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Hands-off approach or will hits keep coming?

FOXBOROUGH -- The team that plays with the high football IQ added some QH to the equation when it faced the Colts and Peyton Manning earlier this season.

The QH, in football statistical speak, is the quarterback hit.

Although sacks are often used to gauge the effectiveness of a pass rush, the quarterback hit takes it a step further. One line of thinking is that the more the quarterback gets hit, the less effective he should be. With each hit, he's supposed to become less comfortable in the pocket, less disciplined with his footwork, less confident that he can step into the throw and deliver the ball with gusto.

The Patriots hit Manning 12 times Nov. 5 at Gillette Stadium. They chased him. Harassed him. Got hands in his face and flushed him out of the pocket.

In only one other game over the course of the regular season and playoffs have the Patriots hit the quarterback more, and that was the season-opening win over the Bills, when they rated a 13 on the QH chart.

On the flip side, in no other game has Manning been hit as often. In fact, it isn't even close, with the next highest total just five, recorded by the Houston Texans Sept. 17.

In many ways, this is the dilemma facing the Patriots as they prepare to defend Manning and the high-flying Colts offense in tomorrow's AFC Championship game at the RCA Dome.

In the Nov. 5 meeting, the Patriots figured their best chance to disrupt the timing of the Colts' rhythm-based offense was to rattle Manning, but that didn't work as the Colts recorded a convincing 27-20 win. In the past, the Patriots focused more on jamming Colts receivers to disrupt timing, dropping extra players into pass coverage instead.

So, what's it going to be, Patriots' defense?

Will it be a repeat of the Nov. 5 game, figuring Manning -- who was 20 of 36 for 326 yards with two touchdowns and one interception -- will ultimately buckle under such heavy pressure? Or will the plan be geared more toward the receivers, figuring that it doesn't matter how much time Manning has to throw if his receivers aren't in the right place, at the right time?

"It's important to disrupt the passing game however you can disrupt it," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, predictably not tipping his hand. "It's hard to do, but it's important."

What makes it particularly challenging against Manning is how quickly he unloads the ball. Consider that stat keepers had Manning not getting hit once in three games this season. Over the Colts' 18 games this season, Manning has been hit an average of just 2.7 times per game.

The Patriots' defense, which set a franchise record for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season, has averaged 5.7 quarterback hits per game.

Prior to facing the Colts Nov. 5, a few Patriot defenders spoke about the importance of moving Manning "off the spot." The idea, as it is with most quarterbacks, was that if Manning had to shuffle his feet and reset, it was more likely to lead to mistakes.

Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, one of the Patriots' top pass rushers, felt the Patriots succeeded in moving Manning off the spot, but it still wasn't good enough.

"There were examples in that game where it looked like we had him and he was still able to complete the ball downfield," said Banta-Cain, who has totaled 7 1/2 sacks and 13 quarterback hits over 18 games.

Regardless of those results, Banta-Cain believes it's crucial for any defense to be relentless against Manning.

"You can never let off the gas pedal, you just have to keep coming at him," Banta-Cain said. "He's going to make plays, you know that. It's Peyton Manning."

In the Nov. 5 game, outside linebacker Rosevelt Colvin led the team with seven quarterback hits and 1 1/2 sacks. Linebacker Mike Vrabel added two quarterback hits and a half-sack.

"You look back and think, 'Well, I didn't rush that bad personally and neither did Rosie or anybody else.' And then you say, 'Well, [Manning's] numbers were still pretty good,' " Vrabel recalled. "You've just got to do more. You've got to get there quicker, whether you're rushing or whether you're covering. This is a game where you're just going to have to do more and you're just going to have to play better."

Of course, the Patriots could decide to scrap plans to put a heavy rush on Manning and revert to past game plans that called for extra players dropping into coverage and defensive backs jamming Colts receivers at the line. Whatever the team unveils tomorrow, cornerback Ellis Hobbs believes the Patriots must make Manning think quickly.

"If you can get a quarterback to make decisions faster than he needs to, thinking about too many things back there, and having to keep his eyes on more than one situation, that's when they start making ill-advised decisions," he said, noting it could come in the form of a good pass rush or disguising intentions before the snap.

Naturally, the Patriots have kept their plans closely guarded.

After all, the team with the high football IQ isn't about to reveal whether a heavy emphasis on QH will once again be a central part of their plan.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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