After a slow start to the season, the New York Giants caught the attention of the football world with a pair ofresounding wins over the Houston Texans and Washington Redskins. The stellar play of Eli Manning combined with the emergence of an unheralded tight end and a rock-solid running game has the NFL buzzing about the potential of Tom Coughlin's troops in the NFC. I'm not quite ready to proclaim the G-Men legitimate title contenders, but I am certainly intrigued about an efficient offense that's quickly rounding into form under new coordinator Ben McAdoo.
1) Eli Manning is thriving in the Giants' small-ball passing attack.
When Giants QB coach Danny Langsdorf challenged Manning to complete at least 70 percent of his passes this season, I had my doubts about the veteran's ability to approach that mark, considering he'd previously topped 60 percent just four times in his 10-year career. While I certainly respected his game as a two-time Super Bowl champion, I viewed Manning as an undisciplined passer in the pocket with a propensity for turning the ball over on high-risk throws into traffic. I appreciated his gunslinger's mentality in the clutch, but I also believed his carelessness with the ball resulted in too many turnovers and frequently compromised the Giants' chances of winning games.
So I was curious: How would McAdoo adapt his offensive scheme to fit Manning's talents and give the veteran more opportunities to rack up easy completions on the perimeter?
In the Giants' first two games this season, Manning was efficient (61.1 completion percentage with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 3:4 and a passer rating of 69.2), but he continued to struggle with turnovers and make questionable decisions from the pocket. In Week 3, however, I believe Manning started to settle into a system, as his production has been spectacular since that point.
Over the past two weeks, Manning has completed 73.1 percent of his passes, posted a 6:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio and notched a passer rating of 119.9. Against Washington last Thursday, he was 28 of 39 for 300 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. He's looked confident and decisive tossing the ball out to the perimeter on an assortment of quick-rhythm routes. He's also taking shots down the seams on "catch and throw" concepts designed to get the ball out of his hands quickly.
While Manning deserves credit for displaying better discipline and patience inside the pocket, I believe McAdoo's system has been a boon. The first-time play caller has built his approach around the quick game on the outside. Consider that Manning has thrown 66.1 percent of his passes within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, making it easy for him to rack up numbers on high-percentage throws. Most importantly, he is connecting on the overwhelming majority of those short attempts (79.3 percent), and his playmakers have excelled at turning such passes into big gains.
From a schematic standpoint, the Giants are running a version of the West Coast offense, but it has been the clever utilization of slant combination routes that has helped Manning rediscover his rhythm and timing. I know it's hard to fathom the Giants wearing out opponents using a concept that is featured prominently in most high school playbooks, but we can't ignore the fact that McAdoo has helped his veteran quarterback become a more efficient player by incorporating a quarterback-friendly route that works against any coverage.
Against a single-high safety look (Cover 1 or Cover 3), the quarterback is instructed to read the slant-flat combination. Against Cover 2, the quarterback will target one of the double slants, to exploit the void between the rolled-up corner and outside linebacker. Against the blitz, the quarterback has the choice to work either side, but he is encouraged to target the receiver with the best chance of winning immediately at the line.
In the play depicted below, the Giants are aligned in an empty formation, with Victor Cruz positioned in the slot. The team is executing a simple slant-flat combination route on both sides, with Manning instructed to read the reaction of the inside defender against man coverage. When the slot defender flies to the flat to cover the tight end, Manning simply throws a dart to Cruz for an easy completion (scroll left to right to view the play):
In this next play, also from that Week 3 win, the Giants are aligned in a trips formation to the left, with the X-receiver aligned to the boundary. The team is running a triple slant combination to the field, with a slant-flat concept on the back side. Manning is instructed to read the reaction of the weak-side linebacker and take the easy throw. With the linebacker flying to the flat to cover the running back, Manning tosses a dart to Preston Parker on a slant behind him. The easy completion results in another first down for the Giants:
In the next example, the Giants are aligned in a dubs formation, with Cruz positioned in the slot. The play call features double slants to the wide side of the field, with a slant-flat combination into the boundary. Manning sees the safety approaching the line of scrimmage, indicating a blitz from the Texans. With the safety blitzing through an inside gap, Manning is able to target Cruz on a slant into the area vacated by the blitzer. This not only allows Manning to get rid of the ball before the blitz gets home, but it puts the ball in the hands of a dangerous playmaker in the open field -- who proceeds to score the game's first touchdown:
In the play below, taken from the Giants' Week 4 rout of the Redskins, New York is aligned in a dubs formation, with Cruz positioned in the slot. The team has double slants called to the wide side of the field, with a slant-flat combination into the boundary. The running back will swing to the field in an effort to force the inside linebacker to decide whether to cover the inside slant or swing route.
When Manning sees the linebacker expand, he delivers a dime to Cruz on the inside slant:
In the next play, the Giants are aligned in a dubs formation to the right, with Cruz positioned in the slot. The Giants have another slant concept called on this play. The Redskins are in "MOF" (middle of the field open) coverage, indicating Cover 2 or Cover 4 to the quarterback. Based on the pre-snap read, Manning is instructed to work the double slant side and read the reaction of the slot defender.
When the slot defender expands to the outside slant, Manning targets Cruz on the inside slant over the middle. This simple concept works again, as Cruz snags the pass and makes a nifty run down the field:
It's almost incomprehensible to think that the Giants have been able to get so much mileage out of such a basic play, but it's clear that there's something to be said for keeping things simple for the quarterback. By relying on a concept that is effective against any defensive tactic, the Giants have helped their quarterback become a more confident and decisive playmaker in the pocket. Most importantly, their best player is operating at a level that makes them nearly impossible to beat.
2) Victor Cruz and Larry Donnell make for an effective 1-2 combo.
McAdoo deserves plenty of credit for simplifying the playbook, but the NFL game still revolves around personnel -- and the emergence of a dangerous dynamic duo has played a significant role in the Giants' offensive resurgence. Led by Cruz and tight end Larry Donnell, Big Blue's aerial attack has become a nightmare to defend.
Cruz, a fifth-year pro with 259 career receptions, is arguably the best slot receiver in the game. He is a polished route runner with explosive stop-start quickness and burst; he's also a strong runner with exceptional balance, body control and lower-body strength. As a result, he shines on "catch-and-run" plays designed to get him the ball quickly in space. He routinely turns short passes into big gains, which is why the Giants have made him the focal point of a passing game that features a number of slant concepts on the perimeter. Given Cruz's explosive running skills and the Giants' commitment to running slants over and over, it's no surprise that the former Pro Bowler has notched back-to-back 100-yard games.
Donnell, a second-year pro from Grambling State, has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL. The former undrafted free agent has blossomed into a difference maker with the kind of size, strength and athleticism offensive coordinators covet in hybrid tight ends. As a result, the Giants have increasingly turned to Donnell in third-down and red-zone situations, to the point that he leads the team in receptions and touchdowns.
The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Donnell is simply too big and physical for small defensive backs to handle, and he's too athletic for linebackers to hold up with man-to-man coverage -- making him a perfect tool for exploiting mismatches, as Manning has demonstrated in recent weeks. His effectiveness as a red-zone weapon in particular was showcased in Week 4.
In the play depicted below, taken from that game, the Redskins are aligned in an empty formation, with Donnell aligned as the WR3 to the strong side. He is running a seam route down the middle, with double drags coming underneath him. The route concept pulls the safeties out of the middle of the field, meaning Donnell essentially has a one-on-one matchup with the slot defender. Manning takes advantage of this by throwing the ball to Donnell's back shoulder for a touchdown:
McAdoo has taken advantage of Donnell's superior size and athleticism by deploying him at various alignments within spread formations, to throw fades and sluggos (slant-and-go) to on the outside. With Donnell towering over most linebackers and defensive backs, the alley-oop pass on the perimeter becomes an indefensible play near the end zone.
In the play below, the Giants are aligned in a trips formation, with Donnell positioned on the right. He is instructed to run a fade route against man coverage, to exploit his size advantage over Redskins cornerback Bashaud Breeland (5-11, 197). Manning anticipates his big-bodied tight end winning the matchup and lofts the ball to the back corner of the end zone. Donnell uses his size and leaping ability to wrestle the ball away from Breeland and notch another Giants score:
With Cruz and Donnell growing comfortable with their roles in McAdoo's scheme, they figure to create headaches for defensive coordinators around the league.
3) Rashad Jennings has given the Giants a legitimate threat in the backfield.
The Giants' dynamic aerial attack has been in the spotlight lately, but astute observers know a legitimate running game has emerged as a key factor in New York's improved production. The numbers certainly don't jump off the stat sheet at first glance (the Giants have the 16th-ranked rushing attack), but Jennings has ground out enough positive runs to force opponents to respect his presence in the backfield.
Looking at Jennings' play over the past few weeks, I'm most impressed with his vision, balance and body control. He does an outstanding job slipping through creases at the point of attack and finishing runs with authority. When given a heavy workload, Jennings can wear down opponents with his hard-nosed running style and help the Giants seize control of the game.
Most importantly, McAdoo is able to mix up his play selection on early downs, to take advantage of various defensive looks and keep the chains moving. Grit and toughness typically win out in the NFC East -- and the Giants' steady running gives them a chance to compete.