When the Detroit Lions were blowing out the New York Giants in the Monday Night Football opener last season, analyst and former Bucs coach Jon Gruden said this about Eli Manning:
"They just don't run the ball here. Their offensive line gets mismatched. They get marginal wide receiver play. There's a big reason why Eli Manning's stats are declining."
Gruden was right then. And now? The Giants have had one 100-yard rushing game all season, the offensive line's weaknesses are masked by the uptempo West Coast system, Odell Beckham Jr. burst onto the scene after four games last season and Manning's stats are better than ever.
Remember the ridicule when the Giants during the 2014 preseason set a 70 percent completion goal for Manning? It's exclusive company — only seven quarterbacks have ever done it — and to that point Manning had completed only 58.5 percent of his passes.
He probably won't ever hit 70 percent, but his 63.1 completion percentage in 2014 was a career high. And he has improved upon that this season, completing 66.0 percent. He's also on pace to set a career high in touchdown passes (34) and career low in interceptions (eight). And his quarterback rating is a Peyton-like 99.9.
That's great for him, his teammates and Giants fans, but the rest of us? We're hurting. Eli's gains are our loss. Fall just isn't the same without Manning Face and coach Red A-- Coughlin angrily waving his arms like a Charlie-in-the-Box.
Manning's revival coincides with the Giants' 2014 hiring of Ben McAdoo from the Green Bay Packers, where he was the quarterbacks coach.
While the Buccaneers were struggling to hold off the Falcons on Sunday, Manning and Drew Brees were taking turns throwing touchdown passes, Tecmo Super Bowl-style. In the 52-49 Saints' win, they threw 13 total (seven for Brees, six for Manning), the most ever in a game, and seven of them came on plays of 20 yards or more. All that was missing was the zigzagging receivers.
The Bucs' defense isn't as porous as the Saints', but it struggled to slow the Falcons and never forced a punt. Even with Atlanta fumbling twice in the red zone, it overcame a 17-point deficit and pushed Tampa Bay to overtime. The Giants aren't likely to make such mistakes — their seven giveaways are the third-fewest in the NFL.
What they will do is move quickly. At 25.47 seconds per play, the Giants feature the third-fastest offense, trailing only the Philadelphia Eagles (22.81) and the Houston Texans (23.02). In an offense built around quick reads and quick throws, Manning has been efficient, releasing the ball 2.38 seconds after it's snapped, the fifth-fastest time, according to Pro Football Focus.
Like other quarterbacks this season, Manning, who is 4-0 against the Bucs (including a 2008 playoff win), should be able to find holes in the Tampa Bay pass defense. The Bucs have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 71.1 percent of their passes (second-highest), throw 17 touchdowns (tied with the Giants for second-most) and post a 111.5 rating (highest and on pace to break an NFL record).
The Bucs have allowed opponents to score on 69 percent of their trips to the red zone, also a league high. Before the Saints game, the Giants had struggled inside the 20-yard line, scoring a touchdown on just nine of 23 trips. Against New Orleans, however, they scored on each of their four visits. To score two of those touchdowns, they used a pick, or rub, concept that will cause trouble for the Bucs as well if they see it Sunday. Let's take a closer look at both scores.
On the Giants' first red zone opportunity, they reach the 1-yard line and try to punch it in with two straight Andre Williams runs. He goes nowhere on the first run and loses a yard on the second to bring up fourth-and-2.
The Giants come to the line in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) with two receivers, Dwayne Harris and Beckham out to Manning's right. Beckham's a clear threat to score in this situation, but tight end Larry Donnell and running back Shane Vereen are also viable options. The Saints are in man coverage — exactly what Manning wants.
Once Harris and Beckham reach the line of scrimmage, they cross.
Cornerback Delvin Breaux sticks with Beckham but has to loop around the route Harris is running in front of him. That adjustment clears out precious space for Beckham, who makes the catch and reaches the end zone untouched. The Giants walk a fine line here; if either of their receivers blocks or initiates contact with a defender beyond one yard, officials could call offensive pass interference.
Early in the second quarter, the Giants return to the New Orleans' 1-yard line and execute the same concept out of a slightly different formation. As before, two receivers — Rueben Randle and Beckham — line up out to Manning's right.
The cross again sets a pick that slows Breaux and creates extra separation for Beckham to score the second of his three touchdowns.
While the Giants have not executed this concept for a touchdown inside the red zone in any other game this season, they did so in consecutive weeks last season.
Once against Washington in Week 15 …
… and once against the St. Louis Rams in Week 16.
The cross combination was so effective against the Saints that when the Giants reached the New Orleans 2-yard line before the end of the first half, coach Sean Payton raced down the sideline to call a timeout. During the break, cameras caught Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan engaged in an animated discussion about the next play call. That or a health-conscious Payton was insisting that Ryan try the Asian chopped salad during halftime instead of the jumbo Louisiana chili dog.
After the timeout, the Giants set up in virtually the same formation as the one before their first touchdown. They simply flopped the formation and put two receivers out to the left instead of the right.
It looked as though the Giants would again attack the Saints' man coverage with the cross combination. Instead, Manning found Vereen working against a rookie linebacker in the flat and hit him for his second receiving touchdown of the season.
Vereen ran the same route out of the same formation from the same distance for his first touchdown, against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 5.
Expecting either defense to shut down an opposing quarterback is a bit like handing someone a roll of paper towels and expecting him to soak up water blasting from a fire hydrant. As bad as the Bucs' pass defense has been, the Giants can't claim they're any better. They've recorded only nine sacks (fewest in the league), allowed opponents to complete 68.4 percent of their passes (fifth-most) and surrendered 34 passing plays of 20 or more yards (second-most).
This is a winnable game for the Bucs, but to reach .500, they must solve their miscommunication and blown coverage issues on defense. While it's hard to trust a defense that allowed 52 points last week, it's harder to trust a defense that has squandered leads of at least 17 points in back-to-back weeks. Ultimately, the Bucs aren't disruptive enough to thwart Manning, Beckham and the Giants' more efficient offense. Prediction: Giants