To begin a discussion of what might happen when the New York Giants have the ball on Monday night against the Indianapolis Colts, you have to acknowledge the elephant in the room. Because, really, how the Giants handle that elephant is the most intriguing aspect of watching Eli Manning & Co. on Monday.
The elephant? General manager Jerry Reese's pointed comments this week about the Giants being too cautious in their offensive approach the first seven games of the season.
"I just think, as an offense, we have to be more aggressive. I think at times we’re a little bit almost too cautious with what we’re doing offensively. This is the National Football League. You’ve got to go out there and you have to win the game. You can’t think something’s going to fall into your lap. You’ve got to go out and take the games," Reese said. "I think we have to be more aggressive offensively. I appreciate Eli taking care of the ball and not turning it over because that correlates to wins a lot of the time, but you can’t be too cautious. You’ve got to throw the ball down the field. You’ve got to score points in this league to win."
While Manning has been efficient, completing a career-best 64.9 percent of his passes with only one interception in the past five games, the Giants risk-averse strategy on offense has not generated many big plays. The Giants have only 18 pass plays of more than 20 yards, 27th in the league. Manning, per Pro Football Focus, has completed only five of 22 passes targeting a receiver more than 20 yards down the field. The 22 down field attempts places Manning 25th in the league in the number of down field throws. Stats released by the Giants PR department differ with PFF, showing only two completions in 16 attempts beyond 20 yards.
For comparison, Nick Foles of the Philadelphia Eagles leads the league with 57 such attempts. Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers (19) and Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks (17) have thrown fewer down field passes than Manning.
Maybe the Giants have not thrown the ball down the field enough. Maybe game situations and the available personnel dictate that low-risk has been the best option. Maybe this shorter, quicker passing attack that avoids risk is simply what the Giants signed up for when they hired Ben McAdoo -- which means everyone just has to get used to it. Maybe McAdoo is looking for yards after catch that wide receivers have yet to provide.
Regardless, it will be interesting to see if there is any shift on Monday in how often the Giants look to pus the ball vertically down the field.
What the heck are the Colts defensively? Are they the dominant defense that shut out the Cincinnati Bengals 27-0 two weeks ago? Are they the sieve that gave up more than 500 passing yards to Ben Roethlisberger in a 51-34 loss on Sunday? Truth is, they are probably somewhere in the middle.
The Colts rank 15th in the league defensively, ninth in rushing yards allowed (99.2 per game) and 21st in passing yards allowed (252.9). Using the Pro Football Focus grading system, the Colts' -97.6 defensive score is the second-worst in the league, ahead of only the Jacksonville Jaguars. Despite what we saw Sunday when Roethlisberger lit up the skies with a historic passing performance it is the Indianapolis run defense (graded a league worst -97.4 by PFF) that is primarily responsible for that score. For comparison, Football Outsiders ranks Indianapolis 17th in defensive efficiency against the pass and 25th against the run.
Can we draw any conclusions from the Steelers game about how the Giants might approach the Colts on Monday? Roethlisberger threw 49 times in that shootout victory, while handing off on 31 occasions. Despite the obvious desire for generating more big plays it seems unlikely that the Giants would completely abandon trying to run the ball. The Colts are second in the league in points per game (31.2) and first in time of possession (34:51) so it stands to reason that the Giants will look to churn out some first downs and keep Andrew Luck and Co. off the field.
"When we put the three wins together, we played very well, we had turnovers, we had takeaways, we had good field position. That’s kind of slowed down for us. We had good balance with the run and that’s what we’re hoping for anyway is good balance," Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said. "We didn’t do much of anything in Philadelphia but in Dallas we did protect the passer pretty well. We gave ourselves some chances, some opportunities but we didn’t run the ball very well and we need to be able to do that."
The key for the Giants, as it almost always is, will be the play of their inconsistent offense line. Indianapolis plays a 3-4 front and 13 of the Colts' 21 sacks this season have come from linebackers or defensive backs. Indianapolis blitzes on approximately 40 percent of passing plays, so the Giants will need to be prepared to identify where the pressure is coming from and give Manning a clean pocket.
"They’re aggressive, they really are. They’re aggressive. They do, according to our studies, have a very high number of pressures that they believe in as a base to their defensive scheme," Coughlin said. "They’ve covered well. They’ve done a lot of things very, very well. The Steelers played an outstanding football game, what are you going to say?"