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Giants at Eagles: Previewing Eli Manning’s return to the field

The old man is back under center. What does that do for the Giants’ offense?

New York Giants v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It is never just another week when the New York Giants play the Philadelphia Eagles.

Particularly when they do so in Philadelphia, and in prime time. Something always happens in these games. This year it was the sudden revelation that Daniel Jones suffered a high ankle sprain against the Green Bay Packers and Eli Manning would (likely) be returning to the field as the Giants’ starting quarterback.

The Giants are out of the playoffs, but that doesn’t mean that Manning can’t play spoiler for a division rival who are looking to redeem themselves following an embarassing loss to the Miami Dolphins and keep themselves in contention for the NFC East title.

The Giants opened as 8.5-point underdogs against the Eagles, but can the offense surprise with Manning back at the helm?

Stats at a glance

Keys to the game

Save us Eli-Wan!

You have to be ready for anything when it’s Eagles Week. Case in point (and full disclosure), when I began writing this post, Daniel Jones was “fine” and expected to practice fully as the starting QB. About halfway through, Jones was in a walking boot with a high ankle sprain and Eli Manning is the (likely) starting quarterback.

How will that change the Giants’ offense?

The most obvious change will be that Manning has never been the athlete that Jones is. That means that read-option plays and scrambles are likely off the table. That being said, this is also the healthiest and least beat-up Manning has ever been in the month of December and he can execute bootlegs and roll-outs. Post-snap movement by the quarterback should still be on the menu, particularly against the Eagles’ pass rush.

The flip side of the coin is that the Eagles are unlikely to throw anything at Eli that he has never seen before. The Giants will have a veteran mind under center, one who can dissect the defense and call protections before the snap. He will also have full command of the offense and the freedom to audible out of bad plays — something we haven’t really seen Jones do.

Manning’s ability to let the Giants match looks — either get into good plays or out of bad ones — could have a subtle impact on the game, and help both the running backs and receivers find more favorable matchups.

As well, Manning’s quicker processing and quick release should help the Giants’ offensive line live up to their 14th-ranked pass block win rate.

Beat Cover 3

NFL teams don’t often repeat game plans against the same opponent. But considering the results from the last time these two teams played, we should probably be on the lookout for the Eagles to run Cover 3 — and how the Giants respond.

Last year the Eagles’ already porous secondary was ravaged by injury leading up to their second game against the Giants. They still tried to run their standard defense in the first half, only to see the Giants gash them and sprint out to a lead. However, the Eagles made a halftime adjustment to emphasize a Cover 3 shell, and held the Giants to just 56 yards and 3 points in the second half of the game.

While a number of players have changed on the Giants’ offense from a year ago, the basic tenants and psychology of the offensive scheme remain unchanged. For instance, despite the change in quarterback, Daniel Jones’ intended air yards (7.7) and converted air yards (5.2) are virtually identical to Eli Manning’s a year ago (7.2 and 5.3 yards, respectively).

The Eagles’ secondary remains similarly bad as it was last year, which means that there will be opportunities to take advantage. But before the Giants are able to take advantage of the Eagles’ defensive issues, they can’t allow themselves to be suffocated by a basic defensive scheme.

The offensive line needs to hold up

As so often happens, this game will be won — or lost — in the trenches. The return of Manning changes the dynamics some and likely throws a wrench into the Eagles’ preparation.

However, the big guys up front still need to do their jobs. They have their work cut out for them against a good, and deep, Eagles’ defensive line. Giants need Saquon Barkley to be the star he was drafted to be, but the Eagles boast one of the best run defenses in the NFL. The Giants can’t have a repeat of their running performance against the New York Jets. and hope that Barkley can make defenders miss and create magic out of thin air.

Likewise, we should expect to see Eagles’ players in the backfield on passing downs. They win quickly and often in pass rush situations. Interestingly, no individual pass rusher cracks the top-10 of his position in win-rate. But combined, the Eagles have one of the best pass rushes in the NFL. They win as a unit, and their sack totals reflect that. The Eagles only have one player with more than 5.0 sacks (Brandon Graham with 7.0), but they have 13 defenders with at least half a sack, nine with at least 2.0 sacks, and six of those have 2.5 or more.

So while Philly doesn’t have that one “ace” to their defensive line rotation, they have a number of players who can get to the quarterback. That will stress the Giants’ defense and prevent them from knowing who to double and when.

It’s going to be a long night for the Giants if they can’t win up front.