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UCLA's quarterback clearly has the talent to succeed as an NFL starter. The question is whether or not he can avoid enough mistakes to become a superstar.

16 Oct 2012

Any Given Sunday: Giants Over 49ers

by Rivers McCown

The San Francisco 49ers have perhaps the most polarizing offense in the NFL. Merrill Hoge has recently called them the best offense in the league on NFL Matchup, and our own Andy Benoit claims that no coach gets more from less than Jim Harbaugh. Alex Smith has improved greatly, but he's still more system quarterback than star. San Francisco has a talented offensive line, but nobody that's an obvious Pro Bowler. They spent to bring in Randy Moss and Mario Manningham ... but their best offensive weapon is still tight end Vernon Davis.

San Francisco has built a highly-adaptable offense that is able to take advantage of their opponent's biggest weaknesses. On Sunday, they didn't do that. The 49ers ran quite a bit of read-option in this game, even using it at times with Smith rather than Colin Kaepernick. The Giants have not put together a sterling year on defense so far, but the one team that they successfully shut down this year was Carolina: another team that runs a lot of read-option. Essentially, they took that highly-adaptable offense and tried to attack a Giants strength rather than a weakness.

After the game, Jim Harbaugh admitted that the plan wasn't well-conceived, saying "The plan wasn't the best plan. And we'll work to make a good one this week. Wasn't a great day for any of us."

Benoit also pointed out that Smith's success was built by first-down passes, where he could deal with base personnel and (often) play-action. On first-down passes, Smith netted -11 passing DYAR. On all other downs, he accumulated -105 DYAR. Of course, a big part of that is that Smith was harassed all day by the Giants defensive line, which sacked him four times (and Kaepernick twice) and forced multiple poor throws, but that sort of reinforces his main point. The 49ers don't have the kind of offense that can win a game single-handedly when they aren't schemed correctly, and Sunday's game plan was anything but a perfect one.

By the VOA

Well, Dewey didn't defeat anybody on Sunday. This was a thorough ass-kicking on the scoreboard, and it's a thorough ass-kicking in the eyes of VOA as well.

Giant Game
NYG 21.2% -37.7% 2.9% 61.8%
SF -47.5% 13.1% -18.3% -78.9%

The 49ers had a positive DVOA in all five of their previous games this year, and were over 40% in four of those. This game ... not so much.

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If you want to see a squad that is actually under-performing for the 49ers, look at their special teams unit. The coverage teams have been lacking this year despite fine distance from Andy Lee on punts and David Akers on kickoffs. By our metrics, the 49ers have given opponents 5.8 points worth of field position on kick returns (30th in NFL) and 4.1 points on punt returns (28th). Akers has also been exceptionally shaky on field goals. After his 1-of-3 performance Sunday that included misses from 43 and 52 yards, he's hit just 11-of-16 on the season. History tells us that Akers' field-goal performance will likely regress towards the mean -- but the coverage teams aren't guaranteed to.

Call of the Game

Again, there aren't usually many extreme moments in game theory when a team gets slapped around like San Francisco does. But, for the sake of being thorough...

On third-and-10 with about 24 seconds left in the first half from the San Francisco 30, Eli Manning delivered a pass just short of the sticks to Victor Cruz, who bobbled it, but ultimately made the catch in bounds with about 15 seconds to play. No biggie, they were in field-goal distance anyway. Well, the problem was that Giants head coach Tom Coughlin immediately used one of his two timeouts. By immediately, I mean with 15 seconds left.

After Lawrence Tynes' field-goal attempt was blocked, the Niners got a quick 36-yard gain on a Kaepernick pass to Manningham, only to watch Akers push his aforementioned 52-yarder wide. Those three plays didn't wind up costing the Giants anything, but that was poor clock management by Coughlin considering it was fourth down and New York had nothing to gain if a poor snap occurred. The 49ers nearly got into halftime down just four points, and it was all because Coughlin jumped the gun on the timeout.

Spotlight on: Eli Manning

When I was just beginning my research on this game, the one thing that jumped out to me was the sack count. As mentioned earlier, Smith was sacked four times and hurried on many other throws. Manning was sacked zero times in this game, and I'd argue that he faced only slightly less pressure than Smith.

The Giants offensive line had a nice game, but that mostly came in the second half, when they were opening big alleys for Ahmad Bradshaw and (later) David Wilson. The 49ers defense was able to turn up the heat on Manning pretty effectively. While Manning did not have his best game, and almost threw a pick-six to Carlos Rogers, he also kept the Giants from most of the negative-yardage plays that help fuel great defenses.

There is one throw in particular that stood out to me, and it came when the game was still in doubt:

Second-and-8 from the San Francisco 31. The Giants come out with an offset I-Formation, and the 49ers are in their base 3-4. The Giants are up 7-3, with 5:22 left in the half.

The 49ers send two linebackers right up the gut, and New York has only Henry Hynoski stationed to get up the middle (he's not going to pick up his block anyway), so Manning is going to get pressure right in his face.

Manning has a few open options, but because of the placement of the linebackers, he's going to have to execute a throw off his back foot and still get enough on it to stick it in a tight space.

It's a bit of a wobbler, but he finds Martellus Bennett and puts it in a place in this zone where only Bennett can catch it.

The one area that has been most responsible for Manning's rise to one of the better quarterbacks in the game, whether you want to get into the whole "definition of elite" argument or not, is his pocket presence. He probably doesn't have this throw in him in 2009, and he definitely didn't when he was still breaking in during his first couple of seasons.

The contrast between these two teams could not be starker than it is at quarterback, as Smith spent a lot of his day running from pass rushers rather than standing and delivering. It wasn't the only reason that San Francisco lost, but it was a pretty big factor.

Posted by: Rivers McCown on 16 Oct 2012

26 comments, Last at 28 Oct 2012, 8:37pm by CL


by Bjorn Nittmo :: Tue, 10/16/2012 - 3:17pm

"No biggie, they were in field-goal distance anyway." At the time, when it looked like we were in for a tight game, that did seem like a potential biggie, as the bobble cost the Giants Cruz's forward progress and a first down (looked more like a nice play by Carlos Rogers to knock the ball loose than a mishandle by Cruz.) 15 seconds left from the 20, I suppose the Giants would only have 2 plays to get into the end zone and probably would have had to settle for an attempted FG anyway. (Is it possible that Coughlin thought there was a chance the refs would spot the ball where Cruz initially was standing? Probably not.)

by Bjorn_ (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2012 - 10:58am

My recollection (from the TV feed) is that Coughlin was IMIDIATLY in the face of the closest ref calling timeout as soon as they blew the previous play dead, i.e. even before the officials fully finished the mechanics of spoting the ball.

Given that the play ended near the sticks that seems like the right move to me. Because failing to call timeout as soon as possible if indeed the play results in 1st and ten is also a mistake, and probably a bigger one than leaving 10-15 seconds on the clock for the other team after the FG attempt if it is 4th and one.

by Michael19531 :: Tue, 10/16/2012 - 3:30pm

Nice breakdown of that play Rivers.

Because ESPN, NFL Network and other media outlets have been obsessed with Tebow, Sanchez and the Jets since camp opened back in July, almost no one has paid any attention to Eli. He got off to a rockier career start than draftmates Philip Rivers & Ben Roethlisberger but he has steadily improved and now (IMO) he's passed Rivers and is just behind, if not equal to Big Ben.

by PirateFreedom :: Tue, 10/16/2012 - 3:52pm

I would give him the edge over Ben based on his durability vs Ben's injury history

by Don Enright (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2012 - 4:01pm

Close to or maybe equal to Big Ben? Roethlisberger can't sniff Eli's jock at this point in their careers. Eli won it all last year with a suspect defense and no running game -- something ol' grabby-hands has never done, and could never do.

by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 10/16/2012 - 4:18pm

Statistically, Ben is quite a bit better, in normal stats or advanced. He might have had a defense, but the 2008 Steelers were not a good running team (also, the Giants defense played great throughout the 2012 playoffs).

There really is no real argument for Eli being better than Ben up until now. I would take Eli going forward because of Ben's injury risk and the hits he's taken against a QB who has great pocket presence and takes few hits, but up until now, Ben's had the better career.

by BillT (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2012 - 5:31pm

Statistically, Ben is not quite a bit better. Eli has more attempts, yards and TDs. Ben a better comp %, Avg and less ints. However, in the last 4 years Eli is simply better statistically. Look, even as a Giants fan I think Rothlisberger is excellent. Great playmaker. Great at extending the play. But on the field he's just not been as good as Eli for a while now.

by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 10/16/2012 - 6:13pm

Here are their statlines in the last 4+ years (so from 2008 to now)

Roethlisberger: 63 games (43-20) 1310/2075 (63.1%), 16,393 yards (7.9 y/a, 12.5 y/c), 91 TDs (4.4%) to 48 INTs (2.3), 92.6 passer rating.

Eli Manning: 70 games (43-27) 1447/2341 (61.8%), 17,966 yards (7.7 y/a, 12.4 y/c), 119 TDs (5.1%) to 70 INTs (3.0%), 90.1 passer rating.

The extra games is actually not that big of a factor. Out of the 7 games extra, one is due to the Giants playing one more game so far, and four are due to Ben's suspension.

Again, this includes Roethlisberger's WORST season (2008), and all of Manning's best.

Now for their advanced stats:


2008: DYAR: 97 (26th); DVOA: -8.1 (27th)
2009: DYAR: 1228 (8); DVOA: 23.3 (8)
2010: DYAR: 1061 (7); DVOA: 31.1 (2)
2011: DYAR: 867 (9); DVOA: 13.3 (11)
2012: DYAR: 445 (5); DVOA: 23.4 (4)


2008: DYAR: 840 (8th); DVOA: 14.0 (9th)
2009: DYAR: 974 (10); DVOA: 17.3 (10)
2010: DYAR: 547 (15); DVOA: 4.2 (20)
2011: DYAR: 1109 (8); DVOA: 16.2 (9)
2012: DYAR: 683 (1); DVOA: 32.4 (1)

Remember, DYAR is a counting stat, so Ben's numbers in 2010 would have looked better had he not been suspended. Ben had the one strange bad season in 2008 (a year they won the Super Bowl), but has been consistently a Top-10 player. Eli too had a weird year in 2010 where he was really pick-happy, and been consistently a Top-10 player.

Again, this is looking at Eli's best four years, and includes Roethlisberger's worst. This leaves out the first four years, where Roethlisberger was better in each season.

by BillT (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2012 - 8:10pm

Eli is a match or better (almost 30 TDs better) statistically, has an NFL record for 4th quarter TDs and leads the league (I believe) in 4th quarter comebacks and game winning drives. Again, not saying anything negative about Rothlisberger. He's plenty good but I believe Eli has surpassed him.

by dmstorm22 :: Tue, 10/16/2012 - 9:05pm

So because he set one record (4th quarter TDs in a season) and has more TDs (one stat, and only 21 more, not 30) he's better? This is greater than Ben's lead in completion percentage, TD%, INT%, TD/INT, Y/A, Y/C, Y/G and passer rating?

by Independent George :: Tue, 10/16/2012 - 9:48pm

You can't have a FO thread without an irrational Manning-Somebody debate.

I think Roethlisberger's overall career has been indisputably better due to those first 4 years (when Eli ranged from terrible to average), but I think Eli's clearly the better QB at this stage of their careers. It's not just a question of injury risk going forward - since last season, I think Eli has generally looked much sharper than Roethlisberger. It's not to say Roethlisberger is bad - I think he's a borderline HoF QB at this point - but Manning has just been on a tear.

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 10/17/2012 - 12:05am

I think that is fair. I said as much. I do think Ben has been undervalued these past two years (still grades out very well with traditional and advanced numbers the past 1+ years), but Eli has definitely raised his game as well, and is in my mind one of the best three QBs in 2012, along with his brother (who quietly is now #2 in both traditional - passer rating - and advanced - DYAR & DVOA) and Rodgers.

by BillT (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2012 - 7:44am

It was dmstorm that claimed Rothlisberger was "much better" statistically. Even overall that's not true and certainly not true over the last 4+ years where Manning holds an edge. I said nothing "irrational" about the stats or by saying that Manning is currently a better QB which we all seem to agree with.

by BillT (not verified) :: Wed, 10/17/2012 - 7:47am

Sorry, not "much better", "quite a bit better" was the quote. I don't think that changes the point.

by dmstorm22 :: Wed, 10/17/2012 - 10:19am

I still do believe that Roethlisberger has been quite a bit better so far in their careers (though Eli will most likely close the gap in the next couple years), and I still believe that Roethsliberger has been better over the last 4+ years. I laid out my argument. Every traditional stat other than number of TDs is in Ben's favor. Advanced stats are quite even.

by commissionerleaf :: Wed, 10/17/2012 - 6:40pm

This argument is futile without setting terms.

Both quarterbacks have one Super Bowl they won because their team had a dominant defense and they were simply good enough, and one that had a lot to do with their own prowess. If this were a question of which gets into the HOF, based on their careers to date, it's pretty much a wash, but advantage Roethlisberger on statistics.

If you are asking who the better QB is today, rather than to date, that's silly; Roethlisberger isn't even in the same league as Eli, who has followed his "elite" comment by proving it. He's continued to improve practically by the year into his age 31 season, which is pretty amazing. Interestingly, his career arc looks a lot like Brady's up to 2007.

by tuluse :: Wed, 10/17/2012 - 6:46pm

One of the first Lewin studies showed that a QB's peak was generally 28-32 I believe. This was at the time thought it was the perfect time between gaining knowledge and losing physical abilities.

by Anonymouse (not verified) :: Thu, 10/18/2012 - 5:19am

The thing about Eli is his age means far less than it would to other QBs. Eli is NOT a mobile QB, so he doesn't have to rely on his legs like other QBs like Ben do. So as he gets older and slower, his game won't be effected as much by it. I think Ben's career will start to decline far quicker than Eli's because Ben relies so much on his feet as well as all the hits he takes, which will take a toll on him very soon.

by Independent George :: Thu, 10/18/2012 - 11:49am

Generally, I think age has more to do with the cumulative toll your body takes than it does specifically with the legs (which, I agree, affects Roethlisberger more). As you get older, your bones get less flexible, and the little dings you used to shrug off start to really slow you down. It's like building whose framework is starting to crack - everything looks good on the surface, but the little cracks that you used to ignore are starting to get dangerous.

Eli (like his brother) is very good at avoiding sacks, but that doesn't mean he doesn't get hit. He does, however, have the advantage of an improved OL compared to Roethlisberger.

by ScottC (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2012 - 3:47pm

Nice breakdown of the pass play. The only edit is that it's Ahmad Bradshaw that fails to pick up the block in the middle (you can see him eating turf laying on the 33 yard line); Hynoski is headed out into the right flat as a safety valve.

by ChuckC (not verified) :: Tue, 10/16/2012 - 4:17pm

I had a different interpretation of that play. Bradshaw didn't totally block either LB but he slowed both of them up just enough for Eli to get the pass off. If he hadn't, I think that's a sack or an incomplete.

by chuck-o :: Tue, 10/16/2012 - 4:22pm

I'm confused by the "Call of the Game" section. Does that section normally deal with a coach's call that has a significant outcome on the game? A call where the winning team makes a good decision or the losing team makes a bad one? It seems odd to highlight a mistake by the winning team that had no effect on the score.

And it was a mistake, although I believe that Coughlin thought Cruz might have been given forward progress (essentially the pre-bobble spot) that would have been sufficient for a first down. But still a mistake.

by bravehoptoad :: Thu, 10/18/2012 - 1:03pm

I only caught snatches of this game on the radio, but it sounded like the 49ers had a heck of a first quarter.

San Francisco lost some of its best coverage-team guys, and that's certainly showing.

by Robert01 (not verified) :: Tue, 10/23/2012 - 6:57am

I was trying to recount the events of the previous three-plus hours after a week of the inexplicable had been topped off by the kind of game that had you constantly pinching yourself to see if you were dreaming or not.

by Robert01 (not verified) :: Tue, 10/23/2012 - 6:57am

I was trying to recount the events of the previous three-plus hours after a week of the inexplicable had been topped off by the kind of game that had you constantly pinching yourself to see if you were dreaming or not.

by CL (not verified) :: Sun, 10/28/2012 - 8:37pm

Eli is an elite QB - 2 SB rings. Is he an elite passer? No, too many ints. But, the guy just knows how to win. I agree that the development of his pocket presence has a lot to do with that.