Manning fakes defense, but his skills real

Week 10 In Review


Of all the weapons in the Indianapolis Colts' burgeoning bag of tricks this season, perhaps the most effective is the play-action pass.

On Sunday, quarterback Peyton Manning twice faked a handoff to workhorse running back Edgerrin James, then found veteran wide receiver Marvin Harrison downfield for touchdown passes in a 27-19 win over the New York Giants.

In less than two full NFL seasons, Manning has become the master of the play fake, and Harrison has become the trump card.

Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore raves about Manning's ability to freeze a cornerback with play-action and pull the ball back to take a bigger bite out of the defense.

"He has a good knack of ball-handling," Moore said when asked what surprised him most about Manning. "He is very thorough on the play-action passes.

"A lot of play-action passing is confidence. Some quarterbacks are apprehensive because they lose the receiver. Boomer Esiason was excellent at it at Cincinnati."

Because James has been such a big playmaker for the Colts -- he has six 100-yard rushing games as a rookie -- defenders have to respect the threat of the run. Two weeks ago, that threat caused Deion Sanders to peek into the Indianapolis backfield on a fake run. In that instant, Harrison blew by the Dallas Cowboys cornerback for a 40-yard touchdown strike that put the Colts ahead to stay.

This week, the Giants knew the play fake was coming but were defenseless to stop it. Phillippi Sparks was beaten on both Harrison touchdowns, covering 19 and 57 yards.

Those were the 17th and 18th touchdown passes Manning has thrown to Harrison in just 21 games together. They are not the hottest pass-and-catch combination in the NFL by accident.

"This off-season, we spent a lot of time working on timing," Manning said. "We took one play a day. We said, `We're going to throw the post route today, against zone, against blitz, against bump-and-run, against all the different adjustments,' so that when the season comes around -- it could be the 15th game that something comes up -- we'd remember that."

The work has paid off. Harrison was the third of four wide receivers taken in the first round of the 1996 draft along with Keyshawn Johnson, Terry Glenn and Eric Moulds. Although Harrison has had three productive seasons, he hasn't matched the success of the other three receivers. Johnson and Moulds went to the Pro Bowl after the 1998 season, and Glenn set a single-season rookie record with 90 catches.

This appears to be Harrison's year. His 11 touchdown catches lead the league. His 64 receptions tie for first with the Minnesota Vikings' Cris Carter.

With 996 yards already this season, he should topple Raymond Berry's club record of 1,298 in 1960, along with Berry's single-season marks of 14 touchdown catches (1959) and 100-yard games (seven). Harrison has gone over the 100-yard receiving mark five times, tying Lenny Moore.

All of which helps explain how the Colts have made the giant leap to 7-2, tied for first place in the torrid AFC East. Six times this season, the Colts have played a team in first place or tied for first. They've won five of those games.

Revolving-door policy

There were six starting quarterback changes in Week 10, including the New York Jets' switch to Ray Lucas last night. That raises to 55 the number of quarterbacks who have started this season -- compared with a total of 62 for all of last season.

Four teams -- the Ravens, Jets, San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears -- have started three different quarterbacks. Another 16 teams have started at least two.

Of the 39 changes made at quarterback in the regular season, 12 have been because of ineffectiveness.

Faulty footwork

How tight is the NFC Central? The Bears are in last place with a 4-6 record, but for lack of a few field goals, could have won three more games and been in first.

Brian Gowins missed two field-goal attempts (from 50 and 48 yards) in a 14-13 loss to Seattle in Week 2. Chris Boniol failed to hit a 32-yarder against Philadelphia in Week 6, and the Bears were forced to try for a touchdown rather than a field goal at game's end in a 20-16 loss.

This week, Boniol missed a 41-yarder that would have beaten the Vikings in overtime. Instead, Minnesota prevailed on a 38-yard kick by Gary Anderson, who missed a 20-yarder at the end of regulation.

Altogether, the Bears have missed an NFL-high 12 field-goal tries this season -- six by Jeff Jaeger, two by Gowins and four by Boniol.

By the numbers

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