This week let's go more to the passing side. There are two neat little wrinkles in the passing game that stood out to me when watching their games. I don't want to overstate this, but it seems that these are plays especially tailored to the skills of their two big-time receivers, Hakeem Nicks and Steve Smith. They're both incredibly effective play-makers but do so in totally different ways. Smith is more of a polished route-runner who has a great knack for finding openings in the zones and such, whereas Nicks is more physical and can body up to a cornerback and catch a ball against tough coverage. Both sets of skills are incredibly valuable, and these two plays illustrate two ways to highlight those skills.
The first play is one that, in my opinion, favors Smith a little more. That isn't to say Nicks can't or doesn't run it (he does), just that Smith is perfect for it. The idea is not too different from one of the plays we looked at last week with the Packers. It's about using other receivers to open things up for the slant route. What the Giants do is take a receiver, usually a bigger guy, usually one of their tight ends, and have him running down the seam. Then they have a receiver run a bit of a slower-developing slant route, timing it such that their route cuts just in front of that large man running down the field. It's like a pick in basketball. As the defender has to pick his way around the body of the tight end, the receiver has a little space to catch the ball and make a move.
Smith does a couple things that help make this play successful. He times the route well to arrive at his spot behind the tight end just as the end is clearing it. He slows things down a little at that point to give Eli a bigger window to some extent. Once he has the ball, he's got a slithery element to him. And as I said, Nicks will run this, too, and his speed and ability to run hard after the catch is also an asset.
This is a play that can be effective against man and zone coverage. Against man, the tight end is picking the defender assigned to the receiver; against zone, this puts two players in the same zone, putting stress on that defender, and the tight end still shields the receiver. It's a play that creates a situation that's about as favorable for getting a completion as anything. As such, the Giants will deploy this in some fairly key situations. Situations when they need a completion, like on third down or in the red zone. As you can see below, it scored them a touchdown against the Seahawks.
And in a way, it scored them a touchdown against the Cowboys. Steve Smith's touchdown is a pretty awesome example of the football chess game. What the Giants do is start the play in a way that strongly suggests that they're doing what the Cowboys have seen plenty on film: that slant with the slot receiver setting the pick over the top of it. And for the first few steps, that's what it is. Anticipating this, Orlando Scandrick, who is covering the slot, doesn't backpedal at all and hangs around the point on the field where Nicks and Smith are going to come together. Mike Jenkins also aggressively pursues Nicks' inside shoulder. So when Smith doesn't slow down, blowing past Scandrick, and when Nicks cuts to the outside, both are open.
Manning chooses Smith, presumably since he's already in the end zone, and it's seven points for New York. They knew that the Cowboys knew that they have this as a go-to play, and they used it to outsmart the Cowboys. It also provides the ancillary benefit of putting the Cowboys back in the position of being tentative. If the Giants are facing a tough third down this Sunday and start out the play looking through the first few steps as if they're running this staple of their playbook, you can bet Scandrick and Jenkins will be considerably slower in jumping on those routes. So now both plays are dangerous again.
The final play, one that really suits Hakeem Nicks, is another that's very similar to a concept discussed in last week's Green Bay post but with some very real differences in application. The idea is to provide a counterpoint to the Go route. A lot of Nicks' game is running down the field in a straight line then out-muscling the corner when the ball's in the air. That's a play that can generate a lot of big gains, but it doesn't lend itself to an ideal completion percentage. Also, it's just always a good idea to put something else in the defenders head. If he ever sells out to stop the Go route, make sure you have a play to punish him for it.
The Packers do this with a curl. Any time the corner starts giving himself a big cushion, the receiver sits down in that opened space and Rodgers hits him between the numbers. What Nicks does is similar, but instead of looking for a big cushion, he's looking for man coverage, and it doesn't matter how big the cushion is.
What he and Eli do is Nicks heads out downfield as if he were running the go. If it's man coverage, the defender is looking at Nicks more and Eli less. As is often the case in football, the defender also places a large premium on keeping himself positioned in between the receiver and quarterback. So when Eli throws, the corner doesn't see it, and instead of hitting Nicks in the numbers, Eli is aiming for Nicks' outside shoulder. Just before the ball arrives, Nicks breaks out of his route, wheels around and uses his body to shield the defender and make the catch.
While this play is very similar to a regular curl, the big differences are ball placement and the sort of coverage it can be used against. The route requires a fairly high degree of accuracy from the quarterback, demanding that he not only throw a receiver but to a specific area of the receiver or else it will end in incompletion. There were points in Eli Manning's career where it did not seem like he could be that sort of quarterback, but weird as it seems to me, we now live in a world where that's not the case. It also requires a receiver with a big frame, first to be a real threat on those Go routes and to shield the defender with his body. As such, the Giants threw this pass exclusively to Nicks in the four games I watched. The Giants run the regular curl routes that the Packers and most everyone else do, and when they do, Smith and everyone else are eligible for those. But these back-shoulder passes are exclusively the province of Nicks.
So yeah. Don't sleep on either of these guys. They're very different but both have skills that can really hurt the Cowboys. And with this being a divisional match-up, bet on the Giants deploying a couple tricks they've saved just for this occasion.