If you've ever watched Eli Manning's body language between plays, you know that he doesn't exactly exude self-confidence. He often carries slumped shoulders, a hanging head, and a forlorn look. You've probably gotten a similar impression when listening to his press conferences. His nervous responses are more unsettling than reassuring.
On the surface, he looks and sounds like a timid version of his older brother Peyton. But when you watch him play quarterback, Eli shows what belies his bashful façade -- a competitive intelligence and killer instinct. He showcased both in engineering a game-winning drive to win Super Bowl XLII, and he displayed them again last Sunday.
Anatomy of a Play
There was 9:55 remaining in the fourth quarter. After calling a timeout, the Giants decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Steelers' 29-yard line. During the game, Pittsburgh's top-ranked defense had denied New York on several runs in short-yardage situations, so the Giants called a passing play.
As New York broke the huddle and approached the ball, Manning recognized the Steelers had called a defense that was tough to penetrate with a pass. Pittsburgh was in "2-man" coverage, with two safeties deep and man-to-man coverage on every eligible receiver. Throwing a short-yardage pass into the teeth of "2-man" is like running the ball against 9 defenders in the box -- the odds of success are low.
However, in "2-man," the defense is outnumbered in the box, with only seven, and Manning wisely tried audibling to a running play. But with the crowd noise cranked up and the play clock winding down, Manning decided it was best to take a delay of game penalty rather than risk confusion or miscommunication (the penalty was a result of not being allowed to take back-to-back timeouts).
It was a big decision for Manning to make because the penalty made it fourth-and-6. It was a move not many quarterbacks would make. Many would have stubbornly thrown the pass against the "2 man" defense. Some would have audibled to a run and risked a teammate not hearing it.
Manning possessed the intelligence that allowed him to weigh his options in just seconds and choose the one that was best for his team in that situation. He then had the competitiveness to prove himself right, by converting the fourth-and-6.
The Giants aligned with four wide receivers -- three to the left and one to the right -- with Amani Toomer on the right. The Steelers rushed five and played zone behind it. Because of the three-by-one set, the free safety was forced to cheat to the three-receiver side, leaving Toomer in man-to-man coverage. Cornerback William Gay chose to press Toomer at the line, and with the safety cheating to the other side, Gay had no help over the top. The Steelers were daring Manning to throw a deep pass to Toomer.
Two things can be learned from Manning's 30-yard conversion to Toomer on fourth-and-6:
- Amani Toomer can still beat you deep.
- The defense shouldn't dare Manning in the fourth quarter.