How did New England find the right combination of offensive linemen this season, and where are Seattle's biggest weaknesses in pass protection?
18 Oct 2013
by Cian Fahey
Despite two Super Bowls since 2007, the Giants are now 0-6 to start the year. The key pieces from the last Super Bowl victory are still in place: Eli Manning, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Tom Coughlin, Jason Pierre-Paul, and Justin Tuck. The NFL is a league of parity, but it appears that the Giants have fallen farther than anyone in a very short period.
Even though everyone remembers the Super Bowls, few people mention that the team had a combined record of 19-13 in the regular seasons that led up to those victories. The Giants have won 12 games in the regular season once during the Tom Coughlin era. They've won 11 games only once and 10 games twice. Coughlin's team in New York has never been a perennial power-house. They won Super Bowls by playing their best football at the right time and by relying on a few key pieces.
When the composition of your team is such that your success hinges on a few key players, it's very easy for that success to quickly disappear. Without those players playing at their peak in 2013, the Giants blueprint for success has completely fallen apart.
On offense, the Giants have typically looked to run the ball between the tackles and throw the ball down the field. Excluding quarterback scrambles, the Giants attempted 28.95 runs per game in 2007. In 2011, that number fell to 25.21. This year the number is at 18. Of course, part of the reason why those rushing attempts are down this year is because the Giants are often playing from behind, but their effectiveness running the ball has also suffered a significant drop-off in recent seasons too. In 2007, the Giants ranked fourth overall in DVOA for rushing, that fell to 19th overall in 2011 and sits at 28th after six weeks of this season.
David Wilson's fumbles in Week 1 and Andre Brown's injury in the preseason have hurt the running game, but the core issue on the Giants offense is their offensive line. The offensive line has shuffled its personnel throughout the year, but regardless the performance on the field hasn’t been good enough. The unit can't create running lanes for its backs and it can't push defenders off the line of scrimmage. They finally delivered a worthy effort against the Bears, but it's hard to give New York's offensive line much credit because Chicago's defensive front has struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness this season.
The combination of the Giants inability to run the ball, their offensive line woes, and the scheme of offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride is putting a huge amount of pressure on Manning. Manning has missed throws and made bad decisions consistently. His 15 interceptions puts him on pace to break a single-season record for turnovers. It's easy to pile on Manning and blame him for all of the Giants failings, but it would be very unfair.
Teams don't need to blitz the Giants. New York's offensive line allows immediate pressure against four man rushes more often than not. That allows defenses to drop seven defenders into coverage regularly. With the Giants lacking an efficient rushing attack, the offense is often put into second- or third-and-long situations. That means that Manning is forced to throw into tight windows down the field while under pressure on a regular basis. Gilbride's offense is designed around throwing the ball down the field, but without a running game or offensive line that can pass protect that is very difficult.
On this play, even though it is second-and-10, the Chiefs are comfortable with just six defenders in the box and two safeties very deep off the line of scrimmage. This is a formation that the Giants should look to run against, but their inability to run the ball makes them reluctant.
Despite the fact that the Chiefs only rush four players, Manning is immediately flushed from the pocket by Tamba Hali. As Manning leaves the pocket, not a single receiver is coming open. His only uncovered receiver is his tight end, who is in the opposite flat. The tight end wouldn't get much yardage by the time the ball gets across the field to him and the defenders react. It would also be a very, very difficult throw.
Manning is forced to make that very difficult throw, which ultimately falls incomplete. He probably shouldn't have thrown it at all. Throwing into that coverage is asking for a defender to intercept the pass. These situations should be rare for a quarterback, not a typical play. Manning faces too many of them to realistically succeed as a quarterback.
Manning has thrown too many interceptions in these situations, but he often doesn't have better options. He can take a sack, scramble, or check down underneath, but he doesn't have a defense that can limit opponents. His offense is always under pressure to score points. If Manning swapped positions with Alex Smith in Kansas City, he wouldn't be forced to make these types of decisions because he wouldn’t have to try to win games on his own
Of Manning's 16 interceptions thrown (one negated by a penalty away from the play), an incredible nine came on plays similar to the ones described above. One was a terrible throw to DeMarcus Ware with his first pass of the season, and the rest were route miscommunications. Miscommunication between Manning and his receivers has been a constant problem for the Giants throughout the whole season. It used to only be an issue with Cruz, but now Rueben Randle and Brandon Myers are being heavily utilized and aren't on the same page as Manning yet.
Manning has actually made some outstanding throws this season. A handful of big plays to Cruz have come in tough situations for the quarterback, but one specific throw to Nicks against the Philadelphia Eagles encapsulates everything he is attempting to overcome this year.
The Giants come out with an empty backfield and four receivers with a tight end to the left. The Eagles aren't masking their intentions, as they show four down linemen and have seven defenders in coverage positions before the snap. Without a running threat, the Eagles have two safeties very deep.
Manning has time to get to the top of his drop, but the pocket quickly begins to collapse on him. He is focusing on his two receivers running down the seam and it's unclear where he is throwing the ball as he lets it go. Manning is throwing with anticipation here, as he is trusting Nicks to win on his route outside and trusting that the deep safety isn't reading his eyes.
Nicks is able to beat his defensive back and the safety doesn't get across in time. The result of the play is a big gain. But it required a perfect throw from Manning from an uncomfortable pocket. Manning can make that throw perfectly 10 times, but it still might be picked off nine times because of the freedom the defense has in the secondary. If the Philadelphia safety were more aware of his surroundings, he would have had a relatively easy interception.
That's not a reflection of Manning's poor reading of the defense or decision making, because he often doesn't get enough time to read the defense and Gilbride's offense doesn't have many easy throws designed into it. He has to force these throws because if he didn't the Giants would never score points.
During both of New York's most recent runs to the Super Bowl, they didn't give up more than 20 points in a single postseason game. Both of those defenses were reliant on pressure from the front four that covered any deficiencies on the backend. In 2007, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Michael Strahan, Fred Robbins, and Mathias Kiwanuka combined for 42 sacks. More importantly, they were consistently pressuring the quarterback and were the primary reason why the unit finished 11th in defensive DVOA for that season. In 2011, Jason Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora, Tuck, Dave Tollefson, Chris Canty and Kiwanuka combined for 43 sacks and were the primary reason why the defense performed so well late in the season.
After six games in 2013, the Giants rank 28th in defensive DVOA and, critically, 28th passing defense DVOA. While the defensive line deserves most of the credit for New York's past success, it deserves the majority of the criticism for the unit's failings this year. Even though the Giants essentially have a no-name secondary and linebacking corps, their coverage and run support hasn't been terrible this year. They have made some plays and been consistent without shutting anyone down. Without any pressure upfront and with an offense that consistently turns the ball over, there is very little that those players can really do.
Strahan, Robbins, Canty, Tollefson and Umenyiora have all moved on to new pastures. Pierre-Paul had offseason back surgery, which has taken away all of his burst and athleticism. He has just one sack this season -- a coverage sack -- and is rarely ever getting the better of offensive tackles in one-on-one situations. At 30 years of age, Tuck is playing even worse than JPP. Tuck has just half a sack officially, and looks much slower than he did during his prime.
Offenses don't fear the Giants defensive ends this season. Outside of Kiwanuka, who has shown flashes off the edge, nobody has taken advantage of that lack of disrespect. The one-on-one matchups outside have allowed teams to squash in on New York's defensive tackles. Cullen Jenkins, Shaun Rogers, Linval Joseph, and Mike Patterson haven't played poorly, but they're not difference-makers up front.
Against the Cowboys, there was a play that showed off all the traits of New York's defense.
The Giants were backed up on their own goal line. Just four linemen are threatening to come after the quarterback, while the coverage reacts to Dez Bryant's presence by keeping a safety to that side of the field. The rest of the Cowboys receivers are bunched together on the left side with four cover men lined up over them.
Tony Romo's first read after the snap is Jason Witten. He waits on Witten for a moment, but doesn't force the ball into tight coverage. His second read is Dez Bryant on the other side of the field. Bryant is well-covered and has a safety there even if he beats the cornerback. Romo then comes back to DeMarco Murray over the middle of the field, but doesn't trust his eyes because he can't tell if a backside defender is undercutting the route. Romo goes back to check on Bryant, but nothing has changed over there.
Not until Romo's fourth read does Pierre-Paul get around Tyron Smith. Even then, Pierre-Paul still has space to close because he never got downfield at the snap. Tuck never penetrates the pocket from the other side of the field.
Because Pierre-Paul is so slow to penetrate the pocket and get to Romo, the Cowboys quarterback still has plenty of time to let the ball go comfortably. He finds Witten over the middle of the field. Witten is still covered by Mundy, but while the safety has done well to stick with him and his coverage is outstanding at the point of the catch, he doesn't have the physical skills of an Eric Berry or Earl Thomas to break on the ball ahead of the tight end.
While not every play looks as bad as this one, these problems translate through the defense and appear to various degrees on almost every play. The secondary and linebackers are performing well, but they're not elite talents who can overcome the lack of production on the defensive line.
Editor's note: The NFL apparently will take away one of Hali's sacks from this game, making it a nine-sack performance rather than the 10-sack one that was previously reported.
The Kansas City Chiefs officially sacked Oakland Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor nine times last week. That is a phenomenal statistic against any quarterback, but it's even more shocking against Pryor, who is one of the most athletic players in the NFL and someone who had shown outstanding poise during the prior weeks of the season. Pryor has impressed tape junkies so much since becoming the starting quarterback in Oakland because he has played the game like any high-quality pocket passer. Against a very tough Chiefs defense, Pryor reverted to being an athlete rather than a quarterback from the very beginning of this game.
This was just Pryor's second drop-back of the game, he hadn't been pressured on his first drop-back and during the previous weeks he had seen the field very well. Pryor had scrambled and extended plays in previous weeks with his feet, but he always kept his eyes downfield when he did. Here, his eyes dropped and it cost his team a first-down conversion and gave the Chiefs a sack they didn't create.
Dropping his eyes and not throwing to open receivers when he wasn't under pressure was a big issue for Pryor. It led to three more sacks.
Excellent positioning from Tamba Hali took away two of Pryor's receiving options on another sack. Pryor reversed the field and couldn't escape as the Chiefs defense swarmed to the football. Of the four remaining sacks, two came when Kansas City defenders beat a Raiders offensive lineman before the play could develop, while the other should realistically have been marked down as a tackle for loss as Pryor looked to run.
The Chiefs were very aggressive and capitalized on all the opportunities afforded to them by the Raiders and their quarterback, but the Raiders will feel that they didn't do themselves justice with their performance. Pryor has been an outstanding quarterback for the Raiders throughout this season so far, he did many things in this game that he hadn't done before. Considering the development he has undergone since entering the league, inconsistency isn't a real surprise.
Not only do the nine sacks from this game show off Kansas City's outstanding talent on the defensive side of the ball, it reminds all of us who have paid close attention to Pryor that he is still a developing young quarterback.
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