Approach to the Game – Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants, November 20, 2005: Are the Giants good enough to seriously challenge for the NFC East this season? The prevailing opinion coming into 2005 was that the Giants were going to finish third or fourth in the division. A few of us who looked at this roster thought otherwise, that this might be a team to be reckoned with. There were a couple of significant bumps in the road en route to the 6-2 record at the midway point of the season, but the first place standing in the division forced folks to take notice.
Then came the miserable game against the Vikings and now doubt has seeped in. Good football teams should not lose games like that. Let’s also keep in mind that the Giants were only leading the 49ers 10-6 going into the 4th quarter. The Vikings and 49ers are bad football teams. With the extremely difficult schedule remaining, there is a very real possibility that the Giants could slip back to the middle of the pack in an unimpressive NFC. It is even possible that the Giants may not finish the season with a winning record.
On the other hand, the Giants are still tied for first place in the NFC East. They have their own destiny in their control. Their roster is filled with good players and players who should get better with experience. It’s all there in front of them if they make sure another performance like last week does not happen again.
What has to happen in order to make this dream a reality? The defense needs to continue to play at a high level. As the quality of the opponents dramatically increases and injuries begin to mount, the defense can’t keep shutting other teams down. But they need to be able to keep the Giants in games and force turnovers. The special teams also need to rebound from last week’s catastrophic effort and begin winning games again. The offense line needs to continue to gain cohesion, but it also needs to become more physical and cut down penalties.
But the #1 issue is QB Eli Manning and how the coaching staff handles him. Expectation levels were already sky-high with Manning coming into the league given his play in college, his cost, and his family name. His 1-6 start last season tempered that enthusiasm. But games against the Chargers, Rams, and Broncos convinced many, including me, that Manning was way ahead of the learning curve – that he was becoming an impact player earlier than hoped. The last three games proved that he is not at that point, and worse, that his inexperience is costing the Giants football games. For those who understand the big picture, that was the realistic expectation for the Giants in 2005, but it still hurts when the team loses. There is nothing to be done about it. The only way Manning will improve is by playing through his mistakes and learning from them. Whether or not he will become a very good quarterback will depend on his ability to improve his play. He has to do a better job of reading defenses, finding the open receiver, and delivering the ball accurately. Will he be able to do so in a fashion that will elevate him to the status of difference-maker? That remains to be seen. The odds are that it will not happen over the course of the next seven games. The odds are that there will be many critics tearing him apart by the end of 2005 season. These people, as well as his supporters, have no clue to what kind of player he will be. Why? Because we can’t predict the future. We can only watch history as it unfolds.
But let’s get back to the immediate future and the Philadelphia Eagles. If the Eagles were completely healthy and had the services of Terrell Owens, the Giants could beat them. However, the Giants could also very easily lose on Sunday to back-up QB Mike McMahon. The Eagles are going to move the football better than the 49ers and Vikings did and they are going to score more offensive points than those teams did. The Eagles’ defense is going to put a lot of pressure on the Giants’ offense and try to force them to make mistakes. And the special teams needs to regroup with a number of their key components still physically ailing.
What it comes down to is this – are the Giants good enough? Are the Giants good enough to defeat a clipped Eagle? Can the defense make another statement? Can the passing game of the Giants become productive and put points on the board? Can the special teams become that catalyst for victory that Coach Coughlin demands? The answer to the first question will be on the scoreboard late Sunday afternoon.
Giants on Offense: I’ll keep it brief this week. Eagle Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson prefers to play a confusing, heavy-blitzing scheme that puts physical and mental pressure on the offensive blocking schemes. In order to do this, the Eagles will play a lot of man-to-man coverage and take chances in the secondary. The Vikings took the opposite strategy and kept more players in coverage, doubling up Manning’s favorite targets, convinced that he would continue to force the football (which he did).
What matters here is that the Giants adjust quickly to what the Eagles do on defense. If the Eagles crowd the line of scrimmage to defend the run and come after Manning, leaving the secondary in man-to-man, the Giants need to be aggressive and take their shots deep (this is something that Manning likes to do anyway). It’s a low percentage-type of offense, but the rewards are immense. The obvious keys here are pass protection, the receivers’ ability to defeat the man coverage, and Manning’s ability to accurate deliver the ball under pressure. That’s a lot to ask for but this group can get it done. The other option is to become run-centric and simply try to wear down the Eagles up front with Tiki Barber, Derrick Ward, and Brandon Jacobs. That will put less pressure on Manning and may be the safer strategy (especially if he is still struggling). But there may be unblocked defenders to contend with. Tiki is going to have to make some plays on his own.
Now if Jim Johnson adopts more of the Viking strategy, then the Giants should definitely focus on the ground game more. And when the Giants do put the ball up, Manning must survey the field and find where the weakness in the coverage is. Every coverage has a weakness. If they are doubling Shockey and Burress, then Toomer, Barber, Finn, Shiancoe, or the third receiver should be open. Take what the defense gives you.
The big key – other than scoring more points than the opponent – is to protect the football. Don’t give the Eagles cheap field position or points. Manning is going to be under a lot of physical and mental pressure on Sunday – he may not be ready for it.
Giants on Defense: The obvious key here is control the amount of damage that HB Brian Westbrook does. Westbrook is an outstanding runner and receiver. He can do it all. Watch out for draw plays. And in the passing game, isolating him on most linebackers is a complete mismatch. I look for the Eagles not only to use him on screens and swing passes, but also try to sneak him deep down the field.
The other big weapon for the Eagles is TE L.J. Smith. The combination of Westbrook and Smith is going to put a lot of pressure on the linebackers and safeties (being a West Coast Offense, the Eagles often use the short passing game in lieu of the running game). In fact, if I were the Giants, I’d be tempted to play the nickel most of the game (but keep in mind the Eagles ran the ball quite a bit for the first time last week with good success – both Wesbrook and HB Lamar Gordon).
And with so much on the line, the defense must be cognizant of the trick play such as a halfback pass or flea flicker.
Mike McMahon is dangerous because he is more mobile than the injured McNabb and he has nothing to lose. This is his moment in the sun. The Giants need to rattle his cage right away and demoralize him. If the Giants let a quarterback like McMahon beat them in this situation, playing at home, with first place at stake, then they are not good enough.
Giants on Special Teams: PK Jay Feely and P Jeff Feagles need to play a lot better than they did last week. And don’t even get me started about the coverage units. Be smart, be aggressive, be physical, and make things happen. Win the damn football game!