Eli Manning was slinging (for better or for worse), Odell Beckham was doing his thing, the defense looked like a throwback to the best Tom Coughlin years in the way it pressured Andy Dalton, and even the much-maligned running game picked up a huge first down to run out the clock, something the Giants haven’t done successfully in 32 years (I’m guessing, I need to double-check that stat). But this game, a 21-20 Giants win, had one clear pivotal play.
Down six at the very start of the fourth quarter, coach Ben McAdoo decided to go for it on fourth and goal at the 3, a call you’re free to refer to as “gutsy,” “ballsy,” or “stupid as hell.” I thought McAdoo was wrong at the time—I complained to my cat, she can vouch for it—and I still think he was wrong. But no one wants to hear about the process after the result, a touchdown pass to rookie Sterling Shepard.
McAdoo’s generally pretty aggressive, and his surety here that he would go for it on fourth down if he needed to paid off. When the teams broke to change sides at the end of the third quarter, facing second-and-goal from the 9, McAdoo told Eli Manning that they were in four-down territory. Because of that knowledge, Manning knew he didn’t have to force the ball into the end zone just yet. Indeed, on third down, he threw a short ball to Tavarres King just to get the Giants closer to paydirt.
“I knew I could take my checkdown to TK, maybe he gets in and if not we would have a chance to go for it on fourth down,” Manning said. “So it was good job by [McAdoo] telling me that on second down so you know the plan and you’re not trying to force things to get touchdowns.”
As for the actual fourth down play, the Giants took exactly what the Bengals gave them, and made use of it.
Here’s what the Cincinnati D showed, and follow along with the video if you like:
It’s a zone defense, and the middle is all clogged up. “Shepard just had a shallow route,” Manning said afterward, but that route would have taken him right through traffic. (Shepard is in the slot on the right side, circled in green.)
So Manning motioned TE Will Tye over to the right side, and CB Darqueze Dennard (yellow circle), who had been sitting up on Shepard, moved over to cover Tye. In turn, LB Vontaze Burfict (red circle) shifted to cover Shepard. A lot more space over the middle now.
Burfict would ultimately end up in man coverage on Shepard. Why? Some more space-clearing routes, and the threat of Odell Beckham.
Let’s check off the Bengals defenders who could potentially have helped Burfict on Shepard. Safety Shawn Williams (orange circle) was sitting back to double-cover Beckham. The other safety, George Iloka (blue), initially feinted to his right and to Shepard, but Shepard’s cross across the middle made him unreachable for Iloka, who doubled back to help out in the corner. LB Vincent Rey (purple) came up to cover RB Rashad Jennings, a pure decoy on this play. That left Burfict (red) all alone on Shepard, and there was no way a linebacker could keep pace with him.
Manning gave Beckham a glance—the double coverage was intact—then immediately looked for Shepard. Here’s what Manning saw at the point of release: Shepard was two steps ahead of Burfict, with no one else in the vicinity.
Truly excellent recognition by Manning (who Tom Coughlin, back to be inducted into the Giants’ Ring of Honor, said doesn’t receive nearly enough credit from fans), and yes, ultimately a good read of the game situation from McAdoo. “We felt like we needed to score touchdowns,” McAdoo said, and he was right. Neither team scored again the rest of the game.