Lions agree Manning is aging gracefully

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Allen Park — With an 0-2 start, the Lions have plenty to work on this week ahead of Sunday’s showdown against the Broncos.

For a defensive unit that hasn’t played up to last season’s standard — No. 2 in the NFL — the task gets more difficult with Peyton Manning in town.

But the Lions are balancing their awe for Manning, who surpassed 70,000 passing career passing yards last week, with trying to break down the best ways to try to stop him.

It’s a tall order, considering Manning is 3-0 against the Lions during his 18-year career — all by double digits. On Thanksgiving Day in 2004, Manning torched the Lions for six touchdowns.

“(That’s) a long time ago,” Manning said during a conference call Wednesday. “I think any time you get past something 11 years ago, I don’t know how much merit it has in discussing it.”

For Manning, 39, it’s more about looking ahead.

While his critics have begun the death knell on his storied career, he’s looking for a way to make it back for one more Super Bowl. He reached that pinnacle in 2009, with current Lions coach Jim Caldwell leading the Colts.

Caldwell recalls his time with Manning fondly, but sees the superior qualities he has that surpasses his peers.

He said take his level of detail and preparation and “multiply it by 100.”

Caldwell worked with Manning, a five-time MVP, from 2002-10 in various roles, including quarterbacks coach under Tony Dungy. During that time, they built a good relationship, and Manning credits the coach with helping him during his development.

“He and I just kind of developed a routine in meetings, in practice and in games,” Manning said. “Everything we did had a purpose.

“The techniques and fundamentals and just kind of the discipline of having that routine really made an impact on me and I really felt like my game just sort a took a step up during the years that he was my quarterbacks coach starting in 2002 and 2003.”

One of Manning’s best seasons with the Colts was 2004, when he had 4,557 yards and 49 touchdowns under Caldwell.

Players and former coaches agree most of Manning’s success comes from his preparation and mental game. And even as his physical skills might be diminishing, he’s still one of the best in the game — when healthy.

He’s battled his way back after a neck injury cost him all of 2011 before joining the Broncos in 2012.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe, who coached Manning at Tennessee, still works with Manning during the summer, and saw how much he was struggling last season through a quad injury.

“He was hurt at the end of last year, probably shouldn’t have been playing. So he comes in in April and he had done a great job of healing the quad,” Cutcliffe said last month. “He’s very fit. He’s never gotten out of shape. He’s very fit right now.”

But as the whispers start to get louder about Manning’s perceived lack of arm strength and eroding skills, he continues to play at a high level.

Lions cornerback Rashean Mathis, a 13-year veteran, said Manning is the best quarterback he’s faced.

“Hands down,” Mathis said. “I could be biased because I’ve seen him two times a year for 10 years. Numbers prove it and he’s great at what he does.”

Lions safety Glover Quin said one of the toughest things about Manning is staying disciplined and not giving away the defensive scheme before the snap. Manning does plenty to try to bait defenders, such as moving receivers around.

“You just have to line up and play football — not let him read your mail, but let him know it’s being delivered,” Mathis said. “That’s tough to do when you’re facing a guy with his talents and knowledge of the game and being able to be in position to do your job effectively.”

The Lions have the difficult task of trying to form a defensive game plan against Manning — something many defensive coordinators have tried, but few have accomplished.

Lions defensive end Darryl Tapp recalled one game in 2010 when he was with the Eagles that they seemed to have Manning confused.

“It was (Week 8) and we used part of the game plan for each of the weeks before it,” said Tapp, a 10-year veteran who had a sack in that game. “He’s smart; anything you give him early in the game, he can recall it. He has a photographic memory and can recall it later in the game. He can thrash you.

“It’s surreal. He’s the ultimate competitor and smart with every throw, so I don’t understand the talk about him falling off or getting older — the guy is top-notch.”

Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said Manning takes Wednesdays off as part of his maintenance program to keep rested, but hasn’t seen any indication of declining skills.

“I see him still making the throws he’s always made,” Kubiak said. “I’m very impressed with as many years as he’s played how he takes care of himself. ... I think he’s been excellent.”