COLUMBIA — Stopping Johnny Manziel is different than stopping other great quarterbacks.
The recipe for stopping Peyton Manning and Tom Brady has been the same for years. Get pressure on them, and you have a chance. The same can be said about most quarterbacks. Except Manziel.
Where: Memorial Stadium
When: 6:45 p.m. Saturday
It's not that Missouri doesn't want to get pressure on the reigning Heisman Trophy winner when Missouri and Texas A&M play on Saturday night. It just needs to be calculated pressure.
"You can’t be real reckless against this guy," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "The more reckless you are and the more you get out of your lanes, it creates opportunities for him to make plays."
The Tigers lead the Southeastern Conference in sacks with 35 this season. Michael Sam and Kony Ealy have been dangerous off the edge. When they get tired, Markus Golden and Shane Ray are more than capable of filling in. But on Saturday, Texas A&M could be able to neutralize one of Missouri's biggest assets.
If Missouri is known for producing NFL-caliber players on the defensive line, Texas A&M is known for molding future pros at offensive tackle. Last year, Aggies left tackle Luke Joeckel left school early to enter the NFL Draft and was selected No. 2 overall. This season, Jake Matthews, the son of NFL Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews, has taken over at left tackle. He's projected to be the first offensive tackle selected in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Putting pressure on Manziel won't be any easier from his right side, either. Junior Cedric Ogbuehi has stepped into the starting lineup this season and looks every bit as talented as Joeckel and Matthews before him.
That sets up quite the match-up between Sam and Ealy for Missouri and Matthews and Ogbuehi for Texas A&M.
"I don't think there's any doubt those four guys are going to be playing at the next level," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "Missouri has done a great job, probably as good a job as anybody in this league, in their growth defensively."
The challenge now becomes not only beating two of the best offensive tackles in the SEC, but doing it in a disciplined manner while being aware that the most elusive quarterback in college football is your target. Manziel isn't just a moving target, he's a greased pig in his ability to avoid and slip through danger.
"There's this cross between being very disciplined rush-wise and responsibility-wise, gap-wise, but also relentless as a competitor. Obviously, there's a fine line between them both."
Everybody's trying to contain Manziel to the pocket, Pinkel said. But he's not just a quarterback who can run around and make plays with his feet. He has also matured as a passer and won't hesitate to beat a defense with his arm.
"We could approach it very cautiously; he’s really improved his skills as a drop-back passer," Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. "So you want to sit back and let him throw for 500 yards and say ‘Well, we didn’t lose contain.’ That’s not going to look very good, either.”
Slowing down a quarterback like Manziel takes flawless execution and discipline, not just from one player on the field, but all 11. The Tigers have not only lead the SEC in sacks, but they also have the most interceptions. The two go hand-in-hand, said Sumlin, who noticed a much different Missouri defense this season.
"When you're able to get the kind of pressure and production Missouri's gotten out of its front four, it allows you to be more exotic in the back end," Sumlin said.
Texas A&M is one of the few teams in the nation that has both the quarterback and the offensive tackles to counter Missouri's defensive line. The depth the Tigers have up front will be helpful. In an effort to contain Manziel, the big-bodied defensive linemen will get winded. More important, those same linemen could lose focus and lose their gap. Manziel will make them pay.
It's a delicate balancing act, and one Missouri doesn't have to play often. Kuligowski hopes this will be the last time Missouri has to plan for Manziel.
"I wish he would have just gone pro last year," Kuligowski said.
The Chick-fil-A Bowl said in a release on Wednesday that Missouri would be "in the mix" with a loss to Texas A&M. If Missouri wins, it will head to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. Simply getting to the SEC Championship game would ensure the Tigers a spot in a BCS bowl game, the Capital One Bowl, the Cotton Bowl or the Outback Bowl, depending upon how the team fares in the championship game and how the rest of the SEC shakes out in the final week of the season.
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.