Commentary

Is Eli seeing ghosts in the pocket?

Eli Manning has been hit hard this year, and it might have him feeling haunted

Updated: November 14, 2013, 8:57 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Eli Manning has relied on toughness and an aversion to unnecessary risks to build the longest active consecutive start streak among NFL quarterbacks, at 155 games. And yet, in the midst of a down season in which his 16 interceptions also lead the league, the way Manning turned away from a blitz coming at him last Sunday and threw his third pick-six of the season -- this one against the Oakland Raiders -- revived a growing suspicion.

Has Manning been hit so much this year that he's getting gun shy about the pass-rush pressure? Or worse, is Manning flinching and feeling ghosts around him when there are none?

[+] EnlargeEli Manning
Elsa/Getty ImagesEli Manning has been sacked 22 times this season.

Even Manning's father, Archie, admitted on the radio this week that "you start to feel there is a black cloud hanging over you" when you're going through the sort of mistake-filled season that Eli has been enduring.

"I haven't seen anything, but I'm not studying Eli," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said Thursday. Asked if he believes in the haunted-quarterback phenomenon in general, Tuck nodded and said, "Sure. I've seen it happen against us many times. Once you start hitting a quarterback, especially early in the game, they just start to expect someone to be there to hit them again. You even start to see guys duck when nobody is there."

How much that's happening now to Eli is a question worth pondering with sack specialist Clay Matthews and the Green Bay Packers coming to New York on Sunday hoping to end the Giants' three-game winning streak.

The Packers are expected to start third-string quarterback Scott Tolzien in the absence of injured Aaron Rodgers. But Tolzien (24-for-39, 280 yards, 1 touchdown) actually had better stats last week against Philadelphia than Manning did (12-for-22, 140 yards, 1 TD) in the Giants' win against Oakland.

So just because the Giants should have a better chance of beating the Packers without Rodgers and maintain their hopes of climbing back into the NFC East race doesn't mean they will. Little about the Giants' 3-6 season has felt sure this year.

Eli himself never could or would admit the pass-rush pressure, weariness at taking hits and working without a reliable running game is all getting to him. But outsiders have been talking about it for weeks.

Early last month when the Giants were 0-4, an unnamed NFL personnel director told the New York Daily News, "[Manning's] confidence looks shot to me. He doesn't even look like he's having fun. He just looks beat up."

Ron Jaworski, the former Eagles quarterback and current ESPN analyst who is known for his extensive film study, has questioned Manning's "decision-making" and, more recently, whether he's getting "cabin fever" in the pocket.

Jaworski's decision-making remark came just days after Manning threw three fourth-quarter interceptions against the Eagles on Oct. 27, and even Giants coach Tom Coughlin -- long Eli's most steadfast supporter -- conceded some of Manning's errant throws were "just unbelievable."

Manning cleaned things up in the Giants' wins over Minnesota and rematch against the Eagles. He didn't throw an interception in either game. But Sunday's 24-20 win against the Raiders presented another example of how the hits might be getting to him: With a blitz coming off the corner, Manning telegraphed his pass to his intended target, Victor Cruz; as he unloaded the ball as he turned his head -- never a good idea. The Raiders' Tracy Porter undercut the route and returned the interception 43 yards for a touchdown just before the first half ended.

Coughlin, not wanting to risk any more mistakes, decided to run out the clock when the Giants got the ball right back, and they were booed as they ran off to the dressing room to "regroup," in Coughlin's words.

"I think [Eli] let it go and didn't even see the nickel [back], but he was there," Coughlin said.

It wasn't so much the fact Manning made a mistake. That happens. It was the way Manning flinched that was telling. The old Eli -- the one who trusted his offensive line -- didn't do that as often. This Eli -- the one who has been sacked 22 times and hit another 48 times -- seems to have accelerated the internal clock in his head of when pressure might arrive. How much risk he has. Or how long he has to make a decision.

Not all of his interceptions have been his fault. But some have been more like no-look passes he launched just hoping they'd be caught. The Giants play their 10th game Sunday and Eli and his receivers still don't look totally in sync. Defense has carried them more during their winning streak.

When Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride was asked Thursday if he sees Manning acting haunted by the rush, Gilbride said, "Uh -- no. No I haven't. I mean, when the pressure gets to him, when they are around him, it obviously affects him, because it affects everybody.

"But is he reacting unnecessarily or imagining things? I don't think emotionally or mentally it's affecting him at all. I just know he was disappointed because he felt, just like we all did, that there were opportunities we left out there Sunday out on the field."

The Giants' makeshift offensive line, which lost Chris Snee and David Baas for the season and was without David Diehl for a long stretch, is partly to blame for Manning's struggles. The Giants' lack of a running game has been fingered, too, except the Giants finally got a robust 30-carry, 115-yard day from Andre Brown last week in his return from a broken leg. And still, Eli struggled.

Now the Packers are coming to town. Here comes that pass rush of theirs that comes from all sorts of angles and formations. Giants offensive lineman Kevin Boothe admitted the Packers rush is tough to stop, but he also said Thursday, "We know if we give Eli a clean pocket, he'll be effective." But that's a big "if" in a season that is stubbornly remaining Manning's iffiest season yet.

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