The key was how they risked the blitz to harass Manning and force him into mistakes. It is often taken as a given that teams can't blitz Manning.
The future Hall of Famer is simply too quick and too precise to gamble with extra rushers at the expense of depleted coverage. But the Chargers turned that rule on its head on Thursday Night Football.
After Manning directed two smoothly efficient scoring drives in the first quarter, the Chargers unleashed the sophisticated blend of blitzes they had planned for him.
With the Broncos facing 2nd-and-11 at their own nine-yard line and the score tied at 10, San Diego showed Manning a 4-2-5 defense. They were playing two-deep safeties behind the front.
Just before the snap, one of those safeties, Eric Weddle, crept up to the line on the right side of the Denver offense. As he did, nickelback Marcus Gilchrist rotated back to take his place as one of the deep safeties.
At the snap, both Weddle and inside linebacker Manti Te'o blitzed the right side on an overload pressure. At the same time, rush end Melvin Ingram dropped into zone coverage on the other side.
With the Broncos focusing on Te'o, Weddle broke free to jump and bat down Manning's pass. The Broncos punted two plays later.
But Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano wasn't finished with Manning yet. Later in the second quarter, he threw another crafty blitz concept at the Broncos signal-caller.
This time Manning was on his own 14 and faced a 3rd-and-2. Despite the short-yardage situation, Pagano deployed a 4-1-6 dime defense.
The sole linebacker, Donald Butler, hovered at the line between defensive tackles Kendall Reyes and Corey Liuget. Weddle again crept forward but this time showed blitz from the left side of the Denver O-line.
As soon as Manning received the snap, Butler, Weddle and end Thomas Keiser dropped into zone coverage on the left. As they did, Gilchrist blitzed off the slot on the right.
Because the Broncos had slid their protection toward Butler and Weddle, Gilchrist came free off the other side. As he did, an inside move by Liuget forced Manning to shift his feet and gave him no room to escape.
Gilchrist notched the sack for a 12-yard loss and the record-setting Denver offense had to punt again.
This same blitz led to the game's biggest play late in the fourth quarter. With the Chargers leading
24-17, Manning had the ball at his own 33 with the chance to tie.
Gilchrist again came clean off the right side. His pressure meant Manning had to shuffle his feet and step up.
He stepped right into Liuget, who hit him as he threw. The wobbly pass floated into the hands of Keiser, who was in the seam in zone coverage.
Nick Novak soon kicked the clinching points for the Chargers, leaving the Broncos with not enough time to overhaul a 10-point deficit.
The Chargers had won by boldly attacking Manning. They overloaded different sides to free blitzers and moved safeties around to disguise coverage behind their pressure.
The Chargers have often had a knack for frustrating Manning. While the New England Patriots have tested his patience and stolen the ball, no team has been better at pressuring and hitting Manning than San Diego.
image: © SD Dirk