The Eli Manning to Mario Manningham pass in Super Bowl XLVI is perhaps the most perfectly executed pass play in Super Bowl history. It is also with no doubt the play that resulted in the Giants winning their fourth Super Bowl in the past twenty six years, the most Super Bowl victories over that time span by any organization in the NFL. Following the game, I decided that I would examine the available video and break down the play for posting onto the Big Blue Huddle. I have broken down the play into its constituent parts. I hope that you all enjoy it.
The Patriots lead the Giants, 17-15, fourth quarter, with 3:46 remaining in the game. The Giants have the ball, first and ten, on their own twelve yard line. The ball sits on the left hash mark. This is particularly important, as the pre-snap ball position makes the right side of the field the wide side.
The Giants’ Offense
Line: Diehl (LT) Boothe (LG) Baas (C) Snee (RG) MacKenzie (RT)
WRs: Manningham (LE) Cruz (Slot) Nicks (RE)
The Patriots’ Defense
Line: Ninkowich (LDE) Warren (LDT) Wilfolk (RDT) M. Anderson (RDE)
LBs: Mayo (LLB) Spikes (RLB)
DBs: Molden (LCB), Arrington (slot nickel) Moore (RC) Ihedigbo (LS) Chung (RS)
The Giants’ personnel on the field indicates that they will show a three wide receiver set with a single tight end and a single back. The Patriots defense counters with true nickel personnel. By that I mean four down linemen, two true linebackers, three cornerbacks, and two safeties.
The usual formation with the ball sitting on the left hash mark should show the Giants positioning the tight end to the right side of the field with the back positioned to the left. Instead, the Giants flip/flop these positions, with Bradshaw to the right and Pascoe on the left. In an additional twist, Pascoe lines up as an H-back, flanked outside of Diehl. Manningham lines up as a split end to the left (and short) side of the field, with Cruz as a slot right and Nicks split wide right.
The Patriots have their nickel package on the field. Ninkowich, playing the LDE, is aligned outside of MacKenzie’s outside shoulder. Gerrard Warren, the LDT, plays a “two-technique,” directly over Snee. Wilfolk, the RDT, plays a three technique between Boothe and Diehl. Mark Anderson is flexed outside of Pascoe. Jerod Mayo is directly over Warren, six yards deep. Brandon Spikes is five yards deep, inside of RDE Anderson but on the outside shoulder of Pascoe. Antwan Molden is five yards deep, outside of Nicks outside shoulder. Kyle Arrington is three yards off the line, on the inside shoulder of Cruz. Sterling Moore is five yards deep, off the outside shoulder of Manningham. James Ihedigbo and Patrick Chung, the right and left safeties, are in standard two-deep coverage. Ihedigbo is thirteen yards deep; Chung is fourteen yards deep.
Pre-Snap Strategies and Responsibilties
The down, distance, score, and time on the clock all require the Patriots to respect the possibility of a running play. Ahmad Bradshaw, the Giants’ sole running back, is strong, fast, and shifty. As such, the Patriot defense must cover all gaps so that, if the Giants do call a run, Bradshaw does not either get past outside containment or else equally counters into a run trap into the middle of the field. This said, the defensive ends must come wide to maintain outside contain while the two DTs and two linebackers cover the inside gaps. With the Patriots in a standard two deep coverage, any safety help will come late on a run and, given Bradshaw’s strength and speed, could result in a very long downfield play.
Unknown to the Patriots, the Giants have called a pass play. The Giants are well aware that the Patriots, in a true nickel, must respect the Giants’ run game. Manning knows that the Patriots’ defensive ends should come wide. Bradshaw has blitz responsibility on Mayo; Diehl the same on Spikes. If neither linebacker blitzes, Bradshaw and Diehl can double up on the defensive ends. This leaves three on two blocking numbers against the Patriots’ defensive tackles.
As stated, LDT Warren lines up in a two technique directly over Snee. This indicates a “loop” on his part since he stands little chance of bulling through the powerful Snee. This also indicates that Wilfolk too is a variable: if Warren loops left, Wilfolk will most likely do the same; if Warren loops right, Wilfolk will either stay home or else loop wide to the right.
Also as stated, the Patriots do indeed show a basic 4-2-5 “Cover Two” defense. Five defenders are aligned short with two safeties deep. The corners are five yards deep, playing an outside technique, as is Spikes. Mayo is slightly deeper, six yards, directly over Warren, giving him a better angle to the wide side of the field. Arrington is three yards off of Cruz in an inside technique. Ihedigbo is thirteen yards deep; Chung (importantly, as it turns out) is fourteen yards deep.
The Giants have called a three receiver route. Nicks will run a short crossing route, working his way towards the middle of the field. Cruz will run a deep out pattern, what we used to call a flag route. He will show a deep post, then cut out and up towards the right sideline. Manningham will run a deep go pattern down the right sideline. As stated, Bradshaw has blitz pickup on Mayo. If Mayo drops into coverage, Bradshaw will double on Ninkowich. Pascoe has primary responsibility on Anderson. Diehl’s primary assignment is blitz pickup on Spikes. If Diehl is certain than Spikes has dropped into coverage, Diehl can then double up on Anderson. The Giants’ inside linemen are zoned off in a slide block scheme. If Warren loops right, Bass can either slide left or right, depending on his read. Excepting for a stunt by either defensive end, both Snee and Boothe will stay respectively with Warren and Wilfolk, sliding in whichever direction indicated by the opposing DT.
The Patriots call a straight four man pass rush and drop seven into coverage. The Patriots are in a zone “roll up” coverage. That means that they will get deep and “roll up” into any under routes. Once the Patriots are certain that the Giants have called a pass play, the safeties will get deep and roll either inside or out, depending on the route tree. Mayo will sprint back into a deep middle zone, a classic “Tampa 2” cover scheme, creating a “Cover 3” deep zone. On the left side of the defense, Molden and Arrington play a man/zone combination. If Nicks runs a deep pattern, either staying on the outside or else posting across the middle, Molden will stay in man on Nicks and Arrington will stay with Cruz. If Nicks runs short underneath route, Molden will pass off Nicks to Arrington who will switch to zone off Cruz. The same goes to the right of the defense. Moore has primary responsibility on Manningham. If Manningham runs a sideline “go” pattern, Moore mans up on Manningham. Spikes must then stay home in case the Giants run a sideline slip route with Pascoe. If Manningham runs a skinny post, Spikes can pick him up and Moore can zone off on Pascoe. The obvious key reads are between Molden and Arrington on the left against Nicks and Cruz, Moore and Spikes on the right against Manningam and Pascoe, with Mayo covering the middle on Bradshaw.
Now let us examine the actual play. I looked at several videos to get a true perspective of every angle of the play. For this thread, I have selected a video made by a fan in the stands since it best shows the entire field of play. The fan actually does a nice job stabilizing the camera just before the snap. The actual play begins about fifteen seconds into the video. Edit by me: I have also included a video which most clearly shows the catch.
As stated above, the Giants run a three receiver route pass play with a seven man mass protect blocking scheme. Also as stated, the Patriots are in a rush four, drop seven defense. The Patriots intend to maximize their rush by overloading to their left, pressuring Manning against any wide side passes. Both defensive ends stay wide. The tackles perform a double loop to the left: Warren into the guard/tackle gap, Wilfolk into the center, or “A” gap. The Giants execute several key reads and assignments. MacKenzie pushes Ninkowich deep outside. Baas slides right to help Snee double up on Warren. Pascoe does a nice job of pushing Anderson to the outside. Diehl makes the right read, staying home until he is certain that Spikes is not coming on a delayed blitz. If fact, if you zero in on Diehl, you will notice that he keeps one eye on Spikes until he is comfortable that Spikes has dropped into coverage. Diehl then slides and doubles on Anderson. Bradshaw does the same, staying home until he sees that Mayo has dropped into zone coverage. In fact, if you look closely, both Bradshaw and Mayo look in on each other until they both respectively believe that the other is not a threat. Bradshaw then slides over and doubles up on Ninkowich.
The key block, and hero of the line for this play, is Kevin Boothe. He is singled up against Vince Wilfolk, one of the true great bull rush defensive tackles in football. As Wilfolk loops into a wide open middle of the line, Boothe successfully slides with him and fights him off so that Manning is able to step into his throw. Great job by the blockers in general, but five stars to Boothe in particular.
Manning’s passing tree is Nicks, Cruz, Manningham. The Nicks/Cruz route looks to be a version of a pick play. It is designed to cross up Molden and Arrington, creating enough confusion to cause both defensive backs to at least temporarily cover one receiver while freeing up one the other. This does not occur, as both defenders stay true to their responsibilities. With Arrington playing an inside technique, Cruz must run around him to the outside in order to run his flag route. As he and Nicks cross, Molden sprints back to zone off the middle/ deep outside zone. Arrington sits down on Nicks who, covered on the cross, works his way towards the sideline. Eli looks this way. He sees Cruz double covered deep by Molden and Ihedigbo, with Arrington waiting to jump any short route to Nicks. Manning does not like this option. Kyle Arrington is one of the best slot covers in the NFL who led the league with seven regular season interceptions. Manning does have another option to that side: given the strong pass blocking, he can slide to the right and dump off to Bradshaw, who has released off of Ninkowich and has begun to drift out into the flat.
Manning opts to stay with his passing tree. He first looks middle. This freezes Patrick Chung, who has dropped a few yards deeper than Ihedigbo. Nothing wrong with that: Chung knows that Sterling Moore, an undrafted rookie corner, is manned up down the left sideline with Mario Manningham. If Manningham beats Moore and Manning connects with the pass, Chung must be angled to make a tackle or else Manningham will break past the defense and will score the go-ahead touchdown. Manningham has slightly beaten Moore. Chung rotates over, but is a step too late. Manning throws to Manningham, delivering a picture perfect throw into very good coverage. Manningham is actually looking in towards the middle of the the field for the ball, but Eli throws to his outside shoulder to prevent any chance of an interception. Manningham adjusts properly, makes a great catch, twists his body as to keep both feet in bounds, and maintains possession as he falls out of bounds.
The play results in a 38 yard gain and positions the Giants at the fifty yard line. The remainder of the drive is almost anti-climactic as Eli picks apart the Patriot secondary for the go-ahead score. Following a flurry of excitement created by the great Tom Brady, the Patriots fall short on the final play of the game. Final score: New York Giants 21, New England Patriots 17.
The Manning to Tyree pass in Super Bowl XLII is perhaps the greatest play in Super Bowl history. On that play, Manning fought through what looked like a sure sack and threw to Tyree, who made a fabulous catch. Manning’s resulting touchdown throw to Plaxico Burress guaranteed both the Giants’ Super Bowl victory and Eli’s game MVP. But Eli’s throw on that play was mostly a prayer. His completion to Manningham was without doubt the most beautiful throw of his career. It pretty much sealed his second Giants’ Super Bowl victory as well as his second game MVP. And, quite likely, his induction into Canton. The pass was, to quote Chris Collingsworth, “Simply remarkable. For the next fifty years, you’ll be watching highlights of that catch.”