Sep 072006
 
 September 7, 2006  Posted by  Game Previews and Reviews

Approach to the Game – Indianapolis Colts at New York Giants, September 10, 2006: It is absolutely essential for the Giants to win one of their first three games or they are going to be in deep trouble. Of the three first games, the game against the Eagles in Philadelphia is by far the most important (NFC East game), followed by the game against the Seahawks (NFC playoff team). In the grand scheme of things, if the Giants were forced to pick a game to lose, it would be the one against the Colts since it is an AFC opponent.

That all said, teams that start off winning their first two or three games of the year, usually make the playoffs. Those who do not, usually find themselves sitting home in January. Giant coaches, players, and fans should respect the Colts for they have been a very good football team with an outstanding and dangerous quarterback. However, they should not fear the Colts. The Giants can win this game. But it will take a complete effort on offense, defense, and special teams in order to do so.

Personally, I don’t get caught up in this Manning versus Manning hype. That’s a story for the casual fan. The serious fan knows this game will come down to which team controls the lines of scrimmage. Can the Giants stuff the Colts’ ground game and get after Peyton? Can the Giants keep the Colts’ own dangerous pass rush off of Eli and provide Tiki Barber with running room? That’s where the game will be won or lost.

If the Giants truly want to start receiving national respect, they need to become the team that fans around the country talk about at the office on Monday morning after winning a nationally televised night game. Too often, they have been the other team’s punching bag or victim. Come Sunday night, it is up for the Giants to decide how they want to be viewed. Let’s go Giants!

Giants on Offense: In my opinion, there are two ways to approach this game offensively. Take the conservative, run-oriented, eat-the-clock mode that helps to keep the explosive Colts’ offense off the field and controls the tempo of the game. Or the Giants could come out swinging and try to beat the Colts at their own game by aggressively throwing the football down the field. The pro for the first approach is that the Colts’ defense is far stronger rushing the passer than defending the run; the con is that that style of offense rarely generates a lot of points and the Giants will likely need to score quite a bit to win the game. The pro for the Giants taking the second approach is that it may catch the Colts’ defense off guard; the con is that it could create some match-up problems for the Giants (i.e., the pass rush ability of the Colts’ defensive ends versus the Giants’ two starting offensive tackles).

Of course there will be a mix of run and pass, but my guess is that Head Coach Tom Coughlin will come out with an aggressive game plan. For this to work, LT Luke Petitgout will have to play one of the best games of his career against arguably the most dangerous weakside defensive end in the game, Dwight Freeney. Indeed, this match-up has to be of such concern to the Giants that it will likely affect their game plan. You may see the Giants run more two tight end sets with Visanthe Shiancoe left in to block. You may see Jeremy Shockey left in to block in multiple wide receiver sets (this always makes fans angry, but it may be necessary). You may see more draw plays and screens from the Giants. You may see more quick-step drops by Eli, designed to get rid of the ball quickly than down-the-field shots (again, this usually makes fans upset but again it will probably be necessary). The problem for the Giants is that the strongside defensive end, Robert Mathis, is also an excellent pass rusher. And RT Kareem McKenzie sometimes has problems with outside speed. So if the Giants help out Luke, McKenzie will likely be left on an island with Mathis. Of course, the Giants could max protect by keeping the tight ends and backs in, but that really limits one’s offense.

Inside, RG Chris Snee will face NT Montae Reagor if Corey Simon (knee) is unable to play. Reagor, who weighs 285 pounds, has also been bothered by a knee. The right defensive tackle will likely be Raheem Brock, a 274 pound player, who is far better suited for defensive end. He will face LG David Diehl. The lack of size inside for the Colts is an obvious invitation to pound the football between the tackles with Barber and HB Brandon Jacobs. If the Giants cannot successfully run the football between the tackles, they probably will not win the football game. Of course, Tiki is a strong outside runner, but the Colts’ fast and quick (albeit also small) linebackers make running outside the tackles more difficult.

My strategy would be to pass on first down, when the Colts are expecting run and then run the football. For this strategy to work, Eli and his receivers have to be on their game. Eli must be accurate and the receivers must get open quickly and catch the football. Incomplete passes will result in 2nd-and-10 scenarios – where Coughlin normally calls the obvious run, putting the Giants in dangerous 3rd-and-long situations.

If the offensive line, tight ends, and backs can keep the Colts’ defensive line and linebackers off of Eli, the Giants can do some damage on the Colts’ secondary. FS Bob Sanders is very good, but SS Mike Doss is a far better run player than pass defender. The 6’5” Plaxico Burress has a huge size advantage over 5’8” RCB Jason David. LCB Nick Harper is steady, but nothing special. Since both have been bothered by injuries, we may see more of CB Marlin Jackson, especially since he is a bigger corner and probably matches up better with the Giants’ bigger receivers. A wild card in this game could be reserve receivers Tim Carter and Sinorice Moss.

Tony Dungy runs a hybrid Cover 2. The normal Cover 2 has each linebacker and cornerback covering about 1/5th the width of the field while the safeties cover each deep half. Dungy’s Cover 2 pulls the middle linebacker into deep zone coverage as well, similar to a Cover 3. What this does is allows the safeties to have to cover less ground, so they can cover the traditional soft zone past the corners more effectively. Since the middle linebacker drops into coverage to watch the center of the field, the four men underneath each cover about 25% the width of the field each. This should open things up for Shockey, Barber, and Visanthe Shiancoe underneath if they can beat the smaller, but quicker Colts’ linebackers in coverage. Eli can nickel-and-dime the Colts to death if he is accurate – if he is accurate.

Eli, Shockey, Burress, Toomer, and Barber. Those are the Giants’ big guns. Those are the guys who advocates of the Giants point to and say, “This team can go far.” Well, it’s put up or shut up time. Prime time, nationally-televised game against a Super Bowl contender. Prove it.

Giants on Defense: On paper, the Giants should be in trouble here. The reason is that you have a very, very good passing team whose major components have played together for several years facing a completely revamped secondary and linebacking corps that does not have much experience playing together. The fact that Will Demps, Sam Madison, Carlos Emmons, and LaVar Arrington missed a bunch of practice time during training camp does not help matters. To help the coverage unit out, the Giants MUST stop the Colts’ ground game and apply consistent pressure on Peyton Manning. If not, it is doubtful that the Giants can win.

The bread-and-butter of the Colts’ ground attack is the stretch play. The Colts don’t use a fullback. They run exclusively two tight end sets or multiple wide receiver formations. On the stretch play, the running back (minus any lead block from a fullback) runs to the hashmarks and then cuts sharply up the field. Up front, the Colts use a zone-blocking system to try to create space for the running back. The way to defeat this scheme – as with all run defense – is to maintain gap responsibility so there is no crease for the back to exploit. Penetration will also disrupt the play. The stretch play will also put a lot of pressure on the cornerbacks to be aggressive and tough in run defense – something that Corey Webster and Sam Madison are not known for. Personally, I don’t think the Colts will be able to run much on the Giants and I think the big reasons for that will be the presence of Antonio Pierce, Gibril Wilson, and Will Demps. Still, the inside defensive tackles need to play well to keep blockers off these three. The middle of the Colts’ offensive line is nothing special.

What worries me the most is the play-action pass. No one has a better play-action fake than Peyton Manning. I swear, half of the time, sitting at home watching the game on television, I don’t know who has the ball. With two very aggressive safeties, and one known for biting on fakes (Wilson), I worry about huge gaps being left in the Giants’ secondary. If I’m Defensive Coordinator Tim Lewis, I beat it into the heads of Wilson and Demps to play pass first.

The wild card to me for the Giants on defense is this – do they come out with their traditional 4-3 defensive set and simply try to out-play the Colts up front and not get too cute? Or do they come out with some exotic defense – say some sort of scheme that gets Justin Tuck or Mathias Kiwanuka on the field? It’s tough to confuse Peyton Manning, but it can be done and you can fluster him. There will be a lot of pressure on him to beat little brother in this game and he hasn’t always done well when the media spotlight is the most intense.

What will help the Giants is the presence of Pierce. He’s like having another coach on the field. When the Giants defeated Peyton and the Colts in 2002, another cerebral middle linebacker for the Giants, Michael Barrow, helped to win that game by beating Peyton at his own game. Pierce, who has studied the Colts’ offense all preseason, can have that kind of impact too by correctly reading the play or changing up the defensive call as necessary. The secret is to change up the defense before Peyton has time to adjust again. “(Peyton) wants to see defense real early, so he’s going to hold (the snap) until there’s five seconds on the play clock,” said Demps. “So we can’t show him anything early. It’s a chess match.”

“We’re going to have to do a good job of disguising,” said Wilson. “Don’t just sit there, move around a lot and have him not know where the blitz is coming from. Show false looks, have him think that we’re in one defense, but totally be in something different.”

Of course, there is a risk to that strategy as well. “There’s always the danger of getting caught when the ball is snapped,” Wilson said. “(Tim Lewis) always says don’t sacrifice your coverage for the disguise. If you’re supposed to be on one half (of the field) you can’t be on the other half, doing all that stuff. You still have to be smart.”

“If (Peyton) takes a quick count (when you’re disguising your defense) and goes deep for a 40-yarder, it’s all irrelevant,” Pierce said. “At the end of the day we’re looking like fools. What are we doing disguising? You’ve got to pick and choose your battles.”

“And what if we change to a Cover 2, but one guy says ‘Well, I thought we were playing Cover 3?’ because he’s so focused on (Peyton’s) moving and shifting,” said Demps. “That’s what he wants. He wants us to be a shifting defense until he finds the one guy not knowing what to do.”

That’s the risk, but the Giants can’t play it vanilla or Peyton and his receivers will kill them.

Do the Giants play it safe and play more people in coverage, like the Patriots did the last few years against the Colts? Or do they come after Peyton like the Chargers and Steelers did? That’s the million-dollar question. I know it’s in Tim Lewis’ nature to blitz – he likes to send the safeties as well as the linebackers. My guess is that the Giants come after Peyton. But also look for quite a bit of zone-blitzing where the ends drop into coverage while the safeties or linebackers attack (fans usually hate this). If the Colts pick up the blitz, the Giants will be in deep trouble. Peyton makes his offensive line look better than it is by getting rid of the ball so damn quickly. But if you are going to beat Peyton and really get inside his head, you have to hit him.

The real problematic match-ups for the Giants are inexperienced LCB Corey Webster on future Hall of Famer WR Marvin Harrison and RCB Sam Madison on WR Reggie Wayne. Throw in slot receiver Brandon Stokley (who has a history of killing the Giants) and tight ends Dallas Clark and Ben Utecht and the Colts present all kinds of match-up problems. I also worry about Carlos Emmons in space as he did not practice or play much this preseason and looked sluggish in the preseason finale. If you send the blitz, you leave a lot of favorable one-on-one match-ups here. Lewis could opt to drop more into coverage and hope that the Giants’ front four, with an occasional blitz, can pressure Peyton.

It will be a fun chess match to watch. The Giants’ defense can really make an impression if they are up to the task.

Giants on Special Teams: This is where the Giants could have a big advantage, but they need the special teams units to play better than they did in the preseason, both returning the football as well as covering punts and kickoffs. They also need huge games out of both their kickers, punter Jeff Feagles and especially place kicker Jay Feely. The Colts’ primary punt and kick returner is a rookie. Hammer the inexperienced guy – force a turnover.

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Eric Kennedy

Founder and owner of BigBlueInteractive.com, which is now entering its 20th season.

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