Life is the NFL hasn't been easy for Eli Manning. He came into the league with a bad perception when his father Archie led a revolt against the San Diego Chargers – the team that owned the first-round pick in the 2004 draft – and made it clear that Eli would never sign with the Chargers. That stance led to him being traded to the New York Giants and the media pressure-cooker that comes with being a starting QB in the Big Apple.
Throw in the fact that he is the little brother of arguably the best quarterback in NFL history, Manning has faced a long, difficult road to respectability. However, he has persevered. He's never missed a game in his career due to injuries, despite playing very banged up. He has proved himself by just about any standard outside the family. He has been able to make a smooth transition despite losing his three top targets – Plaxico Burress, Jeremy Shockey and Amani Toomer – in the last two-plus years. While not viewed in the same breath as his older brother, the Vikings know what the younger Manning is capable of.
"He's a great quarterback, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback," linebacker Chad Greenway said. "He can hurt you in many ways and we have a lot of respect for him and the entire Giants offense. He's a proven winner and that isn't handed to you in this league."
Yet, Manning has had some of the worst games of his career against the Vikings. He has career record of 0-4 against the Vikings, including losses in each of the last three seasons. In his first two starts, he was his own worst enemy, throwing four interceptions in each game – losing 24-21 in 2005 and 41-17 in 2007 at the Meadowlands. In the last two, he has been held completely in check – throwing for just 119 yards in the 2008 meeting at the Metrodome and for just 141 yards in last year's 44-7 beatdown in the regular-season finale.
He has yet to show he can do against the Vikings what he has against the rest of the NFL. Linebacker Ben Leber said the Vikings have changed up what they do or throw new wrinkles designed to baffle Manning. But, just as the Chargers have consistently found ways to befuddle Peyton, the Vikings have been able to shake, rattle and roll Eli.
"We're not trying to do anything specific just for Eli," Leber said. "We're always trying to confuse quarterbacks and always trying to give them different looks and do something else. For whatever reason, we have had better success with him, but it's a whole team deal – the offense has given us points to make them one-dimensional, and it lets us, with the front four, really get after him. It sometimes doesn't matter what you're doing on the back end. He could know exactly what we're playing, but if those guys up front are getting to the quarterback, it all plays hand in hand and hopefully we can duplicate it."
One thing the Vikings have to be ready for is the machinations Manning goes through prior to the snap. Taking a cue from his older brother, he routinely has the offense at the line of scrimmage with 15-20 seconds left on the play clock and barks out signals at the line, which safety Husain Abdullah said can "be anything from a color to yelling, ‘Toilet! Toilet! Toilet!" Many believe that this is designed to get defenders thinking and that, more times than not, his pre-snap histrionics are merely fake window dressing, or as players call them, "dummy calls."
"You try not to put too much into it," Abdullah said. "They do make dummy calls, but it's hard to filter it out with the clock running down and the crowd making noise. A lot of times, you pick it up better from the sidelines than you do on the field. We're thinking about what the down and distance is, the positioning of their receivers, the play we've called and our responsibilities – those kinds of things. A lot of times, when he's yelling out whatever, we're not picking up on it. If they figure out what they do once they make those calls on the sideline, we will pay more attention the next time we hear it, but a lot of times, he isn't changing anything. He's just pointing out where we're at and seeing if he can confuse us by making it look like he's changing a play."
Leber said the worst thing the Vikings can do is let Manning's theatrics get in the way. Too often, big plays can arise when a defense tries to overthink what he is doing and, as a result, get themselves out of position and vulnerable to explosive plays. Leber said there's enough to think about before the ball in snapped to concern themselves with what Manning is doing – even if he points directly at one of the defenders and barks out a call as a result.
"There are times we can get a bead on what their protection stuff is, but as far as plays go, there's so much going on pre-snap in your own mind, to try to pay attention to what they're saying doesn't always work out. They do throw out dummy calls and you could guess one thing and they do another and get burned. The best thing to do is not worry about it and let your keys take you where you're going to go."
While his numbers against the Vikings have been woeful, Manning is an elite NFL quarterback. He is a student of the game and has learned a lot in his career. He was forced to play with almost an entirely new corps of receivers last year and has already built such a rapport with them that defenders wonder how they can be so on the same page so quickly.
"He is very good in his decision-making," cornerback Asher Allen said. "He reads the field extremely well and has the ability to read the defense, find the receiver who should be open and deliver him the ball. He has great chemistry with his receivers and, when you have that kind of chemistry, you complete a lot of passes. It's like he knows what they're thinking and what they're going to do before they do it. For a defense, that's not easy to do."
CB Lito Sheppard is no stranger to Manning. Sheppard came into the league in 2002 and was with the Eagles during the maturation process of the younger Manning. He saw him from the time he was wide-eyed youngster locking on his primary receiver to becoming a true field general.
"He has gotten better every year," Sheppard said. "The Eli Manning we're going to see Sunday is much better than the guy I went up against when I was with the Eagles and he's better than the guy the Vikings faced last year. He doesn't get the attention Peyton gets, but he is very good in his own right and needs to be reckoned with."
But, through all his improvement, Manning has yet to put up a big game against the Vikings. If not the self-inflicting wounds in his first two starts, he was forced to check down his passes for minimal gains through the air in his last two starts. Manning has been cursed when it comes to playing the Vikings. Abdullah said it's hard to believe in curses or put too much weight in what a player has done in the previous meetings, but, when it happens often enough, poor play can become a trend.
"There might be some truth to that," Abdullah said of the perception that the Vikings have Manning's number. "They always show clips from those past games and we've been able to make a lot of plays against him. You don't want to think that you know what they're going to do and that you can just show up and stop it, but there is something to pressuring him and forcing him to get out of his comfort zone. He won't be thinking about those games while we're playing on Sunday, but it might get in his head a little bit if they struggle early. I hope it does."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
Vikings know the Manning act
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