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Eli Manning was always the third son. The Manning family had four tickets to Saints' home games when he was a kid, and the three boys -- Peyton, Cooperand Eli -- would sit together, and the fourth seat would always go to afriend. "The deal was we were always supposed to rotate bringing afriend, but somehow I never got to bring one," Eli said on Thursday."But it was a fun time with my big brothers. Dad used to say, 'Makesure Eli gets a hot dog.' ''


With father Archie upin the press box doing the games on the Saints' Radio Network, this wasthe boys' ritual for five or six years on Saints' home Sundays, growingup a seven-minute drive from the Superdome.


In high school,at nearby Isidore Newman, Peyton and Cooper played regular-season gamesat the 'Dome. But by the time Eli was of age, the Isidore Newman customof playing once a year in the big stadium had ended, and he neverplayed there. Never played there in college at Ole Miss. (The Rebels inthe Sugar Bowl? Not hardly.) Never played there in his first five yearsin the NFL.


"This my first time,'' said Eli, now 28 and inhis sixth NFL season as the quarterback for the 5-0 Giants, coming totown to play the 4-0 Saints Sunday in the NFL's game of the day. "Inever really thought about it much ... well, yes I did. Both of mybrothers got to play there, when I was in seventh and eighth grade, andI guess I thought about when it would be my turn. But in high school,not in college or the pros. Then, when we were supposed to play therefour years ago, Katrina happened, and they played the home game at ourplace.''


So it has to be an emotional weekend, no? It mightbe, but because of the bigness of it, Eli's not giving into the moment.He's not going home to see his folks Saturday when the Giants get intotown, not going to dinner with family or friends. Eli will have aCoughlinesque focus this weekend. He'll need it.


Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williamsis one of the great changeup pitchers of any defensive mind in thegame, and Manning can be sure he'll see a few things Sunday that hehasn't seen on tape.


But make no mistake about it: Thisgame is not going to be about the cutesy story of Eli returning home.This is going to be about Eli the Sudden Mad Bomber, matching Drew Brees throw for throw.




There are many surprising things about the season's first five weeks: The Broncos allowing 8.6 points a game, the other Steve Smithleading the league in receiving, Cincinnati topping the AFC North(deservedly), Tennessee falling off the face of the earth ... and EliManning playing like Dan Fouts. And like Peyton Manning.


Thebest single statistical barometer of quarterback proficiency isprobably yards-per-attempt because it measures how far downfield aquarterback is getting the ball on his average pass-drop. Eli's alwaysbeen a middle- to bottom-of-the-pack guy, averaging, in order, 6.75,6.21, 6.31 and 6.76 yards-per-attempt in his first four full startingseasons. This year, he's at 8.98, an amazing quantum leap from yearfour to five. Eli's second in the league to brother Peyton, at 9.09YPA.


You have to put a faint asterisk on that numberbecause the Giants have played three pathetic football teams -- TampaBay, Kansas City, Oakland (combined record: 1-14) -- the last threeweeks. But I'll tell you why it's not fluke: Because Eli is a differentplayer, and he's got better receivers as downfield threats than Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer were.


Whenyou watched the Giants of two and three years ago, you often sawManning hitting receivers out of their cuts, just before the moment ofimpact with defenders. Now, Manning's throwing the ball earlier -- likehis brother, like a smart veteran, when the receivers are just comingout of their cuts, just before they turn to look for the ball.


Gettingthe ball a couple of steps before impact means the world to a receiverbecause he can then juke or run past a corner or safety, and thesewideouts, in particular, have been very good running after the catch.


Thekind of trust he's built is even more impressive considering he's knownhis top four targets all for three years or less: tight end Kevin Boss and wideout Steve Smith (three years), Mario Manningham and Hakeem Nicks (one). Amazing. The average age of these four targets is 23.5, and Manning looks like he's been throwing to them for years.


It'sa credit to Manning that he's built such an early trust with hisreceivers, and his accuracy (a career-best .644) reflects that. Butgive the receivers credit too. Smith and Manningham, in particular,have boosted Manning's yards-per-attempt with their quickness (Smithespecially) and speed after the catch. You watch Smith, Manningham andNicks, and you say: They've done this before.


"When youwatch Eli now versus early in his career,'' said the Saints' defensivecoordinator Williams, "you see an offensive line doing a great jobsetting up the pocket and giving him time. And you see him not forcingthe issue downfield. He forces nothing. His receivers make cleancatches with room to run after the catch. He anticipates them comingopen, as opposed to throwing when he sees them open. By then, it'susually too late for the receiver to do anything with the ball after hecatches it.''


Manning said the downfield playmaking ability of the young guys has opened up offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride'splaycalling. "These receivers fit in better to what coach Gilbridewants to call,'' Manning said. "Finally, the plays I've never reallyliked now work. It's not that I didn't really like them, it's that wedidn't have guys open on them; guys weren't winning the battlesdownfield. Now you've got Steve making great double-moves, especiallyout of the slot, and Mario's got great agility downfield, and Nicks isso strong after the catch. Those are great traits for downfieldreceivers to have.''


I expect the Saints won't think theycan get to Manning consistently on Sunday, and Williams is likely toplay more defenders in the back, trying to interfere with his passinglanes. But it won't be a Williams gameplan without a few jailbreakblitzes. But only a few. Why?


"We're playing a patient veteran,'' Williams told me. "Like his brother.''





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Great article! I love how it brings up the new playcalling possibilities we have with quicker, more precise route runners that have the ability to make something happen after the catch. It's great to know that Eli realizes each one of his receivers individual traits and he can utilize them.

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