With the New York Giants facing an important game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Giants would like to face as little uncertainty as possible. The team is flawed, but they have talent and can plan for things they know are coming.
But Tampa Bay's rookie quarterback is a big unknown.
It has been a tale of two seasons for Winston. His first four games he threw six touchdown passes to seven interceptions, including a four-nterception performance against the Carolina Panthers. But in the three games since then he has thrown four touchdown passes without an interception.
So what has changed?
For one, Winston is learning. He is learning to better recognize NFL defenses and where to go with the ball. Also, the Bucs' coaching staff is learning Winston's limitations. After the Carolina game Winston is throwing an average of eight fewer passes for game (including an overtime game last week, skewing the numbers some), while Doug Martin is getting an average of six more carries per game.
The Bucs are taking the ball out of Winston's hand and relying more on the running game, while forcing teams to respect their play-action, opening up some easier completions.
So who is Jameis Winston? What might the Giants see on Sunday?
For our first play we'll take a look at one rookie tendency of Winston's, inconsistent mechanics.
This play sees the Bucs' in the shotgun, their tight end lined up next to the right tackle. The tight end chips the left defensive end before releasing out into a route while the running back sneaks out into the flat. Both of those players are check-down options if the deep passes aren't there, but this is a deep throw all the way.
The slot receiver runs a post corner route that finds a large open void in the Falcons' zone coverage, right in front of the end zone. Its a well run route and and a well designed play. Had the ball been completed, the receiver had a chance at a touchdown if he was able to make the free safety miss.
However, Winston never gives him the chance. On the snap, he drifts to his left as he begins his drop. This is something he does consistently as his right hip comes behind him. That forces him off his spot and makes him take extra time to get back to where he should be. When he is under pressure or has to rush the throw, his inefficient footwork can keep Winston from properly setting his feet and leading to throw that float on him.
Before getting the pass off, Winston takes a small "hop" that prevents him from truly setting his feet and driving the ball downfield. Not setting his feet is something Eli Manning has struggled with at times throughout his career, and Winston has the same results: The ball sails on him, well above the leaping receiver. This doesn't hurt the Bucs but with a corner in the back of the end zone and the free safety coming over, it could have turned into an interception.
To contrast with the previous play, here is a long gain by Winston that features some better mechanics.
Tampa lines up out of the shotgun -- nearly all of Winston's passes are out of the shotgun, they usually only line up under center for run plays or play-action. Mike Evans is lined up off the left side of the screen and runs a curl route. The big receiver cutting off his route and presenting his numbers to Winston makes for a great target, and the rookie QB delivers a strike. The Falcons are in man coverage on the outside and only rush four, with the linebackers in zone coverage.
Once again Winston lines up with his feet together and his drop takes out to the left of the hash mark. But unlike the last play, he takes the time to properly set his feet and drive off his back leg. With more solid mechanics he is able to drive the ball and fit it in between the linebacker who had dropped into coverage (No. 52) and the corner over top of Evans. Winston did a good job to us his eyes to hold the linebackers in the middle of the field before throwing an accurate ball to Evans.
Had he not held the linebackers, or sailed the ball as in the first play, the defense could have been in position to make a play on it, but this was a good play.
It might not immediately look it, but this was an attempted screen pass, but was quickly blown up by a great blitz design from the Falcons.
The blitz features a pair of stunts which get quick pressure up both A-gaps. On the left side the defensive end stunts inside while the defensive tackle forces the left guard and tackle to double team him. The center could have blocked him but he could only chip and try to pass off to the left guard so he (the center) could get out and block. On the right side the Falcons bring a linebacker off the edge while the left defensive end stunts inside. The blitzing linebacker essentially becomes the new defensive end while the actual defensive end gets a free run up the middle.
The Falcons get immediate pressure right in Winston's face. That pressure has not only forces an off-target throw, but also an ill-advised one right into the middle of the field. There was no way Winston wasn't going to take a hit on this play, so he should have just taken the sack. Again, this play didn't hurt the Bucs, but it very well could have.
The previous play isn't to say that Winston is incapable of making good decisions when things break down and he is under pressure.
This play is designed to go to the deep crossing route, which is wide open in the middle of the field. It's an easy completion for a big gain with the possibility to turn into a catch and run for a touchdown. This play takes place in overtime, and had Winston made that completion, it could have ended the game right there.
But that wasn't an option. The pocket collapses just as the receiver gets open and the receiver throws his hands up for the pass. Winston makes the right choice to pull the ball down and get out of the pocket. After chipping the defensive end, the running back slipped out as the checkdown option.
It's an option that Winston wisely takes. It keeps the drive alive, the chains moving, and the offense on schedule. More importantly, it's an incredibly safe pass. There are no defenders anywhere near the back.
Jameis Winston looks like he could, should even, be the Bucs franchise quarterback. He has improved tremendously over the course of his rookie season.
Part of that is having some of the load taken off of him, but also part of it is his growth as a player. However, the still has technical flaws and inconsistent mechanics. He also shows a tendency to hold the ball too long, opening him up to sacks, and be fooled by coverages. These are all things that should improve over time if he is dedicated to improving his craft.
There are also some tendencies in the Tampa offense. They almost always throw out of the shotgun set, which also brings Winston's peculiar and inefficient drop into play. When he has to rush his throw, that drop keeps him from setting his feet and the ball floats on him. For an opportunistic defense like the Giants, that means that opportunities will present themselves.
On the flip side, when Winston is under center, the Giants should have a reasonable expectation of either a run or play-action pass. The Giants have to be careful to not key too strongly on the run game, so as to not leave themselves open to being gashed by play-action passes, but stopping the run puts the ball in Winston's hand, takes options away from their offense, and creates opportunities for turnovers.
Winston should become a good quarterback and his inconsistencies will go away in time. But they won't go away by Sunday.