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Eli Manning: 2019 expectations from the numbers and the film

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What is 38-year-old Manning at this point?

NFL: New York Giants-Training Camp Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

It has been over a year since my debut on the hallowed pages of Big Blue View, and what a debut it was. In the dead of July, just before training camps opened up, I made the case for Eli Manning by highlighting five throws from his 2017-2018 season that gave me hope.

Obviously, much has changed since then. Saquon Barkley looks to be the focus of the Giants’ offense in the year ahead, Odell Beckham Jr. has found a new home in the AFC North, and New York has a new quarterback to learn about, in sixth overall selection Daniel Jones. Given these factors, what does the future hold for Manning?

Let’s hold a mirror up to Manning’s 2018 season and, as was done in the debut piece, highlight five throws. Only this time, here are five throws that have led to concerns about Manning at this point in his career, plus one that perhaps shows signs for hope.

If you have read this far, I would highly recommend this piece from Jake Burns over at Cleveland.com. Jake has done a tremendous job covering the Cleveland Browns during training camp and put together a similarly-minded piece, using five examples to show how Manning perhaps held Beckham back last season. Those throws and misfires could be applied to this piece as well for additional context.

Let us begin early in the season. Remember those days? Filled with check downs and questions about Manning’s ability to throw downfield and be aggressive? If there is a singular play that exemplifies the struggles the Giants’ offense endured during the first few weeks of the 2018 NFL season it is this play from the third quarter of New York’s Week 4 game against the New Orleans Saints. The Giants have the football on the opening possession of the second half and trail 12-7. They face a third-and-14 on their own 34-yard line. Some important context to this play is that the Saints employed a great deal of Cover 2 schemes in the first half, so head coach and offensive play-caller Pat Shurmur calls on this Cover 2 beater for this third down play:

New York puts Manning in the shotgun and uses a three-receiver bunch to the right. Russell Shepard (81) runs a deep corner route while Beckham runs a deep out route, underneath Shepard’s corner route. Both of these patterns attack the “Turkey Hole,” that soft area of a Cover 2 scheme between the sideline and the safety.

Both routes are open ... but Manning checks the football down to Sterling Shepard in the flat:

Manning has an opportunity here to exploit the coverage, thanks to Shurmur calling the exact right play for the moment. He can make an anticipation type throw to Beckham on the deep out, or a more aggressive read to Russell Shepard, but either way there is a chance for a big play. Instead, the ball goes to Sterling Shepard on a simple swing route, and the Giants punt.

The Saints would score a touchdown on their ensuing possession.

Later in the season, Manning put together a stretch of solid play, including big outbursts against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers. However, following the Tampa Bay game he came back to earth a bit against the Philadelphia Eagles, and as an example we can look at Manning’s one interception thrown during this three-game burst. Late in the first half against the Eagles, the Giants are driving and looking to add to their 19-11 lead. With just 17 seconds remaining in the first half the Giants hare just outside the Philadelphia red zone, facing a second-and-10 at the Eagles’ 37-yard line. Manning and the Giants run a Sail concept to the left, with a receiver in the flat and a receiver on a deep out pattern. Beckham runs a post route, working from the left to the middle of the field.

The Eagles’ defense, which has been battered by injuries, runs a pretty standard coverage on this play, Tampa 2, but there is one twist. The twist is the alignment and assignment of safety Malcolm Jenkins (27). He drops down a bit and aligns in the middle of the field (shaded in orange), and he will be responsible for helping between the two deeper safeties.

Normally, throwing a post route against a Cover 2/Tampa 2 look is a defendable position. This is a “middle of the field open” type of play, and you expect the post route to split those two middle of the field safeties. However, with a third safety now lurking in the middle of the field in the form of Jenkins, and given the situation, Manning needs to be absolutely sure before making this throw.

It seems ... he was not:

Jenkins reads the eyes of Manning and steps in front of the throw, snaring the interception and ending the Giants’ scoring threat. The visitors come away without any points on the drive at all, setting the stage for Philadelphia’s second-half comeback.

This play highlights more of the processing and decision-making issues from the quarterback, and how QBs need to find that balance between aggression and careful play. On the first throw, Manning is much too conservative, forgoing an opportunity in the deep passing game. Yet on the second, he is much too aggressive given the situation and the pre-snap indications from the defense. Striking that balance between aggression and security can be difficult, and it is something to watch in the weeks ahead.

Now let’s look at some plays from even later in the season. In Week 17 the Giants were driving on their opening possession against the Dallas Cowboys, but faced a third down near the goal line. They put the ball in the air using a Flat-7 Smash concept:

The Cowboys drop into a Red 2 coverage, which is a red zone Cover 2 concept.

The rules on throwing the Smash concept are pretty simple: Read the cornerback and decide based on what he does. If the cornerback squats down on the short route, throw the corner route over his head. If he drops to get depth under the corner route, then throw the shorter route in front of him.

Here, in this area of the field and in this coverage, the cornerback is going to ignore the short route, as it is in the five yard “no cover” area of the field, and try and squeeze that corner route behind him. That is exactly what happens, and yet Manning tries to fit in the corner route throw:

Again, the throws that have me concerned involve the decision-making process, and not the skillset from the quarterback. The CB is staring at Manning the entire way and reading his eyes. Forcing this throw here, in this spot, is probably too aggressive of a decision. Again, that balance between aggression and safety.

Let’s close with two throws against the Tennessee Titans in Week 17. This was arguably Manning’s worst game of the season. The Titans pressured him early and often, and by any number of metrics his production was the lowest of the entire year. His completion percentage was 47 percent (the lowest of the season), his Adjusted Yards per Attempt (AY/A) of 4.18 was his second lowest, just beating out the 4.14 he posted in the rain against the Chicago Bears, and his quarterback rating of 54.1 was his lowest of the season.

Let’s look first at this second quarter throw:

The Giants run a three man flood concept to the right, with a route to the flat, a deep out route and a vertical route. The Titans use a “radar” alignment up front, with each defender aligned in a two-point stance. This is a design Tennessee used throughout the season, and for example they harassed Tom Brady back in Week 10 with this alignment. The Titans are able to force Manning to move and reset in the pocket, and he tries this vertical throw which is nearly intercepted by the free safety.

What stands out to me is how Manning seemingly fails to account for the free safety on this play. He does not do much to move him or influence him from his spot, and the throw itself lacks the proper touch and trajectory. The pass is easily broken up by the free safety, and Manning is lucky it is not intercepted.

He is not so lucky later in the game:

The Titans are in a Cover 2 Man Under coverage on this play, and Kevin Byard (#41) is the safety shaded to the right side of the offense, responsible for the deep half-field to his side of the formation. The Giants run a post/out combination to his side of the field, with the expectation that the post route will occupy the safety, allowing the deep out pattern to work toward the sideline with some space to operate.

Instead, Byard peels off the post route, recognizing the route concept and beating the receiver to the spot. Manning throws the deep out route, but the throw never reaches its target. Again, the trajectory and lack of velocity on this throw allow Byard to break on the pass. So now in addition to the decision-making, we have a questions of placement, trajectory and velocity.

Something else to consider is the pressure aspect. As indicated the Titans harassed Manning through the afternoon, getting eight quarterback hits and three sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, Manning struggled against pressure last season. When viewed through the lens of Expected Points Added (EPA - more on this in a moment) Manning was one of 14 quarterbacks who posted a negative EPA against the blitz in 2018, posting a -0.09. Other quarterbacks who posted a negative EPA against the blitz included Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Sam Darnold, Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson. For comparison, the two best quarterbacks against the blitz in terms of EPA were Patrick Mahomes (0.47) and Nick Foles (0.53). Data from the QB Annual, Pro Football Focus

How Manning fares against the blitz will be something to watch in 2019.

However, let’s try and end this on a positive note. Despite the struggles last season, as outlined throughout the year and in some of these throws, 2018 was actually a bit of a rebound for Manning, at least in terms of EPA. Using data from Pro Football Reference (and provided my math is correct) here is a look at Manning’s EPA per Passing Attempt (EPA/PA) for the past five seasons:

After posting an EPA/PA of 0.11 in 2014 and 0.13 in 2015, he dipped to 0.04 in 2016 and -0.06 in 2017. He rebounded a bit to post an EPA/PA of 0.09 last season. Here are some comparison players:

Now, is it possible my math is wrong on these? Perhaps. Are there people who know much more about EPA and EPA per Passing Attempt than me? Absolutely. For more on EPA and what it tells us about the game I’d strongly recommend that you read work by Josh Hermsmeyer from 538.com, Ben Baldwin at The Athletic Seattle, the work from both Pro Football Focus and Sports Info Solutions, as well as numerous data analysts on Twitter and elsewhere.

But provided my math is right (and PFF’s rankings of offenses by EPA/PA as outlined here leads me to believe it is) Manning had a bit of a rebound in 2018 after two down years.

Throws like this one from Week 13 support that idea.

Late in the second quarter of this victory over the Washington Redskins the Giants got onto the scoreboard again on a touchdown pass from Manning to Bennie Fowler (18) on this play-action boot concept:

One of the more interesting aspect to Manning’s season is how well the veteran paser has fared on throws from outside the pocket. As highlighted by Ed Valentine in this piece, Manning’s passer rating on throws coming from outside the pocket is among the best in the league. The veteran passer is not known for his athleticism and scrambling ability, but last season Pat Shurmur used boot concepts like this play to get Manning out of the pocket and to give him some defined reads in the passing game. Early in the game the Giants used a concept like this, where Manning hit Sterling Shepard for a decent gain. Here, however, Manning threads a needle to Fowler who is facing pretty good coverage for the score:

Looking at this throw from the end zone angle we again see both the placement, and the velocity. Manning needs to put this right on the upfield shoulder of Fowler, or the defender in trail coverage will make a play on the football. By dialing up the velocity, Manning is able to complete this pass for the touchdown. Again, if we are going to watch the velocity for signs of a decline, Manning seems to be easing those types of concerns.

We highlighted some decision-making concerns as well as velocity worries earlier in the piece, but this throw perhaps alleviates those concerns a bit.

Only time will tell where Manning’s 2019 season ends up. On film, there were issues. The numbers indicate that perhaps this year was a bit of a rebound. Perhaps better success straddling the line between aggression and conservative play will continue that rebound. But with a first round draft pick waiting in the wings and a fan base clamoring for on-the-field success, Manning might not have many more chances to deliver.