FLOWERY BRANCH — As a defensive coordinator and head coach, Mike Nolan has just one victory in seven tries against quarterback Peyton Manning.
Nolan, in his first season as coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons, hopes to change his luck when Manning and the Denver Broncos visit the Georgia Dome on Monday night.
To beat Manning, Nolan knows the Falcons can't afford too many mistakes. If they do, the four-time NFL MVP will pick Atlanta apart.
"One of the things he does really well is he studies his opponent — not only the looks he gets, but how he can attack your coverages — and that's what the really good ones do," Nolan said this week. "They do a lot of homework."
Manning returned from a 20-month layoff following neck surgery to lead the Broncos to four scoring drives in a season-opening win over Pittsburgh last week.
The Falcons are coming off a 16-point victory at Kansas City in which their defense struggled in the first half, but forced three turnovers and held the Chiefs scoreless in the second half until the game's final possession.
Nolan knows that getting turnovers against Manning doesn't guarantee success.
When he last faced the star QB in 2009, Nolan was defensive coordinator in Denver, and the Broncos picked off Manning three times — only to lose at home to the Indianapolis Colts.
As head coach of San Francisco in 2005, Nolan watched his 49ers intercept Manning twice and still suffered a 25-point defeat.
But Manning's success against him isn't causing Nolan to fret. He still plans to disguise looks in his three-cornerback scheme and blitz when the opportunity arises.
"Against all good quarterbacks, you need to mix it up, and I think that's key," Nolan said. "You have to use the tools that are at your disposal as a coordinator and as a player, and that's scheme. It gets down to two things — it's players, by far, but it's scheme that puts them in position."
Reserve safety Chris Hope, an 11-year veteran in his first season with Atlanta, has cautioned his younger teammates not to get frustrated when Manning moves his offense with ease. Playing for Pittsburgh and Tennessee, Hope faced Manning several times and even had the good fortune to intercept him twice in a 2008 home victory for the Titans.
"You have to realize that he's going to complete a lot of passes," Hope said. "He's going rack up a lot of yards, but we always used to say in Tennessee and Pittsburgh, 'Don't give him touchdowns.'
"He can move the ball from 20 to the 10 against the best defenses, any day, but when the field gets constricted and he has a little less room to make throws that he normally makes look easy, you want to force him to field goals."
In his Broncos debut, Manning completed 19 of 26 passes for 253 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. A 71-yard scoring strike to Demaryius Thomas gave Manning 400 career touchdowns and allowed him to reach the milestone in his 208th career game.
Dan Marino held the previous NFL mark, but needed 227 games to throw his 400th career TD.
Falcons coach Mike Smith believes it will be critical for his players to take no risks, like jumping routes or getting penalties, against Denver.
Atlanta lost its best cornerback, Brent Grimes, to a torn Achilles tendon last week. The Falcons had to shuffle the secondary in nickel coverages with Asante Samuel on the left side, Dunta Robinson on the right side and career reserve Christopher Owens in the middle.
During his four-year tenure as defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, Smith went 3-7 against Manning.
"I think the most important thing is we have to play sound technique and make sure we're in the right place, because if you're out of place by half a yard, you're going to pay for it," Smith said. "He has a very good understanding of how you're trying to defend him. You give him pre-snap reads, he's gonna know where to go with the football."
Nolan hasn't beaten a Manning-led offense since he was defensive coordinator of the New York Jets in 2000.
It's been a long wait.
"He's got a good cast (of teammates) again," Nolan said. "He's got a good football team, and that was evident the other night. Nowadays, I think the really good quarterbacks play the game against the coordinator as much as they do the players they're going against."