Those Jekyll-and-Hyde tendencies seemed to disappear when Manning led the Giants on last year's unexpected Super Bowl run. But unfortunately, Eli's been inconsistent again to start 2012.
Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, the numbers would lead you to believe that we saw Jekyll for one half and Hyde for another. But in reality, Eli was solid throughout the game. He made two big mistakes in the first half, though, and those were his Hyde moments (Hyde was the evil one).
Manning completed 67 percent of his passes in that first half, but three were intercepted. So what went wrong?
Early, I noticed Manning was locking in on his first reads often. The majority of the time, that first read was Hakeem Nicks, who was going to town on Aqib Talib. Over the course of the game, Nicks would make eight catches on a ridiculous 13 targets against Talib, according to Pro Football Focus. Three of Manning's first four throws went to Nicks on Talib.
But on Manning's first interception, he was again locked onto a his first option and didn't go through progressions. There wasn't a lot of pressure, but Manning failed to see Bucs middle linebacker Mason Foster floating underneath as he targeted Martellus Bennett on a slant.
Foster dropped back and made a nice play, undercutting the throw.
The interception gave the Bucs the ball deep in New York territory, setting up a touchdown.
It was a gamble from Manning, who nearly made the throw. Did he underestimate Foster's position, or did he simply fail to notice him? These are the kinds of inexplicable mistakes Manning makes on nearly a weekly basis. But he avoided them late last season and in the playoffs.
In the second quarter, Manning would throw another interception on an out route to Victor Cruz, who was again his first read. But zero percent of the blame for that pick goes to Eli, whose throw was probably right where it was supposed to be on a timing route. The problem was that Ronde Barber held Cruz as Manning was releasing, throwing him off the route and creating the pick. The officials missed it.
He was making easy work of the Bucs D for much of the second quarter, with a slew of underneath routes and quick passes. But "Bad Eli" (or Hyde) showed up again very late in the half, when Manning was beaten in a mind game by Eric Wright.
Wright stopped his blitz as Manning was about to release to Cruz, stepped back and made an interception. That would turn into a pick-six, which means Manning had single-handedly cost his team 14 or more points on careless throws.
Again, Eli was locked onto Cruz and made a stubborn throw. There's no way he missed Wright, but he either assumed he was going to keep pursuing or he simply thought he could make the throw. He was wrong.
Manning avoided those types of mistakes in the second half, but it helped that the Buccaneers started pinning their ears back. Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan had to know how good Eli is against the blitz. In 2011, only one quarterback was more accurate under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. He completed 114 passes when facing heat, which was the highest number in the league by a wide margin.
But Tampa Bay's defense was looking for the big play, and Manning made them pay.
In the fourth quarter, the Bucs sent six on a third down...
That meant Manning had Nicks on Talib again with little help for the struggling cornerback. He was able to recognize that quickly and deliver for a completion to keep the drive alive. Notice how, due to the blitz, there was nobody lurking underneath to spoil the throw.
Same deal later in the quarter. The Bucs play into Eli's hands with a third-down blitz, and Manning knows he'll have single-coverage. Completely unfazed, Manning goes through his progressions.
He calmly surveys the field to identify the best coverage situation to exploit.
It's not as though his pass protection is good, but he doesn't need a lot of time to step up and deliver to Cruz off of a single pump-fake. That would result in an 80-yard touchdown to change the outlook of the game.
On the next possession, more of Jekyll against the blitz. With Ronde Barber coming in to rush him, Eli again calmly identifies the soft spot.
He's got Nicks again against Talib, and again there's no one floating below to ruin the moment. This is why he feeds off the blitz.
And then, finally, there was the game-clinching play. The Bucs have 10 guys within three yards of the line of scrimmage. A blitz is coming, and Eli knows he has another hook-up with Nicks, who beats Talib (in red) for a 50-yard gain. Two plays later, they'd finish Tampa Bay off with the game-winning touchdown.
Tampa Bay's defense was in a tough spot, because Nicks was killing Talib and Cruz was having a big day, too, but the blitz wasn't effective against Manning. They might have been better off giving their corners more help and continuing to attempt to confuse Manning by dropping linebackers into zone coverage, but we'll never know if Eli might have adjusted to that.
Going forward, Manning will continue to make mistakes like the ones he had in the first half against Tampa Bay. The question is how often Edward Hyde will make appearances. That's somewhat dependent on what the opposing defense does, but it certainly continues to appear as though the more pressure, the merrier for Dr. Henry Jekyll.
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