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Eli Manning, New York Giants (December 4, 2016)

Eli Manning – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Pittsburgh Steelers 24 – New York Giants 14

Overview

The knee-jerk overreaction to wins and losses by NFL fans and the media is annoying, but it’s the time we live in. The New York Giants are 8-4 with a good chance to make the playoffs. Don’t lose sight of that fact.

This loss was significant because it all-but-ended any hopes the Giants had to catch the Dallas Cowboys for the division title. But if you were going to pick one game for the Giants to lose among the last five, this was the game – the sole remaining AFC opponent on the regular-season schedule.

Give the Pittsburgh Steelers credit because they soundly beat the Giants. But there were a number of plays in this game that had a dramatic impact on the outcome. Yes, you can say that about virtually any NFL game, but there were some key swings in this contest. For example:

  • With the game tied 0-0, late in the 1st quarter, facing a 3rd-and-14 from their own 5-yard line, QB Eli Manning hit WR Odell Beckham for a 15-yard gain. But a holding penalty was called on Ereck Flowers in the end zone. Not only did Pittsburgh go up 2-0, but they got the ball right back at their own 36-yard line on the free kick. They only needed 38 yards to set up a field goal and go up 5-0. Keep in mind that the thing that set all of this up was the questionable offensive pass interference call on Odell Beckham before the safety.
  • On the Giants ensuing possession, they drove to the Steelers 9-yard line. It appeared at worst the Giants would cut the score to 5-3 and at best go ahead 7-5. On 2nd-and-4, Manning’s pass is picked off and returned 58 yards to the NYG 40-yard line. Three plays later, the Steelers are up 11-0. In hindsight, this interception was probably the key play of the game.
  • Late in the first half, the Steelers are at the NYG 42-yard line facing a 3rd-and-17. QB Ben Roethisberger throws a short WR screen to Eli Rogers, who frustratingly picks up 18 yards on his only catch of the game. This enables the Steelers to go up 14-0 at the half.
  • Despite earlier season success on 4th down, the Giants were 0-for-3 on 4th down attempts in the second half, including a failed 4th-and-1 from the 3-yard line and a 4th-and-9 sack from the 24-yard line. In both cases, the Steelers came darn close to being penalized (pass interference and unnecessary roughness).

While I don’t like to blame officials for losses, poor officiating was a factor in this game. Some reporters have discounted this by saying the Giants dramatically won the penalty aspect of the game. The Giants were flagged only four times for 24 yards while the Steelers were flagged 12 times for 115 yards. However, that does not erase the fact that there were a number of critical non-calls at key points of the game. These were non-calls that changed the complexion of the contest.

My point in all of this? A play here or there, and a call here or there, and this game could easily have had a different outcome. With as much that went wrong on offense, defense, and officiating, this game was still just 14-7 with 6:30 left in the 3rd quarter. How frustrating was this game? On four Giants drives that reached the Steelers 9-, 3-, 30-, and 24-yard lines, the Giants came away with ZERO points.

Giants on Offense

One game doesn’t make a trend, but 12 do. The Giants are obviously struggling on offense in 2016. This was not supposed to be the case. And it’s the same issue it has been virtually all season: if the Giants can’t make big plays in the passing game, they struggle to move the football. The team can’t run the ball. It struggles on 3rd down. Receivers not named Odell Beckham have not made enough plays. The offensive line has not advanced as expected. While Eli Manning has had a decent year, he hasn’t elevated this offense.

Why are the Giants struggling on offense? Everyone has their own primary theory, but it’s the old coaching versus talent debate when things are not going well. We heard it last year on the defensive side of the ball. We are hearing it now on the offensive side. Some argue it is the players. Others argue that Tom Coughlin made Ben McAdoo look better than he is. Others blame the offensive coordinator and say Ben McAdoo has too much on his plate with the play calling. Regardless, the results are not pretty.

In all-too-common statistical theme, look at these numbers against Pittsburgh: the Giants ran 55 plays (one was a kneel down) for 234 total net yards (178 passing, 56 rushing). That’s embarrassing. New York was 4-of-11 (36 percent) on 3rd down and 0-of-3 (0 percent) on 4th down. The Giants were shut out in the first half and only scored their second touchdown with 26 seconds left in the game.

The Giants passed the ball 41 times and only ran it 13 times – a 3-to-1 ratio. But those 41 pass attempts only resulted in 178 net passing yards, or 4.3 yards per pass play. New York’s longest play of the game was for only 25 yards. The Giants had one drive over 57 yards and that resulted in an interception. Eight of New York’s 12 possessions gained 18 yards or less. Another only gained 28 yards.

Quarterback

Playing in a hostile environment against an upgrade in competition, the Giants needed Eli Manning to play well. He didn’t. The Giants were shut out in the first half as Manning completed 9-of-14 passes for 70 yards. Oddly, Manning and the Giants offensive braintrust only targeted Odell Beckham once in the first half with 47 of the passing yards being accrued by Rashad Jennings and Will Tye. Perhaps the back-breaking play of the game was Manning’s interception deep in Pittsburgh territory. The Giants trailed 5-0 and looked poised to either cut into that lead or go ahead. Instead the interception was returned 58 yards, setting up the Steelers first touchdown of the game. It was a 9- to 13-point swing (the Steelers went for two but failed). Manning was 15-of-25 for 125 yards and two touchdowns in the second half, but the first TD was set up by a fumble recovery deep in Steelers territory. And the last scoring drive came with under two minutes to go with the Giants trailing 24-7. Manning seems jumpy and he is having trouble connecting with receivers down the field – not a good combination.

Running Backs

The Giants running game is not functional. Schematically, the almost-exclusive reliance on running out of the shotgun formation simply is not working. The Giants only ran the football 13 times, and that is not going to get it done. Paul Perkins carried the ball seven times for 38 yards, with 18 of those yards coming on one carry. Rashad Jennings carried the ball six times for 19 yards. Jennings caught all six of his targets for 34 yards and a touchdown, but four of those receptions only netted a total of ONE yard. Perkins was not targeted. Jennings gave up the Giants first sack with an embarrassing attempted blitz pick-up. (Side Note: I have no idea who designed the play where Jennings lined up behind Beckham and was promptly tackled for a 4-yard loss, but that one needs to come out of the playbook).

Wide Receivers

In the last nine games, Sterling Shepard has averaged 29 yards receiving per game. Victor Cruz is averaging 42 yards per game in the 11 games he has played this year. In a WR-centric offense whose base is the 3-WR set, that’s not going to get it done. Cruz was shut out in this game with no targets. Shepard caught 4-of-8 targets for a grand total of 21 yards and one meaningless late game touchdown. Roger Lewis caught one pass for eight yards. So once again, Manning was left with the double-teamed Odell Beckham, who was targeted an exceptionally-high number of 16 times, but only one of those came in the first half. Beckham finished the game with 10 catches for 100 yards, and the team’s two longest gains (25 and 23 yards). There was a lot of contact on Beckham in this game that was not called and could have kept drives alive. I just didn’t care for the way the Giants called the game with respect to Beckham. One target in the first half and 15 targets in the second half? It’s almost as if they knew they screwed up and tried to overcompensate.

Tight Ends

If Beckham is doubled and the other wide receivers are not producing, one would think the tight ends would be heavily contributing to the passing game. Wrong. Will Tye, Jerell Adams, and Larry Donnell were targeted eight times. The results? Three catches for 32 yards. Worse, Donnell and Tye were involved in probably the offense’s two worst moments of the game: Manning’s first interception that completely shifted momentum back to the Steelers and the failed 4th-and-1 effort at the 3-yard line. Since Tye became the starting tight end after the bye week, he’s only averaging 26 yards per game with only one touchdown. Manning took a shot deep to Adams early in the game, but Adams completely misjudged the ball. Tye had a 16-yard gain on 2nd-and-21, but he got tripped up far too easily on a play that he might have scored on. A few plays later, Manning was picked off.

Offensive Line

Giants backs actually averaged 4.4 yards per carry against a top-10 run defense, but the team only ran the ball 13 times. Believe it or not, Manning was only officially hit three times. But two of these were sacks and Eli hasn’t looked comfortable behind this line all year. John Jerry was flagged with a holding call that wiped out a 21-yard pass reception. Ereck Flowers was flagged with a holding call that caused a safety and a false start. Flowers allowed too much pressure throughout the game, including the 4th-and-13 pass that was intercepted and the 4th-and-9 sack (Marshall Newhouse and Weston Richburg didn’t handle the inside pressure on the latter either). Jerry’s failure to pick up the blitz on the 4th-and-1 incomplete pass came at a bad time.

Fans keep saying Jerry Reese has to address the line. But the Giants have spent two #1 and a #2 draft pick on the offensive line in recent years. The truth of the matter is the Giants are not getting the production out of Flowers, Justin Pugh (who missed his fourth game in a row), and Richburg that they expected. The problem was supposed to be the right side of the line. Flowers has been too inconsistent at left tackle – allowing too much pressure and being flagged too much. But you also have to wonder about the Giants personnel acquisition versus scheme. For example, Flowers’ strength is his run blocking. He can muscle and maul as good as anyone in the NFL (think Jumbo Elliott when he played left tackle for the Giants). But the Giants run a pass-centric, finesse offense that runs the ball as more of after-thought out of the shotgun. Imagine Flowers playing left tackle for the Steelers. I bet you he would be a heck of a player in their scheme.

Giants on Defense

Given the Giants defense only gave up two drives longer than 48 yards, it is hard to blame it for this loss. But I’m not willing to let it completely off of the hook. The Steelers offense scored five times (two touchdowns, three field goals) and accrued almost 400 net yards of offense (272 passing, 117 rushing). The Steelers were 7-of-15 (47 percent) on 3rd down and 1-of-1 (100 percent) on 4th down. While the Giants defense forced two punts to start the game, this was only after the Steelers were able to move the ball and thereby pin the Giants back inside the 20 on their first two possessions. The defense only forced one three-and-out all game and Pittsburgh was able to control the clock and keep the Giants offense off of the field.

To me, the lowlights were:

  • Allowing the quick 3-play, 40-yard touchdown strike after Eli Manning’s first interception. That was too easy.
  • Allowing the Steelers to convert on 3rd-and-17 on their last field goal drive before halftime.
  • Allowing the Steelers to drive 88 yards in seven plays right after the Giants had cut the score to 14-7 late in the 3rd quarter.
  • Allowing the Steelers to salt the game away with their 11-play, 48-yard field goal drive that took 5:17 off of the clock.

The Steelers scored on 3-of-5 possessions in the first half. The defense performed better with two forced turnovers and two punts in the second half. But that 88-yard drive was a killer.

Defensive Line

It was a mixed bag for the defensive line. The Giants held running back Le’Veon Bell to 31 yards rushing on 11 carries (2.8 yards per carry) in the first half. However, after Jason Pierre-Paul was lost to injury, and as the Steelers began to wear down the Giants defense, that changed in the second half. Bell’s final 17 carries picked up 87 yards (5.1 yards per carry). Ben Roethlisberger has been difficult to sack all season, with just 14 sacks coming into this game. Olivier Vernon sacked him twice. He was also credited with two tackles for losses. However, no other defensive lineman hit the quarterback. Damon Harrison has been amazingly productive as a tackler. He had nine more in this game and now is third on the team with 72 tackles on the season. Johnathan Hankins was fairly quiet with two tackles. Reserves Kerry Wynn (2 tackles), Romeo Okwara (2 tackles), Jay Bromley (1 tackle), and Robert Thomas (no tackles) did not stand out. I will make one note that sounds like a cop-out – there was a lot of jersey-grabbing by Pittsburgh blockers.

Linebackers

Like the defensive line, better in the first half against the run then significantly worse in the second half. Though the defensive backs deserve some of the blame on the tight end coverage, Pittsburgh’s backs and tight ends were far too productive in this game. And it could have been worse if not for a few dropped passes. Tight end Ladarius Green had six catches for 110 yards and a touchdown. Tight end Jesse James had three more catches for 32 yards. And running back Le’Veon Bell had six catches for 64 yards. In other words, all but nine of Roesthlisberger’s completions went to these three players, who were also responsible for 206 of the 289 passing yards. Four of Pittsburgh’s five longest completions went to Bell (37 and 21 yards) and Green (33 and 20 yards). Jonathan Casillas and Keenan Robinson seemed late to react in coverage and Casillas missed some open-field tackles. Cassilas’ effort on Bells’ 19-yard run late in the game was embarrassing.

The linebackers were in on a lot of tackles (26). Casillas and Kelvin Sheppard each had eight tackles (tied for second on the team). Casillas also forced a fumble that set up the Giants first touchdown. Robinson had six tackles. Devon Kennard had four plus the team’s only other QB hit (aside from the two sacks by Olivier Vernon).

Defensive Backs

Pittsburgh’s wideouts only caught nine passes for 83 yards. And six of those went to All-Pro Antonio Brown, who was limited to 54 yards (9 yards per catch). But his outstanding 22-yard reception over corner Janoris Jenkins hurt (though much of the blame here goes to Leon Hall who was playing safety and ran himself out of coverage). So did Eli Rogers’ 18-yard bubble screen gain on 3rd-and-17, which led to a field goal. Landon Collins also gambled and lost on a 3rd-and-4 pass to tight end Ladarius Green for a killer 20-yard score late in the 3rd quarter. Otherwise, Collins played well and was credited with seven tackles and three pass defenses. Eli Apple had a big game with five tackles, one tackle for a loss, one interception, two pass defenses, and one fumble recovery. Apple did give a 12-yard completion on 3rd-and-6 on a field goal drive. His pick was the first of his career and impressive as he took the ball away from the intended wideout. Apple also knocked away a 3rd-and-3 pass in the 4th quarter. Jenkins made a really nice play by tackling Brown for a 1-yard loss on a WR screen.

Giants on Special Teams

Brad Wing punted four times with a 44.3 yards-per-punt average (39.3 yard net). One punt resulted in a touchback and none were downed inside the 20. The always-dangerous Antonio Brown did not return a single punt. The Steelers returned two kickoffs – one for 24 yards and one for 23 yards.

Robbie Gould made both of his extra points (hooray for small victories!). Only one of his three kickoffs resulted in a touchback. The Giants were not able to recover his onside kick at the end of the game.

Dwayne Harris has been battling a variety injuries all year. He was forced to leave the game early with an ankle issue. Before he departed, Harris returned one punt for one yard, and two kickoffs for a total of 40 yards (22 and 18 yard returns). Bobby Rainey had a 38-yard return late in the game.

(New York Giants at Pittsburgh Steelers, December 4, 2016)
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Eric Kennedy

Eric Kennedy is Editor-in-Chief of BigBlueInteractive.com, a publication of Big Blue Interactive, LLC. Follow @BigBlueInteract on Twitter.

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