Mike Tomlin had an offensive line problem in 2008. Ben Roethlisberger had been sacked 47 times in 15 games the previous season. As a response, the Pittsburgh Steelers spent their first-round pick in the draft on running back Rashard Mendenhall and their second-round pick on receiver Limas Sweed.
It didn’t work. Roethlisberger was sacked 46 times in 2008.
A collision with Ray Lewis during his first start ended Mendenhall’s rookie season. A collision with Ravens cornerback Corey Ivey on a blindside block was the highlight of Sweed’s career. Mendenhall became a good running back but had a relatively short career and never made the impact the Steelers hoped he would. Sweed, obviously, flamed out pretty quickly.
The obvious thing is to criticized Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert for not addressing their needs. Duane Brown could still be their starting left tackle today had they selected him instead of Mendenhall, Jeremy Zuttah could have been an immediate starter at guard or center. That is the benefit of hindsight though.
Just because the Steelers’ specific draft picks didn’t turn out like they expected, it doesn’t necessarily mean their approach was wrong or that kind of philosophy can’t work.
Part of the reason it was a surprising route for the team to take at the time was the playing style of Ben Roethlisberger. This was long before Todd Haley arrived in Pittsburgh. Bruce Arians was still encouraging his quarterback to extend plays and asking him to hold the ball on deep drops. It’s harder to mask an ineffective offensive line with layers of weapons when playing that style of offense.
The New York Giants don’t play that style of offense. Eli Manning has always been a quarterback who is at his best when making plays work as designed against pressure or with precise passes to throw receivers open. In Kevin Gilbride’s offense that meant taking deep drops and pushing the ball downfield (interceptions were inevitable). In Ben McAdoo’s offense Manning spends all his time getting rid of the ball quickly from shotgun formations.
Only six quarterbacks threw a higher percent of their passes to the five-yard line last year. Manning threw 53.74 percent of his passes in that yard range. He threw 70.58 percent(10th) of his passes to the 10-yard line.
McAdoo has completely altered Manning’s output. Had he arrived earlier in the quarterback’s career, his case for the hall of fame would likely be very strong. What McAdoo has done is shift the focus from Manning’s ability to make exceptionally difficult plays onto his acumen. With shorter routes and more options, the quarterback’s ability to process the coverage quickly allows him to mask the ineffectiveness of his offensive line.
Adding Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram should take the offense to another level this year.
Who dictates the play is a vital (and often overlooked) aspect of football. By layering your offense with matchup problem after matchup problem and putting your quarterback in a scheme where he can make quick decisions, you are setting your offense up to dictate which matchup to attack. The offense gets to determine who on the defense will see the ball and who won’t.
The Seattle Seahawks project to have a passing game that can dictate to its opponents. The Seahawks will use the rushing threat of Wilson to stretch the defense horizontally, the vertical threats of Jimmy Graham and Paul Richardson/Tyler Lockett to stretch it vertically and the versatility of C.J. Prosise to take advantage of mismatches in space.
With Odell Beckham on the field the Giants already have an uncoverable receiver.
Beckham can win vertically, horizontally, at the catch point, after the catch and with any route imaginable. When defenses tip their coverage away from him it gives Manning an easy read and an easy throw. It doesn’t matter what the defense does to Beckham, his elite traits allow him to still be effective.
In the above play the Cowboys show a Cover-2 shell with both safeties back before rotating to Cover-1. Beckham is on the narrower side of the field but the safety to his side drops deep while the safety on the opposite side moves forward into underneath coverage.
Even with the safety over the top Beckham creates a separation early in his route before accelerating through that small strip of space to the endzone.
Contrary to the Cowboys play, in the above gif we can see the Baltimore Ravens rotate away from their Cover-2 by dropping the safety on the opposite side of the field. Beckham gets one-on-one coverage with the cornerback who he sets up perfectly with his double move route for the touchdown that he makes look all too easy.
From that same game, Beckham was able to convert an easy 43-yard play by brushing past the defender’s off coverage with a perfect route and his acceleration. The defender had a safety playing center field but the threat of Beckham breaking across his face and the speed of his transition through his break made it impossible for him to stay on top of the route.
The game-winning touchdown came when the Ravens treated Beckham like any old receiver. Because he was the lone wide receiver on the narrow side of the field, the Ravens tipped their coverage to the other side where there was two receivers, a running back and more space.
Manning helped to push the underneath linebacker further towards that side of the field, creating a five-on-three situation, but he always knew he was going to Beckham.
Rotating a safety down to play man coverage on the tight end without having another safety over the top guarantees Beckham a one-on-one. No cornerback in the NFL can cover Beckham one-on-one, especially not when trying to press him at the line of scrimmage. Because the mismatch is so severe, Beckham is a scheme breaker.
Opposing teams have to account for his matchup first on every play. That was a lot easier when the second receiving option on the team was a diminished Victor Cruz rather than Brandon Marshall.
Cruz was a problem for the Giants last season. He struggled to consistently get open and dropped too many passes. Marshall played in a New York Jets offense where his service went from awful the previous year to fully restrictive last year.
Putting Brandon Marshall on the backside of Beckham creates congruency in the Giants’ receiving corps. Marshall is 33 years old but has a skill set that should continue to age well. He doesn’t need to create separation to be effective. His 6’4″ frame and exceptional ball skills allow him to consistently make contested catches, often pulling balls away from defenders who have better positioning than him.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s a good route runner and still more than capable of creating separation or yards after the catch with his athleticism.
When teams tip their coverage towards Beckham they will be giving Marshall a one-on-one matchup in space. More often than not that matchup will be with the opponent’s second best cornerback too. This should be easy for Marshall and in turn it should be easy for Manning.
The obvious retort for opposing defensive coordinators is to play a heavy percentage of plays with both safeties deep. Don’t give Marshall or Beckham any opportunity to find uncontested space. That would open the defense up to be attacked running the ball. The Giants couldn’t run the ball last year, they were 26th in efficiency despite 29 teams facing more defenders in the box on average(via the Football Outsiders Almanac),
Paul Perkins’ ascension into a starting role and his assumed development into his second season, combined with a hopefully healthy Shane Vereen, should improve the running game. Even the most optimistic Perkins fan won’t expect the running game to be strong though.
The greater challenge for defenses trying to keep both safeties deep will be covering Engram and Sterling Shepard.
Engram’s fit with the Giants was obvious long before the team selected him. The Ole Miss product is essentially a wide receiver. His skill set allows him to make quick cuts to get open quickly while also possessing a vertical athleticism to expose linebackers down the seam. Linebackers won’t be able to cover Engram in tight spaces, they’ll have no shot if left one-on-one when he has space to go left, right or attack vertically.
Not since Martellus Bennett was on the roster back in 2012 have the Giants had an NFL-caliber tight end. The position was hugely problematic last year. Will Tye was the most diverse receiving option on the depth chart but he couldn’t run routes. He was linear and dropped too many passes. Quarterback Catalogue charting revealed that the Giants’ tight ends combined for 11 failed receptions and only 83 receptions last year.
Only six quarterbacks lost receptions to receiver error more often than Manning last year. The tight ends were the worst offenders not just because they dropped so many passes, but because they offered nothing to offset those drops. Beckham dropped a lot of passes last year too but he also created nine receptions for 138 yards and a touchdown by adjusting to inaccurate passes at the catch point.
He was also always open whereas the Giants tight ends relied on their quarterback to throw them open.
Engram will have drops too, it was a criticism of him in college, but his overall contribution will far outweigh those minor moments of frustration. Even if Engram struggles more than anticipated as a rookie, second-year receiver Sterling Shepard is going to be Manning’s primary target on the inside. Shepard had an excellent rookie season and, similar to Engram, has the perfect skill set to play inside in the modern NFL.
Whenever defenses sit in passive coverage with both safeties deep and Beckham/Marshall release vertically downfield, Shepard will be the receiver Manning immediately looks to. Linebackers, safeties and lesser cornerbacks won’t be able to stay with him. He’s simply too quick, his ball skills are too good and his timing in his breaks perfectly accentuates his athleticism.
No matter how opposing secondaries line up on the field next year, Manning is going to have a mismatch receiver to throw to. He will be able to dictate which matchup to attack and force the defense to win at its weakest spot to prevent the offense from moving the ball.
Manning will have to be at his sharpest mentally even if his arm strength continues to decline. There were notable arm strength issues for Manning last year. When he set his feet he could rip the ball downfield with ease. However those off-balance, under pressure deliveries that he has previously excelled on became majorly problematic. That’s not a manageable problem behind one of the worst pass-blocking lines in the league.
Ereck Flowers constantly ruined plays last year. He would have been benched long ago if he wasn’t a former first-round pick. The Giants’ most notable move on the offensive line this offseason was the addition of D.J. Fluker. He’s currently projected to be a backup.
So long as Manning’s acumen allows him to get rid of the ball quickly and the receivers play to expectation, the Giants’ attempt to improve their offensive line without improving their offensive line will work.
It might not work. The moves might work out the way Rashard Mendenhall and Limas Sweed did. Brandon Marshall’s body might be broken down and Evan Engram might not be able to adjust to playing tight end in the NFL. There’s rational reasoning behind the approach and if it does work, with all the returning pieces from one of the best defenses in the league last year, the Giants should be a Super Bowl contender.