James Laurinaitis is in his sixth NFL season, but hasn't faced Peyton Manning often due to the NFL's interconference scheduling: Manning's Colts beat the Rams 42-6 in 2009 and the Rams visited the Broncos in the preseason last year. But the Rams' captain remembers one play particularly well.
"He makes throws that other quarterbacks wouldn't try," Laurinaitis told Denver media on a conference call Wednesday. "I remember being in a tight end coverage down the middle, not seeing a football, just hearing it go by my head. The guy wasn't open -- Peyton threw him open.
With snow outside and a game in a dome this weekend, the Broncos had their first practice in the brand new indoor facility Wednesday.
"I think that's what the biggest challenge was: Peyton Manning knows how to throw guys open. You see his anticipation is so uncanny and I think that's obviously why he's going to Canton. His anticipation and football knowledge is just off the charts."
Laurinaitis' head coach, Jeff Fisher, is far more acquainted with Manning from nine years that they spent together in the AFC South, during which Manning's Colts went 12-5 against Fisher's Titans. Fisher did get the upper hand in the pair's first meeting, a 19-16 win in the divisional round of the playoffs following the 1999 season, at which time the Colts were still in the AFC East and the Titans, in their first year with a new team name, were in the AFC Central.
Despite all of those years facing each other however, Fisher doesn't see a tremendous amount of familiarity when he looks at the Broncos' offense.
"With all due respect to the Colts and that system, the system is completely different now," Fisher said. "Everybody is moving around, as compared to Marvin [Harrison] playing one side and Reggie [Wayne] on the other. [Manning] just made those plays and would put his offense in the best position all the time because he knew exactly what you were doing defensively.
"They've done an outstanding job of putting outstanding players around him. I think this is the best of cast of playmakers that he's ever had, and obviously the results are showing that."
Fisher also noted that he "can't remember a time" when Manning was playing better.
"He's got great people around him. He's got a really good feel. He's not going to take the sack. He's not going to make the bad decision. It's very, very difficult to defend."
Laurinaitis added: "He gets the ball out extremely fast. The big challenge is how do you take away his first read, even second read because he's so good at picking up on defenses."
RAM-PING UP THE PASS RUSH
Facing quarterbacks that get rid of the ball quickly was a big challenge for the Rams' defense early in the season, which started with an unprecedented number of sacks through its first five games: one, by rookie defensive tackle Aaron Donald. That dry spell was even more surprising considering the 2013 Rams' defense was third in the NFL with 53 sacks.
"Early in the season teams were getting out the ball extremely quick against us and we weren't taking away the first read," Laurinaitis said.
Fisher added: "I think, because of the reputation, early in the season we faced many more rushing attempts. The ball was coming out very quickly. We had to adjust to that. There were some scheme things that we got away from early. We've been doing some slightly different things."
Those changes have obviously boosted St. Louis' rush, which has picked up 16 sacks in the last four weeks, including eight against the 49ers in Week 9. Crucially, the Rams' leading sack artist from '13 (with 19.0), Robert Quinn, has broken out of his drought during that time as well, picking up six sacks.
"You have a turnover drought, eventually they're going to end up coming," Fisher said. "That's kind of where we were. We knew the sacks were going to come."
"I think we're just playing our coverages better," Laurinaitis said. "...There isn't anything schematically that's been crazy different. I think guys just playing their stuff more aggressive and the more aggressive that we play on the back end it's allowing time for them to get there up front.
"That's going to be a huge factor on Sunday. Peyton wants to go right away. [We have to] take that away. Make him look a couple times where he's uncomfortable, throws it away or to where we can get to him. Way easier said than done."
Manning was complimentary of the Rams' front four on Wednesday and said it will be "a good challenge" for the offensive line. Who wins that battle in the trenches could dictate how the game goes on that side of the ball.