the defensive backs also work on catching balls while both backpedaling and breaking forward.

"I really apply the success we've had so far (to), 'That's the way we practice,'" McCarthy said. "If you practice something every day from a fundamental standpoint, it definitely needs to show up on Sundays, and it has so far."

Other than Tony Romo of Dallas, who threw one interception against Green Bay (Collins), the Packers haven't faced a quarterback anywhere near the caliber of Manning so far. The secondary snagged three interceptions apiece against Detroit's Jon Kitna and Tampa Bay's Brian Griese, who are both hurt and no longer starting for their respective teams, while two more picks came against Seattle's No. 3 quarterback, Charlie Frye.

So call it a litmus test game of sorts. The Packers may get Bigby back from his hamstring injury this week, though that's still uncertain. Either way, with cornerback Al Harris still out, there's only one of the Packers' defensive backs who has ever faced Manning, and that's Woodson, who played against him three times during his eight seasons in Oakland but has never intercepted him.

{sportsad300}With Woodson's penchant for the big play this season - all four of his interceptions have come in the fourth quarter of games, and he's returned two of them for touchdowns - Manning certainly will be watching where he lines up.

"His ability to play outside and in the slot says a lot about his versatility," said Manning, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting to Woodson back in 1997 and was drafted three spots ahead of him, at No. 1 overall, the following April.

"Some guys can't play one or the other or can't flip sides, but he's a guy who can play all over the field, and he's aggressive. He's a bump-and-run corner who has great trust in his speed and athletic ability. He's always been an outstanding corner."

Williams also has posted an interception in each of the three games he's replaced Harris in the starting lineup, so he'd love to continue that streak. That becomes all the harder with Manning getting a hot hand.

"It's still what have you done for me lately," Manning said. "We still have to do it every single week."

The same goes for Green Bay's secondary, with no better time to truly prove itself than now.

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