Dec 312004
 
Harsh Reality

I was told recently that I may have burned some bridges within the Giants’ organization with my harsh game review after the team’s 31-7 drubbing at the hands of the Washington Redskins on December 5th. I realized the magnitude of those words when I typed them, fully conscious of the potential consequences. But I felt it important to state my conviction – a conviction that I hope turns to be false – that the Giants are a broken franchise.

The Giants are structurally rotten. And the team’s hierarchy is unable or unwilling to recognize it. Championships are not won in January, but in March and April.

The Giants love to hide behind the mystique of “the richness of the team’s history.” Well folks, the team’s history is not that rich. Much of it has to do with the simple fact that the team has been around longer than most. But the Giants went 30 years without a championship from 1956 to 1986. And you would have to go back 18 years before 1956 to find another Championship season. Today, it has been 14 years since the Giants could claim they were the best – and the clock is still ticking with no light at the end of the tunnel. Team officials may point to the extremely successful 2000 season, but that Giants’ team was not a great team. It was a decent team in a poor conference that caught lightening in a bottle in December and early January. That team got mauled in Super Bowl XXXV. In reality, the Giants got lucky, especially on the injury front, just like the Bucs in 2002 and the Panthers in 2003. But the fact that National Football Conference is mired in mediocrity does not automatically excuse the Giants’ franchise for also being a significant contributor to that mediocrity. Saying that “is just the way pro football is now” is the defense of the weak. And it certainly does not explain away the one consistently strong team in the NFC (the Eagles) and a number of consistently strong teams in the AFC (most notably the Patriots). These teams win consistently because team ownership, management, and coaching make good offseason decisions. The Giants do not.

The Giants have been a mediocre team for 14 years because they have drafted poorly and made bad free agent decisions. Unlike the Eagles, the Giants are consistently up against the salary cap because they have overpaid their own players and mostly pursued the wrong players in free agency. And the fact that the Giants have been up against the cap year-in and year-out forces the team to re-structure contracts in order to create additional room in the short-term, but that also causes bigger problems down the road.

For example, General Manager Ernie Accorsi re-signed players such as Jason Sehorn, Shaun Williams, Luke Petitgout, and Ike Hilliard to extremely lucrative contracts despite the fact that none of these players had or has ever been to a Pro Bowl. The salary cap is finite. Once you allocate a significant chunk of resources to one player, it is gone. That player had better be very good as a big contract will affect the rest of the roster. Truth be told, the Giants have not gotten the best bang for their free agent buck. And worse, because they have overpaid for subpar performance, not only are they mediocre, but they usually have very little cap room available to improve the roster in a meaningful way (Accorsi has never signed a free agent who ended up going to the Pro Bowl). The agony is prolonged when the Giants are forced to re-structure current contracts to make basic roster moves, thus causing future cap problems. This has been an issue for the Giants even since before Accorsi took over the reins from George Young in 1998, but he has continued the same self-destructive pattern.

Let’s look at how an example of how this poor management will restrict the Giants’ options this upcoming offseason. In 2002, the Giants re-signed safety Shaun Williams to an insane 7-year, $24.5 million deal that included a ridiculous $6.5 million signing bonus. All for a player who has never even been considered one of the better safeties in the game. Now the Giants are stuck with that albatross around their neck. According to NFLPA.org, Williams’ salary will be $3 million in 2005 (the cap figure will be higher because of the amortized bonus). Plus, Williams is due a $900,000 roster bonus in April. That’s obviously too much to pay a player who was out-played by a rookie 5th round pick, makes too many mental mistakes, doesn’t intercept the football, and who now has two bad knees. But according to The New York Post, if Williams is cut, the Giants lose $5 million in cap space. Same story with Ike Hilliard as, for some reason, the Giants gave him a new 5-year, $12.5 million deal with a $2.5 million signing bonus LAST SEASON. This for an injury-plagued receiver who was obviously nearing the end of his peak production. Hilliard has been simply awful this year. He is due a roster bonus of $750,000 in March, but if the Giants cut him, according to The Post, it costs the team $3 million in salary cap space.

And because the Giants have given average players top-dollar contracts, they have had little cap space and have had to re-structure contracts in order to sign draft picks and add a few mid-range free agents. This is what they have done repeatedly, for example, with players such as Amani Toomer. When your re-structure, you give a player more bonus money in exchange for a lower salary. But this merely defers the cap hit down the road. Now, if the Giants want to cut or trade Toomer, they will take a $5.7 million cap hit.

Let’s do the math. If the new salary cap figure is somewhere around $85 million, and the Giants were to cut Williams, Hilliard, and Toomer, they would lose $13.7 million in cap space. That’s 16 percent of the total cap on three players who would not even be on the roster!!! Basically, the Giants may be forced to keep players the coach doesn’t want because of poor financial decisions by the front office.

What makes the free agent situation worse is head coach. Whether you like him or not, Tom Coughlin is perceived around the league to be someone you don’t want to play for. Before the current season started, Coughlin was voted the “Worst coach in the NFL” in a Sports Illustrated poll of 354 NFL players, with 29 percent of the vote . It doesn’t matter if in fact Coughlin is not as bad as his reputation. Perception is reality to potential free agents. Thus, in order for the Giants to attract quality free agents, they will likely have to pay what BBI poster Bob in Newburgh has so eloquently phrased as the “asshole surcharge”. In other words, the Giants will have to pay more for the same product than other teams. They will be at a competitive disadvantage. Remember, there is only so much salary cap room and every dollar counts. This isn’t baseball and the Giants are not allowed to spend more than other teams. If that wasn’t bad enough, you’ve got high-profile players on the current roster who will not actively encourage players from other teams to come to the Giants. “If someone asks, I’d tell them the truth,” Toomer says. “I wouldn’t want somebody here to be upset, telling me that I lied to them. I’ll tell them exactly what’s going on and they can make the decision themselves.”

What about the draft? The Giants don’t draft well. And they will only have four picks in the 2005 NFL Draft. This is a franchise that drafts kickers who they haven’t even scouted (i.e., John Markham). This is a franchise that spent a 3rd and 4th rounder on WR Brian Alford. This is a franchise that has only three picks left on the roster from the three drafts from 1998-2000 (Williams, Petitgout, and Ron Dayne). In seven drafts, Ernie Accorsi has only drafted one Pro Bowler (Jeremy Shockey; Tiki Barber was drafted by George Young). That is a ridiculous draft history. The facts do not lie.

So the Giants are in a nightmare situation. As usual, Ernie Accorsi will come out in a few weeks and say the Giants will be in a good cap position for 2005. However, this is before the free salary cap space disappears to pay off accelerated amortized roster bonuses for players who won’t be on the roster. Plus everyone will have more money due to the new TV contract (up about $5 million). Better teams with nicer facilities such as the Philadelphia Eagles will have more salary cap space and they will not have to deal with the “asshole surcharge”. The Giants have only four draft picks, plus no first rounder. Regardless, they have a personnel department that has only drafted one Pro Bowler in seven years. And they have not signed a Pro Bowl player in free agency. The Giants are structurally broken. It is incontestable.

Where does the responsibility lie? Ownership. They are the ones who keep Accorsi employed, they are the ones who hired Coughlin. They are unable or unwilling to see the structural problems. Meanwhile the fans suffer. The Giants have become a second rate team. Americans – and New Yorkers in particular – never want to be considered second rate at anything.

In reality, professional football is entertainment. But what ownership fails to recognize is that to thousands of Giants fans around the world, professional football is more than a game. It is a surrogate for man’s intrinsic need for conflict and violence. The regional team atmosphere (“us” versus “them”) plays to man’s need to be a part of something greater than ourselves, a surrogate for religion in an increasingly secular world. It is a way for relatively safe and uneventful lives to live more vicariously through three hours of tension each Sunday. It is a distraction from our real worlds.

As silly as it sounds, most of us are not rooting for ownership, management, specific coaches, or specific players. We are rooting for a blue jersey and a helmet that has an “ny” logo on the side. And when those jerseys and helmets lose game after game for two years, it takes an emotional toll. Not just in our fantasy world, but in our real lives as well. I once had a fascinating but sad conversation with a policeman in Virginia who told me that their domestic violence complaints increase four-fold when the Redskins lose. How many of us feel miserably or are grouchy on Monday morning after a particularly poor performance by the Giants? Try to remember what you felt like after the playoff losses to the Vikings in 1997, or the 49ers in 2002. Or even after last year’s Cowboys and Eagles games at the Meadowlands. It takes an emotional toll.

This is why we are angry. This is why we speak out and sometimes say things that hurt. The owners, management, coaches, and players obviously have a more vested interest in what transpires on the field. After all, it is their life and employment. But their product is supposed to be entertaining. It isn’t. They have a captive audience and they are serving us crap.

Dec 292004
 
Cincinnati Bengals 23 – New York Giants 22

Game Overview: The Giants lost this game for one reason and one reason only: an inability of the players to make plays when it mattered most.

It’s too bad because, despite all of the injuries, the Giants played well enough for most of the game to win the contest. The Giants’ defense held a very good offense to 233 total net yards and a very good rushing attack to 63 net yards. They forced two turnovers and stopped the Bengals twice on 4th down. But with a chance to seal the deal, the defense failed to hold the Bengals on 4th-and-10 late in the game, allowing a first down and then two plays later the game-winning touchdown.

The offense out-gained the Bengals by 100 yards, rushed for 142 yards, and put together six scoring drives. But five of these scoring drives resulted in field goals, the most-damning being the Giants’ last scoring possession when the team had a 2nd-and-1 from the Bengal 5-yard line but was forced to settle for a field goal. A touchdown here, with five minutes left, would have put the game out of reach for Cincinnati.

But what probably hurt the Giants the most all day was the poor punt and kickoff coverage. Time and time again, the Bengals started drives in outstanding field position because the Giants gave up too many big returns. And to make matters worse, dumb penalties on special teams made the situation even worse. The 42-yard return with just over 2 minutes left in the game was simply inexcusable.

Basically, the Giants somehow found a way to lose a football game where they controlled both lines of scrimmage, won the turnover battle, and out-gained the opposition by 100 yards.

“That is one of the most bizarre games I’ve ever seen in my life,” Head Coach Tom Coughlin said after the game. “I have no explanation for why, play after play after play with opportunities, we can’t make a play.”

Offense: I thought the Giants did a really good job of varying their offensive sets in this game. There were all kinds of different formations and personnel packages that appeared to keep the Bengals off balance.

Quarterback: Eli Manning (19-of-37 for 201 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception) put together another credible performance. No, it was not a great effort, but he played well enough for the Giants to win and played with a certain degree of poise that belies his inexperience. He also was not helped by 5-6 dropped passes (one would have been a tough catch). Still, Manning missed on some throws that would have helped his cause – and that of his team.

The Giants had the ball six times in the first half and scored on their last three possessions of that half. On the first drive, Manning found WR David Tyree over the middle for 10 yards on 3rd-and-5. But the drive ended as a false start moved New York back and on 3rd-and-7 the Bengals overloaded the weakside and a free blitzer hit Manning just as he threw the ball, causing an incompletion. On the Giants’ second possession, a 2nd-and-6 pass to a wide-open HB Tiki Barber was deflected at the line of scrimmage (a constant theme). On 3rd-and-6, WR Ike Hilliard dropped a well-thrown pass (Hilliard took a big hit on the play, but he should have held onto the ball).

The third possession was a prime example of the problem being not with the plays being called, but the failed execution on the part of the players. After 12-yard run by Barber (and good blocking by the offensive line, FB Jim Finn, and TE Jeremy Shockey), the next run only picked up 1 yard as Finn and WR Amani Toomer did not block their respective opponents. On 2nd-and-9, Toomer dropped a pass from Manning. On 3rd-and-9, Shockey dropped a pass over the middle that would have easily picked up the first down. This is what Head Coach Tom Coughlin is talking about when he points out that the players are not making plays.

The fourth drive of the half resulted in a touchdown, but it did not start off well for Manning. He overthrew Toomer on a deep post route. He then badly overthrew TE Marcellus Rivers over the middle. But after an 8-yard completion to Shockey, Manning rolled to his right to hit Hilliard for 20 yards on 4th-and-2. Three plays later, Manning made a big-time play when he stood tough in the pocket and hit Shockey down to the 1-yard line despite a free blitzer clobbering him just as he threw (and knowing that he was going to be hit). Barber scored on the very next play. On the fifth possession, Manning was lucky that a quick out pass to Hilliard was not picked off and returned for a touchdown. But on the very next snap, on 3rd-and-5, he threw and absolutely beautiful sideline pass to Shockey for 27 yards – this pass dropped perfectly into Shockey’s hands despite tight coverage (and Manning was again getting hit on the play). Manning didn’t get the play off in time on the next play and delay of game was called. This was a costly penalty as the Giants had to settle for a field goal on 4th-and-1. Two plays earlier, Manning threw a low pass to Rivers. It would have been a tough catch, but he got his hands on it (again, the failure to make the tough play in the clutch). On the final field goal drive of the half, Manning made clutch throws on to Tyree for 25 yards (on 3rd-and-4) and Shockey for 6 yards (on 3rd-and-1).

The Giants had the ball five times in the second half. The first three of these drives resulted in field goals. On the first drive, Manning only threw two passes. Manning found Hilliard over the middle for 14 yards on 3rd-and-4. On 3rd-and-7, Eli badly underthrew a wide-open Tyree for what would have been a first down. The Giants were forced to settle for a field goal. On the next possession, Manning hit Toomer twice in a row over the middle for gains of 11 and 16 yards. After a holding penalty moved the Giants back 10 yards, Manning threw an 8-yard screen to Barber. On 2nd-and-12, Barber dropped a swing pass where he had a lot of room in front of him. On 3rd-and-12, Manning was sacked and the Giants kicked the field goal.

On the third drive, Manning only threw two passes. One was an 8-yard completion to Shockey on 1st-and-10. The other was a 3rd-and-6 pass from the Bengal 10-yard line. With a free blitzer right in his face, Manning tried to swing the ball out to Shockey, but the pass was almost picked off. Had it been, it would have been returned for a touchdown. On the fourth possession, when the Giants were attempting to run out the clock, Eli threw a poor pass to Amani Toomer on 2nd-and-7, but Toomer made an excellent low catch for the first down. Manning’s 3rd-and-5 pass hit a Bengal defensive linemen in the head and the Giants were forced to punt. “Amani makes a first down on 3rd-and-five if we could have gotten him the slant ball,” Coughlin said. On the Giants last possession of the game, the Giants started in Bengal territory and only needed about 20 yards for a legitimate game-winning field goal attempt, but Manning’s pass was once again deflected at the line of scrimmage. This time it was intercepted on the rebound. Game over. “Shockey had a little dig, about 12-14 yards,” Manning said. “He opened up and was going to be there, but the ball was tipped. There is no one you can blame on that one. Their guy made a great play. I will have to look at it on film and see if my arm was too low, or if it was just that their guy had his hand in the right spot.”

Wide Receivers: The biggest problem the Giants have on offense right now is that they have no one stretching the field. Opposing defensive backs don’t fear the deep throw with Tim Carter and Jamaar Taylor not playing, so they are much more aggressive in covering the Giants’ receivers (including Shockey) tightly and taking chances. I guarantee that this offense would be much more productive if there was somebody in the line-up who would put the fear of God into these defensive backs.

It is clear that Toomer (3 catches for 35 yards) is playing hurt. He has a noticeable limp. And for the second game in a row, he did not make a catch until the second half of the game. On the Giants’ third series of the game, he blew his block on the defensive back that was supposed to give Barber the corner. On the very next play, he dropped a pass from Manning on 2nd-and-9. In the second half, Toomer had two key catches over the middle for 11 and 16 yards on a field goal drive that gave the Giants the lead. He also made a heck of a catch on a very low pass from Manning for 8 yards and a 1st down when the Giants were attempting to run out the clock.

We are probably seeing Ike Hilliard’s (4 catches for 46 yards) last days as a Giant. While he made some plays in this game such as his 20-yard catch-and-run on 4th-and-2, he just isn’t making any plays down the field anymore. And unlike Toomer, he has no injury excuse. The Giants’ second drive of the game ended when Hilliard dropped a 3rd-and-6 pass; Hilliard took a big hit on the play, but this is a play that he needs to make. Late in the first half, Hilliard made a very poor effort on an attempted block of a defensive back on a Barber run to the left. Hilliard did catch a 14-yard pass on 3rd-and-4 early in the 3rd quarter.

David Tyree (2 catches for 35 yards) continues to receive valuable playing time and made two big catches in the first half. One was a 10-yard completion over the middle on 3rd-and-6. The other was a 25-yard reception on 3rd-and-4.

Running Backs: Another productive game for Barber (22 carries for 109 yards, a 5.0 yards-per-carry average, and 1 touchdown). However, for the second time this season (the first being against the Ravens), Tiki put the ball on the ground twice (the Giants recovered on fumble and a penalty erased the other). On the later fumble, had it not been for the penalty, the Bengals would have recovered the ball inside their own 10-yard line, costing the Giants three points. These late season fumbling woes are a bit disconcerting.

The Giants’ ground game was productive most of the day, gaining 142 yards. There was strong run blocking, particularly to the right side of the offensive line, but there were also plays where Barber made important yardage on his own. I was particularly impressed with his effort on the Giants’ fourth possession of the game. Tiki started off with a very physical 9-yard run to the right. Then on 3rd-and-1, on a play designed to run to the left, Barber saw that both OC Shaun O’Hara and LG Jason Whittle had been shoved back into the backfield, he cutback to the right and picked up the first down pretty much on his own. Barber finished off the drive by running over a linebacker in the hole on 1st-and-goal from the 1-yard line.

Barber’s biggest screw-up in the game was dropping Manning’s 2nd-and-12 swing pass when the Giants were at the Bengal 14-yard line. Barber had a lot of room to run in front of him and may have been able to given the Giants a 1st-and-goal situation down near the 1-yard line. Manning was sacked on the very next play and the Giants had to settle for a field goal instead of a touchdown.

Ron Dayne (6 carries for 33 yards) had his most productive game of the year. The Giants ran a smart play where they put Barber and Dayne in the game at the same time, then spread Barber out wide. With the defense thinking pass and the linebackers spread out away from the center of the formation, the Giants ran Dayne up the gut for an 11-yard gain. On the Giants’ first possession in the second half, Dayne picked up another 11 yards on a run out of the spread formation again. But on the very next play, TE Marcellus Rivers blew his block and Dayne was stuffed out of the traditional two-back set. On the Giants’ third drive, New York had a chance to put the game away with a touchdown. After a 6-yard run by Barber, Dayne ran hard right up the gut for a 9-yard gain, giving the Giants a 2nd-and-1 at the Bengal 5-yard line. At this point, I had no problem giving the ball to Dayne again. He had been running well all day and seemed to be in a rhythm. But Dayne’s damn inconsistency reared its ugly head at this point. The Giants tried to run up the middle one more time…I thought this was a good call as the Bengals were starting to wilt up front and the Giants were running inside with good productivity. OC Shaun O’Hara was unable to engage the middle linebacker and keep him out of the hole, but Dayne made matters worse by hesitating a half second and thereby slowing down his momentum. Dayne was stuffed and the drive bogged down as the Giants had to settle for another field goal.

FB Jim Finn (2 catches for 7 yards) has really improved his blocking this year and I thought he was particularly sharp and physical as a run blocker in this game. There was one play where Finn was lined up on the line of scrimmage off LT Luke Petitgout’s shoulder where he missed his block, but Finn did a great job most of the game as a lead blocker out of the traditional fullback stance. Most of Barber’s yardage seemed to come with Finn leading the way and taking out a linebacker. I hope the Giants can hold onto Finn as he will be an unrestricted free agent.

Tight Ends: Jeremy Shockey (6 catches for 64 yards) was an important cog in the offense on Sunday, but he also dropped two passes, including a 3rd-and-9 throw over the middle that would have picked up a first down. One 6-yard completion to Shockey put the ball down to the 1-yard line, setting up Barber’s touchdown carry. He also had a key 27-yard reception down the right sideline on 3rd-and-5 and a 6-yard reception on 3rd-and-1. Shockey’s run blocking was very good, including helping to spring Barber on 12- and 9-yard runs in the 1st quarter and a 6-yard run in the 2nd quarter. Shockey made an excellent block on Dayne’s 9-yard run, but he should have done a better job of jamming the blitzer on the 3rd-and-6 pass intended for him near the goal line that was almost picked off. Shockey was to hit the defender and then get out on his pattern, but the blitzer came in too fast and was right on top of Manning. It was an interesting play by the Giants because they had pulled their linemen in the opposite direction, doing a good job making it seem as if New York was running a sweep to the left, but the blitzer was not fooled on the play and neither was the defender covering Shockey.

Visanthe Shiancoe appears to be creeping more and more into the line-up again. He seemed to be on the field just as much as Marcellus Rivers, if not more. Rivers couldn’t come up with the football on a low throw in his direction in the 2nd quarter. And Rivers was easily pushed aside by a Bengal defender at the point-of-attack on a Dayne run that was stuffed early in the third quarter. Shiancoe, on the other hand, made a good block a few plays earlier at the point-of-attack against the defensive end on a play that picked up 8 yards. It was also interesting to note that Shiancoe, not Rivers, was in the game when the Giants were attempting to run out the clock.

Offensive Line: Another solid game for this much maligned group. The Giants ran the ball pretty effectively, gaining 142 yards on 28 carries (over 5 yards-per-carry). In particular, the Giants were able to do some damage running to their right behind strong blocking from RG Wayne Lucier, RT David Diehl, Finn, and Shockey. There was one short yardage play where both OC Shaun O’Hara and LG Jason Whittle got shoved back into the backfield, forcing Barber to cut back to his right for the 1st down. Petitgout, O’Hara, and Whittle made nice blocks on Dayne’s 11-yard run in the 2nd quarter (and O’Hara made a nice block on Barber’s 12-yard run up the middle earlier in the game as did Whittle). The strong running game continued in the second half, although there was one play where Lucier got run over by the defensive tackle and Barber was hit in the backfield for a 2-yard loss. And on the play where Tiki first fumbled, O’Hara failed to engage the linebacker who stripped the ball. Lucier, O’Hara, and Finn got excellent blocks on Tiki’s 21-yard run late in the 3rd quarter. But on the following play, Lucier couldn’t sustain his run block long enough and his man tackled Barber after a 2-yard gain. Petitgout made a nice block on an 8-yard run by Barber (as did Finn again) and Diehl made a nice block on a 9-yard run by Dayne. On the 2nd-and-1 play where Dayne was stuffed, O’Hara started the play off by helping Lucier double-team the tackle, but he couldn’t get to the linebacker in time who hit Dayne in the hole. But by in large, the Giants controlled the line of scrimmage.

Manning had decent time in the pocket despite a lot of blitzing by the Bengals. The Bengals did get to Manning on the first possession as they overloaded the right side of the line and there were too many people and not enough blockers to pick up – Manning was hit as he threw. Lucier also got beat by a spin move on the deep pass to Toomer in the 2nd quarter as Manning was hit as he threw. On the Giants’ last drive of the half, Lucier gave up another pressure off of a stunt and Petitgout got beat on the next play as Manning was hit as he threw. The biggest snafu came on the last offensive play of the half as someone (Petitgout?) failed to pickup the blitzing safety and Manning was sacked for an 8-yard loss, erasing any chance for a touchdown. “I mean we had the ball on the 10-yard line and we have a play called and we screw up a base protection with no sight adjustment and no hot,” said Coughlin. “We just have a base protection that we don’t handle properly which creates a sack which forces the field goal.”

The biggest problem in the second half was Luke Petitgout’s three obvious screw-ups. (But let’s keep in mind that Petitgout was toughing it out with a very sore back). Facing a 1st-and-10 from the Cincinnati 12-yard line, the Giants tried to run a misdirection cutback run in Petitgout’s direction, but Petitgout held the end, leading to a 10-yard penalty that moved the ball back to the 22-yard line. Then on 3rd-and-12, Petitgout got beat to the outside and Manning was sacked. The Giants were forced to settle for a field goal. Then when the Giants were attempting to put the game away with a late touchdown, Petitgout was flagged with a false start on 3rd-and-1 from the Bengal 5-yard line. Again, the Giants were forced to settle for a field goal. “It catches up to you when you don’t get the touchdown,” Petitgout said. “I had a penalty, I gave up a sack. It’s my fault. I take the blame. I gave the game away. I played Santa Claus in the red zone.”

Diehl was also flagged with a false start on the first drive that helped to stall that effort.

Defensive Line: An undermanned defensive line did a superb job of keeping a very good running attack in check. The Bengals only managed 63 yards rushing and the dangerous Rudi Johnson was held to a mere 31 yards on 19 carries (1.6 yards-per-carry).

The four starters up front – Lance Legree (4 tackles), William Joseph (4 tackles), Fred Robbins (3 tackles, 0.5 sacks), and Osi Umenyiora (1 tackle) – played a physical game with excellent intensity. And Legree and Robbins were toughing it out despite being obviously banged up (a clear indication that many on this team have not quit).

Once again, Legree stood out in run defense. I hope the Giants can find a way to keep this soon-to-be unrestricted free agent. Time-and-time again he held his ground at the point-of-attack or penetrated into the backfield, including on the 4th-and-1 stuff (and the 3rd-and-1 play before it).

It was also a breakout game for Joseph. Joseph played virtually every snap as far as I could tell and did not wear down. Early on I was nervous again as I saw him run by the back in the backfield on a stunt (again, a failure to locate the football). But he also got a good pass rush on QB Jon Kitna on the Bengals’ first drive. Joseph got another pressure late in the 2nd quarter. In the 3rd quarter, Joseph really started to take over the game. He stuffed Johnson for no gain on one play after fighting through a block. Two plays later, he took a hard slant inside of the guard, penetrated into the backfield and tackled Johnson for a 4-yard loss. The Bengal possession ended when both Joseph and Legree penetrated into the backfield to tackle Johnson for a 2-yard loss on 4th-and-inches. On the next Bengal possession, Joseph nailed Johnson again for a 2-yard loss. He then penetrated to disrupt a run that picked up 3 yards. At this point of the game, the Bengals stopped trying to run the football on the Giants. The biggest negative was that Joseph (as well as Umenyiora and Carlos Emmons) got fooled on the shovel pass on 3rd-and-1 that picked up 21 yards and which moved the ball down to the 1-yard line. Joseph also got easily blocked on the 1-yard touchdown run that ensued.

Fred Robbins was stout against the run, made a couple of penetrations to disrupt runs, and shared a sack. He did miss a tackle on the 21-yard shovel pass. Umenyiora was the quietest of the bunch. I was actually surprised that the Bengals didn’t test him more, but he generally held his ground fairly well. I would have liked to have seen more pass pressure from him. Osi was flagged with an offsides penalty. I did like his hustle in chasing down the shovel pass.

Of the reserves, Reggie Torbor (3 tackles, 1.5 sacks) saw a lot of time at right defensive end and made an impact as a pass rusher. Torbor and Robbins split a sack on Kitna late in the 1st quarter. Torbor then sacked Kitna on 3rd-and-8 in the 2nd quarter on a quick outside move around the left tackle, forcing the Bengals to settle for a long field goal attempt. Later in the quarter, he got another good pass rush on Kitna, forcing a bad throw that should have been picked off. On the very next play, on 3rd-and-10, both Torbor and Umenyiora pressured Kitna to throw the football away. On the first play of the Bengals’ game-winning touchdown drive, Torbor sped past the left tackle, who was forced to grab him by the collar. It was as blatant a holding penalty as you will see but it was not called.

Damane Duckett (zero tackles) played some. He looked better to me this week in terms of holding his own at the point-of-attack. He also made one nice play where he forced back a double-team, thereby disrupting the blocking on the play.

Linebackers: This group also deserves a lot of credit for keeping the Bengal running game in check. Carlos Emmons (6 tackles) played a physical game and also made a couple of plays in coverage. The biggest negative on him is that he took the wrong angle on Kitna’s 15-yard scramble on 3rd-and-6 on Cincinnati’s first touchdown drive. Not only did Emmons miss Kitna, but he took out the pursuing Umenyiora on the play. He also misread the 21-yard shovel pass and then missed the tackle. Carlos helped to stuff the 3rd-and-1 running play right before the 4th-and-inches stuff. Emmons also made a great play in the flat on a 3rd-and-4 pass play, forcing a Bengals’ punt with just over 4 minutes left in the game.

Nick Greisen (5 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble) made an impact with both his sack and forced fumble. Greisen did miss a tackle in the backfield on an 11-yard carry by Johnson in the 2nd quarter. There was also another play where both Greisen and Emmons were slow to read a draw play that picked up 9 yards.

Kevin Lewis (3 tackles) was pretty quiet although he made a nice play in run defense on the Bengals’ first offensive play of the game. Lewis couldn’t make the play in the hole on Johnson’s 1-yard touchdown run late in the 3rd quarter.

Defensive Backs: Really a mixed bag. For most of the game, the defensive backs did a good job against a very good receiving corps. Kitna was only able to pass for 182 yards and Pro Bowl WR Chad Johnson was held to 46 yards. But the defensive backs failed to make the clutch play in key situations and it ended up costing the Giants the game.

Frank Walker (3 tackles, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble, 1 pass defense) was up and down. Walker started at right corner in place of Will Peterson, who was being disciplined for missing team meetings. Walker played aggressively, including helping to stuff Rudi Johnson up a running play up the middle on 3rd-and-1 at the start of the game. Walker came down the line to hold up Johnson from behind, forcing a punt. On the next possession, Walker did a good job of coming up to hit and tackle Chad Johnson on a short completion that only picked up 3 yards. But two plays later, Walker got beat by Johnson for a 5-yard touchdown pass when Walker failed to turn around to make a play on the football (had he done so he probably would have knocked the ball away). I thought the roughing-the-pass penalty called on Walker on a 3rd-and-7 incompletion was a tough call. Walker was flying full speed at Kitna and there was no way he was going to be able to pull up. Walker ended a Bengal drive with a 4th-and-10 interception in the 2nd quarter when Kitna misread the Giants’ coverage (apparently Walker is the only Giants’ corner who can catch the football). Walker only gave up two completions in the second half, but both were big. First he got beat for 13 yards on an out pattern on 3rd-and-9 on the Bengals’ first second-half touchdown drive (Walker almost tipped the ball away). But where Walker really screwed the pooch was at the end of the game. He (along with Brent Alexander) failed to make a play on the football on the 4th-and-10 completion to Houshmandzadeh that saved the game for the Bengals. “If he can go up and catch it, we ought to be able to go up and knock it down,” Coughlin said. “We have two people there.” Walker then missed sacking Kitna on Kitna’s 4-yard touchdown pass to win the game.

It was one of those games again for Will Allen (3 tackles) where a few plays overshadowed the positive. Allen was a big reason why the Cincinnati passing game struggled, but he also continues to give up completions on plays where he has good coverage but doesn’t make a play on the football. For example, on the Bengals’ first touchdown drive, Kitna found WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh over the middle despite tight coverage from Allen. Allen also failed to make the tackle short of the first down on this play and a 17-yard gain resulted. On the next play, the Bengals scored the touchdown. Houshmandzadeh beat Allen for 16 yards in the 2nd quarter. On the Bengals’ touchdown drive late in the 3rd quarter, Allen was beat by Chad Johnson for three short passes in a row, for gains of 9, 4, and 6 yards. One was an in-cut, another a crossing pattern, and the last a slant.

Will Peterson (6 tackles, 1 pass defense) played a lot in the nickel. He supplied good deep coverage on Chad Johnson on 3rd-and-16 in the 1st quarter. Peterson had very good coverage on Houshmandzadeh near the goal line in the 2nd quarter. However, later in the quarter Peterson dropped a sure interception when he expertly played the in-cut by the receiver, but failed to hold onto the football. Peterson made a nice play on the goal line in run defense on 1st-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the 3rd quarter. On the play right before the Bengals fumbled the ball away, Peterson gave up an easy 10-yard reception by playing too far off the ball.

FS Brent Alexander (3 tackles, 1 fumble recovery) did a nice job of knock down a 3rd-and-7 pass intended for Houshmandzadeh, but Frank Walker’s roughing-the-passer penalty erased the play. Alexander did a good job of recovering the running back’s fumble and returning it 29 yards. But Alexander will be remember for not being able to knock the 4th-and-10 pass away from Houshmandzadeh on the game-winning touchdown drive.

SS Curry Burns (4 tackles) and made some plays in run support.

CB Curtis Deloatch played well in coverage all day except for that he got beat on the 4-yard touchdown pass to Chad Johnson at the end of the game.

CB/S Nickel Back Terry Cousin missed a tackle on the 21-yard shovel pass.

Special Teams: I contend that the special teams punt and kickoff coverage did more to lose this game than any other facet. The Bengals returned three punts for 7, 12, and 42 yards. The 42-yarder with just over 2 minutes left gave the Bengals the ball at the Giants’ 24-yard line, setting up the game-winning touchdown. On this play, Curtis Deloatch overran the returner while at the same time being penalized for being out-of-bounds too long on his charge down the field…an around terrible play by Deloatch. Ron Dayne also missed a tackle on the return. Earlier in the game, the Giants missed a great chance to recover a fumble on the Bengals’ first punt return. And on another punt, Curtis Deloatch smashed into the returner well before the ball arrived, resulting in a 15-yard penalty that gave the Bengals the ball on the Giants’ 46-yard line. Seven plays later, the Bengals scored their first touchdown of the game.

Feagles punted four times for a disappointing 38 yards-per-punt average.

Kickoffs and kickoff coverage were very poor too. Steve Christie’s six kickoffs were fielded at the 25, 7, 26, 6, 6, and 13. The Bengals muffed the first return, but Marcellus Rivers committed a 15-yard face mask penalty that gave the Bengals the ball at their own 45-yard line, helping to set up a field goal drive. The other Bengal returns went for 40 (drive starting at 47), 14 (drive starting at 40), 36 (drive starting at 42), 26 (holding penalty moved ball back to 22), and 21 yards (drive starting at the 34). In other words, the Bengals started four possessions at or past their 40-yard line after the Giants’ kicked off. Just terrible!

The best aspect of special teams play was that Christie hit all five of his field goal attempts – from 31, 36, 44, 41, and 28 yards out.

Mark Jones suffered a groin injury before warm-ups and did not play. Ike Hilliard returned punts and did nothing, returning two punts for 3 yards. Blocking opposing gunners remains a problem. The Giants were lucky early in the game that a punt by Cincinnati’s punter hit a Bengal first before touching Frank Walker or the Bengals may have recovered the ball on the 1-yard line. Not only did Walker not block the gunner on this play, but he almost caused a turnover by not getting away from the football after Hilliard cleared out of the area. Walker again failed to block the gunner on Cincinnati’s last punt of the game and then was flagged for holding. This was a costly penalty as it erased a 14-yard return and moved the ball back to the Giants’ 7-yard line with just over 4 minutes left in the game.

Willie Ponder returned five kickoffs for a 24.2 yards-per-return average. His best return was the 35-yarder right after the Bengals scored their late game-winning touchdown. This 35-yard return set up the Giants at the Cincinnati 47-yard line (after a 5-yard penalty was tacked on) with plenty of time to get into game-winning field goal range.

(Box Score – New York Giants at Cincinnati Bengals, December 26, 2004)
Dec 242004
 

Approach to the Game – New York Giants at Cincinnati Bengals, December 26, 2004: Had the Giants won last week (and they would have had the defense showed up), the Giants would have still been very much in the playoff picture. Though the team is not officially out of the race, it would take a miracle for everything that has to transpire for them to make it. So instead of looking at the Giants-Bengals’ match-up, I want to use my preview this week to look at the personnel situation on the team for 2005.

Overall Defense: General Manager Ernie Accorsi does not agree with me, but I still contend that defense wins NFL Championships. And even if the Giants had not suffered one injury on defense this past year, I do not think the Giants defense is Championship-caliber. DE Michael Strahan will be 34 next year and is on the downside of his career. SS Gibril Wilson flashes great ability, but will be coming off a serious neck injury. DE Osi Umenyiora can rush the passer. Aside from those three, who are the play-makers on this defense? The Giants need more defensive players who make impact plays and scare the opposition. Just as importantly, they need to find a fiery leader who will help inspire the unit.

You can win in the NFL with a mediocre offense and a great defense. But you can’t win with a bad defense. Defensive Coordinator Tim Lewis has done a great job of hiding some weaknesses with schemes, but opposing teams can run on the Giants and the Giants have made bad quarterbacks look very good against them (Joey Harrington, Craig Krenzel, Josh McCown). The team also doesn’t create enough turnovers.

Back in 1993, Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan wanted to switch to a 4-3 defense but could not until Lawrence Taylor retired the following year. I get the feeling that Lewis would like to switch to a 3-4 defense once Strahan retires. But that is a discussion for 2006 or 2007.

Defensive Line: If you look at what Tom Coughlin did in Jacksonville (drafting Marcus Stroud and John Henderson in the first round) and what he did with the Giants in free agency last year (signing Fred Robbins, Norman Hand, Martin Chase, and Glen Steele), one gets the sense that he feels that the tackle position is the most important on defense. The Giants will likely carry four defensive tackles in 2005 and, barring injury, they will probably be Robbins, Hand, Kenderick Allen, and William Joseph. However, there are no studs in this group and if the Giants found themselves faced with the opportunity to draft or sign a superior player, I would not be surprised to see them make that move.

Robbins has been solid. Hand is a guy who does not make a lot of tackles or exert a lot of pass pressure, but he’s an imposing figure who can gum up the inside ground game. However, he’s finished the past two seasons injured, he’s getting up there in age, and his current contract expires after the 2005 season. Allen was a nice pick-up by the Giants and they may have something there. He is a big guy who plays with a lot of effort. It’s too bad that he injured his hamstring last week and won’t play against the Bengals. Joseph will start against Cincinnati, but he has been a colossal disappointment to date. The Bengals have a very good running game and this will be another good test for Joseph. I can’t see the Giants waiving Joseph in camp next year, but unless he starts demonstrating marked improvement, it is not out of the realm of possibility – especially if someone else steps up.

A guy who could pressure Joseph is Damane Duckett, who will also see a lot of playing time on Sunday with the injuries to Hand and Allen. Ahmad Childress in on the Practice Squad.

The return of Michael Strahan in 2005 will help. But how much does he have left in his tank? He wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire before he got hurt. Still, he is one of the better ends in the game and he will be a big part of the defense in 2005.

The one guy who is likely to be a factor for a long time is Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora is a tremendous athlete who can rush the passer as a 4-3 end or 3-4 linebacker. His run defense has improved, but still needs to get better.

The question marks start after these two. Ideally, the Giants need to find a young guy to groom behind Strahan, but that may have to wait one more year. There are injury question marks with average players such as Keith Washington (knee), Chuck Wiley (knee), and Lorenzo Bromell (knee). Wiley’s contract also expires at the end of this season. Also in the picture is Lance Legree (who has done a decent job at strongside end), Raheem Orr (who could project to 3-4 linebacker), Davern Williams, and Claude Harriott. But there are no sure things here. I think Legree stays (though he will be a free agent and could leave) along with Strahan and Umenyiora. I would also guess that either Washington or Wiley may return. But the Giants do need to find another pass rusher (I could see New York carrying five ends).

Linebacker: In my mind, the free agent acquisitions of SLB Carlos Emmons and WLB Barrett Green did not really work out as hoped. Emmons has played better of late and I expect him to be much more sound in 2005. All the time he missed in camp hurt his game. Green’s torn ACL really clouds the picture. He will be on the team, but he will probably be limited in training camp and not be quite himself for much of 2005. Nick Greisen could start at weakside linebacker again if Green is not ready. Greisen stepped up his game this year and has improved. I wonder if the Giants still see him as an outside linebacker or if he has a future inside. Regardless, none of these three (Emmons, Green, and Greisen) made many impact plays in 2004. If the Giants want to elevate their entire defense, I think they need to find some kick-ass linebackers who scare the heck out of other teams.

Could Reggie Torbor be that guy? It’s a good question, but I don’t know. Torbor can rush the passer, but he still has a ton to learn about playing the run and covering the pass. Right now, he’s just a situational player. He could develop, but he might not. James Maxwell, T.J. Hollowell, and Wes Mallard (knee) also remain in the picture. All three are athletes, but it is highly debatable whether or not they can develop into quality players.

I would also like the Giants to find a stud middle linebacker to replace Kevin Lewis. However, good middle linebackers can be hard to find and the position isn’t as important as it used to be a decade or two ago. Still, if you are looking for areas where the Giants can improve on defense, you have to look at the linebacker position and this spot in particular.

Look for linebacker to once again be a priority in the offseason.

Defensive Backs: Despite being benched for disciplinary reasons, Will Peterson is one of the cornerstones of the defense and is not going anywhere. He just signed a big, 6-year deal a few months ago.

The situation with Will Allen is not so clear-cut. Allen is under contract in 2005 and will surely be back next season. While the Giants and Allen would like to extend his contract this upcoming offseason, if Allen’s demands are outrageous, the Giants may let him walk in 2006. Of course, much depends on the development of Frank Walker and Curtis Deloatch. With Peterson not starting on Sunday against the Bengals, this might be a good opportunity for Walker and Deloatch to show what they can do against a very good receiving corps. The other factor that could influence the long-term picture is that Accorsi has talked about Gibril Wilson being moved to corner. Whether the coaching staff feels that way too remains to be seen.

There are a lot of question marks at safety. Assuming Wilson stays at safety, it might be better for his long-term health if he moves to free safety where he will see less contact. Wilson makes a lot of plays on the football, but he is awfully small for the strong safety position. I wouldn’t want to see him take a lot more shots at that neck.

Omar Stoutmire is probably no longer in the picture. But what about Shaun Williams and his huge contract? Williams has never developed as hoped. He makes a lot of mental mistakes in coverage, but he is also a good run player. Do the Giants bring him back? Will he accept a pay cut? If he goes, does Brent Alexander start again in 2005 or do the Giants go out in free agency and get another safety? The draft is also an option. Regardless, the Giants need to improve their depth situation here as they don’t want to face another situation where Terry Cousin is playing out of position.

Defensive Summary: Play-makers! Use the draft and free agency to find them on the defensive line, linebacker, and safety. The remaining two games are great opportunities to evaluate Osi Umenyiora (in run defense), William Joseph, Damane Duckett, Nick Greisen, Reggie Torbor, Frank Walker, and Curtis Deloatch.

Overall Offense: Injuries have not been a big issue on offense this year so that can not be used as an excuse. But youth and inexperience at quarterback, right tackle, and right guard has been an issue. So has some dreary wide receiving play. I think the Giants and Coughlin will continue to tinker with the offensive line and could make one major change there, but I don’t see that unit being dramatically reshaped. As Diehl and Snee improve, the entire line will improve. If you ask me, the #1 need on this team offensively is to address the wide receiver position. QB Eli Manning will continue to experience growing pains for the next two seasons, but those growing pains will be less harsh if he had some play-makers outside who could help him out. I’m talking about receivers who can make the exceptional catch (when was the last time a Giants’ receiver did that?) or break a big run after the catch (ditto?).

Quarterback: A word of warning…player development is usually not a linear progression. By that I mean that for every good game a young player has, he may also still play a bad game. So just because Manning played well last Saturday does not guarantee he will not come up with another stinker on Sunday against the Bengals. It doesn’t work that way folks. Manning is going to be inconsistent for at least two more years. Hopefully the positives will far outweigh the negatives.

But for better or worse, barring injury, Manning will be the starting quarterback on this team for the foreseeable future. The starting position is settled. What they do with the back-up positions will be interesting as Jesse Palmer will be a free agent.

Running Back: Tiki Barber had his best season ever this year, and aside from the game against the Ravens, held onto the football. He’s probably got another 1-3 very good seasons left in him if he doesn’t sustain a major injury. However, the Giants do need to find another back to take the load off of him, as well as play if Barber did get hurt. Coughlin has made it clear that he wants to find another back. Ron Dayne will leave in the offseason. Mike Cloud looks like a journeyman to me. What type of ability Derrick Ward has remains to be seen. I would not be shocked to see the Giants spend one of their four draft picks on a running back.

Jim Finn improved his game this season. I think the Giants are OK with him starting (if he doesn’t leave in free agency).

Wide Receiver: This is the position where the Giants need a lot of help. The big fly in the ointment is that the two young speedsters on the team, Tim Carter and Jamaar Taylor, appear to be injury-prone (Carter definitely is). Taylor will definitely be on the 2005 squad, but Carter is going to have to prove he can stay healthy in camp and the preseason. It is very unfortunate that Carter missed almost all of 2004 and that Jamaar Taylor is missing so much time with nagging injuries.

I’d be very surprised to see Ike Hilliard return. I think Hilliard can still be an effective player in this league for some team, but his style is not what the Giants need right now. They need guys who can make plays down the field and Hilliard doesn’t do that.

The huge question is what to do with Amani Toomer? Toomer is having a terrible season. Is it all because of the quarterback situation and/or his hamstring injury? Does he want to play for the Giants anymore? The answers to those questions will likely determine his fate. He probably will be back in 2005 (he has a big contract), but I would not be shocked if he was not.

I think the Giants’ #1 priority in free agency is to come away with a legitimate starting wide receiver. I also would not be surprised to see the Giants spend their first draft pick (a 2nd rounder) on the position.

At this point, Willie Ponder and David Tyree appear to be more special teams players still. Keep in mind that the Giants have been loading up on receivers on their Practice Squad (Michael Jennings, Chris Davis, and Jason Geathers).

Tight End: Marcellus Rivers will be a free agent and he may choose to depart. To be honest, I don’t know what the coaching staff really thinks about Visanthe Shiancoe’s future. They were obviously unhappy with something he did on or off the field to demote him. Was that a short-term message or a long-term one? In my opinion, the guy is a very good blocker and I wouldn’t want to see him go.

Shockey’s reception totals will not match 2002, but his touchdowns are way up (from 2 to 6). And he could have had probably four more had he not been tackled at the 1-yard line so often. The best thing about him in 2004 was that he stayed healthy and his foot problems did not reappear (knock on wood). As the players around Shockey improve (wide receivers, quarterback, offensive line), his production will improve.

Offensive Line: This will be one of the most interesting areas to watch. I could see the Giants not adding another starter or I could see them making one big move. It is extremely doubtful that they will be able to sign a stud left tackle in free agency. Those players are rarely unprotected, and even if they weren’t, the Giants won’t outbid another team for one. So I don’t understand where this talk about moving Luke Petitgout back to right tackle is coming from. In order to do that, you need a good left tackle. The Giants are not going to put a rookie left tackle in the game (if they draft one) and the Giants are extremely unlikely to sign a good one in free agency.

If the Giants make moves, I think it would be to sign a right tackle and move David Diehl to left guard. Or they could look to add more of a mauler at left guard by replacing Jason Whittle (keep in mind that Barry Stokes and Rich Seubert are also in the picture too). Or they could move Chris Snee to center and that could cause a domino effect all across the line (except left tackle). Honestly, and I know I am in the minority, I think Diehl and Snee will be fine on the right side of the line. They have gotten better with more playing time (as expected). And Diehl has really progressed in recent weeks (Snee has been unfortunately ill). Long-term, if the Giants want to become more physical inside, they need to replace Whittle and O’Hara. But both of these guys are decent players who pass block well. The Giants can win with them in the short-term. But at some point the best thing for the Giants would be is to stop making changes and let everyone grow together as a unit. The best offensive lines out there usually are good because there is a lot of cohesion between the players.

Regardless, look for the Giants to continue to address the offensive line in order to add players who will compete for starting spots and eventually may replace current starters. The Giants have already started that process by adding guys such as Jason Hilliard, Morgan Pears, and Josh Parrish.

Offensive Summary: Wide receiver, wide receiver. Like on defense, the Giants need play-makers. The offensive line will certainly be looked at, but I don’t expect a massive overhaul. The team also needs a legitimate back-up to Barber.

Special Teams: This unit has been drastically improved simply because of the improved coaching. The big offseason question mark here is what to do at place kicker. Steve Christie has been solid, but the Giants may want to try to upgrade there.

Dec 212004
 
Pittsburgh Steelers 33 – New York Giants 30

Game Overview: Whew! Even though the Giants lost this game and losing is never good, this was a relatively positive game for New York for one single reason: Eli Manning looked like a legitimate NFL quarterback. Indeed, had the Giants found a way to win the game with Manning looking as bad as he did last week, I am not sure fans out there would feel better than the way things turned out.

While I thought the Giants had a good chance to win this game, I was surprised that the offense and special teams was able to put 30 points up on the board (23 points against the NFL’s #1-ranked defense). I was equally surprised to see the Giants’ secondary play what I think was by far their worst game of the season. The secondary is supposed to be the strength of this defense and it was the secondary that lost the game. It wasn’t great play by Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or their wide receivers; it was simply shoddy defense. Pittsburgh had receivers running all over the place wide open…and I mean wide open. Whatever zone defense the Giants were employing, they acted like this was the first time they used it and it failed miserably.

Once again, the Giants blew a chance to take a step towards the playoffs. With the way the rest of the NFC played this past weekend, the Giants would have been in the middle of the playoff hunt with a 6-8 record. They had a chance to win this game and should have won it. But the defense failed to hold up their end of the deal. The Steelers were never forced to punt.

Coaching: Two problems with the coaching this week…one offensive, one defensive. Offensively, Coughlin’s decision to go for the 2-point conversion after taking the lead 30-26 with eight minutes left in the game made no sense. And it could have come back to haunt the Giants had New York managed to get into field goal position late in the game trailing 33-30 instead of 33-31. Secondly, Defensive Coordinator Tim Lewis obviously committed to defending the run (which he should have), but did not trust his corners to play aggressive man defense on the Steelers’ secondary. The loose zone coverages that the Giants employed backfired as the Giants’ secondary looked confused and the Steelers had guys running wide open all over the place.

Quarterback: Just as Eli Manning’s previous three poor games does not mean he will turn out to be a bad quarterback, his extremely positive performance against the Steelers does not guarantee that he will end up being a good quarterback. But it was a big step in the right direction and provides confidence to fans, coaches, players, and Manning himself

Manning (16-of-23 for 182 yards, 2 touchdowns, 1 interception) not only managed the game well by not making any mistakes to hurt his team (the interception was a well thrown pass on a play where the receiver fell down), but he also made plays that helped his team put 23 offensive points up on the board against the #1-ranked defense in the NFL.

Manning’s stats in the first half do not look stellar: 4-of-8 for 27 yards and a touchdown. The first drive of the game was a 3-and-out as Manning’s first pass of the day came on 3rd-and-5 and fell incomplete to TE Jeremy Shockey (Shockey did not run a very good route on the play). The next time the Giants had the ball, five straight running plays put the ball on the Steelers’ 2-yard line. On 2nd-and-goal, Manning threw a perfect play-action pass to Shockey for a 2-yard touchdown, giving the Giants a 14-7 lead. The Giants again were able to move the ball on their third drive of the half as Manning threw to HB Tiki Barber over the middle for eight yards and then winged a nice sideline pass to Ike Hilliard for 12 yards off bootleg play-action. Manning then scrambled for 13 yards up the middle of the defense. A well-thrown quick out to Amani Toomer should have put the ball at the Steelers 26-yard line, but LG Jason Whittle was flagged for tripping on the play, moving the ball back to the 43-yard line. On 2nd-and-18, the Giants attempted a wide receiver screen to Hilliard, but reserve LT Brandon Winey got in the way of the pass as it deflected off the back of his helmet. Manning dumped the ball off to Barber on the next play for five yards and a promising drive came to an end with a punt.

Manning’s worst throw of the day came on the fourth drive of the half. After Manning scrambled for five yards and Barber lost 3 yards on a run, Manning had Jim Finn all alone in the flat on 3rd-and-8 for what may have ended up being a first down completion. But reminiscent of last week’s effort against the Ravens, Manning threw a terribly inaccurate pass into the turf despite not being pressured. The good news was this was the only poor pass of the day for Manning. When the Giants got the ball again before halftime, there were only 9 seconds on the clock and Manning “Hail Mary” pass into the end zone fell incomplete.

It was in the second half that Manning really elevated his game as he completed all but three of his 15 passes. With practically no running game to speak of in the second half, the Giants and Manning managed to put up 16 offensive points. The Giants got the ball in Steelers’ territory after a turnover. After a 3-yard loss by Barber, Manning hit Finn on a swing pass for 13 yards and a first down. Two plays later, Manning found Hilliard for seven yards. Two plays later, a quick pass to Shockey put the ball on the Pittsburgh 1-yard line. However, Barber was stuffed on 3rd-and-goal from the 1-yard line and the Giants were forced to kick a field goal.

After the Steelers kick another field goal to extend the lead to 23-17, Manning made a perfect throw on a deep pass to a well-covered David Tyree for 49 yards on 2nd-and-23. He then hit Barber over the middle for 17, Shockey on a crossing pattern for 8, and then Marcellus Rivers in the back of the end zone for a touchdown and a 24-23 lead. When the defense faltered again and the Steelers regained the advantage 26-24, Manning went into action again. His first pass to Hilliard was slightly off the mark and dropped (it still should have been caught). Manning then made a great play. He correctly anticipated a blitz coming from his left, stood tough in the pocket despite a rusher bearing down on him, and fired a well-thrown pass to Toomer for 17 yards on 3rd-and-8. After a pass intended for Barber was tipped, he found Toomer again for 17 yards and threw a screen pass to Hilliard that picked up 15 yards and moved the ball to the Pittsburgh 1-yard line. Barber scored on the very next play, giving the Giants a 30-26 lead.

The Giants only got the ball one more time in the second half. With just under five minutes to go, Manning passed short to Barber twice. On 3rd-and-2, he threw a perfect deep ball to Toomer. There was a lot of contact between the corner and Toomer and Toomer fell. The stumbling defensive back then dove to pick off the pass. This pick was not Manning’s fault as the ball was well thrown. The Giants never got the ball again.

Wide Receivers: Still not good. Toomer (2 catches for 34 yards) was shut out for three quarters. Both of his receptions came on the drive that put the Giants up 30-26. Perhaps I’m being overly critical, but it seemed to me that Toomer went down awfully easy on Manning’s last pass attempt that was intercepted. There was undoubtedly contact (and that in itself is supposed to be a penalty), but I saw no severe contact that should have suggested Toomer losing his balance and falling down so easily. I wonder if he put on an acting job and it backfired. He’s a big receiver who should have been able to run through that contact and still get his hands on the football…after all, that’s the style of his game. Supposedly.

Ike Hilliard (3 passes for 34 yards) dropped one pass, but also showed some niftiness by making a tackler miss on his 15-yard screen pass that moved the ball to the Steelers’ 1-yard line. He was lucky he was credited with the 12-yard sideline reception in the 2nd quarter as the officials missed the fact that he didn’t get his second foot down inbounds.

David Tyree, the third receiver, only had one reception. But it was big one – a 49 yarder on 2nd-and-23 on a drive that resulted in a touchdown. Tyree also made a nice block on Tiki’s 35-yard gain.

Running Backs: The Giants ran the ball pretty darn well in the first half as Barber carried the football 10 times for 70 yards (a 7.0 yards-per-carry average). But the running game disappeared in the second half as Barber was limited to six yards on eight carries. There were simply too many negative running plays as well…five in all. The Giants really ran the ball well on their second drive of the game as Barber picked up 35, 7, 3, and 6 yards against the second best run defense in the NFL. Not only was the 35 yarder on a left-side sweep a key run, but so was Barber’s 3-yard gain up the middle on 3rd-and-1. Barber also ran with great effort on a 2nd-and-2 on the next possession when he really fought hard for the first down on a tough 2-yard run. But Tiki was not able to do much the rest of the day…his totals a bit bloated by a 13-yard draw right before halftime.

Barber was the leading receiver with five receptions for 38 yards. His blitz pick-ups were excellent.

I thought Jim Finn blocked pretty well. He made nice short yardage blocks on Tiki’s 3-yard run on 3rd-and-1 as well as his 1-yard touchdown. Finn also demonstrated nice effort on his 13-yard pass reception on 2nd-and-13.

Tight Ends: Jeremy Shockey blocked well for the most part. He got a couple of key blocks on the big running drive by Barber. He also made a nice block on an 8-yard gain by Barber in the 3rd quarter, but a few plays later he got pushed back at the point-of-attack and Barber was forced to alter the intended direction of the play. Shockey caught three passes for 13 yards and a touchdown. He has to be careful about spiking the ball in the field of play when the play does not result in a touchdown as that is a penalty.

Marcellus Rivers blocked better this week. He made a nice block on a Barber run right before Shockey’s touchdown reception. He also did make a good block on Tiki’s 1-yard touchdown run. However, he gave up a serious pass pressure by LB Joey Porter on a 1st-and-10 play where Manning was forced to scramble for five yards. He also got stood up on one Barber run that went nowhere. Marcellus caught a 1-yard touchdown pass.

Visanthe Shiancoe made a key block on Barber’s 1-yard touchdown run.

Offensive Line: Another positive step forward against another top-ranked defense. Ironically, pass protection was much better than the blocking for the ground game this weekend. The offensive line started off well in the run-blocking department as they played a more physical game than the Steelers early on. The Giants dominated the line of scrimmage on their second drive as the Giants rushed for 53 yards on five consecutive running plays. But as mentioned above, there were two many negative plays (five) in the game and Barber was only able to gain six yards on eight carries in the second half of the game. On the big running drive, there were good blocks by Luke Petitgout, David Diehl, Jason Whittle, and Shaun O’Hara. Wayne Lucier and Diehl also made nice blocks on Barber’s best second half run (8 yards). However, Diehl got pushed back on the 3rd-and-goal play that lost three yards. O’Hara later got shoved back by the nose tackle on another Barber run that lost three yards.

Pass protection, especially given the quality of the opponent and their complicated blitzing schemes, was very good. Manning was not officially sacked (though he did have to scramble a couple of times and he was “sacked” on the 2-point conversion attempt). For most of the game, Manning had decent time to throw the football. Only in the 4th quarter did the protection by the OL get a little shaky. Lucier got run over on the pass play to Hilliard that he dropped. Two plays later, on the play where Manning completed the 17-yarder to Toomer on 3rd-and-8, Manning had called out the blitz, but for some reason Petitgout chose to help out Whittle instead of picking up the free blitzer. This happened again on the 2-point conversion as I think Petitgout should have picked up the free blitzer who “sacked” Manning on the failed attempt. And on the second to last offensive play of the game, Diehl did the same thing and let a free blitzer come from his side.

Two negatives were the legitimate tripping penalties called on Whittle and Lucier. The Giants were able to overcome the penalty on Lucier, but the penalty on Whittle took them out of scoring range.

Defense: There is a dangerous tendency by quite a few people to say that the Giants’ defense would be alright if it weren’t for all of the injuries. But a closer look at who is not playing and what their real future in New York is shows that many of the players who are starting now could be the starters next year or the year after too. Obviously getting Gibril Wilson back will help a lot, but it’s doubtful that Omar Stoutmire and Shaun Williams will be return next season. Michael Strahan will return in 2005, but how much will the then 34-year old have left in his gas tank? The other DL’s on Injured Reserve are back-up types (Chuck Wiley, Lorenzo Bromell, Keith Washington, Martin Chase). Norman Hand will be 33 and in his last year of his contract next season. And the linebacking corps is what it is. So before you think the defense only needs some tweaking, consider that the guys who are playing now really may be main characters in 2005 as well. And these characters surrendered almost 500 yards of offense to the Steelers on Saturday.

Aside from the secondary playing like absolute excrement, the part of the defensive game that really ticked me off was the Giants not being able to get the ball back after the Manning interception. The Steelers were able to convert two 3rd-and-3’s to run out the clock. Very poor effort.

Defensive Line: The Giants switched up the defensive line again this week with Lance Legree (LDE), Fred Robbins (LDT), Kenderick Allen (RDT), and Osi Umenyiora (RDE) starting. It’s pretty sad when a Practice Squad pick-up (Kenderick Allen) is out-playing a #1 pick (William Joseph). Kenderick (6 tackles) suffered a hamstring injury against the Steelers and after his departure, the run defense really suffered. That’s not to say that Allen did not struggle at times. He was battling against All-Pro Alan Faneca. At some plays, he held his ground and HB Jerome Bettis was stuffed; at other times, he got moved off the line of scrimmage. But what I really like about Allen is the way the guy battles. He’s big, looks somewhat athletic, and really plays hard. He plays off blocks and gets in on tackles (his tackle total the last two weeks has been excellent). I also like the way that he plays down the line to make plays in pursuit.

Fred Robbins (2 tackles) played a decent game. The Steelers ran for an unacceptable 160 yards on the ground, but their gains in the first half really didn’t hurt all that much except for the big 23-yard gain late in the 2nd quarter that helped to set up a field goal. Robbins and Allen did a reasonable job inside though Allen got effectively blocked on runs of 9 and 12 yards as well in the first half (as well as the 23-yarder). Robbins made real nice play on Bettis from the backside in the 3rd quarter.

The guy who I thought played a very good game was Lance Legree (3 tackles). Legree not only was pretty stout against the run for most of the game, but he got consistent pass pressure on Roethlisberger. Legree played at LDE, DT, and RDE. He is the one who pressured Big Ben on his first interception. He got two good pass pressures on the Steelers’ third drive of the game, including a 3rd-and-10 pass that fell incomplete. He got another good pressure on the play in the 2nd quarter where Will Peterson was flagged for holding.

Osi Umenyiora (13 tackles, 1 sack) was active, but his statistics look a bit more impressive than they actually were. Umenyiora was up-and-down against the run and I would have liked to have seen a more consistent pass pressure from him. His sack was a coverage sack on a play where he originally got knocked to the ground. Umenyiora was impressive against the run early. This shows that he is learning and improving. And I liked the leverage he played with (very low to the ground). On the first Steelers’ drive, Osi got good pressure on Roethlisberger on a 3rd-and-4 pass that was completed for the first down. On Pittsburgh’s next possession, Umenyiora played off a block to nail Bettis in the backfield for a 2-yard loss. A few plays later, he held his ground at the point-of-attack and got in on the tackle. But Umenyiora was also fooled badly on the shovel pass for a touchdown (great trick play). Osi’s excellent run defense continued on the next possession as he beat the tackle to the inside to hit Bettis in the backfield again. But then Umenyiora’s run defense began to deteriorate. The Steelers were able to run in his direction for gains of 12, 5, 23, 8, 18, 4, and 7 yards. I thought one thing that hurt Osi at times was the defensive alignment. There were a lot of plays where the tackle to Osi’s left was playing far inside, forcing both Umenyiora and the linebacker (usually Emmons) to cover a lot of ground by themselves. The Steelers took advantage of this and the Giants never really adjusted. Osi did get a couple of pass pressures in the second half, including on a 3rd-and-4 pass that fell incomplete. He also got a good pass rush on the 35-yard touchdown pass to WR Antwaan Randle El in the first half.

As for the reserves, William Joseph’s tackle total (zero) pretty much tells it all despite playing for extensive periods in the second half of the game once Allen left injured. Joseph was terrible against the run, regularly being easily shoved side. Same story with DT Damone Duckett, who did make one good play against the run by penetrating into the backfield. The Steelers really started to run the ball well in the third quarter when Joseph and Duckett were playing tackle. There were three runs in a row that picked up 11, 10, and 18 yards. And Joseph was effectively blocked on the last three running plays of the Steelers’ game-winning touchdown drive, including the touchdown. He also disappeared when the Steelers were running out the clock at the end of the game. A very bad game for Joseph (he did get one good pass rush).

Linebackers: After 14 games, I’m pretty sure that Kevin Lewis (3 tackles) is never going to be more than an adequate back-up. For the second week in a row, he was far, far too quiet against a power running team…and that’s where a middle linebacker has to step it up. Lewis had problems shedding the block of the lead fullback, let alone the offensive linemen. Simply put, he was blocked too often at the point-of-attack. He also badly missed a tackle on Bettis at the line on a play that picked up 10 yards.

Carlos Emmons (11 tackles, 1 pass defense) was active. There were times when he was very good against the run (especially in the first half), but he too wore down a bit in the second half and he got blocked on the 23-yard gain by Bettis in the 2nd quarter too (as did Nick Greisen). Still, it was a mostly positive performance. I just would have liked to have seen him finish stronger, especially when the Steelers were running out the clock.

Nick Greisen (13 tackles, 1 sack) played well. He was in on a lot of plays, including at or near the line of scrimmage. He played the cutback better this week though he did misread the play on the 18-yard run by HB Verron Haynes. Greisen also had an 8-yard sack on a delayed dog up the middle.

Defensive Backs: Just terrible. The defensive backs and perhaps the defensive schemes in the secondary lost the game for the Giants. The Steelers completed passes of 34, 39, 24, 35 (TD), 40, and 36 yards against the Giants. And on many of these plays, the receiver was WIDE open with no one in sight. The breakdowns were both mental (mistakes in zone coverage) and physical. Some of the receivers were so wide open that I was unsure who made the mistake (so some of what follows is speculation on my part). And these receivers were getting open despite decent pass pressure from the Giants rushing the passer.

For example, late in the 1st quarter, there was a play where Roethlisberger was under pressure and just tossed the football lazily down the field. There was no one anywhere near WR Antwaan Randle El as either FS Brent Alexander and/or CB Will Allen screwed up and a 39 yard completion resulted, setting up a field goal. On the next drive, WR Hines Ward was all alone in the middle of the field as Allen and/or Emmons and/or Kevin Lewis screwed up the zone. At the end of the 3rd quarter, Ward, who was originally covered by Allen, cut across the field. Allen pointed to Ward as he left his zone, seemingly singling to either Terry Cousin or Will Peterson to pick him up. Neither did and a wide-open 40-yard completion resulted.

Will Peterson (4 tackles, 2 pass defenses) probably played the best game of the starters, but he too made mistakes. Peterson was playing too far off the ball (a common occurrence on Saturday) on an easy 12-yard completion on 3rd-and-4 on the Steelers’ first drive. In the 2nd quarter, Peterson did knock a pass away from Ward. Late in the quarter, Peterson was flagged with defensive holding on an incomplete pass. In the 3rd quarter, Peterson had good coverage on Ward in the end zone on 3rd-and-10 to force the Steelers to settle for a field goal. Peterson made a great play on the ball on a pass over the middle to Randle El near the goal line on 3rd-and-4 early in the 4th quarter, saving a touchdown. But Peterson and Terry Cousin overran the underthrown 36-yard deep pass to Randle El on the Steelers’ game-winning touchdown drive. Peterson never turned back to make a play on the ball.

CB Will Allen (6 tackles, 1 pass defense) did not play well. He may have screwed up on the two aforementioned zone play mistakes. He also played too far off the line on an easy 10-yard completion to Ward late in the 2nd quarter and then immediately gave up a 20-yarder to Ward on the very next play. This helped to set up Pittsburgh’s final field goal of the first half. In the 3rd quarter, Allen dropped yet another interception that hit him right in the hands. Three plays later, the Steelers kick a field goal. In the 4th quarter, Allen embarrassingly got beaten by the back for a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-6, keeping alive another field goal drive. On the Steelers’ game-winning drive, Allen couldn’t make a play on the ball on a jump ball situation to Ward that picked up 9-yards along the sideline. Two plays later, Allen was once again too far off his man, allowing an 11-yard completion.

SS Terry Cousin (7 tackles) was atrocious. He got beat for 10 yards by Hines Ward on an out on the first play of the second Pittsburgh drive. Two plays later, despite playing way off the line, Cousin got beat deep in zone coverage by Randle El for 34 yards, setting up the first Steelers’ touchdown of the day. Then in the 2nd quarter, Cousin got beat badly by Randle El for a 35-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-13 despite a good pass rush (S Curry Burns was very late getting over to help on the play too). In the 3rd quarter, Cousin got beat for 5 yards on 3rd-and-3, keeping alive another scoring drive. And Cousin did not make a play on the football on the 36-yard deep pass on the game-winning touchdown drive by Pittsburgh.

FS Brent Alexander (7 tackles, 1 interception, 1 sack) didn’t play particularly well. Roethlisberger threw the ball right to him on the interception (Alexander wasn’t even near a receiver). His sacked was wiped out by a utterly ridiculous roughing-the-pass penalty that may have affected the outcome of the game. Alexander did not drive the quarterback into the ground…it was a bad, bad call. But Alexander really screwed up big time when he missed what should have been an easy tackle on a misdirection flat pass to HB Verron Haynes on 3rd-and-9. Instead of forcing a punt, the Steelers picked up the first down and went on to score.

Frank Walker (1 tackle, 1 interception) had a good game. He did a great job of sticking with his man on the play where he picked off Roethlisberger on the Steelers’ first drive of the game. Walker was illegally picked on the first 3rd-and-3 play after the Manning interception, leading to an easy first down reception.

Special Teams: The special teams played mostly well, but what hurt was the fact that the Steelers often started with good field position after kickoffs. This was not so much the fault of the coverage units as it was bad kickoffs by Steve Christie and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on Shiancoe. Steeler possessions after kickoffs started at the 49 (Shiancoe’s penalty hurt here), 36, 36, 31, 30, and 33-yard lines. Getting in on tackles and assists here were Jack Brewer (2), Jim Finn (2), and Marcellus Rivers (2), Jim Finn, David Tyree, and Curry Burns.

This was not one of Jeff Feagles’ better efforts as he punted three times for a 34.0 yards-per-punt average. His 31-yarder early in the first quarter was particularly poor and helped to set up the Steelers in good field position for a drive that ended with a touchdown. Coverage was good. Antwaan Randle El returned only one punt and was tackled by David Tyree for a 2-yard loss.

The Steelers never punted so Mark Jones never received a chance to return a punt.

The big story of course was Willie Ponder’s return game. Not only did Ponder return one kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown, but he also had good returns of 33, 29, and 31 yards. His other returns went for 17, 17, 16, and 25 yards. Ponder did a good job on his return as he cut it back to the right, avoided one tackle, and used his speed to out-run two more potential tacklers. It was a team effort with good blocks from Ron Dayne, Visanthe Shiancoe, Gary Walker, Brandon Winey, T.J. Hollowell, Marcellus Rivers, and David Tyree.

(Box Score – Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants, December 18, 2004)
Dec 162004
 

Approach to the Game – Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants, December 18, 2004: Looking at this game on paper, it is another unequal contest against a team that the Giants don’t match up well with. However, I have a gut feeling that this is a game the Giants can win and, if the Giants win the turnover battle, I think the Giants will win.

Yes, I know I am going out on a limb here. The Giants are very beat up and they will not be getting anyone back healthy this week. And Eli is coming off an atrocious game. The Steelers are an extremely physical team, with a top run running game and THE top-rated defense in the NFL. But I just get the feeling that the Giants are due for some breaks to finally bounce in their direction. I also think this is a trap game for the Steelers, sandwiched between two important intra-conference games for them.

If the Giants somehow manage to pull of the upset here, they are not out of the playoff hunt in my opinion. This is the toughest remaining game on their schedule and 8-8 may be good enough to get in this year.

Giants on Offense: For the second week in a row, QB Eli Manning and the Giants will face a 3-4 defense. The Steelers’ defensive coordinator, Dick LeBeau, is one of the very best in the business. As has been the case for years, the Steelers like to stuff the run and blitz the opposing quarterback from all angles. The Steelers’ rush defense is second in the NFL, allowing less than 80 yards-per-game. The pass defense is fifth in the NFL, allowing less than 178 yards-per-game. That combination makes them #1 in the league. They are also #1 in scoring defense, allowing 14.8 points-per-game.

All of this does not bode well for a Giants’ offense that has scored one touchdown in four games with Eli at the helm. On paper, this looks to be another shutout. And it doesn’t help that WR Jamaar Taylor (quad) and RG Chris Snee (glandular infection) will be out again. But the offensive line has been playing better in recent weeks and Manning is due to show some signs of improvement. The Steelers will be looking to shut down HB Tiki Barber and the Giants’ ground game first and foremost. The key for the offense will be (1) not turning the football over, and (2) hurting the Steelers through the air in order to take some pressure off of Tiki.

What it comes down to is that Manning, Shockey, Toomer, and Hilliard need to start making some plays. Not just routine plays, but making the difficult throw or the difficult catch…breaking a tackle and getting some yards after the catch. Highlight reel plays. The Pittsburgh linebacking corps is a bit beat up. LOLB Clark Haggans is out as is ILB Kendrell Bell. LILB James Farrior has a very sore shoulder. But the Steelers still have a lot of talent at this position and SS Troy Polamalu matches up well with Shockey. Still, if Shockey wants to be considered one of the best players in the game, he needs to make plays against good players. It is time for Shockey to take over a game. The Steelers’ corners benefit from a strong pass rush. They are solid and don’t give up a lot of big plays, but they can be beat. It is time for Toomer and Hilliard to start making some plays too. This is not impossible task. Manning should stop worrying about doing everything perfectly, get to the line, get the ball snapped, drop back and hit the open man. If I’m Coughlin and Hufnagel, I may even get into a bit of the hurry up and/or shotgun just so Eli doesn’t have to think so much.

Obviously, the offensive line needs to play a physical game. But they also have to be sound mentally. Pittsburgh will try to confuse the line and Eli with various fronts and blitzes. If the offensive line can figure out mentally what Pittsburgh is doing (and they did a pretty good job of this against the Ravens), then Manning should have time to find an open receiver. Teams don’t usually do much damage on the ground against the Steelers, but the line must open some holes for Barber and Barber has to make some plays on his own too.

The Giants are not going to score a lot of points. Just don’t be stupid with the football. Play for field position. Eli needs to stop over-thinking and just let it rip. And someone on the other end of the football has to make a play…not just an ordinary play, but a special one. Do those things and the Giants can score enough to win.

Giants on Defense: Contrary to what the national media says, Ben Roethlisberger has been very inconsistent in recent weeks. He’s a big, strong quarterback with an excellent arm and surprising mobility, but he is still a rookie who can be guilty of making rookie mistakes. What has impressed me about him has not been so much the plays he has made, but his poise. However, the Giants have to go into this game with the strategy of gearing up to stop the ground attack and putting the onus on Roethlisberger to win the game.

Stopping the run is the key. The Giants have not done a good job of stopping the run in recent weeks and that has made inconsistent quarterbacks such as Patrick Ramsey and Kyle Boller look sharp against them. Why? Because when you can run the football, it becomes extremely tough to play defense because play-action works so well.

Look for the Giants to employ the same front of Lance Legree, William Joseph, Kenderick Allen, and Fred Robbins this week. This group played hard last week. Some of their problems came from inexperience and a lack of cohesion, but that should improve a bit this week. Like the Ravens, the Steelers have a very physical and talented offensive line. The Giants’ defenders up front need to play with great leverage and desire, matching the physical nature of the Steelers. The linebackers have to get much more involved in run defense at the line of scrimmage too, instead of farther down the field. With HB Duce Staley (hamstring) still a bit gimpy and rusty, HB Jerome Bettis has been the go-to back in recent weeks. The guy is a load. Gang-tackling must be the order of the day. Pound on the guy…make him feel his age. Everything depends on the run defense. Hold the Steelers ground game in check and this becomes a low-scoring dogfight that either team can win.

But be careful of the play-action! That’s what makes the Steelers so dangerous. Lance Legree has to be wary of the play-action boot to his side as this is something the Redskins took advantage of and Roethlisberger throws well on the run. WR Plaxico Burress (hamstring) has been limited and that has taken away a big deep threat from the Steelers’ offense. If he plays, he will line up over Will Peterson. Aside from the height differential, this is a decent match-up for New York as Peterson plays a physical game. It will also be interesting to see if the Giants put Curtis Deloatch on Burress some due to his height advantage. (Late Note: Burress has been ruled out of the game due to his injury). The other big match-up is Will Allen on WR Hines Ward. Ward is the Steelers’ leading receiver, with twice as many catches as Burress. Third wideout Antwaan Randle El is very good too. With the front seven needing to focus all of their attention on run defense, Peterson, Allen, and Deloatch need to come through with superior performances. And just as importantly, when they get their hands on the football, they must come up with the pigskin. No more drops, no more letting the opposition rip the ball away. Win the turnover battle and help out your offense!

The Steelers don’t throw much to the tight ends and the backs, but they will do so in the redzone. The linebackers have to focus on the run, but they can’t get suckered either.

The game plan is simple. Stop the run. Make Roethlisberger beat you. It will be tough for an undermanned Giants’ defensive front to achieve the first goal, but if they can, this game is very winnable.

Giants on Special Teams: Antwaan Randle El is a very shifty punt and kick returner. With this game likely to be one of field position, keeping him under wraps is very important. The Steelers have had some memorable special teams breakdowns in recent years that have cost them games. A punt or field goal block could prove decisive.

Prediction: Steelers are looking ahead to the Ravens. Giants pull off the upset. 13-10.

Dec 152004
 
Baltimore Ravens 37 – New York Giants 14

Game Overview: Why are the Giants in the middle of a six-game losing streak? It’s not the coaches, play-calling, officials, bad luck, etc. They are in the middle of a six-game losing streak because the players are not good enough. Let that sink in for a minute because there has been far too much debate about what the problems are. There should be no debate. The players are not good enough.

The offense is dysfunctional because the Giants can’t pass the football. Teams, like the Ravens, are loading up against the run and daring the Giants to beat them with the pass. They can’t. The rookie quarterback is struggling terribly and the Giants’ receivers don’t scare anyone. It’s as simple as that.

Defensively, there have been too many injuries. But even if everyone was healthy, the Giants have some serious talent question marks. The team needs better linebacking and pass rushers.

Was it all bad on Sunday against the Ravens? Surprisingly no. What I found most encouraging is that despite the lopsided score at halftime, the defense played extremely hard in the second half. I’ve witnessed a lot of Giants’ defensive teams quit in far less difficult circumstances against less physical opponents during the last 14 years. The young guys on the defense did not quit. They stood their ground and that in itself says a lot about the character of some of these men.

Also, pass protection by the offensive line against a quality opponent was solid. I saw very few pass protection breakdowns by the offensive line this week.

Quarterback: Eli Manning (4-of-18 for 27 yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 1 fumble, and a 0.0 quarterback rating) was abysmal. What was most disturbing about his performance was that Manning was not under a lot of pass pressure and he was not getting hit much. Being confused as a rookie is one thing, but to look so terribly flustered and unconfident is another. In other words, Manning had ZERO poise on Sunday and that is shocking. As the game progressed, it was obvious that he was pressing more and more and, in turn, he became more and more inaccurate. Before he was pulled, Manning could not even complete the simplest of passes to wide-open receivers.

I’ve seen a lot of fans post that there is no need to worry, that Manning will overcome this. Well, I’m a worrier by nature and when you mortgage the future for a quarterback who is not poised or accurate, I think there is cause for concern. Have I given up on Manning or do I think he will be a bust? No. But I am worried. C’mon…4-of-18 for 27 yards?!?

You can’t blame Eli’s teammates for his poor performance this week. He was simply off from the start of the game. On the Giants’ first drive of the game, Manning had outstanding pass protection on a 3rd-and-11 deep pass to Ike Hilliard that he overthrew. Fortunately, a defensive holding away from the play gave the Giants a first down. But on the very next play, Manning badly misfired on a pass intended for a wide-open Marcellus Rivers and the ball was tipped. On the Giants’ next possession, Manning had excellent pass protection again but this time badly underthrew Amani Toomer who was open deep. The pass was easily intercepted.

On the third possession, Manning’s 2nd-and-10 pass to Amani Toomer was no where near the wide receiver. On 3rd-and-7, Manning could not find anyone open (the announcers said both of Manning’s receivers were double-covered) and Manning was sacked as Ron Dayne got beat in pass protection by the blitzing linebacker. Manning’s best pass of the day, a 12-yard slant to Toomer coming off the goal line occurred on the next drive. Two plays later, Manning forced a ball deep to Toomer on a post route. Toomer was double-covered and the ball was thrown too long and intercepted. Fortunately the officials called pass interference. This promising drive however ended with two terrible officiating mistakes…a simply horrible, non-existent crackback block penalty called on Hilliard and a non-call on a flagrant tripping, pass interference penalty on a deep pass into the end zone to Hilliard.

On the fifth possession, Manning again had time on first down and could find no one open. On 3rd-and-8, he threw a short pass to Barber to his left for a 1-yard gain, but he had FB Jim Finn wide open to his right for what may have ended up being an easy first down. The Giants’ final offensive play of the half was a terrible decision by Manning as his pass was intercepted with 14 seconds left in the half, setting up a field goal for the Ravens. Manning thought the safety was going to stay with Shockey, but he broke off the route and jumped in front of WR David Tyree as it was obvious that Manning was staring down his intended receiver.

Things deteriorated even further for Manning in the second half. On 3rd-and-4, the Giants tried to run a screen pass to HB Tiki Barber. The Ravens read the screen and instead of throwing the ball away, Manning ran back to the goal line as was flagged with a legitimate intentional grounding penalty at the New York 1-yard line. This poor decision set up the Ravens’ third field goal of the day. On the next possession, Manning looked to his right where he had a wide-open Jeremy Shockey, but for some reason did not pull the trigger and tried a stupid shovel pass to Barber instead. At this point, it became clear that Manning was afraid to trust his own eyes. The drive ended with Manning under heavy pressure (for one of the few times on the day) on 3rd-and-14.

Could it get worse? Yes. On the very next offensive play on the next drive, Manning lost his grip on the football on a play-action fake to Barber and the ball was recovered by the Ravens. Next possession. Manning’s pass intended for Toomer was so bad that Kurt Warner caught it on the sidelines. His 3rd-and-4 pass to Tyree was thrown terribly high and fell incomplete. Punt. Barber fumbled the ball away on the next possession. Then on Manning’s final drive of the game (before he was pulled), he threw behind a wide open Barber on a swing pass and was sacked on 3rd-and-11 when Dayne missed another blitz pick-up. By the time Manning was pulled mid-way through the 4th quarter, the Giants had accrued four first downs for the game.

Kurt Warner (6-of-9 for 127 yards) entered the game during garbage time. Fans are making too much of his performance. He was operating against a prevent defense. Would Warner be more effective than Manning at this point? Yes. But this season has become about 2005, not 2004. Playing Warner now makes no sense unless the Giants are worried about Manning’s psyche (a legitimate concern).

Warner completed his first three passes of the game: a 9-yard WR-screen to Hilliard, a 41-yard catch-and-run to Toomer over the middle, and a very nicely thrown sideline pass to Shockey down to the Ravens’ 1-yard line. This drive resulted in a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Barber – the Giants’ first offensive touchdown since the Atlanta game. On the next drive, Warner was not as sharp. He made a nice play by stepping up into the pocket away from pass pressure to hit Shockey for a 38-yard gain. But he badly overthrew Barber on the next play and then missed a wide-open Shockey in the end zone for what should have been a final touchdown, making the score 37-21.

Wide Receivers: Hard to judge the wide receivers this week as Manning was so poor. Manning missed both Hilliard and Toomer deep. It was also pretty obvious on Toomer’s 41-yard catch-and-run that he is not anywhere near a 100 percent. His gait looked very labored. The run blocking by the wide receivers left a lot to be desired (though the crackback penalty called on Hilliard was pure bullshit…just a terrible, terrible call). Hilliard was also flagrantly fouled on a deep pass where he might have scored had he not been tripped…however, the officials didn’t call the penalty.

Tight Ends: Shockey caught 5 passes for 83 yards, but most of the damage came late in the game. TV commentators are making too much out of Shockey being called upon to block. Shockey is being sent out on pass patterns on a regular basis, including being split out wide (and he is the leading receiver on the team). In Fassel’s offense, Shockey was called upon to pass block on occasion too. Shockey’s run and pass blocking was pretty solid this week. However, Shockey was flagged with a false start.

The Giants need to get Marcellus Rivers out of the line-up. He simply is not strong enough at the point-of-attack as a run blocker. He got shoved back into Tiki on the play where Tiki fumbled the ball away on the Giants’ opening offensive possession. Rivers later got shoved back again on a Barber run that lost a yard in the 4th quarter. Rivers, too, was flagged with a false start.

Running Backs: Not a good game for everyone concerned here. Barber (19 carries for 55 yards, 1 touchdown) wasn’t going to have a good day with the Ravens stacking the line of scrimmage, but he made the situation much worse by fumbling the ball away twice – his first two lost fumbles of the season. There is no excuse for this. His first fumble came on the Giants’ opening offensive drive and set up a field goal. On the second fumble, not only did Barber fumble, but he abandoned his pretty solid run blocking to his right in an effort to ad lib to his left.

Ron Dayne was terrible in blitz protection. He gave up both of the Ravens’ sacks against blitzing linebackers. He also failed to pick up the linebacker on the 3rd-and-14 pass play where Manning was immediately under pressure.

This was not one of Jim Finn’s better games. He made a poor block in pass protection on the Giants’ first play of the game. And watching him try to move out MLB Ray Lewis reminded me of Greg Comella’s futility in Super Bowl XXXV.

Offensive Line: It’s tough to judge the run blocking as the Ravens’ were stacking the line of scrimmage. Also, this wasn’t the best efforts by complementary players such as Barber, Finn, and Rivers. The Giants had more consistent success running to their right behind RT David Diehl and RG Wayne Lucier. The run blocking to the left was not as strong as there was one play where LT Luke Petitgout got out-muscled and LG Jason Whittle also missed a block on a Barber run in the 4th quarter. I saw one poor run block by OC Shaun O’Hara too.

Pass protection by the offensive line was a bright spot. Manning was sacked twice, but that was not the fault of the offensive line. And Manning was not under much pressure. Both tackles continue to improve. Diehl was very solid except for the first play of the game and the last drive. On the first play, he missed a stunt (same play that Finn missed the blitz) and Manning’s pass to Barber was tipped. On the last drive, Diehl didn’t recognize the blitz coming from his right on the play where Warner hit Shockey for 38 yards. A few plays later he was flagged with a false start. Still, it was a good game by Diehl.

Petitgout was rock solid except for the aforementioned missed run block and a false start.

O’Hara had a bit of an up-and-down game. He was mostly solid, but he did have problems on one stunt in the 1st quarter and gave up two pass pressures in the 2nd quarter.

This was probably Lucier’s best game of the season. He was much better in pass protection this week and made some nice run blocks. Whittle missed the blitz on the same 3rd-and-14 play that Dayne missed the blitz on. He also had a false start on the second-to-last offensive play of the game.

Defensive Line: What was interesting was the fact that the coaching staff recognized that the usual defensive line of LDE Lance Legree, LDT William Joseph, RDT Fred Robbins, and DE Osi Umenyiora wasn’t going to be able to defend the run against the Ravens. So Umenyiora was benched, Robbins was moved to RDE, and Kenderick Allen started at RDT. Damone Duckett also saw quite a bit of playing time inside. Umenyiora did not play all that much but was used in some obvious pass rushing situations. DE Regan Upshaw only saw a few snaps.

With this unusual (four defensive tackle-types) and inexperienced (inside) starting line-up, everything was not positive. After all, the Ravens rushed for 169 yards on the day. And there were plays where I saw all four starters get handled at the point-of-attack. However, I also saw strong play from all four starters. And what intrigued me the most was the play of Allen and Joseph inside. I don’t know what kind of players these two will turn out to be, but I was encouraged by the fact that both of these two kept playing hard throughout the game and flashed ability. Allen (6 tackles, 2 pass defenses) played a lot and kept coming. There were plays where a guy like All-Pro Jonathan Odgen would crush him to the ground, but there were also plays where he stood his ground, played off the block, and made the tackle. He was very active. Joseph’s stats (2 tackles) don’t look good, but I thought this was his best game of the season. He far stouter at the point-of-attack. I think his biggest problem right now is locating the ball. He is often in position to make the play due to his ability, but doesn’t finish (it’s not lack of effort as has been speculated). There were three tackles he missed early in the game – one on the scrambling quarterback, two on the halfback. He got negatively highlighted on an 11-yard gain by the back as he over-pursued the play to his right and failed to make a play on the ball carrier cutting back to his left. But he then flashed his ability on the next play by penetrating the line and nailing the back for a 3-yard loss.

With the Ravens up 27-7 at halftime and sure to pound the ball repeatedly with their physical ground game, the scene was set for a defensive collapse. However, it did not occur. The Ravens’ final 10 points of the game were set up by poor offense, not bad defense. And I think the run defense actually improved despite the game being out of reach. I give a lot of credit to Allen, Joseph, Legree, and Robbins for playing hard when a lot of other teams (and Giant teams) would have quit.

Fred Robbins (2 tackles, 1 pass defense) was up-and-down at his new position and facing a tough, tough opponent (Jonathan Ogden – the best offensive lineman in football). Some of his problems had to do with Ogden, some I think by the fact that playing right end was a new experience for him. On the Ravens’ first drive, Robbins failed to bring down a scrambling QB Kyle Boller. And then for much of the 1st quarter, Robbins was not sharp in run defense. Robbins then settled down at the point-of-attack, but the Ravens were able to take advantage of some of his inexperience. For example, they ran a misdirection toss to his side on one play. And on another play in the 3rd quarter, Robbins got caught too far up field and the runner was able to find a big hole through the natural gap created by his vacancy en route to a 19-yard gain. Robbins was actually more disruptive as the game wore on, penetrating the backfield a couple of times, including smashing the ball carrier on one 4-yard loss (he missed a tackle on another penetration). Robbins also deflected a 3rd-and-6 pass in the 4th quarter.

Lance Legree (3 tackles, 0.5 sacks) was also up-and-down. There were plays where he did a real nice job of holding his ground, others were he got blocked at the point-of-attack. But he kept fighting and never quit. He shared a sack with Umenyiora on the second Raven possession of the game. Like Robbins, he sometimes gets fooled because of his inexperience at end…such as when the Ravens ran a play-action boot on him with the quarterback.

Umenyiora (4 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 2 passes defensed, 1 fumble recovery for a touchdown) was benched but made some plays. He split a sack with Legree on a 3rd-and-4 play where he was not blocked. (This was the only sack by the defensive line in the game…there was far too little pass pressure on Boller). Umenyiora also showed off his athleticism on the play where Boller fumbled the ball and Osi scooped it up and sprinted 50 yards for a touchdown. Umenyiora also tipped two passes away, including a 3rd-and-goal incompletion. Osi had one nice run defense in the 4th quarter.

Duckett (zero tackles) played a lot, but got blocked pretty easily. Upshaw saw some playing time late and missed a tackle on the halfback on one 9-yard gain.

Linebackers: I wasn’t impressed. Granted injuries are a factor as Barrett Green (knee) was forced to leave the game early and Nick Greisen (ankle) was gimpy.

Green had one tackle before he left the game, his run defense, as usual, was up-and-down. Greisen (5 tackles, 1 pass defense) at times made nice plays by shooting gaps and hitting the back at the line of scrimmage. But he continues to remain vulnerable to cutback runs and the Ravens were able to take advantage of that. He also dropped a sure interception where he had nothing but open field in front of him. It was a great read by Greisen, but he has to make that pick there.

Kevin Lewis (8 tackles, 1 pass defense) was too quiet. He made a nice play in coverage on the first drive of the game, but he was nowhere to be seen on too many Raven rushing attempts despite what his tackle totals say. There was only one play that stood out to me where he ran through his block and made the tackle.

After a few stronger performances, I thought Carlos Emmons (9 tackles) regressed this week. The Ravens were able to run at him with some success. To me, the most damning play of the game defensively was his missed tackled on the 3rd-and-9 draw play right after the Giants’ defense had just scored. The game was 17-7 at this point with only 2 minutes left before halftime. The Ravens were obviously looking to run more time off the clock and then punt. But the draw play picked up 18 yards and the Ravens went on to put another 7 points on the scoreboard before halftime. What is so distressing was that Emmons was looking for the draw. Carlos also got abused by TE Todd Heap twice on their second TD drive of the game. First he was beat badly on a 37-yard gain. Then he got beat in coverage and missed the tackle on the 6-yard catch-and-run by Heap for a score. I also didn’t like the way he attacked a screen pass that picked up 8 yards on 3rd-and-7 late in the game.

Reggie Torbor (1 tackle, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble) played both right end and linebacker again. Unblocked on a stunt, he sacked Boller and forced the fumble that was returned for a touchdown.

James Maxwell (6 tackles, 1 sack) played a lot and played well, subbing for the injured Green and Greisen in the second half. He was instinctive and active in run defense and ran over the guard on the play where he sacked the quarterback.

Defensive Backs: The Giants have a good secondary, but their inability to make plays on the football is dumbfounding. The Giants have not had one interception since October. October!!! And one of the biggest story lines of this game was the plays that the defensive backs could have made but didn’t. For example, Will Allen (6 tackles, 2 pass defenses) and Will Peterson (6 tackles, 2 pass defenses) both played fairly strong games once again. However, both Allen and Peterson were outfought for touchdown receptions on plays where they had excellent coverage on the receiver. Frank Walker, who subbed for the injured Peterson, had both his hands on a deep pass that he deflected and then was completed for a 35-yard gain, setting up the Ravens’ final touchdown before halftime. This is a pass that Walker has to intercept!!! Walker did have good deep coverage on an earlier pass into the end zone.

Terry Cousin (7 tackles) had some problems at strong safety this week. He had a 10-yard pass interference penalty called on him on 3rd-and-4 (this was a bad call by the officials however). He was beaten on 3rd-and-5 later in the drive, but the pass was dropped by the wide receiver. Cousin made a nice play in run defense on 2nd-and-goal on the next possession, but on 3rd-and-goal, he got beat by the receiver for an 8-yard touchdown reception.

FS Brent Alexander (13 tackles, 1 sack, 2 pass defenses) was often called upon to handle Todd Heap by himself. At times, he did a great job, at other teams he got beat. Alexander did a great job of forcing a fumble and recovering the ball on the Ravens’ first drive of the game. However, the officials somehow missed this obvious fumble and the Ravens’ scored on the next play. Later in the 1st quarter, Heap beat Alexander for a 22-yard gain. But Alexander then did an excellent job on Heap on two subsequent plays on this drive, including knocking away a 3rd-and-12 pass. In the 3rd quarter, Heap beat Alexander for an 11-yard gain. On the next play, Alexander blitzed, sacked Boller, and forced a fumble that the quarterback unfortunately recovered. Alexander got beat by WR Travis Taylor for a 7-yard gain on 2nd-and-6 two plays before their final touchdown.

Special Teams: Derrick Ward is a good special teams player both as a kickoff returner and coverage man. However, his fumble on the opening kickoff set the tone for the day and was extremely costly as the Ravens took a quick 7-0 lead…not something you want to face against a tough Ravens’ defense. Ward returned seven kicks for a 25.3 yards-per-return average. His best return of the day was a 42-yard effort. The Giants are doing a much better job now of blocking for kick returns.

Blocking on punt returns remains problematic. Curtis Deloatch is getting better as a special teams player, but he continues to let opposing gunners get by him. Mark Jones had a decent day, returning two punts for an 11.0 yards-per-return average.

Kickoff coverage was decent as Baltimore returns went for 24 (Nick Greisen on the tackle) and 21 yards (Frank Walker).

Jeff Feagles punted the ball seven times for a 41.1 yards-per-punt average. Raven returns: 0 (big hit by Deloatch), fair catch, fair catch, 20 (Ward), 14 (Jack Brewer), 11 (Ward), and 9 yards (David Tyree, but a big hit by Willie Ponder). Obviously, punt coverage was a bit too much hit-or-miss, although coverage on the 20-yard return was hampered by the fact that the Giants had to max protect out of their own end zone.

(Box Score – New York Giants at Baltimore Ravens, December 12, 2004)
Dec 152004
 
The Outsider’s Report: Special “Not Numerically Eliminated” Delusions Edition

By BigBlueInteractive.com Contributor Daniel in MI

What the hell happened? After several weeks of being, let’s say out of commission, after a particularly awesome post-Vikings game bender (that we’re told involved tequila, baby oil, a shower curtain, and several large women that swore they were Giants cheerleaders) we came to and asked ourselves, “So, what are we now? 9-4? 10-3?” After consulting some secret league inside sources, we came to the conclusion that we’re 5-8 and playing like crap. We thought, “Not again…” So, we were determined to get down to the bottom of this slide. As always, although TOSR (The Outsider’s Report) lacks contacts, sources, access, and legitimacy, and much of what we write is apocryphal if not wildly inaccurate, we do score over the pedestrian media in two important ways: (1) we’re free, and (2) we remain unencumbered by journalistic integrity. Hmm…Ok, so we’re really only differentiated by the first thing.

After long seconds of studying film, our sources diagnosed the play of rookie QB Eli Manning as a key to the team’s recent decline. Clearly, a struggling Manning might lose confidence if his team doesn’t support him. We got a chance to ask about this support when we were lucky enough to get a few minutes alone with Manning when we came across him in kitchen at Giants stadium where Eli appeared to be examining the gas vents at the back of the ovens.

We asked him whether the team has been supportive and helping him to maintain his confidence. “Oh, yeah, everyone’s been great,” he said his flat tone masking his enthusiasm. “When I come to the sidelines after a bad series, the other players help me by not crowding me or coming near me which allows me to concentrate. And, Kurt has been really helpful, before each game he reminds me not to worry just because millions of people are watching and my team is counting on me, and not even to think about how Ben is doing for the Steelers or living up to my MVP brother. Off the field, the guys have been leaving apple cores, banana peels, fish heads, and other nutritional supplements in my locker to help me keep my strength through the longer NFL season, too.” It’s good to know the Giants have been behind the kid.

Some fans and media have called for benched veteran QB Kurt Warner to return to the lineup, but Warner himself is backing Head Coach Tom Coughlin’s decision. We found Kurt sticking pins into a small doll and put the question to him. “Look, Eli is the future of this team. The team has made its decision and cannot go back on it now. They made the call to pull a former MVP in a playoff hunt for their rookie QB, and now they have to live with it. You have to send the message to the team, ‘This QB with the 0.0 QB rating is the QB we’ve chosen and we’re going to stick with him so you’re stuck with him.’ That’s the message they must send, it’s the message they deserve to send. Plus, the Steelers are a fast, physical, brutal defense and Eli will benefit from playing almost as much as I’ll benefit from watching him try. I’ll be here to help him in whatever way I can, whether it’s reading defenses or peeling his body off the turf.” That Warner is a team guy!

A strange story popping up this week is that former commentator and current Raven CB Deion Sanders said that the Giants quit, and the team atmosphere is miserable. Giants WR Amani Toomer stepped up and defended the team. We found Toomer writing his new book, “I’m an Elite WR, Damn It!: Why Touchdowns are Overrated” to ask him about Sanders’ comments. He said, “I am surprised because I didn’t see him out there that much. Of course, I’ve been closing my eyes when I go over the middle lately so I don’t see much of anything. Maybe after those years of being a TV commentator he can see into the hearts of players. Or, maybe now that he’s not in the media he forgot what it meant when I said ‘off the record’ when we talked before the game.”

This drop-off is toughest on the Head Coach and veterans, of course. Coach Coughlin came in preaching running the ball and toughness, but even though Major Tom wants ground control, Tiki Barber’s numbers have fallen off as defenders stack the run. But, how has the notorious tough guy handled the team? We asked RB Tiki Barber. “The Coach has been trying to support us as best he can, just like my brother and I do in our book, ‘By My Brother’s Side,’ he’s trying to stay positive.” We asked Tiki for examples, “Well, today for example, Coach said, ‘Tiki, you lost two fumbles in that last game which was atrocious. But, you are wearing the right size socks, so good job on the socks.’ Last week he told Osi that even though he got blown off the ball against the run, he’s really punctual to meetings. And yesterday, I heard him tell Eli that his play looks horrible, but his butt looks great in the grey pants. So, he’s really encouraging, like I say you should be in my new book for kids called, ‘By My Brother’s Side.’ Speaking of my new book, ‘By My Brother’s Side,” have I told you about the lessons it gives…” At this point we hit Tiki over the head with a copy of the book and ran.

Finally, our sources indicated that another key problem this season has been losing the young playmaker SS Gibril Wilson to a shoulder injury. Now, Wilson claims he feels good, but team doctors are keeping him out of the games. We caught up with team Physician Dr. Russell “Terrier” Warren on his cell phone trying to refinance a loan with someone named “Vito” to ask him about why Wilson is being kept out. “Well, it’s about an abundance of caution,” said Dr. Warren, “If you look at the MRI and CAT scan, and then the point spread against the Ravens and Steelers, you’d see that we’re much safer keeping a playmaker like Wilson out or you risk losing against the spread…I mean, losing the kid for the season.” While we had him, we asked him when he thought Chris Snee might recover from his mystery illness. “When my boat is paid off.”

So, there you have it Giants fans. We’re on a losing streak, facing a team with only one loss that has given two other teams their only loss, with the rookie QB playing the way we hoped ours would. But, take heart, at least Phillip Rivers didn’t have a better QB rating than Eli last week, so we have that going for us.

Dec 102004
 

Approach to the Game – New York Giants at Baltimore Ravens, December 12, 2004: I can not imagine two worse opponents for the Giants to play right now than the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. Because of injuries, inexperience, and/or talent deficiencies, the Giants match up very poorly with both teams on offense and defense. But let’s focus on the Ravens since that is the first game up.

The Raven defense is the best in football, superior to that of Redskins and Eagles. The Eagles held the Giants’ offense to six points and eleven first downs. The Redskins held the Giants’ offense to zero points and seven first downs. Not only are the Ravens extremely talented across the board on defense, they are coming off an embarrassing game against the Bengals where they gave up 24 points in the 4th quarter. The Raven defense will be very angry on Sunday. They are a physical, intimidating group that likes to punish and embarrass opponents. There will be no quarter given. I expect the Giants to be shut out on offense and the Giants will be fortunate to match their first down total against the Redskins.

Defensively, the Ravens, like the Steelers, are one of the few power rushing attacks left in the NFL. A depleted and talent deficient Giants’ defense allowed 211 rushing yards to what was the 24th-ranked rushing attack in the league last week. This defense has never been good at defending against the power running attack and with guys like Norman Hand, Michael Strahan, and Keith Washington out, the Ravens are going to run roughshod all over wimpy Giants, with or without HB Jamal Lewis. This will set up the passing game for the inconsistent QB Kyle Boller. The Ravens will have little problem moving the football and scoring.

Finally, even on special teams, the news is not good. The Giants have allowed two blocked punts in two weeks. And the Ravens have the best kick blocker in the league (who is also the best defensive player in the league): safety Ed Reed.

The Ravens need this game to remain in the playoff hunt. This contest is going to be so ugly that most Giants’ fans will turn off their sets by halftime. Look for a 34-0 score, with Jim Fassel looking on quite pleased. Thanks again Mr. Mara, Mr. Tisch, and Mr. Accorsi!

Giants on Offense: Only thing worth watching here is to see how Eli Manning handles adversity. If Jamaar Taylor (quad) plays, this will be good experience for him too.

Giants on Defense: Keep your eyes on DT William Joseph. Whether he will end up being a complete bust or not will depend on his ability to defend the run. Joseph will be on the spot again this weekend.

Dec 082004
 
Washington Redskins 31 – New York Giants 7

Game Overview: Forget everything I said last week about having patience. This team is one of the worst in the NFL and it will not be a contender for years. In the era of free agency and the salary cap, the product on the field is ultimately determined by differences in ownership, management, and coaching. And the Giants are so out-classed by the elite of the NFL in these three areas that simply put there is no hope.

Ernie Accorsi, a former public relations man, has been an unsuccessful general manager for three teams (Colts, Browns, and Giants) and 17 years. His teams have never won a Championship but ownership will not fire him. And his supposed coup de main, the trading up for Eli Manning in return for multiple draft picks, has blown up in his face and mortgaged next year’s draft.

Head Coach Tom Coughlin’s last four teams have been 7-9, 6-10, 6-10, and 5-7 (on the way to 5-11). The Giants finished the 2003 season with an 8-game losing streak. The 2004 Giants will likely finish with a 9-game losing streak. Right now, he looks like another failed NFL re-tread. Once again, the Giants have hired the wrong coach.

But it all starts at the top. The Mara-Tisch partnership, inaugurated in 1991, has proven to be a complete disaster. Occasional winning seasons do not erase 14 years of incompetence. It’s the owners who keep Accorsi on and who hired Coughlin.

Co-owners Wellington Mara (old age) and Robert Tisch (brain cancer) will pass away soon. Their respective families will inherent their halves of the team. Unless the families sell the team to someone who knows something about implementing a winning football program, the Giants will likely remain inconsistent and uninspiring.

Get ready for a return to 1970’s-style football! The kind of football we’ve seen for the past two seasons will continue for the indefinite future.

There will be no position-by-position breakdown this week. The entire team stinks and did not come to play on Sunday. They got crushed by a bad 3-8 football team. The Giants only picked up seven first downs and gave up 31 points to a team that had only managed a season high of 18 before facing New York. The Giants have lost four games to four of the worst teams in football (Redskins, Lions, Bears, and Cardinals). What does that tell you?


Another December – Down and Out

by David Oliver of BigBlueInteractive.com

I can think of younger days when living for my life
Was everything a man could want to do.
I could never see tomorrow, but I was never told about the sorrow.

And how can you mend a broken heart?
How can you stop the rain from falling down?
How can you stop the sun from shining?
What makes the world go round?
How can you mend this broken man?
How can a loser ever win?
Please help me mend my broken heart and let me live again.

I can still feel the breeze that rustles through the trees
And misty memories of days gone by
We could never see tomorrow, no one said a word about the sorrow.

And how can you mend a broken heart?
How can you stop the rain from falling down?
How can you stop the sun from shining?
What makes the world go round?
How can you mend this broken man?
How can a loser ever win?
Please help me mend my broken heart and let me live again.

(BeeGees)

There are days when I think this should be the theme song of Giants’ fans. Sunday night was a crusher and I am just recovering enough to put some thoughts to paper. Needless to say, The Corner has been a total downer this week; Eric has hit bottom; as usual, when the Giants are in the tank, almost nothing goes right for me. So I think back to my Bison in Yellowstone, trudging through a white out blizzard, maybe not even with the energy to live into the spring, but putting one foot in front of the other, trying to out walk the blizzard. So I am going to emulate him; I am going to take the photos, even if no one wants to look at them; I am going to go to the games, even with the prospect of crushing defeats; I am going to do a little write up each game. I’m going to do because I am, just like the guys on the field, a professional. They make a lot of money; I make a little bit. But for most of them, it’s more than a job; so it is for me. People talk about finding a passion in life; some even ask me if photography is my passion. No, it’s not photography, it’s the Giants; it has always been the Giants. You would think by now that I would be inured to suffering; maybe I am more catholic than I like to think, because following the Giants is like putting on a hair shirt so I can offer up even more suffering.

But I won’t walk away; I will take the beating until morale improves. Regardless of the pitiful expressions in The Corner, I’ll keep on coming back. I like these kids; I love this game; I was born a Giants’ fan, and I’ll die a Giants’ fan. Of course, like any other Giants’ fan, I’ll never give up my right to criticize the bastards when they play like they did Sunday night. And I’ll offer up my insights, or outtakes, musings and ramblings – because that’s what Giants’ fan do. But my comments today will be a little different than the normal gloom and doom, although gloom and doom are never far off.

I’m going to try to make this short-er and sweet-er than usual; not to much bloviating; that’s O’Reilly’s job. I am going to just list some basic things that concern me, such as:

  • in photo after photo of the offensive line, it is obvious that 5 men cannot block 7 or 8. The Giants have no prolific TE blocker. Therefore, it is useless to go to 2 TE sets; it is ridiculous to keep Shockey in to block; it is hopeless to expect Tiki to pick up a charging tackle. The key to success is to break the tight box of the defense – and the Giants have been playing nothing but good defenses. The running game will be nonexistent with these schemes. The Giants must go over the box; they MUST spread the offense to spread the defense; they must utilize Shockey, Tiki and Dayne in the flat and in the 8-15 yard game. Until they integrate these plays into the O, the O will not go. Balance is meaningless when you play a ferocious 8 or 9 man D, and you have a rookie QB.
  • in photo after photo, it is obvious that Eli is having some mechanical problems. He is overthrowing his open receivers, even when he has time. I only wonder, where is Buddy Ryan when we need him? Somebody has to slap some sense into the QB Coach – these are problems that Eli has never had in his life – they should be easily correctable.
  • it is obvious from watching Eli play that he has got “it”. The kid has an iron, almost stoic composure under adverse conditions; he can read defenses; he can make his downfield reads and identify his open receivers. As Wayne Lucier told me, “We have to run the ball to take some pressure off Eli. It puts a lot of pressure on him to sit back there and make plays.” Wayne, and every other offensive lineman knows they have to help Eli; Wayne, and every other offensive lineman knows they aren’t doing it; Wayne, and every other lineman, is too circumspect to place blame on anything but performance. As David Diehl told me, “There are a lot of people who don’t know what’s going on. If they want to put it on us, that’s fine.” David also told me, “We’re all tough characters; we’re all tough guys.”
  • it is obvious from photo after photo that the loss of Michael Strahan started the log rolling; the loss of Norman Hand completely capsized it. A defensive line with one starter playing is not a very good line. The Joe Gibbs’ offense is a slash offense; with no one in the middle to meet the surge, to stay in position to stop the slash; Gibbs will bleed a defense to death. That is what happened Sunday evening. All of the defenders, and I mean all of them were chasing the play; no one could keep the RBs in front of them. I saw more ass on the Giants’ side of the field than in an x-rated porn movie. The game is up for Coach Lewis. He now knows how the Giants’ coaching staff felt last year. He is Custer at the Little Big Horn. And I have no suggestions, not even criticisms. You play with the team that suits up, not the one you would like to have. (courtesy of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld).

It makes no sense to question whether Eli should be playing, or Kurt. Eli is playing, that’s how it is; that’s how it’s going to be. It serves no purpose to question whether the Giants should have stockpiles draft choices or picked another QB. If they had more draft choices, that would be so much more agony in looking at next year’s Injured Reserve. And no other QB, rookie QB, would be doing well in this offense.

I saw something really scary Sunday evening. I saw Coach Coughlin answer questions in the interview in a civil, low-key manner; I saw him walk out carefully groomed, composed. I saw Vince Tobin in the guise of Coach Coughlin. He came in thinking he could win; he’s going out looking for a glimmer of hope for the future. He’s watching his QB, trying hard to judge if the pressure is getting to the kid; he’s mellowed some of his idiosyncrasies, hoping a leader will appear; he is realizing that he is in his 4th losing year, in a row; that all the hype about his methods and his efficiency and his preparation and his motivation, just may have run the course. He is realizing that NY is different than anywhere else in the world, and that in the words of Frank Sinatra, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” And in all that, I am beginning to think this man might, just might, strap on a reality visor this offseason, cut the crap about injuries being a mental cancer and micro-managing everything and everyone in his universe. He will go out and get himself some major league assistants – and he will go get some professional players to back up his starters. If I’m right, he just might have the capacity to turn this thing around. If I’m wrong, and he remains TC, hardass, I won’t have to worry much more than another year, because if he doesn’t win next year, he’ll just ne another Arnsparger and go back to the college ranks where that act still plays.

The O-Line are my favorite guys. They are tough guys; they don’t whine, they don’t point fingers; they go out and get bruised and battered every week; and they give as good as they get. Ad Diehl said, “We just have to keep fighting, that’s all we can do.” David keeps improving. He tells me the more reps he gets, the better he is becoming. He strives to “improve one thing each week,” and to work on his fundamentals. He feels Eli is making progress, that the line is getting used to him, that they need to play with him for the rest of the year, and that “the more he is in there, the better the offense is going to be.” In the same vein, Wayne Lucier told me they are committed to working harder and he feels, “it’s going to click for us.”

I also talked to Greg Walker, a huge man with a great outlook. I introduced myself and kidded him about his speed and footwork. He laughed and then we got serious. I told him that to me he showed some potential and he told me that, “God blessed me with talent and ability, so everything I do, I do for His glory.” He wasn’t jiving. He is a low key, serious young man, so I put to him a direct question, a question about going through the motions, or having deep feelings for the game. He told me, “It’s a loss. Every loss hurts. We put a lot of energy and heart into it and when you lose, like we lost tonight, it hurts. Nobody is smiling, everybody is dejected; but we’re not going to hang our heads down. There are four games left and we have to do our best to win, we have to prepare mentally, physically and we have to do everything we need to do.” I told him that there were a lot of fans out there who never played the game, at any level, and I asked him to tell us, how it really feels. I told him a lot of the younger generation had PlayStation or an XBox, and that these games flavored a lot of opinion on the game. That maybe to some, the real game looked as if the players were just going through the motions, checking in and out. Greg told me, “We all play PlayStation, XBox, Madden. Take that feeling you have when you lose in these games and magnify it by, say, 100,000 times; that’s how it feels to lose a game. But we come back the next day, and we take that loss, learn from it, correct and go on to the next game.” He told me that right now you will see units of players gathering together; that “what we want to do is show our support; we want to encourage the guys on the field; everyone needs encouragement.”

OK, Greg. I’ll be in Baltimore Sunday. I’ll do my damndest to get some good photos. And sometime next week, I’ll sit down and try to write something a little better. I’ll do it Greg, because I am a not only a member of the Media – I am a Giants’ fan.

(Box Score – New York Giants at Washington Redskins, December 5, 2004)
Dec 032004
 

Approach to the Game – New York Giants at Washington Redskins, December 5, 2004: There are five games left and the 2004 New York Giants are about to define themselves and their season. Will 2004 be remembered for its fast start and then complete collapse? Or will it be remembered as a positive stepping stone forward on the road to rebuilding the team?

At 5-6, the Giants have a pretty tough road in front of them. Defensively, the team has been hammered by injuries. The defense also has to start creating turnovers again. Offensively, the inexperience at quarterback and the issues with the offensive line are going to be tested by some of the very best defenses in the league. The Falcons and Eagles have excellent defenses, but the Redskins, Steelers, and Ravens are just as tough or tougher. All three bring the heat and force turnovers. All three can win games by themselves.

But the focus has to be on Washington this week. Find a way to win. This will not be an easy game. Almost every Redskin game this year has been a tightly fought affair because of their excellent defense. This is going to be a close football game and it will be decided by the team that makes the fewest mistakes.

Giants on Defense: The Giants are banged up, but what a great opportunity for the young players on this team to make a name for themselves and demonstrate that they have a future with the team. After all, the future of the New York Giants’ defense is not Michael Strahan, Keith Washington, Norman Hand, Omar Stoutmire, and Shaun Williams. New heroes must be found.

Of the opening day starters on the defensive line, only Fred Robbins will play on Sunday. He apparently will be shifted back to right defensive tackle. William Joseph will start at left defensive tackle. Much of the success or failure of the defense on Sunday will be determined by these two plus the reserves who will rotate in behind them (Kenderick Allen, Davern Williams). Robbins will line up over LG Derrick Dockery, a huge 2nd-year player. Joseph will likely face RG Randy Thomas (who is listed as “questionable” with a hamstring injury). It’s time for Joseph to stand up and justify his lofty draft status and make some plays; Thomas is one of the better guards in the NFL however. Getting to the quarterback would be nice, but most importantly, Joseph, Robbins, Allen, and Williams have to maintain their gap responsibility, stand their ground at the point-of-attack, and shut down the Redskins’ running game. Of course, the ends have to get into the act as well. Osi Umenyiora will lineup most of the time against LT Chris Samuels and Lance Legree will likely face reserve RT Vaughn Parker (RT Mark Wilson is listed as “doubtful” with a knee injury). Williams will likely see playing time at end too and it will be interesting to see how many snaps newcomer Regan Upshaw receives.

The whole focal point has to be to keep HB Clinton Portis under wraps. Portis has struggled this year as teams have loaded up against the run and dared the Redskins to beat them with the passing game. But Portis is capable of taking over a game if you let him get started. All he needs is one crack and it is off to the races. Pound on him, gang-tackle him. Keep Portis discouraged.

When the Redskins do put the ball up in the air, Washington likes to max protect and only send out a few receivers. Despite this, it is obviously important to get heat on QB Patrick Ramsey – a strong-armed quarterback whose confidence has been shaken in recent years and who is capable of making dumb turnovers. At the same time, he still flashes signs of ability and he certainly is better than some poor quarterbacks who have already beaten the Giants this year (see the games against the Bears, Cardinals, and Lions). I doubt the Giants can generate enough heat by merely rushing their down four. They are going to have to come up with some well-designed blitzes that hopefully fool the Redskins more than they did against the Eagles last week.

The Redskins will throw to the backs. Portis has 30 catches out of the backfield and FB Chris Cooley has 20. Linebacker coverage here is important. When Washington throws the ball down the field, the principle targets are Laveranues Coles, who has never lived up to his free agent hype, and Rod Gardner, who has never lived up to his #1 draft pick status. Both are capable of making plays however if you are not on top of your game. It’s time for Will Allen and Will Peterson not only to shut down these types or receivers, but also generate some turnovers and win some football games.

Stop the run. Get after Ramsey and rattle him. Most importantly, help out your offense by creating turnovers and providing outstanding field position.

Giants on Offense: Washington is a bad football team but not because of their defense. Their defense is actually one of the very best in the league. Those expecting a breakout game by Eli Manning and the offense will likely be disappointed. Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams is one of the best coaches in the league. His system is extremely aggressive and it blitzes from all angles. I hate to tell you folks this, but it is a lot like the Eagles’ defensive system. The Giants will struggle to move the football and they will not score many points. The NUMBER ONE key to this game for the Giants’ offense is to NOT turn the football over. This is going to be a 13-7 type of game in terms of the score. The team that makes the killer mistake is going to lose the game. Don’t worry about style points, just win the game.

The Giants’ offensive line, particularly the interior trio of LG Jason Whittle, OC Shaun O’Hara (if he plays), and RG Chris Snee will be on the spot. The Redskins undoubtedly saw all of the confusion caused by the Eagles and their pass rush schemes last week and the Redskins are a very good blitzing team. The guy playing the best football up front is former Giants’ DT Cornelius Griffin (51 tackles, 4 sacks). He will normally line up over Whittle. The next best guy is left DE Renaldo Wynn (30 tackles, 3 sacks). Wynn will face RT David Diehl. The other guys are ordinary. It’s not the defensive line of the Redskins that causes problems for opponents, but the confusing blitzing schemes of Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams. Figuring out who is coming from where and who to block is the key. The linebackers are good, even without LaVar Arrington (injured). SLB Marcus Washington is one of the best linebackers in the league. He is very physical, a good run defender, and an excellent blitzer. He can do it all. He gave the Giants problems the last time these two teams played. MLB Antonio Pierce is an emotional, physical player who will hit you.

The Giants simply need to be patient. I would run, run, run. Try to wear down the defense and take them out of their element – the blitz. Play for field position. I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see more of Ron Dayne in this game than we have seen thus far this year.

The Redskin secondary is pretty good. It is helped by the pass pressure from the blitzing schemes. RCB Fred Smoot (3 interceptions) did a number on Amani Toomer in the first game; it’s time for Toomer to return the favor. LCB Shawn Springs (3 interceptions) is a bigger, more physical corner. The real ballhawk is rookie FS Sean Taylor (3 interceptions). Taylor has had a rocky debut with quite a bit of off-the-field problems, but he is a very good football player who is getting better each week. The strong safety is former Giant Ryan Clark, a smaller guy who will hit.

Eli needs to play much smarter in this game than he did the previous two weeks. The Redskins are going to try to confuse him (and they undoubtedly will). What Manning needs to do is minimize the number and severity of the mistakes. I would try to keep things real simple for him if I were the coaching staff. I would provide him with a safety valve on almost any throwing play. These might hurt some in terms of blitz protection, but the Giants’ receivers are not good enough to make plays on their own. Jeremy Shockey, Tiki Barber, or Jim Finn need to be the fallback option. I would actually use Finn a lot in this game as a pass receiver.

Run, run, run. Don’t turn the ball over. Use your underneath receivers to keep drives alive. Play for field position.

Special Teams: James Thrash, who is now filling in for the injured Chad Morton, is capable of breaking a big return. He has a 43 yard punt return this year in limited action.

Last week, we learned how psychologically devastating a punt block can be. Jack Brewer and David Tyree can get to the punter. This is the week to do it guys!!!