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Eli Manning and the Play-Action Rollout: Why this puts Manning in a difficult spot

Looking at two plays that asked Manning to do things he isn’t good at

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Let us start with a statement. Eli Manning’s play Sunday was not why the New York Giants lost in their season opener to the Dallas Cowboys. Manning completed 30-of-44 passes for 306 yards and a touchdown, made a number of good decisions with the football, and even flashed some toughness and contact balance when facing pressure in the pocket.

An underlying theme in our recent piece about the Giants’ passing game is that coaches need to put their players in the best position possible for them to be successful. That means using designs and schemes that fit their strengths. Perhaps, as a coach, there are designs that you have relied upon in the past with other players that have been successful. But if your current group of athletes lacks the traits best suited for those concepts, it is best to leave them on the whiteboard in your offense, and not add them to the call sheet.

That brings us to two different short-yardage situations, and putting Manning in a difficult spot.

Late in the first quarter the Giants have the football in Dallas territory, facing a third-and-1 on the Cowboys’ 35-yard line. They break the huddle using 13 offensive personnel, putting Manning under center with three tight ends in the game. As you might expect, the defense keeps their base personnel in the game:

Head coach Pat Shurmur calls for a play-action pass here, which is a great decision. Throwing against base personnel out of a heavy set is statistically a smart play. League-wide last season teams attempted 160 passes out of 13 personnel, and completed 104 of them for 7.9 Yards per Attempt, 12 touchdowns, a success rate of 53 percent and a passer rating of 109.1, according to Warren Sharp’s Personnel Grouping Frequency. According to the same data the Giants last year completed three of their five attempts for one touchdown and a QB rating of 106.7.

However, here is the design the Giants use:

The concept here is a boot-action design, which floods the right side of the field and tasks Manning with rolling out and making a throw from a moving pocket. The issues with this are two-fold. First, it takes the advantage the offense has pre-snap and reduces it a bit, by artificially condensing the field and making the Cowboys cover less ground. And second, it does not exactly play to Manning’s strengths as a passer. Now, some might counter and argue that Dallas is probably not expecting Shurmur to put Manning on the move, but by throwing out of 13 personnel using play-action, you’ve built in two modes of deception: The heavy personnel and the play-action. Adding the extra element of a roll-out is just being too cute. (The Giants even have a third element of deception built in, as they operate with a quick count and snap the ball as the Cowboys are still aligning).

But most importantly, it is not the best fit for your quarterback:

As you can see, the linebackers are fooled initially by the run fake and crash down hard. But Dallas has an ace up their sleeve: The athleticism of Leighton Vander Esch (55). He closes down quickly on Manning, and the QB cannot escape the linebacker. Manning tries to throw this away, but the pass does not get back to the line of scrimmage and he is flagged for grounding.

Now what if this play had been more of a straight dropback, or even just a half-roll. Look at the state of play when Manning comes out of the fake:

Eric Tomlinson (83), the backside tight end, is wide open in the middle of the field, behind the linebackers who are crashing down on the run action. If the play is designed to have Manning set up quickly after the fake, and not roll to the right, the QB can find this route and get the ball out of his hands. But by asking him to rollout, it rolls the QB into trouble, slows down the development of the play and gives athletic linebackers like Vander Esch the ability to recover and make a play on the QB.

Late in the contest the Giants face a fourth-and-1 deep in Cowboys’ territory. This time the offense breaks the huddle using 11 offensive personnel. This changes the calculus a bit, and allows Dallas to respond with a nickel 4-2-5 package, and they put safety Jeff Heath (38) down in the box over tight end Evan Engram (88):

Again, Shurmur rolls his quarterback out to the right off of play-action:

As with the previous play, we see the problems with condensing the field. As Manning comes out of the fake he has a corner route and the shallow route coming from the backside as his first two options. But with the field condensed and the quarterback rolling to his right, the free safety is free to break to that side of the field and help on both routes, working downhill. There might be a sliver of a window for Manning to throw the underneath crosser coming from the left, but free safety Xavier Woods (25) is coming hard. Manning hesitates, and that allows Vander Esch to once again make an athletic recovery and force a fumble:

From the end zone angle, you can see the quick window for Manning to throw the shallow route, and how he hesitates:

There is also a backside element to this play, with Saquon Barkley (26) releasing for a potential swing screen to the left with tackle Nate Solder (76) serving as a one-man convoy, but with Manning rolling to his right, that is a difficult throw to make back across the field.

Now, you can make the case that Manning’s hesitation here is what dooms this play, and there is a point for that argument. But that gets to the underlying premise, which is that Shurmur needs to know his QB and play to his strengths. Moving Manning like this puts him in a more unfamiliar, and more uncomfortable, position. That can explain some of the hesitation. In addition, by condensing the field the Giants give the free safety freedom to just break hard in the direction of Manning’s rollout. If this is again a half-roll or more of a straight dropback, Woods needs to at least respect something coming from the other side of the field, which likely creates more space for the crosser and/or the corner route. Or perhaps Manning even has time to throw back to Barkley with Solder in front of him. All better opportunities than what actually unfolds.

Now this might seem nit-picky, but Shurmur’s job when designing the offense and calling plays is to put his players in the best position to be successful. On these two plays at least, I am not sure he completed this task.