Eli Manning, Giants mastering checkdown; it's getting them nowhere

Through two games, Saquon Barkley is on pace to break an NFL record for receptions to a running back. But that's not exactly a good thing. Tim Heitman/USA TODAY Sports

ARLINGTON, Texas -- New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley tied an NFL record with 14 receptions in Sunday night’s loss to the Dallas Cowboys, which could be looked at as a bright spot during an otherwise bleak offensive effort. Or it could conversely be viewed as troubling, when you figure all that work equated to a total of 80 yards gained and none of the passes was thrown more than 10 yards downfield.

Barkley had to make more than a few tacklers miss to get those 80 yards as he worked overtime in the passing game. The rookie has been targeted 22 times in his first two career games. He’s on pace for a whopping (and unrealistic) 128 receptions, which would shatter an NFL record for single-season receptions by a running back. The Chicago Bears' Matt Forte had 102 catches in 2014.

It’s almost silly, but so is the way the Giants are executing and operating on offense.

Quarterback Eli Manning was 16-of-20 passing in the first half on Sunday night. For 97 yards! That’s six yards per completion, with a good chunk of the yardage coming from his receivers doing work after catches.

Manning was averaging minus-0.2 yards per yards per completion at one point before the final drive of the first half, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Yes, the Giants were throwing on average behind the line of scrimmage on passes that Manning completed. A checkdown to Barkley, swing pass or screen was way more the norm than the exception.

It has been a problem early this season. The Giants threw short of the first-down marker on 6 of 7 plays on third-and-5 or longer in the second half of their Week 1 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. They threw short of the marker on all seven of their third downs in the first half on Sunday.

When described as an "inordinate" number of throws short of the first-down sticks, coach Pat Shurmur disagreed.

"First of all, I don’t think that’s correct, but go ahead," he said during a conference call on Monday.

The follow-up question asked why so many short of the marker. Was it by design, circumstance, quarterback decisions?

"Obviously, the plays are designed to get the first down, and there’s times when you’re playing against man coverage where you get catch-and-run scenarios, and then there’s other times when you have layered passes where you have a downfield throw and then kind of a shorter throw that requires a run to get the first," Shurmur said. "Depending on how all that plays out, really doesn’t matter as long as you get the first. Then if you didn’t get it, you didn’t get it."

Well, the Giants converted 1-of-7 third downs via the pass in the first half on Sunday night. That came when Odell Beckham Jr. shook a defender and turned it into an eight-yard gain on third-and-4 on the opening drive.

It’s not just third downs that are alarming. Manning had just two of his 20 first-half passes travel more than 10 yards in the air at Dallas.

“You obviously want to get the ball down the field,” Shurmur said immediately afterward. “We took our shots, like we did in the first game. They played back, and we couldn’t get the ball down the field. And we got pressure, and those didn’t work out the way we wanted.”

The pressure is a problem. Manning was sacked six times -- more than in any game last year -- against the Cowboys and was under constant duress.

The offensive line hasn’t started the season well and now has lost its starting center. Jon Halapio needs surgery on a broken ankle and leg.

This will not help an already existing problem. Manning’s inability to move around the pocket limits the Giants’ ability to hit on the kind of broken plays you see around the league on a weekly basis. They have a quarterback alternating between seeing pressure and ghosts -- and settling for checkdowns even on the rare plays when there is time.

Manning averaged 3.2 air yards per completion against the Cowboys. He’s averaging 4.34 yards this season, which ranks 27th of the 32 qualified passers. Only Nick Foles, Blaine Gabbert, Andrew Luck and Sam Bradford throw the ball shorter. It leaves all the Giants' explosive weaponry -- Beckham, Evan Engram and Sterling Shepard -- going to waste.

The Giants didn’t reach the end zone until there was 1 minute, 27 seconds left in the fourth quarter against the Cowboys. They have scored two touchdowns on 20 possessions this season. That’s not nearly good enough -- and it's worse than last year, when they finished 31st in scoring.

“They did a good job mixing up their coverages. I don’t know if they did anything specifically. They just did a good job giving us some pressure and not enough time to get the ball downfield,” Manning said after the loss to the Cowboys.

Both Beckham and Shepard talked about the Cowboys parking two safeties deep and keeping everything in front of them. The Giants didn’t have an answer. They dumped and dumped and dumped. It is what haunted them the past two seasons under Ben McAdoo. It was supposed to be different under Shurmur. Instead, the checkdown fest looks awfully similar, with Manning the most notable constant.

But it’s not just that. The Jaguars used a lot of single-high safeties and Manning was still throwing underneath regularly on third down in the opener.

It’s likely the pressure warrants such throws on some plays. It’s possible that settling for a completion regardless of the situation is something that has been programmed into Manning over the past few years and he is unable to shake it off even when necessary. Shurmur himself spoke about Davis Webb needing to find completions earlier this summer before cutting him last month.

But early this season, all these completions aren’t leading to first downs or getting the Giants anywhere. Manning is completing a career-best 69.1 percent of his passes, but the Giants are 29th in the NFL in first downs, averaging 16.0 in the first two weeks. It’s an unusual dichotomy, to say the least.

Something has to give this Sunday against the also-winless Houston Texans if the Giants are to avoid a second straight disastrous season and miss the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.

Beckham insists it will happen. He remained confident in the unit after the loss to the Cowboys. Manning preached time working in a new offense and scheme.

“I just hope it’s way sooner than later,” Beckham said.

It had better be, or the checkdown champs won’t score many points or be able to win many games.