Sep 082005
 
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Approach to the Game – Arizona Cardinals at New York Giants, September 11, 2005: Longtime readers of BigBlueInteractive.com know that I am not a journalist, nor do I pretend to be. I grew up a Giants’ fan and will die a Giants’ fan. The damn disease is in my blood. The disease also affects my judgment at times. Free agency, the draft, training camp, preseason, and the last few hours before the actual season starts is a time of hope, dreams, and lofty expectations. That’s pretty much true of all fans. Go to any sports fan-based website before the actual season starts and excessive optimism is in the air. The only exception to this rule are those older Giants’ fans who were so beaten down by the team’s performance (or lack thereof) in the 1960’s and 1970’s that they found reason to complain even during the Super Bowl years.

If you read the national and local prognostications, the Giants are expected to be anywhere from a 6-10 to 8-8 team. Perhaps they are right. But I feel strongly in my heart that this team is better than that. I’ve been wrong before. I thought the 1995 Giants were going to seriously compete with the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC East (boy did I blow that one). Why am I optimistic? Because I think the Giants have a lot of talent on offense surrounding QB Eli Manning. I think the defense – while still needing an infusion of talent – has some very good players and is well-coached. I think the special teams are capable of being one of the best in the league. I think Head Coach Tom Coughlin has a winning plan: play physical football, be mentally tough, don’t beat yourself, win the war in the trenches, out-play your opponent on special teams. I think the NFL is filled with teams that don’t do these things and if the Giants are able to follow Coughlin’s plan, they will be sitting pretty.

Of course solid coaching and a smart battle plan will only take you so far if you don’t have the troops. Do the Giants? That’s what we will find out. There are still questions at quarterback, left tackle, defensive tackle, and safety. How long will it take for Manning to mature? How long will it take for the offensive line to come together as a unit? Will the run defense improve?

But let’s focus on the Cardinals. Many think the Cardinals are the better team. I don’t see it. It’s not that the Cardinals don’t have talent, I just think the Giants are a better team almost across the board. In fact, the only way that I see the Cardinals keeping this game close or winning is if the Giants make the following mistakes:

  1. Hurt themselves with penalties.
  2. Lose the turnover battle. (Keep in mind that HB Tiki Barber is only a year removed from his fumblitis and QB Eli Manning will likely be rusty).
  3. Experience mental or physical breakdowns in the back seven that lead to big plays. (CB Will Peterson is not 100 percent and will likely be rusty).

If the Giants don’t beat themselves, they will win. If the Giants playmakers on offense, defense, and special teams make the plays they are capable of making, the Giants will win big.

Giants on Offense: The major worries for me here are not turning the ball over and QB Eli Manning’s likely rustiness. The Giants need to protect the football and not give the Cardinals any cheap scoring opportunities. And Manning has only had four practices since August 20th. He still has not built a strong rapport with his receivers, including TE Jeremy Shockey and his running backs. Will Manning be slightly off target on that crucial 3rd-and-5 throw? Will he and his intended receiver not be on the same page and an interception results?

We do know one thing – the Cardinals will come after Manning. First of all, no quarterback in the league does well when he is being sacked or hit on a regular basis. But the Cardinals also want to test that injured right elbow. They also want to test the Giants’ pass blocking by the offensive line and running backs that was not always all that great in the preseason. Will RT Kareem McKenzie make another mental lapse in pass protection? Will Tiki Barber, Derrick Ward, Brandon Jacobs, and Jim Finn successfully pick up the blitz? Can LT Luke Petitgout handle DE Bertrand Berry this year?

My strategy? Run, run, run. The Cardinals have some very good pass rushers, but they are on the light side. And the best way you can frustrate strong pass rushers is to run the freaking football right down their throats. It’s power-football time folks…old-style Giants’ football. The young fans out there won’t likely appreciate it, but kicking the snot out of the opposing team’s front seven is one of the surest ways to win a game. For this strategy to work, obviously the Giants need to win the individual match-ups up front. They also need their running backs to hold onto the football and make some exceptional plays. Just as importantly, no penalties. Nothing kills a conservative, ground-attack strategy like a stupid false start or holding penalty.

It’s time to unleash the power tandem of RT Kareem McKenzie and RG Chris Snee on an unsuspecting league. Throw in a short pull by LG David Diehl for added muscle. The targets should be LDE Chike Okeafor and NT Russell Davis. Okeafor is a good pass rusher and could give McKenzie problems in that area. So bruise him up first by having McKenzie drive him into the turf (we may even see Shockey on Okeafor at times). Russell Davis is a good run defender, but Snee is an outstanding drive blocker. The Giants should also be able to run left. Berry is outstanding pass rusher who gave Petitgout fits last year, but he is light and can be moved out by Petitgout, who is a good run-blocking left tackle. LG David Diehl could have problems with UT Darnell Dockett’s quickness on the pass rush, but Dockett is also a bit vulnerable against the run. Diehl’s biggest challenge will be dealing with his initial quickness (penetration will kill a running play).

Obviously, we will see a heavy dose of Barber. Barber did not see a lot action in the preseason and has to be careful with the football. When he is spelled, we really don’t know yet if we will see more of Derrick Ward or Brandon Jacobs. Obviously, we’ll see Jacobs almost exclusively in short-yardage (and a play-action pass with Jacobs in the backfield could really be deadly if the pass protection holds up and properly executed). The running style of Ward and Jacobs – more downhill and physical than Tiki – make actually be a better fit for attacking the Cardinals. But Tiki is still the big play-maker. Don’t be surprised to see the Giants sneak Jacobs out into a pass pattern. His has very good hands. Another thing to look for is a reverse to WR Tim Carter. Coughlin loves to run at least one reverse per game.

The conservative running strategy does come with a risk. You can run, run, run, and put together a 12-play drive and still only come away with a field goal because the drive got bogged down because of a penalty, lack of execution, good defensive play or call, or just bad luck. Still, I think this is the smart strategy given the Giants’ inherent physical advantage as a run-blocking team against the Arizona front seven, the strength of the Cardinals’ pass rush, and the inexperience and rustiness of Manning. Still, the Giants are obviously going to need some big pass plays to win. When I say “big,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that I am talking about a bomb. A big pass play can be a 12-yard completion on 3rd-and-10 that keeps a scoring drive alive. That said, if the Giants do get their running game going, the play-action pass deep to anyone of the wide receivers or TE Jeremy Shockey could prove to be the nail in the coffin.

Shockey will likely be covered by impressive second-year SLB Carlos Dansby, who is athletic enough to stick with the tight end. Dansby is also a good blitzer. Hopefully, this year the offensive line and backs will be able to handle the blitz and allow Shockey to go out into pass patterns more frequently. It is also time for Shockey to make some big plays, particularly, game-winning plays. Indeed, for all the talk this offseason about the talents of Shockey, Burress, Toomer, etc., what really matters is what these guys do on the playing field. Very good players make plays that shatter the other team’s morale and win football games.

Burress will be covered by RCB David Macklin. Macklin is a decent player, but he is 5-10. Burress is 6-5. Toomer will be covered by rookie LCB Antrel Rolle. Rolle is a physical bump-and-run player who still has a lot to learn about zone coverage. Toomer needs to get off the line quickly and make some plays in order to take heat off of Shockey and Burress (as the latter two will likely see more double-coverage). It will also be interesting to see if and how WR David Tyree and/or WR Tim Carter are used.

As I’ve preached all offseason, much will come down to Manning. The situation is not ideal. He probably is still not 100 percent. And he has hardly practiced the past few weeks. For a veteran, that may not be a problem, but for an inexperienced second-year guy, it usually is. The most important thing Manning can do is to play smart. Take what the defense gives him. Allow his play-makers to make plays for him. Most importantly, don’t turn the ball over. The fireworks can come later in his career.

Giants on Defense: The Giants’ big defensive weaknesses have been stopping the run and getting off the field on 3rd down. This has got to stop if Tim Lewis’ defense is going to become one of the better units in the league. Winning defense is pretty simple – stop the run, force your opponent to become one-dimensional, and then force mistakes in the passing game.

The Cardinals did not run the football very well in the preseason. Part of that had to do with a lot of injuries they experienced on the offensive line, especially at center. But they do have some decent tailbacks. Rookie J.J. Arrington is the elusive, big-play guy and veteran Marcel Shipp is the more physical, north-south runner. It’s a nice one-two combination. The Cardinals will likely run a lot of 3-WR sets, spread the Giants out defensively, and then try to take advantage of the fact that the Giants will have one less linebacker in the game. Thus, the defensive backs, particularly the safeties, will have to play a strong game in run defense. At the same time, they need to be cognizant of play-action, especially the youthful SS Gibril Wilson. This will also be a big test for new MLB Antonio Pierce as he will have to cover a lot of ground while avoiding the blocks of much bigger offensive lineman.

The defensive backs and linebackers will obviously do better if the defensive line keeps the opposing offensive line busy. RDE Osi Umenyiora will face a very difficult test in facing off against the huge, run-block mauling Leonard Davis at left tackle. But Umenyiora may be able to out-quick Davis on passing plays. Still, Osi is going to have to buckle down his chin strap for this contest. DT William Joseph will face LG Reggie Wells, who has a nice combination of size and quickness. The Cardinals will likely attempt to run in this direction almost exclusively. DT Kendrick Clancy will battle RG Elton Brown, a good run-blocking rookie. RT Oliver Ross was acquired from Pittsburgh, but he has missed a lot of time due to injury. He can run block as well and it will be interesting to see how the slimmed-down DE Michael Strahan fares. The Cardinals have had one injury nightmare after another at center. Whether one of their two top centers will play is still unknown. Regardless, the Giants can take advantage of this by blitzing and stunting in the middle of the defense. Keep in mind that both guards are also inexperienced.

I wouldn’t be as concerned about the wide receiver versus defensive back match-ups if I knew if CB Will Peterson were playing and if I knew he would be at or near 100 percent. Yes, the Cardinals have a very good receiving corps, but when Peterson is healthy, the Giants have a very good secondary as well. If Peterson can’t go, Curtis Deloatch would start at right corner. The right corner – be it Peterson or Deloatch – will face WR Anquan Boldin in 2-WR sets. CB Will Allen will line-up against WR Larry Fitzgerald. However, the Cardinals run a lot of 3-WR sets and we would likely see different receivers in the slot, such as Boldin. It will be interesting to see who the nickel corner will be and where that nickel corner lines up (i.e., in the slot or outside). The speed receiver on the Cardinals is WR Bryant Johnson.

In more traditional 2-WR sets, SLB Reggie Torbor needs to do a good job in pass coverage. The Cardinals are weak at tight end, but Torbor does not have a lot of experience in covering tight ends or running backs.

One thing we can expect to see is a lot of blitzing from Defensive Coordinator Tim Lewis, especially given the inexperience in the middle of the Cardinal offensive line. But if you blitz, you had better get there because the Cardinals have a quarterback and wide receivers who can make you pay. The one thing that scares me in this contest is giving up the cheap, big play in the passing game (not just deep, but with a short throw and a big run-after-the-catch).

It will be interesting to see if the corners continue to play off the receivers by a mile, like they did in the preseason. If the Giants continue to back off, the Cardinals will likely use a lot of quick, short-tosses to the receivers on slants. Boldin and Fitzgerald are big, physical receivers who would do well in this situation as would QB Kurt Warner. LB coverage on the short throws will also be important, especially from WLB Carlos Emmons and Pierce. Emmons and Pierce need to come up and make the receivers pay dearly.

Another reason to blitz is Warner. As Giants’ fans know, Warner is not always great at getting rid of the football. In addition, he is not good at protecting it. Warner fumbled 12 times last year in 9 starts for the Giants. The Giants need to get in his face immediately and make contact. Do that and good things will happen.

Giants on Special Teams: The Cardinals have good special teams, so the Giants will need to continue to play as strongly here as they did in the preseason. PK Neil Rackers is very good on kickoffs so KR Willie Ponder may not get a lot of chances to return kicks. Scott Player is one of the more consistent punters in the league. He usually gets excellent hang-time so Chad Morton may have the same problem. The new kick and punt returner for the Cardinals is Reggie Swinton, who has made big plays in both phases of the game for the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions. He has two career touchdowns on punt returns and two career touchdowns on kickoff returns.

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Eric Kennedy

Founder and owner of BigBlueInteractive.com, which is now entering its 20th season. Follow Eric on Twitter @BigBlueInteract.

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