Anatomy of a Bengals blowout: Eli bad, front-four worse

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Eli Manning at the Super Bowl. (nfl.com)
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To get blown out by the Bengals, a team that seemed constitutionally incapable of blowing out anyone before yesterday, requires the confluence of many breakdowns: coverages must be blown, pass rushers must take the game off, the quarterback must regress back into shell-shocked rookie form, the offensive line must be whipped, backs must fumble, and receivers must drop balls.

The Giants accomplished all of these missteps on Sunday, making the 31-13 loss everybody’s fault, though some players (David Diehl) deserve more blame than others (Prince Amukamara, Andre Brown).

Atop the long list of areas that need to be improved are the quarterback and the pass rush.

The Giants’ traditionally outstanding play from these two facets is the reason most people think the team can still accomplish anything. But their absence yesterday proves neither one is as consistent as Giants fans would like to think.

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Eli Manning’s struggles are well-chronicled by now. Pick a stat:

In Manning's first five games this season, he threw 11 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. In his last five, he’s thrown one touchdown and 6 interceptions. (A big assist here goes to Victor Cruz, who dropped an easy touchdown late in the game.)

The next Giants game will be in Week 12; Manning hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since Week 7. Everyone remembers that 77-yard streak to Cruz against Washington, which reinforced the notion that the Giants had the luxury to screw around for some 59 minutes before their quarterback bailed them out. Three poor performances later, two of which ended in losses, that sense of certainty feels smug.

Eli’s three-game touchdown-less stretch is the longest since his rookie year, and the confoundingly boneheaded nature of his interceptions yesterday evoked the long-forgotten Bad Eli.

It also brought back the old saw that Little Eli, with his goofy ho-humness and little brother bearing, gets scared in the face of pressure.

“If you get a lot of pressure in Manning’s face, he tends to short-arm some throws and just throw the ball up in the air," said Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko.

One would have thought this notion was dispelled last year, when Manning was the best quarterback in the league under pressure, based on a series of measurements by Pro Football Focus.

But this year has been more of a struggle. Manning threw 7 touchdowns and 7 interceptions last year while under pressure; this year he has thrown one touchdown and six interceptions (putting him on a pace for 9.6). He has done so despite facing far less pressure this year because of the Giants’ improved pass blocking  (although the return of Diehl jeopardizes this improvement).

According to ESPN’s Total QBR stat, a metric introduced to great fanfare last year, which has failed to launch in the mainstream, the past two weeks represent the second time in Manning’s career that he’s had a Total QBR of 20 or worse.

But maybe that should be reassuring: The other time Eli bottomed out like this was during Weeks 15 and 16 last year.

THE GIANTS DIDN'T SACK ANDY DALTON yesterday, and according to the unofficial tally of the ESPN boxscore, they managed to hit him just once. This against a team that had given up the sixth-most sacks in the league heading into yesterday.

It was the low-water mark for a Giants’ pass rush that has been above average this year, but hardly as fearsome as its reputation. The Giants have sacked opposing quarterbacks on 6.8 percent of their dropbacks this year, good for tenth in the league. That’s better than the league average of 6.0 percent, but worse than the 7.5 percent they managed last year, which was eight-best in the league. (The top two teams this year, the Arizona Cardinals and the Denver Broncos, are at 8.9 and 8.5 percent, respectively.)

The culprits here are obvious: Justin Tuck has only three sacks, and Osi Umenyiora has four. It’s possible these two are primed for late-season rebirths, like last year. It’s also possible they're both over the hill, and not nearly as effective as their reputations would suggest.

Jason Pierre-Paul has 6.5 sacks, a somewhat disappointing tally for a guy who had 16.5 last year. Pierre-Paul is an amazing all-around player, but most Giants fans know that he’s best playing the run. As a pass rusher he’s very good, but not otherworldly.

Either way, the Giants need more from their front four given how vulnerable the back seven has been. The Giants have given up 8.1 yards per passing attempt, nearly a full yard higher than the league average of 7.2. They've been particularly susceptible to the big play, having given up eight plays of 40-plus yards (second most in the league) and have given up 39 passes of 20 or more yards (third most), though, in fairness, they've played one more game than most teams.

By now, Giants fans have seen enough of Corey Webster passing off a streaking receiver to an imaginary deep safety to last a few lifetimes. They’ve seen Antrel Rolle get beat enough times to know that while Rolle’s a good all-around player, he’s at his worst when taking angles on balls in the air.

The 1.5-game cushion on Dallas provides some solace. So does the Giants’ history of out-of-nowhere December runs, after dispiriting play in November.

With their talent at quarterback and at defensive end, this team is capable of a Super Bowl. But when the frontline talent doesn’t perform as advertised, it's also capable of losing 31-13 to the Bengals.