Few plays in football are more exciting than the deep pass. Watching a player in a full sprint try to track a heave down the field can be both breath taking and heart breaking. Success on these plays can often be the difference between victory and defeat and that should be no different come Super Sunday.
No team in the NFL went deep (passes of 21 or more yards in the air) more than the New York Giants this year. With a trio of solid receivers in Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and Mario Manningham and a porous ground game that finished dead last in yards, coach Tom Coughlin and offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride turned Manning loose. Take a look at the progression of Manning from 2008 to 2011:
2008: 289 of 479, 3,238 yards, 21 TD’s and 10 INT’s. Deep passes: 15 of 56, 462 yards, 4 TD’s and 3INT’s.
2009: 317 of 509, 4,021 yards, 27 TD’s and 14 INT’s. Deep passes: 24 of 60, 766 yards, 7 TD’s and 4 INT’s.
2010: 339 of 539, 4,002 yards, 31 TD’s and 25 INT’s. Deep passes: 24 of 61, 833 yards, 11 TD’s and 4 INT’s.
2011: 359 of 589, 4,933 yards, 29 TD’s and 16 INT’s. Deep passes: 37 of 98, 1,353 yards, 10 TD’s and 6 INT’s.
That is quite a jump from 2010 to 2011. Manning threw 16.6 percent of his passes more than 21 yards in the air this season as compared to 11.3 percent in 2010, Many people may point to the league becoming a pass first league, which is true, but only three quarterbacks threw more passes than Manning in 2011: Matthew Stafford, Drew Brees and Tom Brady and none of them went deep nearly as much as Manning.
Stafford attempted 663 passes, but only 64 were considered deep for a percentage of 9.7. Brees threw 657 passes, but only 61 were considered deep for a percentage of 9.3. Brady put the ball in the air 611 times, but only 48 were considered deep for a percentage of 7.9.
The majority of the Giants offense has come from their ability to go down field. While his 37.8 completion percentage on deep passes does not look pretty, it is around the league average and the key number to focus on his yards per attempt. Manning averaged 13.81 yards per attempt on deep passes in comparison, Brady completed 31.3 percent and averaged just 10.88 yards per attempt.
For as much credit as the New England defense has received for its performance on Sunday, specifically late, a closer look at a key number could spell trouble for them against New York. On passes of 21 or more yards, Joe Flacco completed two of his three attempts for 79 yards. To put that into perspective, on the season, Flacco completed just 18 of his 78 attempts on deep passes for an average of 8.24 yards per attempt. Against the Patriots, Flacco connected at a rate of 26.33 yards per attempt.
In their earlier meeting this season, New England’s defense did a solid job against Manning, holding him to 250 yards on 20 of 39 passing to go with two TD’s and an interception. The problem with trying to draw conclusions from that game is that while the Patriots fielded in essence their complete defense, the Giants were down two key contributors. Hakeem Nicks missed the game with a hamstring injury while Ahmad Bradshaw sat with a stress fracture in his foot. Both are expected to be 100 percent healthy this time around which means Manning will be playing with all of his weapons available.
What does it all mean? In all likelihood, it means that it can almost be counted on that the Giants will strike several times down the field. New York’s ability to hit on the long ball, mixed with the fact that the Patriots gave up a league-leading 79 passing plays of 20-plus yards sets up an interesting chess match. Will Bill Belichick try to take the deep ball away and force Manning to try to check down for short gains? Or will Tom Coughlin try to work off the assumption that New England might play a dime defense throughout and try to work underneath routes by sending decoys down the field? It is something to watch for come kick-off next Sunday.