ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- The Broadway show Sound of Music posed the musical question: How do you solve a problem like Maria? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
These days, NFL defensive coordinators ponder the problem of Peyton Manning. How do you solve him? The answer, to the degree there is one, is to hit him — hard, early and often. Catch a quarterback, and pin him down.
"Yeah, I think so," says former Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian, the man who drafted Manning first overall in 1998. "As long as the officials enforce the illegal contact rules (on receivers) down the field, the only other way to stop him is to get pressure on him."
Knowing that is the easy part. Doing it is another matter. Manning has been sacked five times in four games for the Denver Broncos this season while rolling up eye-popping numbers, as if playing pinball in the pocket.
Manning has 16 touchdown passes, zero interceptions and 1,470 yards through a quarter of the season. That puts him on a pace for 64 TDs and 5,880 yards across a full season, lending new meaning to the phrase fantasy football.
And so, here he is, at age 37, setting up in the pocket, dancing with mincing little steps, looking, looking — and the ball is gone before the pressure arrives. He is not fleet of feet, but his trigger-fast release is an astoundingly fleet feat.
"He's absolutely the best at that," Polian says.
Manning's sterling start offers the tantalizing prospect that he could post the most prolific season for a quarterback in NFL history. What's more, there's that other tantalizing prospect, that he could atone for the lone blot on his storied career — a 9-11 postseason record — if he were to win a second Super Bowl, at his advanced age, for a second team, while approaching stylistic and statistical perfection.
CBS analyst Phil Simms, who is calling Sunday's Broncos at Dallas Cowboys game, says defenses are at a loss.
"I don't even know what you do," Simms tells USA TODAY Sports. "Do you send everybody? Every theory in the world has been brought up about Peyton. I've done many of his games, and everybody thought they had an idea of why their plan was going to work. 'We're going to hit him every chance we get.' Or, 'We're going to pressure him.' Or, 'He's not going to figure out our blitzes.'
"Yeah, right. Never, never has there been a quarterback in the NFL that understands and sees a blitz quicker before it happens than him. You can disguise all you want, but you can't disguise 11 guys. Somebody is going to give it away."
Bruce Smith, the NFL's all-time sacks leader, none of which came against Manning, rates Manning and Dan Marino as the fastest guns he ever faced.
"No doubt about it," Smith says. "There was no one else who could even come close to them."
The Broncos' mandate is to keep Manning upright, not merely because pressure is the best way to beat him, but also because it's beginning to look as if only injury can stop him.
"I don't even want to bring that up," Polian says, "having lived through 2011."
That was the season that Manning missed with a serious neck injury. He had two vertebrae fused. Some wondered if he'd ever play again.
"His right side was completely atrophied," Polian says.
The Colts released Manning, and he signed with Denver, where John Elway understood that great quarterbacks can learn new tricks. And now Manning moves the Broncos less with fly patterns and more with option routes, slants, precision crossing patterns, feathered back-shoulder passes and a menu of screens.
Ex-protector has lived it
Tarik Glenn, who protected Manning's blind side for 138 of 144 regular-season games from 1998 until retiring after the 2006 season, enjoys watching his friend from afar.
"I can honestly say I could be his offensive coordinator because I know all the plays he's running," Glenn says. "They've basically taken the old Colts offense and taken that as a base and a foundation and they've added on a bunch of things that are causing them to be dominant."
Ask Glenn who was the most frustrated sack artist of Manning's Colts era and he doesn't hesitate. "Bruce Smith," Glenn says.
"That's accurate," Smith says. "Just because you don't sack a quarterback doesn't mean you're not having an impact. You make them throw under duress and get the ball out sooner than they want. That can lead to overthrows, dropped passes, interceptions and getting off the field. That's the main objection, although you'd always want a sack."
Broncos coach John Fox says the Cowboys' defensive front, especially end DeMarcus Ware and tackle Jason Hatcher, will be the biggest test of the season so far for the Broncos' offensive line.
"They're good at creating pressure," Manning says, "and creating sacks."
Manning is always careful not to supply bulletin-board material. He does not taunt pass rushers who fail to get their licks.
"He's in about as vulnerable a position as you can be in," Glenn says. "The last thing he needs to do is egg on somebody to get a cheap shot because they're angry at him. … He doesn't talk a lot. He doesn't need to. Peyton finds pleasure in scoring a lot of points on defenses and breaking their will just by executing well."
The Broncos rang up 49 points on the Baltimore Ravens, 41 on the New York Giants, 37 on the Oakland Raiders and 52 on the Philadelphia Eagles. That's 179 points, 52 clear of everyone else.
Manning threw seven touchdown passes on opening night against the Ravens. Last week, on the Broncos' last four TD drives against the Eagles, they never faced a third down. He is completing 75% of his passes. He is averaging nearly 9.5 yards a pass attempt. He has thrown the ball away under pressure just twice through four games, and he has not been hit as he throws.
"He knows where to go with the ball," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs says. "That's it. When the quarterback knows what you're in, and he knows where to go with the ball, pass rush can't help you."
Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio coached against Manning 16 times as coach of Jacksonville Jaguars; his teams recorded 14 sacks.
"Do you have to bring that up?" Del Rio says, laughing. "It was hard enough, then. I don't want to relive it."
Clady's absence a concern
Amid all the giddiness over the Broncos' start, there is a measure of concern. They lost all-pro left tackle Ryan Clady to a season-ending injury after the Giants' game. Clady had played every game for the Broncos since Denver drafted him at No.12 in 2008, and he had allowed two sacks on Manning in 19 games.
Chris Clark, his replacement, gave up a sack against Oakland, but offensive coordinator Adam Gase took the blame, suggesting his play call put Clark in a bad spot.
"It's an honor and a privilege to be a guy like that's blind-side protector," Clark says, "and that he trusts me to get the job done."
Clark didn't allow a pressure against Philadelphia and says the frustration of Eagles pass rushers was obvious.
"You see the desperation," Clark says, "just trying to get there."
Polian still roots for Manning. "I worry a little bit about Ryan Clady not being there," he says. "It's really important that the left tackle keep him clean to operate the whole offense."
Glenn was that left tackle in Indy. And he regrets the time in 2001 when Miami Dolphins defensive lineman Lorenzo Bromell drilled Manning with a helmet-to-chin-strap hit that left Manning with a hairline fracture of his jaw. Manning left the game — and missed one play.
"I just remember the fact I was pissed off that one of my men was the guy who hit Peyton," Glenn says. "It's one of those things. You want to do your best to ensure that doesn't happen."
It hasn't happened often to Manning. "He has the longevity," Glenn says, "because he hasn't been hit as much as most quarterbacks."
Wayne Gretzky had hockey seasons when he soared at an otherworldly level, as Manning soars now. They used to say of Gretzky what they say of Manning: The way to beat him is hit him.
But you can't hit what you can't catch. Or, as then-Minnesota North Stars general manager Lou Nanne famously said, "You can't hit Gretzky with a handful of confetti."
Which isn't far from what those singing nuns trilled of Maria von Trapp, and might just as well say of Manning: How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?
Jones reported from Englewood, Colo. Contributing: Jarrett Bell and Tom Pelissero.