Shutdown Corner

The All-22: Eli Manning’s play recognition set up Victor Cruz’s game-winning TD

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

You've no doubt seen Eli Manning's last-minute bomb to Victor Cruz -- the 77-yard touchdown that gave the New York Giants a thrilling 27-23 victory was the primary splash play of Week 7, and it's always interesting to break down such plays to find out how they came about.

No offensive play happens in a vacuum -- no matter how extemporaneous an offense claims to be at certain times, there's always reams of research that goes into a game plan. What really makes an offense go is when your quarterback is well-versed in pattern and scheme reads, has sufficient chemistry with his teammates to validate quick conversations about what is seen in-game, and can process that information in ways that provide obvious gains on the field.

We know that Manning is such a quarterback; he's proven that beyond all doubt. And in an interview with Mike Francesca on WFAN, the Giants' quarterback detailed exactly how that play was set up by things the Redskins' defense had done in similar situations earlier in the game.

"They were really just doubling Victor. Had one guy inside to take away any inside-breaking route and the safety came down outside to take away any outside-breaking route. And the best thing you can do for a double-team is just split the two of them. And that's exactly what he did - he just ran right through them. And they had played that coverage a few times throughout the day, but the safety was not that low. He was usually a little bit higher, where we could have thrown some out-breaking routes and different things. Now, he decided to get a little bit tighter and tried to take away any outside-breaking routes.

"I'm not sure why, or he wanted to try to make a play, or he had a sense - the play before, Victor ran an out route, so maybe he thought we'd come back with the same look. But this time he got a little aggressive, and Vic saw the coverage and said, 'Hey, there's no one in the middle of the field. I can run through.' I saw the same thing and we were able to hit him in stride and get the touchdown."

What set this play up in the end was that the Redskins had shown similar concepts during the Giants' two-minute drill before the half, and there were enough similarities for Manning and Cruz to pick apart the probabilities.

On the first play of the Giants' final first-half drive, the Redskins gave a very similar look -- nickel coverage with one deep half safety and the other safety dropping back to cover New York's deep passing game. In this instance, Manning completed an 8-yard pass to tight end Martellus Bennett on a quick curl route under linebacker Perry Riley, but the template had been set.

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This first-half coverage will set the stage for greater things to come. (NFL.com)

"Obviously, that's an advantage that we got to have a two-minute drill, so you got to see how they played these coverages," Manning said. "You have a feeling you'll run these plays, how they'll all turn out versus the different looks that they brought."

The Giants took the ball back after Robert Griffin III put the Redskins up, 23-20, with a 30-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss. Everyone who's watched a football game in their lives knew that Manning could come back under such circumstances, and after an incomplete pass to running back Ahmad Bradshaw, and with 1:23 left in the game, that's just what he did.

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The Giants have seen this before. (NFL.com)

As you can see, the coverage concept is pretty much the same -- nickel, safety drop, bracket to the strong side from a personnel perspective, and Cruz knew he could split that coverage.

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Cruz (highlighted) burns past Washington's attempts to clamp down. (NFL.com)

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The game's best speed slot receiver often makes these concepts look silly. (NFL.com)

Cornerback Josh Wilson and safety Madieu Williams were left flat-footed, as many defensive backs have been when covering Cruz. Wilson didn't help matters by cheating up in the slot pre-snap. The Redskins tried several different ideas to deal with the Giants' three-wide formations in this game, but as the team that led the NFL in those sets in 2011, the G-Men know full well how to beat and exploit just about any supposed counter.

"I saw the coverage, knew that he saw the same thing and let the ball go," Manning concluded. "I was able to step into the throw and get a pretty good bit on it. … The fact that I was able to hit him in stride and he did a good job making a guy miss and using his speed to get the touchdown, so I was feeling pretty good when the ball left my hand."

Sometimes, it seems that simple, but don't be fooled -- there's a lot of thought that goes into those splash plays for the Giants. Especially when Eli Manning has the tendencies down. That's when he's at his most dangerous.

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