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Let’s talk about Eli Manning, risk management and the Giants’ offense

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Let’s talk about those check downs again

NFL: New Orleans Saints at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of the New York Giants’ 33-18 loss at the hands of the New Orleans Saints, the level of consternation surrounding the production from the Giants’ offense is reaching a fever pitch. Against a defense - and particularly a secondary - that had made opposing passers look like Patrick Mahomes through three weeks, Eli Manning and company struggled. Manning completed 31-of-41 passes for 255 yards and a touchdown, but yet again there were opportunities missed in the passing game and a plethora of check downs. Studying this Giants’ offense right now uncovers a team trying to find its schematic identity, a quarterback struggling to gel in the new system, an offense leaving too many chances on the field, and questions over how this team handles risk.

Missed Chances - Part 1

Let’s get two plays out of the way at the start, both of them missed chances for Manning to connect with his most talented target in the passing game, Odell Beckham. On two occasions in particular the Giants had the absolute right play called, the ideal coverage scheme to execute it against, and Beckham was wide open ... but Manning missed the throw.

Following a Saints’ field goal the Giants begin a drive midway through the second quarter on their own 25-yard line. Holding a one-point lead, they break the huddle using 12 offensive personnel and align with Manning under center and a double-wing tight end look to the right. Beckham (No. 13) is the outside receiver in a slot to the left. Seeing this personnel group, New Orleans responds with their base 4-3 defense:

The Giants run a play-action concept, with Manning faking a stretch run to the right before looking backside to Beckham, who is running a deep pivot/out route:

Manning has his choice of routes on this play. They catch the Giants in a Cover 3 look, and both Beckham and the slot receiver running a deep over route are open. Beckham is open because the cornerback to his side has to respect the vertical route and gives a big cushion, and the over route from Sterling Shepard (No. 87) is open because the cornerback responsible for the outside third to the right side of the offense gets sucked down by the run fake. Manning could throw to either, but he looks to his talented target in Beckham:

He just plain misses this throw, airmailing it over Beckham’s head.

If you look at the end zone angle, you can see that Manning gets the tiniest bit of pressure late, as left tackle Nate Solder (No. 76) gets driven back into the pocket a bit:

This might - might - impact the throw. But compared to what quarterbacks are asked to deal with on a nearly play-to-play basis, this is an acceptable amount of duress. Manning needs to make a better throw.

The Giants begin their next offensive possession again on the 25-yard line, following a Saints’ field goal that gave the visitors a 9-7 lead. New York breaks the huddle with a 12 personnel package, with reserve offensive lineman Spencer Pulley (No. 77) aligned as a tight end to the right, with fellow tight end Scott Simonson (No. 82) in the game as a wing to Pulley’s right. Given this jumbo formation, that includes an extra offensive lineman and a blocking tight end, the Saints stay with their base 4-3 and drop a safety into the box:

The Giants look to hit Beckham again, on a fake out-and-up route that turns into a comeback route:

Manning faces no pressure in the pocket. Beckham runs a good route and is aided yet again by the coverage, a Cover 3 scheme that forces the cornerback to respect the potential vertical route, allowing the comeback to come open. Again, Manning misses it high:

Looking at the end zone angle, there are no apparent mechanical issues that come to mind:

Two opportunities to target your best weapon in the passing game. Two chances to exploit both the defensive personnel and the coverage, and both missed high on poor throws from the quarterback. As someone who spends an inordinate amount of time studying QBs, I often think of words from one of my first little league coaches: “I won’t get on you for a physical mistake. But I will get on you for mental mistakes.” Those are words to live by when it comes to studying younger quarterbacks, but at the professional level there needs to be a threshold amount of execution. Games in the NFL are very, very difficult to win and sometimes the difference between winning and losing comes down to a handful of plays each game. When opportunities are presented on a given Sunday, they need to be realized. Manning failed on these two throws to take advantage of the chances given him.

The Checkdown Conundrum - Redux

Through four games Beckham leads the Giants with 45 targets. Rookie running back Saquon Barkley is second with 35.

As we discussed previously, not all check downs are created equal. Some are understandable given the coverage, the situation and/or the amount of pressure in the pocket. Some are even designed. But there are other times when the checkdown is perhaps unadvisable. Again, football games provide a QB with only so many opportunities to attack a defense, and if the QB is too conservative in those moments, the offense may struggle.

Let’s revisit the check down question, looking at Week 4.

Acceptable Conservatism

Here are some plays where I am okay with Manning checking the ball down. We can start with a first-and-10 play late in the second quarter. The Giants align with Manning under center and use a three-receiver bunch to the right, with Wayne Gallman (No. 22) the single-back in the backfield. The Saints again show a Cover 3 look before the play:

The Giants use some eye candy, faking a run to Gallman to the right and then an end around to Beckham, but they are trying to set up a Yankee concept:

This time, however, the Saints have a pretty good coverage scheme in place. The middle linebacker runs with the over route from Sterling Shepard while the cornerback and the free safety bracket the post route from Russell Shepard (No. 81), so this is the look Manning sees when he decides to check this down to Gallman in the flat:

Now, some may wonder if Manning should have thrown the over route here to Sterling Shepard, but I’m okay with this decision, because at the point he makes up his mind, it is unclear if the cornerback is going to pass off the post route and then rotate down to help on the over. If he does - and at this point Manning cannot be sure that he won’t - this is a potential interception. So he checks it down:

Of course, Gallman gets popped and the ball comes out, and the Saints recover. If there is a criticism of Manning to be levied, it is the face that the perhaps waits a step too long to get this out, giving the defender time to close on Gallman and letting the defender be in position to deliver this shot.

Here is another checkdown that I would grade as a the right decision by Manning. Early in the second half the Giants face a second-and-10 and align with Manning under center and Barkley (No. 26) as the deep back in an offset I-formation. The Saints counter with their base 4-3 defense as the Giants are using 21 offensive personnel:

The Giants use play-action here, and as we have seem with some of the previous plays, this is a route with a reduced number of targets downfield:

New York has two receivers downfield, running mirrored curl routes, and Barkley releases to the flat.

As we will discuss in detail a bit later, the Saints began using a lot of Cover 2/Tampa 2 coverage schemes in the second half, and that is exactly what they run here:

As you can see, the Saints drop seven defenders into coverage, giving them the numbers advantage downfield. When Manning comes out of the play fake and looks to throw, here is what he sees:

Where, pray tell, should he go with this pass?

If he throws either of the curl routes, he is trying to thread the needle between multiple defenders into very crowded throwing lanes. Can he make either throw? Perhaps. But I am fine with him checking this down here, given the throwing lanes he is looking at and the routes he would be trying to throw. Trying to fit either pass into a stationary target with defenders closing in is a recipe for disaster. Playing quarterback is about managing risk and assessing the risk/reward moments. Here, Manning plays it safe, and given the options available to him, I’m okay with it:

But, as you might expect, there are times when you need to be more aggressive.

Questionable Risk Avoidance

Having covered some decisions made to avoid risk that are acceptable, let’s look at some that are more questionable.

Early in the second quarter New York faces a 3rd and 11 on their own 35-yard line, and they align with Manning in the shotgun and another three-receiver bunch to the right. The Saints have a 3-3-5 nickel package in the game and they show two-high safeties deep in the secondary:

Here is the design the Giants use on the play:

This sets up a Mills concept, better suited to attack a single-high coverage but as we will see it can be used against Cover 2/MOFO (middle of field open) looks. Russell Shepard (No. 81) runs the post route while Sterling Shepard runs the dig over the middle. One could even be more specific and call this NCAA Mills, as Beckham runs a shallow crossing route. Barkley runs a wheel route to the outside.

The Saints drop into a Tampa 2 look:

Manning drops to throw and the Saints send only the three down linemen after him, dropping eight into coverage. At the moment he pulls the trigger, here is the landscape:

Considering that playing quarterback is about managing risk, there are moments when a quarterback needs to show the appropriate amount of aggression. Here, Manning does not do that. The Saints give him a MOFO look, and the post route, if given time, can split the safeties. Sure, it is an aggressive read and throw, but on third down, it is a risk worth taking. Especially when you consider the decision he makes, which is to throw the shallow route to Beckham, who will now have to run through eight defenders:

He loses eight yards instead.

There are times watching this offense when you feel like if you put this team in red, white and gold you might be watching the 2017-2018 Kansas City Chiefs. A team with some talented weapons, a potential rookie running back who can grow into a star, but a team held back with some conservative decisions at the wrong moments from the quarterback. Manning needs to be aggressive here. He is not, and the Giants have to punt.

Contrast that decision with the one made here, where seeing man coverage Manning throws the shallow route to Beckham:

This is a perfect time to throw the shallow route to Beckham working underneath. The Saints are in man coverage on this play and they bring one of the linebackers on a blitz. By throwing the shallow Manning replaces the blitz with the ball, and Beckham takes advantage of some traffic created as another linebacker cuts to the outside to cover the running back out of the backfield. This is when you throw the shallow, not when eight defenders are dropping into coverage and all eight are deeper than the route.

New Orleans in the first half played a mix of man and single-high coverages, but as the game wore on into the second half the Saints started using more and more Cover 2/Tampa 2 looks. At times both Pat Shurmur and Manning himself did a very good job attacking this coverage. Shurmur called a mix of plays designed to exploit the holes in this scheme and Manning was also patient at times to take the sit routes over the middle, attacking the spot where the middle linebacker would vacate to drop deep between the safeties. That’s exactly what Manning does on this play:

Here you can see the linebacker drop into that intermediate zone between the safeties, and Shepard runs that sit route right into the spot the LB vacated. Perfect Tampa 2 beater and Manning throws the right route here.

But there were other times when Shurmur called plays designed to challenge the Turkey Hole,” that spot between the sideline and the safeties and behind the cornerbacks, but Manning would not pull the trigger.

One of the ideal Cover 2/Tampa 2 beaters, designed to attack that area of the field, is the Flat-7 Smash combination. That is a variation of the Smash concept that uses a route in the flat to hold the cornerback, and has a corner route over the top of the CB working away from the safety and toward the boundary.

Midway through the third quarter the Giants face a third-and-14. They align with Manning in the shotgun and a bunch look to the right. They run a variation of the Flat-7 Smash that looks like this:

Sterling Shepard releases to the flat, while Russell Shepard and Beckham each run corner routes at varying depths. Shepard is deep while Beckham is the intermediate option. The Saints indeed drop into a Tampa 2 coverage here. Between the corner routes, one of them should be open against this design.

Manning, perhaps feeling a bit of pressure off the edge, checks it down to the flat route:

There is an opportunity for Manning to step up here. Both corner routes look to be breaking open. This is an overly cautious read and decision that in essence wastes a great design and play call from Shurmur.

Late in the third quarter the Giants face a 3rd and 10 situation in the red zone. Trailing 19-7, New York certainly needs points here, with just over two minutes remaining in the third quarter. Ideally a touchdown.

Shurmur calls another Cover 2 beater, the Smash Fade design. A variant of the Smash concept that teams are using more, it combines a smoke route on the outside (the flat element) with a fade from the slot receiver (used to attack the Turkey hole):

As you will see, the Giants catch New Orleans in a red zone version of Tampa 2. The fade looks open in the Turkey Hole. Manning throws a fade route to Barkley on the other side of the field and the pass falls incomplete:

The Giants settle for three.

Right now, one of the major problems with the Giants’ offense seems to be an improper assessment of risk coming from the quarterback position. There have been opportunities downfield. The most confounding part of watching this game is that there were chances in the vertical passing game on designs specifically meant to challenge the coverage that New Orleans made use of in the second half. Did they require some more aggressive decisions? Yes. Were those potential throws a proper balance of aggression, or appropriate aggression? In my opinion, yes. But the quarterback went elsewhere, and to the detriment of the offense as a whole.

The deeper question might be: Where is this improper assessment of risk coming from? It is a holdover from the Bob McAdoo days? Is it what Shurmur truly wants? Is the offense taking more of a “low to high” read structure where the short and underneath routes are the first reads and if they’re open, forget about everything else? These may all be true, and if so, they are evidence of more organizational risk aversion, than simply risk aversion on the part of the quarterback.

In recent days Manning has been addressing the question of risk. On Monday he was asked about balancing risk:

Risks are not what you want to take. You throw the ball down the field when it’s not risky, and then there’s forcing things and that leads to turnovers that leads to mistakes. I’m not having shots down the field that I’m not taking. It’s just a matter of whether you want to scramble around, whether you want to buy time and kind of let things, or have a guy open not the way you drew it up. Can guys move around and find areas in the zone to get open on scramble drills. So, just kind of weighing those options sometimes. You can look at it and say, oh, I had time here. Then you can look at other ones and say, you know I wouldn’t have had time there to do that. Then, that leads to sacks and fumbles. It’s just kind of having that feel, and feeling the rush and having a good understanding of when you can do it and when you can’t.

There does seem to be almost an institutional factor at play here.

However, these plays demonstrate that there does not need to be.

One of the first pieces I wrote for BBV looked at Manning, and contained a number of throws to make the case that one could still believe in Manning. There were downfield throws in that piece, including some throws made into the very Turkey Hole we talk about in this piece.

For whatever reason, he’s not taking those shots now. Consider these numbers:

But it was not always this way for the Giants and Manning:

Right now this looks like an offense using training wheels. A continuation of the conservative, risk avoidance offense under McAdoo. This is an offense with downfield threats and a quarterback who used to take chances down the field. Who, as of last season, still had the ability to make those Turkey Hole throws. Whether it is an issue of coaching keeping those training wheels on, or a quarterback too reliant upon them, remains to be seen. But until this offense addresses that issue, it will continue to struggle.