The passing game struggles aren’t all Eli Manning’s fault, but he hasn’t exactly helped things, either.
Where have you gone, Eli Manning?
Regardless of whether it’s the offensive line, the receivers, the quarterback himself, or the full moons that have dotted the New York Giants' season, the two-time Super Bowl MVP quarterback has clearly not played like the top-shelf quarterback he so famously declared himself to be at the start of the 2011 season.
What has been the biggest problem with the Giants' passing game this season?
Gone are the amazing fourth-quarter comebacks—Manning has just one this season, which came against Washington two weeks ago.
That number is a far cry from the seven he posted in 2011 en route to the Giants’ second Super Bowl championship season in his era, and the three he had in 2012.
You want statistics? Brace yourself.
This season, Manning, who after tossing 25 interceptions in 2010 insisted that he was “not a 25-interception quarterback,” is averaging 1.5 interceptions per game. That puts him on pace to finish dangerously close to 25 giveaways for the season.
Touchdowns? Ten-year veteran Manning has 16, the same number as second-year player Robert Griffin III of Washington and third-year player Colin Kaepernick of San Francisco, which ties those three for 18th in the NFL.
But that’s not the worst of it. The 16 touchdown passes are Manning’s lowest total since 2004, his rookie season, when he appeared in just nine games. Manning averaged 0.7 touchdowns per game as a rookie compared to the 1.2 he’s averaging, a pace that, if it continues, will end in 19.6 touchdowns.
Now let’s look at Manning’s touchdown and interception production since 2005, his first full 16-game season as a starter:
What has been the problem with the Giants’ passing game?
Like I said before, brace yourselves.
The “Offensive” Line
Ask any quarterback what his dream work environment is like, and chances are he’ll tell you he’d love to have an offensive line that can hold a pass block for at least five seconds.
Why five seconds? Because in the NFL, that’s more than enough time for a quarterback to drop back into the pocket, eat a sandwich, scan the field, and find an open receiver.
Unfortunately, that just doesn’t happen, not in the real world.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Manning has been under pressure on 200 of his 493 dropbacks.
I asked former NFL offensive lineman Roman Oben, who played with the Giants from 1996 to 1999, what is an acceptable length of time for an offensive lineman to hold a block in the passing game.
His answer was that a five-step drop or shotgun should be held between three and four seconds, while play-action needs to be held a little longer given the objective. As for a three-step drop, Oben noted that because of the speed of the play, the linemen have to fire out of their stances at their men and thus don't have to hold the block as long.
Per the data at Pro Football Focus, Manning has been blitzed 169 times this season. This means that opponents feel comfortable sending a minimal number of players at the quarterback and instead devote extra men to coverage.
A look at the number of sacks that Manning’s offensive line has allowed over the last five seasons pretty much sums up just how “offensive” the pass blocking has been in 2013:
|Season||Sacks Allowed||Sack %|
Pro Football Reference
Left tackle Will Beatty has been the biggest culprit in pass protection. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Beatty has allowed 11 of the 33 sacks against Manning and is second on the team, behind right tackle Justin Pugh, for the highest number of quarterback hurries allowed.
Beatty has also allowed a team-high seven hits against his quarterback. Meanwhile, David Diehl, whom many believe to be washed up, has allowed two sacks, five hits and 27 hurries.
Because of the heavy pressure that Manning unfortunately has faced, Pro Football Focus has Manning with a 66.7 passer rating when under pressure, which includes a 58.2 rating when blitzed.
In addition, Manning has thrown the ball away 20 times this season due to pressure not allowing him to set his feet and make his downfield reads. That figure is the second-most in the league behind New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees’ 22.
One final note on the pressure factor, which extends beyond sacks and hits. Per Pro Football Focus, Manning has been pressured on 40.2 percent of his dropbacks this season, the third-highest in the NFL behind Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Arizona’s Carson Palmer.
It Really Is Complicated
In his book Take Your Eye off the Ball, former NFL coach turned radio analyst Pat Kirwan notes that in its simplest form, the terminology used by an offense can take as few as three words to line up five skill players.
It hasn't been that way, however, for the Giants.
Per NFL Game Statistics and Information Systems (login required), the number of delay-of-game penalties charged to Manning has increased since his rookie season.
He recorded a season-high six delays in 2008; currently, he’s been charged with five delay-of-game penalties, his second-highest total in a season, which matches his 2007 total.
His fewest delay-of-game penalties in a season has been two, which he accomplished as a rookie in 2004 and again in 2006 and 2012.
Using the Chargers game as a measuring point, I went through every Giants snap on offense (including those nullified by a penalty) to see when the ball was being snapped. I used the broadcast's play clock for the data.
Unfortunately, there were 19 instances when the play clock wasn’t shown. I was, however, able to get enough of an idea of just how often Manning and the Giants were running the clock to under five seconds:
Compiled from the FOX Broadcast Feed
Although on average it looks like Manning was able to get the play off with at least six seconds, 12 plays were run down to the nub—13 if you count the one delay-of-game penalty. That comes to at least 24 percent of the plays being cut too close to the quick.
That leads to the next point, and that is the complexity involved in running routes as a receiver for this team. An article written by former Wall Street Journal reporter Aditi Kinkhabwala, now with the NFL Network, gives us some insight.
As Kinkhabwala explained, if a receiver’s original route isn’t going to work against the defense he’s seeing, he has an option to switch to another route. He then must provide some sort of physical signal to Manning that he’s going to adjust the route so that the two are on the same page.
While sight reads aren’t unique to the Giants’ offense, the difference, per Kinkhabwala, is that instead of adjusting the distance of the route, the route can be changed to something completely different.
Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride told Kinkhabwala that his system, which he’s used in his 24 years as an NFL coach, gives an offense an advantage:
That's what gives you a chance. Otherwise, you're a play behind. If I have a curl route and you're in a 2 zone, you got me. If you're in two man, you got me. But if I have (something) which allows me to convert, I got you.
The problem arises when the quarterback and his receivers have different understandings of the multiple layers of the offense. Simply put, if the receivers and quarterback aren’t on the same page, the chance for an interception increases.
Let’s look at Manning’s interception on a ball intended for receiver Louis Murphy against Green Bay in Week 11, a play for which Murphy took the blame.
Murphy ran to the inside (toward a charging Packers defender, no less), and Manning threw the ball (red circle) to the outside.
In his effort to sell a different route option to Packers cornerback Tramon Williams, Murphy stopped in his route with the intention of cutting to the inside.
Because Manning had pressure in his face—Beatty was being pushed back into the pocket (black square)—his choices were to absorb a red-zone sack, throw the ball away, or try to connect with Murphy.
Manning threw the ball, but Murphy (blue arrow) never cut back to the outside. Williams, who was charging to the outside, made the read and came up with the pick.
Forcing the Issue
Interestingly, Pro Football Focus’ breakdown of Manning’s interceptions shows that more than half have actually come when he’s not been under pressure:
|No. of INTs|
Pro Football Focus
If the offensive line’s pass protection is so bad, then why has he thrown so many interceptions when he hasn’t had pressure?
Part of the reason has to do with the pressure Manning has faced. If his pocket collapses around him, he often is left with little choice but to throw the ball off-balance.
That was the case on his third-quarter interception against Washington, a ball intended for Rueben Randle that was picked off by Brandon Meriweather.
In this frame, Manning set up in the shotgun. Beatty lost his battle against linebacker Brian Orakpo (circled) as Manning tried to set his feet.
Directly in front of Manning, David Diehl was being pushed back into the pocket right where Manning has to step up—note the red arrow, which points to how close Diehl’s left foot is to Manning’s forward-moving right foot (blue arrow), the foot he needed to bring forward in order to step into his throw.
Because he couldn't step up, the ball sailed on Manning as Randle tried to leap into the air to catch it. It ended up being overthrown and picked off.
Another reason for Manning's interceptions has been his passing accuracy.
Take, for instance, the interception that occurred on the final offensive play in the game at Chicago, a pass intended for tight end Brandon Myers.
While Myers appeared to have slowed down in his route, he still managed to get into the right position to make a catch.
The problem, though is that the ball, snapped with 12 seconds left on the play clock, was thrown too high, which Manning admitted after the game.
Myers did his best to jump as high as he could to snatch it out of the air, and while he did manage to get a hand on it, all he succeeded in doing was slowing down the flight of the ball just enough for Bears cornerback Tim Jennings to make the interception.
The Running Game
Take away a team’s running game, and an offense becomes a lot easier to defend, especially if the offensive line can’t hold its blocks.
There’s no question that earlier in the season, the Giants' running game struggled. However, as the table below shows, the Giants' passing game actually performed well during that stretch when the running game was trying to find itself—despite the weekly revolving door of offensive line personnel in the first few weeks of the season:
|Avg. Rushing Yds/G||Avg. Passing Yds/G|
|First 5 Games||56.8||280.2|
|Last 8 Games||107.5||206.9|
New York Giants Weekly Media Release
Notice how in their last eight games, the Giants have not passed for more than 300 yards in that stretch whereas in the first five games, they had three such games of 300 or more yards, the latter coming despite the struggles of the running game.
How to Fix the Passing Game
One of the biggest perceived problems with the passing game this season has been a lack of trust between Manning, his pass protection and his receivers.
The quarterback has been playing under conditions so poor that he no doubt has to wonder if his protection is going to be there.
A high priority for the front office this offseason is to improve the skill level along the interior of the offensive line.
It would also help if Beatty, who is finishing the first year in his five-year contract extension, realizes that he doesn’t have to do anything other than play consistently in order to justify his worthiness of the contract.
I noted in my analysis of the offensive assistants that I thought the biggest performance deficiencies were with quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan and receivers coach Kevin M. Gilbride.
If the Giants are going to retain Kevin Gilbride as their offensive coordinator, the quarterbacks and receivers coaches in particular need to do a better job.
The other thing that would probably help the passing offense would be to simplify it a bit. While I can appreciate the little nuances on each passing route that are designed to keep opponents off-guard, when a team has relatively inexperienced receivers in its lineup, sometimes less is more.
A hallmark of a good coach is to play his game and to dictate to the opposition, rather than to let the opposition dictate to him. Likewise, a good coach will identify the weaknesses of the opponent and design a game plan that attacks that weakness.
A football play lasts only a few seconds, yet it seems that on any one given play, there is a lot for the Giants' passing game to think about.
By simplifying things a bit, perhaps the passing game can get back to playing faster and more efficiently next season.