Manning and his line on winning up front, and moving with ‘these’ receivers
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.—For all the talk so far this season of the Giants’ struggles to pressure the opposing quarterback, relatively little has been said about their ability to protect their own.
But on the eve of a matchup against the 49ers, whose defense pummeled Eli Manning in last year’s N.F.C. Championship game with six sacks and 12 knockdowns, it’s worth pausing to appreciate how successful the Giants have been at keeping Manning upright for going on three years.
Since 2010, in regular season play, Giants quarterbacks have been sacked a league-low 49 times. During this span, the average N.F.L. team has seen its quarterback sacked 83.6 times.
The Giants have long been known for their pass-rushing, but it’s actually pass protection that has been this team's stronger facet: The rush has 102 sacks during this span, making it 18.4 sacks better than league average, while the protection is 34.6 sacks better than league average.
This year, the Giants have given up five sacks, compared to a league average of 11.2, and are bested only by the Houston Texans’ three sacks allowed. Because the Giants have 47 more passing attempts than the Texans, however, they are rated first in FootballOutsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate metric, which adjusts raw sack totals for passing attempts, down and distance situations, and opponent.
But there’s an important caveat here: The stats above only apply to sacks. When it comes to quarterback hurries, Manning was under pressure 38.9 percent of the time last year, the second highest percentage in the league, according to Pro Football Focus stats. This year, the protection is much better: Manning has been pressured on 25.1 percent of his dropbacks, the sixth-lowest rate in the league.
Still, it’s likely that biggest factor in the success of the Giants' pass protection is Manning himself.
Last year, not including the playoffs, he was sacked on 11.5 percent of his under pressure dropbacks during the regular season, the lowest percentage in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. (Although if you count the playoffs, that number jumps slightly to 12.4 percent, still good for second-best behind Michael Vick.)
He’s even better this year, taking sacks on just 9.6 percent of his pressured dropbacks.
His completion percentage while under pressure was 54.3 during the 2011 regular season, fifth-best in the league. (To give a sense of how widely this stat ranges, consider that Mark Sanchez was at 36.4 percent, and Alex Smith, Manning’s counterpart on Sunday, was at 41.9 percent.)
Manning’s better in this stat this year as well, having completed 55.3 percent of his under pressure throws.
I ASKED MANNING YESTERDAY, AS HE STOOD BY HIS LOCKER, what accounts for his pocket presence.
He was typically diplomatic, to begin with: “Well, I think our offensive line has done a great job of blocking things up, receivers getting open in a timely fashion,” he said.
Then the meat of the explanation:
“And trying just to, ah, I think a lot of this is just understanding the offense, and just kinda based on the defense, where I might go, and where can I move a bit and still put myself in a position to get the ball down the field.”
“I think a lot of it is, yeah, just have a feel for what’s going on," he added. "And also just having a better idea of where I might go with the ball. Like, if I gotta move I’m gonna move where I can work these receivers. And not just feeling pressure and running randomly—you might be moving the wrong way, or away from the receivers who should be getting open based on the coverage.”
This makes sense. In his ninth year, Manning is master of the playbook. He knows when and where his receivers’ routes are developing. Rather than “running randomly,” as he put it, he has developed a second-nature sense of which direction to slide and where to look downfield.
This is basically what players mean when they talk about “the game slowing down” for them. It applies to how Manning sees the defense, too: Rather than processing the rush as an imminent danger, it has become just another thing to ably navigate.
In sum, the old image of Manning panicking in the face of pressure and blindly chucking throws off his back foot no longer applies, and hasn't for a while.
The apotheosis of his maturation occurred on the final drive of last year’s Super Bowl, on his famous 38-yard pass to Mario Manningham: On the play, Manning went through his progressions and slid to the left while doing so, thereby keeping himself clear to deliver what was probably the best high-stakes pass in Giants’ history.
THE OTHER BIG REASON FOR THE IMPROVED PROTECTION THIS year is the Giants' improved play at the offensive tackle position. Last year, David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie were among the worst protectors in the league. Diehl, playing at both guard and tackle, allowed a league-high 61 hurries to go along with 13 sacks. McKenzie allowed 47 hurries, third-most in the league among tackles, along with a more normalized six sacks.
Their replacements, Will Beatty at left tackle and Sean Locklear at right, have been much better: Beatty has allowed just six hurries and no sacks in his four starts this year, which puts him on pace for a fraction of those allowed by his predecessor. Locklear has allowed 13 hurries, a high total, but one that looks better considering he allowed 10 in his first two games.
Locklear actually started at left tackle in the first game, but shifted over to the right side after Diehl’s injury thrust Beatty, a natural left tackle, into the starting lineup.
Locklear told me yesterday, “I always was comfortable with both [sides], but I was more comfortable on the right, just ‘cause the majority of my playing time has been there.”
Locklear’s in his first year with the Giants, and admitted to me there was a learning curve with the new playbook and terminology.
“It took to the first week of in the season, after all the preseason games, to get to the point where I was really comfortable,” he said.
For his part, Beatty chalked up his success this year to being more experienced.
“Just, four years in the league. Knowing your assignment, and don’t make the game harder than it really is. It’s still a game that we all played since we were young adolescents.”
HAVE THE GIANTS BEEN DOING ANYTHING different along the line, in terms of the protection schemes they're employing?
I asked right guard Chris Snee, a starter since his rookie year in 2004 and as such the longest-tenured starting offensive lineman. He knocked on the wood of his locker when I mentioned the collective success in keeping Manning off the ground.
“No, it’s just a matter of winning battles upfront, it’s as simple as that,” he said. “And Eli’s been getting rid of the ball. He’s finally getting some notice for that. So it’s been a solid group effort so far, but it needs to….”
Snee paused and trailed off, perhaps contemplating the bludgeoning Manning took last January in San Francisco.
“Stay that way.”