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Checkdown conundrum: Reviewing Eli Manning’s decision-making vs. Dallas

Was the quarterback justified in making so many short throws?

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday night against the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning targeted rookie running back Saquon Barkley 16 times in the passing game.

Barkley had 14 receptions for 80 yards.

The average depth of target on Barkley’s targets was 1.3 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

These are the facts of the case and they are undisputed.

What is in dispute is whether this was an effective usage of the Giants’ rookie running back, whether these were designed throws or passes made due to pressure, and whether Manning’s decision-making on the bulk of these plays was the wisest course of action. As one might expect, those questions remain to be answered, try as we might,

Schemed throws

Giants head coach Pat Shurmur did call for a handful of designed throws to Barkley on Sunday night, on plays beyond the more commonplace running back screen plays you see in most offenses. Here is one such example. On New York’s opening possession of the game the Giants face a third-and-5 on their own 44-yard line. They line up using 11 offensive personnel, with Manningunder center and a tight bunch look to the right with Odell Beckham Jr. (13), Evan Engram (88) and Sterling Shepard (87).

The play design looks to free Barkley on a route to the right with blockers in front of him thanks to misdirection. Here is the offensive play art:

The three receivers in the bunch, Beckham, Engram and Shepard, all run crossing routes moving right to left, at varying depths. The design is to get the second- and third-levels of the defense flowing with them, freeing up the right side for a quick throw to Barkley. In addition, the design calls for the center and both guards to get out in front of the back to act as a convoy.

There is one problem. Dallas is in zone coverage here:

That means the cornerback Chidobe Awuzie (24) does not trail Shepard across the formation, and safety Kavon Frazier (35) does not trail Engram across the formation. That puts Awuzie in position to “force” on this play, turning Barkley back toward the middle of the field and toward defensive help, which includes Frazier.

Here is another design that New York called, trying to spring a big play in the passing game along the left side of the field. Late in the first quarter the Giants face a second-and-13 on their own 34-yard line. The Giants align with Manning in the shotgun in a tight 2x2 formation. Engram and Shepard are in a tight slot to the left while Beckham and Cody Latimer (12) are in a tight slot to the right. Barkley stands to the right of the quarterback.

Here is the offensive design:

Manning and Barkley mesh in the backfield, and then the QB executes a half-roll to the right. Once more the Giants are trying to attack Dallas with movement and misdirection. Beckham and Latimer run a two-man flood concept to the right, with one shallow out route and another coming much deeper. Engram runs a deep crossing route from left to right, while the real action is on the backside. Shepard runs a vertical route, hoping to clear the sideline for a throwback to Barkley.

The problem is that once more the Cowboys are in a zone coverage, and in a zone coverage that is probably not the best look to run this play against. Dallas plays a Cover 2 here, meaning one safety simply runs with Shepard while the cornerback stays in the flat over Barkley:

Manning still checks the ball down to Barkley, but it is hard to see where else he could have gone with the football. New York was hoping to get Dallas in perhaps a Cover 3 look, which might see the cornerback to that side run with Shepard, freeing up the sideline. Or more of a Cover 4 look, which might elicit the same response from the defense. But here, with more of a hard corner to that side, you have a defender lurking to stop this design. (There is also an argument that Engram is coming open in the middle of the field, working back toward the left sideline, but he comes open as Manning is releasing his throw to Barkley).

Here is one more example of a designed throw to Barkley that was in better position to succeed ... but for a failure of execution. Early in the second quarter the Giants face another secnd-and-13 on their own 34-yard line. They come out once more with 11 offensive personnel, using a Y-Iso formation with Engram alone on the right, detached from the right tackle. New York tries a quick slip screen to Barkley with center Jon Halapio (75) pulling in front of Barkley:

This play actually sets up pretty well, because this time the Giants catch Dallas in man coverage. This is the state of play when Barkley takes the throw from Manning:

Frazier is the defender responsible for Barkley, and he prevents this from being a bigger play. He reads the screen and is able to get inside of Halapio, getting a shot on Barkley that slows down the development of this screen pass:

Barkley fights off the first tackle attempt from Frazier, and manages to pick up six yards on the play, but this is an example of a designed throw to Barkley that could have been a much bigger play on Sunday night. Of course, it is worth mentioning that the throw from Manning is low, forcing Barkley to adjust to the pass. If this throw leads Barkley toward the sideline, there’s room for a bigger gain as well.

Checking down under pressure

Offensive line woes were again a topic of discussion in the aftermath of Sunday night’s loss, and protection problems and breakdowns also contributed to the number of checkdowns to Barkley against the Cowboys. There were instances on Sunday night when Manning really wanted to go elsewhere with the football, but due to pressure around him he was forced to give up quicker than he wanted to on a particular route concept or design and check the football down. Here is one example. In the third quarter the Giants face a first-and-10 on their own 40-yard line, and they put Manning in the shotgun with 11 offensive personnel in a 2x2 formation. Beckham, who Manning wants to hit on this play, is split wide to the left:

Manning really wants to hit Beckham on this curl route, but as he is waiting to pull the trigger the pocket starts to collapse around him, due to a twist on the inside and left tackle Nate Solder (76) being driven back into his lap. As a result, Manning decides to check this down to Barkley in the left flat:

With Solder in his kitchen Manning doesn’t fully step into this throw, and he one-hops it to Barkley.

Some may argue that Manning should have climbed the pocket a bit and created space to make this throw, and I understand that point and it’s a valid one. But quarterbacks who have been sacked now eight times through two weeks do not always respond calmly to pressure ... and that might be the most critical issue of all.

Speaking of which, Manning was strip-sacked on the next play and the Cowboys recovered.

Early in the game New York ran a Z-Spot concept, and Manning had some receivers open downfield, but immediate pressure forced him to check the ball down quickly to Barkley:

Shepard runs the “spot” route coming from the outside while Beckham runs the deeper corner route from the slot. Both players are open at various points on this play, but it does not matter. Because of nearly immediate pressure on Manning, thanks to a double linebacker blitz, the QB is forced to instantly check this ball down to Barkley.

Here’s another pressured throw from Manning. New York ran a number of “go/flat” combinations Sunday night, a two-man pattern with the outside receiver running a vertical route while the inside receiver, either a slot receiver or a RB out of the backfield, releases to the flat. This is a good design where the QB can quickly peek the go route and take a shot if it is there, and if not he can throw to the flat. On this third-and-6 play in the third quarter, the Giants run this design and Manning throws the flat route with some pressure in his face:

New York uses another Y-Iso formation here, and Engram is split wide to the left and he runs the go route against safety Jeff Heath (38). This might be a matchup you want Manning to try and exploit, but as with the previous play Dallas blitzes a linebacker, so Manning immediately spots the blitz and throws to Barkley in the flat. The RB turns this into a big gain, setting the Giants up with a first-and-goal.

Decisions, decisions

While all of these plays required some bit of decision-making from the quarterback, there was one play where I think Manning gave up on a route concept too quickly and missed an opportunity in the passing game. On a first-and-10 play early in the second quarter the Giants put Manning under center and use a 3x1 formation, with a bunch look to the right that includes Engram and Beckham. Shepard is split wide to the left.

New York runs a deep crossing concept:

Here is where Manning passes up a chance for a big play in my mind. The crossing route between Engram and Shepard creates some traffic, and Engram gets separation working from right to left. The linebacker responsible for him in coverage is delayed in dropping with Engram. In addition, the defender responsible for the flat to that side, who might sink under Engram’s route, is coming off the edge and is also well underneath Engram:

But Manning doesn’t make this throw to Engram, and instead checks the ball down. Screenshot scouting can often overstate the mistakes made by a player on a given play, but here is the look when Manning turned to throw to Barkley:

I can make a valid argument for all of the other decisions Manning made in this piece, but this one sticks out in my mind. Here is a chance for a big play and Manning checks the ball down. This is one of those moments as a quarterback when you have to be aggressive. Teams sometimes just get a handful of opportunities for big plays in the passing game on a given night, and how the quarterback reacts in those moments can mean the difference between a win ... and a loss. This was a throw I’d imagine Manning wants another crack at.

Not all checkdowns are created equal. Some are designed. Others are due to pressure. But sometimes it is the checkdown you make out of fear that will be the one people remember. Most of Manning’s decisions and reads were justifiable. But it’s that one at the end that people will remember the most.