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Analysis: It's hard to fool Eli Manning, but Bills D has the edge, anyway

The Buffalo Bills’ defenders know they’re probably not going to be able to fool New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning in Sunday’s game.

The good news for Bills fans and the Buffalo defense: Given the receiving weapons at the Giants’ disposal, there should be less need to out-scheme the 38-year-old quarterback.

The Giants are without their No. 1 receiver, Golden Tate, who’s serving a four-game suspension. The second best wideout, Sterling Shepard, might sit out with a concussion. But even with Shepard, the Giants have one of the weaker wide receiving corps in the NFL.

Still, this is a week in which the Bills’ defensive backs know disguise will get them only so far. One elite skill that has not diminished for Manning is his ability to get the Giants out of a bad play based on pre-snap looks and tendencies. He is one of the NFL's best at it.

“He’s played the game a long time,” said Bills safety Jordan Poyer. “We understand there’s going to be some defenses where he’s going to know what we’re in. In those situations it’s more like, OK, you know what we’re in, you have to beat us.”

“With a guy like him, if there’s 35 pass plays,” safety Micah Hyde said, “if you can disguise and have him messed up five plays, get him throw one in the dirt or maybe throw you a couple, that’s huge. It’s not going to be any more than five – that’s a lot – he’s too talented, too aware of the situation.”

“They run plays to put you in situations to know what you’re in,” said Hyde. “You have to execute. That’s what it comes down to. You have to know your job, know the weakness of the defense and not let them try to exploit it.”

Of course, the Bills still will be disguising before the snap to try to slow down Manning’s processing. And the Bills will be disguising their rushes to try to create uncertainty among the Giants’ offensive linemen.

On a conference call with Buffalo media this week, Manning said it took him a couple years to master the ability to check out of bad plays.

“I think it does take a couple of years to really get good at it,” he said. “I think first is kind of learning your offense, getting with your coaches and learning what are bad plays and what are good plays vs. certain looks. ... To be in the same system helps for a number of years so that you can get on the same page with the coordinator.”

Ultimately the game comes down to personnel. With the large exception of superstar back Saquon Barkley, the Bills’ defense should have the personnel advantages at MetLife Stadium.

Eli on accuracy. Josh Allen’s completion percentage is an obsession of Bills fans. Manning is an example of a quarterback who improved his completion percentage dramatically in his first few years in the NFL.

Manning completed 48.2% in seven games as a rookie in 2004, 52.8% in 2005 and 57.7% in 2006. He got to 60.3% in his fifth year. Keep in mind, with less spread offense, the NFL average in 2005 was 59.5%. It was 64.9% in 2018. It also must be noted Manning was more accurate in college (60.8%) than Allen. Nevertheless, Manning gradually got a lot better.

Manning talked about how faster mental processing improved his percentage as he gained experience.

“Early on it just takes a little while to know how to get through progressions, knowing when you don’t have a great play called and the defense has a great play called and you just have to find check-downs,” Manning said. “But you still have to … find ways to get completions on first and second down when you’re calling it for certain looks and not getting it. Where can you go get 4 yards and make it second-and-6 and move on and say we’ll call the play later again? You have to know when to hold it. … Sometimes you can create plays and make big plays. Sometimes you have throwaways or you force it and take sacks. Sometimes it’s not just on the quarterback. It’s on receivers and backs and everybody getting out having the urgency to know what the system is and doing things right.

“I think it’s a combination of things and getting exactly on the same page and just having a good feel for where to go with the ball,” he said.

The 30,000-foot view: Many fans and analysts have correctly lamented the Giants’ big personnel decisions the past two years. The NFL is a quarterback-driven league. Yet the Giants passed on Sam Darnold with the No. 2 pick last year and drafted Barkley. The running back's greatness is undeniable. But good quarterbacks are so much harder to find and have more impact on winning. The Giants could have drafted Darnold and still “settled” for any number of quality backs in the draft the past two years, like Nick Chubb or Josh Jacobs. The Giants gave receiver Odell Beckham Jr. a big contract extension, then traded him less than a year later – after swallowing his entire $20 million signing bonus on their cap. This year they drafted Daniel Jones No. 6 overall, who nobody valued as highly as Darnold. Then by sticking with Manning this year, the Giants are delaying the benefit they get from Barkley’s rookie contract. It’s likely Barkley will use up three years of his cheap rookie deal before Jones gets 16 starts in the NFL.

Corner shakeup? Giants fourth-year corner Antonio Hamilton played 36 snaps last week, splitting time with rookie first-round pick DeAndre Baker, who played 31 snaps. Both struggled against the Cowboys. Indications are Baker will get more time this week. That’s the side to attack. Janoris Jenkins, the other outside corner, is excellent. Baker isn’t real tall (5 feet, 10 inches) and isn’t a blazer (4.52 in the 40). But he’s a superb athlete with long arms (32 inches), which allows him to play bigger than his size. He’s a press-man corner. (Below is Amari Cooper beating Baker for a TD last week.)


Matchup watch

Saquon Barkley vs. Bills’ back seven. The Giants’ star gained 120 yards on only 11 carries in Dallas, so there has been a clamor in New York to get him more touches this week. He hasn’t been held without a 15-yard gain yet in the NFL. Barkley is going to break some tackles. It will be up to the back seven – and the defensive backs in particular – to keep some 10-yard runs from turning into 40- and 50-yard runs.

Antoine Bethea vs. deep throws. Look for the Bills to try to isolate Bethea, the Giants’ 35-year-old safety, in coverage. Last week, Bethea was isolated by Dallas on a 45-yard pass to Amari Cooper, took a bad angle in three-deep coverage on a 62-yard pass and appeared to mix up his quarters coverage on a TD pass to a tight end. The Giants’ other safety, Jabrill Peppers, is much more versatile, so he often plays closer to the line and can be used on blitzes.

Trent Murphy and Shaq Lawson vs. Mike Remmers. Giants guards Kevin Zeitler and Will Hernandez are pretty good. The tackles are exploitable. Nate Solder, the former Patriot, is susceptible to power rushes but the Giants may line up a tight end next to him to try to limit Jerry Hughes. Remmers, the right tackle, isn’t overly quick. He allowed four pressures in Dallas. Remmers yielded seven sacks with the Vikings last year.

Stat for the road. Giants defensive coordinator James Betcher made his reputation as a blitz-heavy defensive coordinator for the Cardinals from 2015 to 2017. Arizona blitzed a league-high 46% of pass plays in 2015. Bettcher blitzed 12 of 32 pass plays (37.5%) against Dallas, according to Pro Football Focus. The Giants don’t have great edge-rush talent. Bettcher likes to bring a safety off the edge and especially likes to blitz in two-minute situations. The Bills need to get some run game going to neutralize Bettcher’s blitzes.

News sports writers predict Bills-Giants for Week 2

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