Approach to the Game – Carolina Panthers at New York Giants, January 8, 2006: I think the key to this game is keeping mistakes to a minimum. That includes turnovers, penalties, mental mistakes, dropped passes, etc. The Panthers are the kind of team that thrives off the mistakes of others. In other words, they let their opponent beat themselves. For example, Carolina has only committed 91 penalties on offense (fewest in the NFL) while the Giants have committed 143 penalties on offense (third worst in the NFL). The Giants need to cut down on their own mistakes and hope that the home crowd is noisy enough to cause Carolina to make some uncharacteristic errors.
The is going to be a tough, physical football game. The team that runs the ball better, stops the run better, and controls both lines of scrimmage will have the upper hand. Special teams may decide the game.
Giants on Offense: The Panthers rank third in total defense in the NFL based on yards-per-game. And they only give up 16.2 points per game on average. John Fox knows the strength the Giants’ offense is Tiki Barber and that the strength of Barber’s game is his cutback runs to the weakside. He has undoubtedly preached all week that his weakside run defense needs to maintain their gap responsibilities. Everyone expects the Panthers to gear up against the run and force Eli Manning to beat them. However, that does not mean the Giants should abandon the run. The Cowboys had great success running on Carolina in Week 16. In my opinion, the Giants should go against conventional thinking and run the football against a defense that is geared to stop the run. If Tiki gets 25-30 carries in this football game, the Giants will likely win. My chief concern is that Tom Coughlin and John Hufnagel tend to throw in such situations and get away from the ground game too early. Don’t do it! Be patient!
Of course in order to effectively run the football, the Giants must block a very talented defensive line. The defensive ends are very good and LT Luke Petitgout faces a tough battle against DE Mike Rucker (44 tackles, 7.5 sacks) as does RT Kareem McKenzie against DE Julius Peppers (50 tackles, 10.5 sacks). Peppers gave McKenzie problems in the preseason game – and that’s another reason why I would run the ball more. Back-up DE Al Wallace (25 tackles, 5 sacks) is a quality player. The left defensive tackle is Brentson Buckner, a wide body who plays with good leverage against the run. RG Chris Snee needs to do a good job on him. LG David Diehl will line up over DT Jordan Carstens, a second-year player. Back-up DT Kindal Moorehead (23 tackles, 5 sacks) provides relief.
Unlike the Giants, it looks like the Panthers will have their leader in the middle of the defense back this week as MLB Dan Morgan (75 tackles, 3 sacks) has practiced despite a shoulder injury. Morgan has good range, is a sure tackler, and can cover. Ex-Giant SLB Brandon Short (60 tackles) is solid against the run, but struggles somewhat in space. He has a knee injury, but should play. Will Witherspoon (81 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 interceptions) is the weakside linebacker. Witherspoon is good in space and can blitz, but you can run on him.
A big question mark for the Giants is how effective Jeremy Shockey (high ankle sprain) will be. The Giants need Shockey not only in terms of the passing game, but also being able to handle defenders, including those defensive ends, in one-on-one run blocking situations. Shockey’s blocking is very important to the Giants’ running attack. How strongly can he push off on that ankle? When going out on pass routes, how fast will he be able to run and how sharp will his cuts be? Shockey can present a wide-range of match-up problems for the defense if he is healthy enough. However, the Panthers may be able counter Shockey with S/LB hybrid Thomas Davis, their first-round pick.
What makes the Panthers so tough is not only their front seven, but their secondary. Unfortunately for New York, right corner Ken Lucas (6 interceptions) matches up very well with Plaxico Burress. He’s a big, athletic corner who plays a physical game – the very type of player that gives Burress problems. However, Burress may be able to do some damage deep on Lucas as he is not an overly fast or quick player. The left corner, Chris Gamble (7 interceptions), is also very good. He is a superior athlete with very good size, speed, and quickness. Amani Toomer will need all his veteran savvy to make plays against him. You’ve got to figure that Carolina will count on Gamble to shut down Toomer. The nickel corner, Ricky Manning, Jr. (2 interceptions), is also very good. FS Mike Minter lacks size, but he is a tough, instinctive playmaker. Marlon McCree is the strong safety. This arguably the best secondary the Giants will face all year. In order for the Giants to make plays down the field, Burress, Toomer, and Tim Carter/David Tyree will have to elevate their games and play at an exceptionally high level. (Carter is questionable with a hip pointer).
If the receivers cannot get open, Manning may be forced to dump the ball off short to Barber and a gimpy Shockey. Jim Finn and Visanthe Shiancoe may become a bigger part of the game plan. The one thing Manning does need to do is keep mistakes to a minimum. If there is no one open, throw the ball away. Don’t force the football.
It’s going to be interesting to see how Manning responds to playoff pressure. His brother did not enjoy much playoff success early in his career. The Panthers play very good team defense. Barber is not likely to put up big numbers and the Giants will need Manning to make plays for them while at the same time not taking too many dangerous risks.
Giants on Defense: The Giants’ problems here are two-fold: (1) coming up with a scheme that they can execute properly to somehow keep WR Steve Smith under control, and (2) somehow getting their patch-work linebacking corps to play another good game.
Let’s deal with the second issue first. While much of the attention has been on the absence of Antonio Pierce at middle linebacker, the Giants continue to be also hampered by the situation at strongside linebacker. Carlos Emmons is gone for the year and Reggie Torbor (hamstring) looks like he may be out again. Journeyman Kevin Lewis and Alonzo Jackson will be forced to start again. They not only have to do well against the run, but also perform well in coverage. The starting trio of Nick Greisen, Lewis, and Jackson is unathletic and slow. Look for the Panthers to try to exploit this with passes to HB DeShaun Foster (34 catches – second leading receiver on the team), FB Brad Hoover (14 catches), and TE’s Michael Gaines and Kris Mangum (35 combined catches and 4 touchdowns). The Panthers don’t throw much to their tight ends or fullback, but this is a game where that may change.
As Coughlin preaches, the first priority is to stop the run. Foster is an inconsistent back who is a bit hampered by a toe injury. At times, he looks great and he is certainly capable of breaking the big run. At other times, he looks very ordinary. The Giants must keep him under wraps or it will be a long day. New York absolutely needs their down four defensive linemen (and reserves) to play well against both the run and the pass. Osi Umenyiora will face LT Travelle Wharton. Wharton lacks ideal tools and this is a match-up that favors the Giants if Umenyiora plays well. The right tackle is Jordan Gross, a better pass blocker than run blocker. The Giants need Michael Strahan to cause problems here as well. RG Tuten Reyes is questionable with a toe injury, but will likely play. He will face DT Kendrick Clancy. With Fred Robbins (hamstring) likely out, look for Kenderick Allen and William Joseph (high ankle sprain) to split time against LG Mike Wahle, a very good player signed from the Packers in the offseason.
A strong case can be made for Smith being the League MVP. Without him, the Panthers would have been dreadful on offense this year. Every team he faces game plans for him and double teams him, yet he still has 103 catches for 1,563 yards and 12 touchdowns on the year. Smith lacks size, but he has an outstanding combination of speed, quickness, agility, hands, and route-running ability. He is also very dangerous after the catch. “They’re going to get the ball to him,” says CB Will Allen. “But when they get the ball to him, we have to make sure he doesn’t get those yards after the catch. That’s where he makes a lot of his big plays, catching the ball and turning them into big gains.”
Will the Giants keep Allen on Smith? Allen got roasted by a similar player in Redskins’ WR Santana Moss in Week 16 for three touchdowns. Or will they play it straight up and allow Corey Webster to also handle him? Webster was beaten badly by Oakland WR Randy Moss and WR Doug Gabriel for three touchdowns last week. One thing is for sure, the more the Giants blitz, the greater the chance that Smith will make a big play. The best pass defense is a good pass rush, but the Panthers like to max-protect and give QB Jake Delhomme time. Do you try to beat those max protection schemes by sending more players (and thereby putting more stress on an inconsistent secondary) or play it safe and rush only four and occasionally five?
I think I would choose the latter course and put the onus on Umenyiora, Strahan, Clancy, Joseph, Allen, and Justin Tuck to get to the passer. In obvious passing situations, Strahan, Umenyiora, and Tuck should all be on the field and attacking the quarterback. If they can get heat on Delhomme, he does have a tendency to fumble on contact. It’s probably asking for too much, but it would be nice if the defensive backs could make an interception or two. Allen and Webster have no picks on the year and SS Gibril Wilson only has two. With the pass rush the Giants have, that’s not right.
The other starting wide receiver, Keary Colbert, only has 25 receptions. He has some skill, but has been inconsistent. The third receiver, Ricky Proehl (25 catches, 4 touchdowns), has a history of causing the Giants problems. The Giants need to shut these two down, especially Proehl in third-down situations. WR Drew Carter has also made a few big plays late in the season.
Ultimately, what the Giants’ defense needs to do is be more physical and tougher than the Panthers. Play smart, but beat up on Carolina. Hit Foster and Smith…hard. And hit them repeatedly. Gang-tackle and punish the opposition.
Giants on Special Teams: Steve Smith is the primary punt returner and has the skills to break a big one. Smith has also been used on kick returns. Rod Smart and Jamal Robertson have split the regular kick return duties. The Giants need a good game from their kickers with good hang-time in order for coverage to get down the field. Coverage men need to stay in their lanes and make hard, sure tackles.
Both Carolina kickers are outstanding. PK John Kasay has not missed from inside the 40-yard line all year. P Jason Baker led the NFC in net punting average.
This game will likely be tight so PK Jay Feely will be on the spot. The team also needs a strong performance out of returner Chad Morton and his blockers.