The Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened the season against a quarterback making his 20th career NFL start, and playing just his second game with a new team. That went well, as the Bucs picked off Chicago's Mike Glennon three times on the way to a 29-7 win. The following Sunday, Tampa Bay faced a quarterback making his 26th career start, and playing just his second game with a new team. That didn't go as well, with Minnesota's Case Keenum firing three touchdown passes in a 31-17 Vikings victory.
The Buccaneers' third game of 2017 brings a wholly different challenge with the player under center for the opposition. That would be the New York Giants' Eli Manning, called an "iron man" by Buccaneers defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, and for good reason. Manning just made career NFL start number 202, and he hasn't missed a game in more than a dozen years.
In that time, the first-overall pick of the 2004 draft has won two Super Bowl rings and thrown for nearly 50,000 yards. But what has the Buccaneers' defense concerned isn't Manning's jewelry or his stat line; rather, it's everything he's seen through the years. New York's coaching staff is trading on all that experience, letting Manning make a lot of decisions at the line of scrimmage based on what he sees. For Buccaneer defenders, that means there will be a lot of very important action taking place in the few seconds between when Manning approaches his center and when the center delivers the ball to him.
Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith has seen the tape of New York's last game, when Manning led a 24-point fourth-quarter explosion, and knows he has to have his group well-prepared for a mental battle.
"Ninety percent of the time he was in the no-huddle calling in at the line, so it's going to be a little bit of a chess match in terms of us trying to hold our shell and hold our intentions in what we are trying to do," Smith explained. "They definitely want to get into the best play, and most offenses do. He's going to stand over and look at what you're in and if you 'send them an email' [about your intentions], you're going to get cut up. It's going to be important for us, like always, to work on our disguises."
Disguising his crew's intentions has always been a key part of Smith's approach. He has described his goal as having a defense that is simple for his players to operate but difficult for the opposing quarterback to figure out. As the Bucs prepare for the Giants' invasion of Raymond James Stadium this Sunday, Smith and the defense have to pull the double duty of correcting the problems that led to breakdowns in Minnesota – including four long completions – and devising some productive reactions to Manning's inevitable checks.
Tampa Bay's home crowd may give Manning an added layer of difficulty with a lot of noise, but that could also affect the home defense. Last season, it was improved communication that led to a big turnaround in defensive results in the second half of the campaign.
"We've got to be able to communicate," said Smith. "We're hoping it's going to be loud and they're going to have a hard time communicating. When they're having a hard time communicating, we've got to make sure that we're all doing the same thing in terms of what coverages that we are in. We can't give up the explosive plays like we did last week – can't happen."
Through three games, the Giants' offense has had a serious imbalance, racking up 257.3 passing yards per game but a league-low 48.7 rushing yards per outing. New York's running backs are only running the ball about 14 times per game, and two of those backs – Orleans Darkwa and Shane Vereen – were unable to practice on Wednesday. The Bucs likely expect Manning to put the offense on his back, and for the Giants to continue to run a majority of plays out of three-receiver sets, commonly referred to as "11" personnel.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday.
If that does occur, the Bucs' slot corner, Robert McClain, will be a very busy man. He could be one of the more important chess pieces, and it's important for him not to become a pawn in Manning's check game.
"There's going to be a lot of subs, so I have to be very cautious of certain run plays and down plays," said McClain. "They're going to be primarily in '11' so I have to be ready for a lot more run and pass at the same time. Eli's a smart quarterback. He's won two Super Bowls. He's been in the game for a long time so he's seen every defense you could possibly imagine. So we have to find ways of confusing him and disrupt him any way we can."
There's a potential upside for the Buccaneers to Manning's chess game if the defense can play it right and get the quarterback to expose his king. If Tampa Bay's disguises and checks are good enough, they might occasionally get him to check into an option that plays right into what the defense has planned.
"It's very hard, but if you can take control of it you can actually make him run a play that you want them to run," said safety Keith Tandy. "That's one thing we've really got to focus on this week. Anytime you have a veteran quarterback, they've seen it all so it's going to be a nice chess match. It's always fun to play against those guys – they make a check, you make a check and you're going back and forth."
As Tandy notes, however, it won't be easy. The Giants have given Manning a lot of control over the offense because they trust him to win those mental battles at the line of scrimmage. For the Buccaneers to successfully oppose that, they need to make it a one-on-one match by having all 11 defenders work together as much as possible. Any individual slip-up can be the tip of a hand.
"Everybody has to be in unison," said Tandy. "If just like one or two guys move, he'll look somewhere else [and think], 'This guy's here, but this other guy is here so there's no way they could be doing that.' So you've all got to be in unison. You've got to be conscious of when you're doing it because sometimes you'll leave somebody out to dry. Sometimes you'll leave yourself out to dry."
Of course, just because the Buccaneers win the mind game on a specific play, it doesn't necessarily mean they will stop Manning on that play. Conversely, Tampa Bay's defense needs to be ready to resist Manning even when he makes the right checks. That just comes down to sound defense, which the Bucs did not play a week ago.
"I don't think it's so much what Eli does in a situation," said McDonald. "It's on us, for the most part. We've got to take the onus and say, 'What do we need to do to accomplish our goal this week?' We've got to be good with our eyes, we've got to be on our keys and we've got to be in our gaps."