WELCOME TO the big leagues, kid. That's the message a swarming NFL defense sent to the first pick of the 2004 draft late in the third quarter of Sunday's game at Giants Stadium. And though Eli Manning would have other chances to pull out a victory, this would be the play he'd regret most after the Falcons flew home with a 14-10 win.
Atlanta led 14-7, but Manning had all the momentum. Earlier in the quarter he'd led the Giants on the first scoring drive of his NFL career--a crisp 72-yard march. Now New York had the ball, second-and-five, on the Falcons' 28.
Atlanta defensive coordinator Ed Donatell called for Strong Dog 3, a zone blitz. The weakside end, Brady Smith, dropped into coverage while the two strongside linebackers, Chris Draft and Matt Stewart, blitzed over the tight end side. It was the perfect call. "We thought the tendency they showed was to throw a slant on second down," said Falcons coach Jim Mora. Zone blitzes are especially effective against quick slants and crosses, because the quarterback often has to adjust his throws to work the ball around defensive linemen who have dropped into areas that are usually unoccupied.
At the snap Manning saw Draft and Stewart coming on his right. A veteran quarterback knows that two blitzers coming from the same area of the field leave a vacancy behind them, so he might first look there for a receiver in a seam. But a rookie quarterback is more inclined to look away from the chaos. At least he thinks he's looking away from the chaos. Manning immediately looked left for wideout Amani Toomer, but he never saw the 6'5", 274-pound Smith, who got his first interception after 81/2 NFL seasons.
"I thought I had the slant open," said Manning, "but I threw it right to [Smith]. I guess you'd call it a rookie mistake."
It's a mistake Manning probably won't make a month from now, which is why Mora was glad to escape the Meadowlands with a win. "I'm glad we got Eli in his first start," he said, "not his fourth or fifth. I think he's going to be just like his brother [Peyton] in a couple of years." -- Peter King