Playbook: Studying improved QBs

With the season coming to a close, the crew at “Playbook” has taken to the film to find players who made marked improvements on the field.

In our first look back at 2011, we analyze a trio of quarterbacks.

Defensive backs | Defensive tackles | Wide receivers

Eli Manning, Giants

Eli backed up his widely dismissed preseason proclamation of “elite” status with improvements in anticipation, communication with his receivers and ball placement.

An elite quarterback can recognize coverage and anticipate open receivers. Manning’s struggles with this last season were a major factor in his league-worst 25 INTs. This year, he was able to see windows and release the ball before his receivers came open. He was able to fit throws into tighter spots and helped enable his receivers to do more after the catch. In 2011, the Giants ranked fifth in the league in RAC yards after ranking 25th in 2010.

Manning showed remarkable improvement in ball placement. Upper-echelon quarterbacks deliver passes that maximize the receiver’s chances of making the catch while minimizing the defender’s chances of making a play. Manning has consistently put his receivers in a position to succeed, whether by making back-shoulder throws, keeping the ball low to help them avoid getting hit over the middle, or holding them away from the safety on outside routes.

The addition of Victor Cruz and the improvement of Hakeem Nicks cannot be underestimated when evaluating Manning’s success. With the Giants’ reliance on option routes, communication and trust has been critical. Manning developed a rapport with Cruz and Nicks that he didn’t have last year with Mario Manningham and a less-experienced Nicks.

Alex Smith, 49ers

Jim Harbaugh took Smith under his wing, a move that produced positive results from Week 1 on. San Francisco structured the offense to maximize his abilities and Smith discovered a newfound decisiveness, helping him take a big step in 2011.

The 49ers’ passing game changed dramatically in 2011. Harbaugh did not ask Smith to step outside of his abilities; the quarterback attempted nearly seven fewer passes per game in 2011 than he did the previous season, but threw three more touchdowns and five fewer interceptions. The team took advantage of the underneath passing game and utilized Smith’s mobility with bootlegs off of play-action. Smith also made better decisions, refraining from forcing balls and knowing when to throw it away.

With Harbaugh putting him in the position to be more efficient and successful, Smith appeared more confident this year. His timing was much improved, he got the ball out of his hand faster and he completed passes into tight windows over the middle of the field — throws he wouldn’t have attempted last season. He led six game-winning drives — as many as he had in the previous five years combined — including an epic seven-play 85-yard drive to beat the Saints in the playoffs.

Matt Moore, Dolphins

In one of the biggest surprises of the year, Moore replaced injured Dolphins starter Chad Henne and helped the team win six of its last nine games. Moore struggled with Carolina in 2010, throwing just five touchdowns and 10 interceptions. This year, his connection with Brandon Marshall, his mobility in the pocket, and an ability to use the middle of the field were huge contributors to his success.

Moore was especially effective throwing to the middle of the field. He had the fourth-best passer rating (113.7) when throwing over the middle, behind Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford and Drew Brees. His ability to fit a ball into a tight window was exceptional this year.

Moore was also able to find Marshall early and often. The receiver averaged a career-high 15 yards per reception in his starts with Moore, and had five touchdowns and four 100-yard games after having just one score and one 100-yard game in his first four starts of the season with Henne.

Moore is athletic and, for the most part, moved well in and out of the pocket behind a weak offensive line. This, combined with Miami’s use of play-action and bootlegs, allowed him to extend plays and find receivers downfield.

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show – airs Friday at 8 p.m. ET (Patriots) and 8:30 p.m. ET (Giants) on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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