Dec 062007
 
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New York Giants 21 – Chicago Bears 16

by Damon Micalizzi for BigBlueInteractive.com

In Brief…

With three quarters in the books, the Giants were just eleven minutes away from being officially mired in a fourth consecutive “second half swoon”.  Still, very much in the playoff picture thanks to a very watered down NFC, the Giants looked to be a team that would either eek it’s way into the playoffs and once again get bounced early, or maybe, the collapse would be so catastrophic that one or more of the flailing Northern Division teams would push them out of the playoffs altogether.  One thing was sure, The Quarterback had turned into a turnover machine, and injuries were mounting.

But then something happened.  Somehow, Eli Manning shook off two more interceptions and an embarrassing fumble where he simply lost the ball while cocking his arm to throw.  The seemingly shaky (or skittish, whatever you prefer) Manning led the Giants on two late touchdown drives, capping a comeback against the Bears, in Chicago and regaining a firm hold of the top wild card spot in the NFC.

Quarterback

This turnaround by Manning really wouldn’t be as dramatic if he didn’t play so poorly last week against Minnesota.  While he wasn’t magnificent late in the game, he was very sharp and he did orchestrate the Giants comeback.  And while he did have the three turnovers earlier in the game, he didn’t really play as badly as it seemed.

This was a fired up Bears’ defense that may not be as dangerous as it was a year ago, but can still cause problems for opposing QBs.  Throughout the game, they tried to disguise their coverages (a la Minny last week) and did their best to get plenty of heat on Manning.  Eli was only sacked twice, but he was hit quite a few times and was hurried at least a dozen more.  Once again, at times, he was not on the same page as his receivers. Throughout the game you just got the feeling that something bad was going to happen every time he dropped back to pass.

Then, midway through the fourth quarter, Manning was looking for Sinorice Moss on a comeback.  Moss didn’t comeback, instead, he took the route deep.  It was the latest display of a receiver and Manning having their signals crossed, but this time Manning threw up his hands and let an expletive or two fly.

That was Manning’s last miscue of the game and the receivers seemed to respond as well, as Toomer, Burress, Shockey and even David Tyree all came up with big catches as Manning twice marched the Giants up the field for TDs.

Every throw from that point forward looked to have a little more zip on it.  Including the TD pass to Toomer, that some might argue was a little low, as Toomer made a great catch to keep his hands between the ball and the ground and maintain control. But in reality that was the only place Manning could have thrown that ball as he laced it between three different defenders.

It was nice to see Manning get a little fired up.  Even if it was merely a mild show of emotion.  When it was all said and done though, Eli had led his team back from a nine-point deficit in a hostile environment against a very desperate team.  Whatever demons Manning was battling from last week’s nightmare and his early follies in this game may have been exorcized.   At least for now.

Running Backs

What a shame.   Derrick Ward really was a pleasant surprise this year, and he did not disappoint in his return against the Bears.  Yes, he put the ball on the ground twice (one was lost).  You can probably blame that on rust from lack of contact over the past few weeks.  Sadly, we won’t see if he gets his ball security under control this season, as he broke his leg late in this one.  He will be missed.

Ward is so good at making himself small and he hits the hole so well.  Ward had a career day against the Bears, gaining 154 yards on 24 carries, running the ball so well, that he made it very difficult for Gilbride to go pass happy as he often has a tendency to do when trailing.  Ward also really did a nice job of picking up the blitz.

Ward’s quickness was all the more evident after he was gone, as Reuben Droughns took over in the backfield.  Droughns is not an easy guy to tackle by any means, but he does not have the speed or the agility to wiggle through holes and scoot around the edge the way Ward does and did against Chicago.

Droughns had 10 carries for just 25 yards, but as always his yards per carry average takes a hit because of his work in short yardage.  Twice he was stood up while trying to punch it in after he had a TD run taken off the board because of a last second challenge flag noticed by an official after the score.  Droughns still got into the endzone though taking the game winner off tackle with less than two minutes left in the game.

Madison Hedgecock really did a nice job of getting out in front of Ward and occupying the first would-be tackler.  At least two times he stood Urlacher upright as Ward scooted by for a nice gain.

Spot duty only for Amhad Bradshaw who took a toss for only two yards and had a poorly thrown screen pass go through his hands.  Bradshaw though, seems to have his ball security on kickoffs down as he bounced off of one tackler who put his helmet right on the ball and never once did it budge.

Wide Receivers

I don’t know if a week or two off will help Plaxico Burress’ gimpy ankle.  I doubt it.  He is still a viable receiver, but it’s clearly evident that he’s not the same guy he was the first two months of the season.  That’s not a revelation by any means, but I watched some tape from the first few games of the year to compare.  Two things seem very different.  For one, he’s not able to get separation with his quick first step after the stutter step move off the line of scrimmage that used to be his signature against press coverage.  Secondly, his closing speed is gone.  Plax had done most of his damage early on, getting space in the first 5-10 yards and then turning a quick, short catch into a big gain.  Or he’d have an extra burst to get to the deep ball that sometimes appeared to be overthrown.

The last few weeks, he’s not been able to do either and those have also been the routes where Manning has missed him most frequently.  Plax has been a warrior throughout and in spite of the times when Manning has missed him, and the fact that he has seen less balls coming his way, he has been out there on every down fighting to get open. He still must be accounted for on every play, but he’s being doubled a lot less.  He did come up with the big sliding catch that set up Droughns’ TD late in the 4th Quarter that ended up being the game winning drive.

One beneficiary of Burress’ reduced action has been Amani Toomer.  Toomer’s shoestring TD catch was huge and it capped a six-catch day for the Giants’ all time leading receiver.  While Toomer can still get open, if Plax does miss any time, he is not intimidating at all, as a number one option and no longer possesses the speed needed to get behind a defense.

Any rest for Burress could be predicated on the return of Steve Smith. That’s because after Moss’ aforementioned route running David Tyree entered the game as the number three receiver.  Tyree caught two balls for 32 yards, and did a nice job of holding on to the ball after the catch while Chicago defenders repeatedly went for the strip.  Other than that one play, Moss, was largely invisible on the day reminding Giants fans how extremely thin the Jints are at wideout without Plaxico.

Tight Ends

Also very much missing in action for most of this game was Jeremy Shockey.  It frustrates the hell out of me because I think he us very under used.  If indeed he was guilty of not reading the defense correctly (and in turn altering his route) on Urlacher’s interception, it’s not going to help his case for more passes thrown his way as this would now be the second consecutive week a Shockey/Manning cross up cost Manning an INT and the Giants an eventual TD.

Something needs to be done and it may fall on the coaches.  If defenses are figuring out how to disguise coverages to bait receivers into routes and Manning into throws, then Coughlin and Gilbride have to remove these option routes and multi-read plays.

Shockey ended up with only two catches, one of them a screen for seven yards, the other an 18-yard grab late in the game that set up the Giants’ final TD.    The good news is, there appears to be more depth behind Shockey than ever before.  Kevin Boss, had a catch for a first down and looks to be growing into a viable receiving threat from the second TE position.  Michael Matthews continues to block well, both as a TE and as a lead blocker on some running plays and had the presence of mind to pounce on Ward’s second fumble.

Offensive Line

This unit did a little better than I thought they would against a pass rush that is second only to the Giants when it comes to getting to the quarterback. Not a stellar performance by any means, as Manning did face his share of pressure but, given their post bye performances thus far, I was sure that Manning would have been sacked more than just the two times he was taken down for a loss.

They were penalized only once, and they were able to create some room for Ward, who enjoyed running both inside and outside at 6.4 yards a clip but still they have a ways to go to resemble the unit that we saw the first two months of the year.

They were not bullied by Chicago they way they were against Dallas and Minnesota, but Chicago is a fast, athletic team up front.  Rich Seubert seemed to have trouble staying engaged with his man and two times straight up whiffed on a stunt.

Defensive Line

Michael Strahan who played like a man possessed.  Strahan had five tackles and one sack and could have had more but he had to share.  Twice he was able to catch Adrian Peterson from behind as the play was run away from Strahan’s side, which was the Bears’ M.O. for most of the game.  It was an overall dominating performance by the D-Line as Chicago’s run game was really stifled all day and Grossman was sacked six times.

Despite getting double-teamed on nearly every passing play, Osi Umenyiora was able to speed around end and take down Grossman for a 14-yard loss on his sack.  It seems like every time he gets on the field Justin Tuck makes a play. Tuck had one and a half sacks and is a frightening combination of strength and speed.  He plays the run extremely well and each week he makes it harder for the coaching staff to use him in only situational work.

This was the best performance of the season by Barry Cofield who ended up with five tackles (4 solo) and was very stout against the run.  Several times Cofield took on two blockers, and was impressive on two occasions in that he was still able to shed both blockers to get to the ball carrier.  Continuing his consistent play all year, Fred Robbins had another sack and five tackles for the Giants.  His strength is really underrated, as Robbins has made a living this year, plowing through linemen with a bull rush.

Linebackers

Say what you want about Kawika Mitchell, and I have beaten him up at times this year as well, but he really had an outstanding game against the Bears.  With a team leading 12 tackles and a half a sack, Mitchell was everywhere.  His open field tackling was huge and his play in coverage was formidable as well.  A half a dozen times, Mitchell was the only Giant able to make the tackle and every time he did so.  He has steadily improved this season and they’ll need him to continue his strong play because Antonio Pierce is on the decline.

Tight Ends are chomping at the bit to get Pierce in coverage. Pierce did his best to make a star out of Desmond Clark. He tripped and fell down on Clark’s TD catch.  He slid and took himself out of the play on another catch by Clark over the middle.  Then Clark got behind Pierce for a 44-yard deep post. Much like Burress, Pierce looks to be hesitating a bit. He’s not able to change directions, he’s not shedding blockers and twice Adrian Peterson ran right by Pierce, but Antonio was just unable to attempt the tackle.  There is just no closing burst.  There’s no doubt that Pierce’s play is a result of his ankle injury, but it’s detrimental to the team, and if not for the outstanding play of the rest of the front seven, Pierce’s inability to make plays would be all the more glaringly obvious.

Adrian Peterson got behind him and made a heck of a catch down the sideline for 29 yards, but other than that one play, Reggie Torbor really had a solid game.  He ended up with four tackles, but is quick to analyze the play and has been sure handed in wrapping up the ball carrier.  Other than the Peterson play, Torbor was adequate in coverage.  To start the 4th Quarter, Torbor came up to cover a screen pass to Jason McKie and Torbor quickly came up on McKie and wrapped him up for no gain.  Had Torbor not made the play, McKie would have been running for a while. Two other times, I caught him rolling from one area in his zone to come up and take away the check-down underneath, forcing Grossman to throw the ball away.  That doesn’t show up in the stat book, but it’s important nonetheless.

Cornerbacks

Without Aaron Ross, you would think that Chicago would try to beat the Giants deep by attacking Kevin Dockery, starting in Ross’ place.  Dockery really was pretty solid on the outside and continued his overall strong play this season. Dockery is really deceivingly fast and isn’t afraid to go after the ball, as he nearly picked off a pass in the endzone.  He’s got good footwork, runs backwards and changes directions well.  Dockery wasn’t challenged much and ended the afternoon with five tackles including one on Devin Hester where Dockery fought off the Mushin Muhammad, (who is a great blocking WR) to take down Hester for a 4-yard loss.

Instead, the Bears opted to go after Sam Madison who had a busy day.  Madison had his ups and downs getting beat deep, but was the recipient of a nicely timed push off by Bernard Berrian, who made a great one-handed grab for a 50-yard gain.  It was one of Madison’s six tackles on the afternoon, one of them being a sack that almost went for a safety on a well-timed blitz from the corner where Grossman avoided giving up the 2 points and the turnover by a hair.

R.W. McQuarters was the nickel back and stayed out of trouble.  Aside from punts I did not see Corey Webster on the field at all.

Safeties

When Gibril Wilson gets back from his injury the combination of Wilson and Michael Johnson might be the fastest Safety duo in the NFL. Johnson came up big against Chicago.  He sure as hell isn’t playing like a rookie drafted in the 7th round.  Johnson had five tackles, all of them seemingly saving the Giants from giving up big plays. While Johnson is sure to make some rookie mistakes, he is not afraid to try to go after the ball in the air and is quick to come up against the run.  And for a slender guy, he can deliver a hit. Late in the first quarter Johnson was quick to notice a screen to Devin Hester and took Hester down, not giving the elusive Hester any opportunity to dance and get free.  Later in the game, Johnson came up on a screen to Peterson and took him out.  It was a hell of a tackle and Johnson was the only one there who could have made the play.  It may have saved the game for the Giants.

All that said, anyone other than Rex Grossman at the helm and there would have been trouble. The Bears had guys open deep far too often.  At least three times, a receiver was behind James Butler.  Craig Dahl also saw time opposite Butler and both of them would have been beaten for a TD had Devin Hester not let the ball bounce off his pads even though he was 10 yards behind both Dahl and Butler.  Bernard Berrian also got behind Butler two other times, both times, Grossman overthrew him. Butler dropped an interception that might have gone for six had he been watching the ball instead of the field in front of him but did knock down the last pass of the game.  The Giants are very fortunate they were playing against Rex on Sunday because another QB would have lit them up.

Special Teams

Not only did Tyree contribute as a receiver but he also got his hand on a punt that set up the Giants with great field position for Ward’s eventual TD.  It was the first time Tyree got his hand on a punt this year although he’s come close a bunch of times.

A huge reason the Giants won this game, Jeff Feagles.  From his spectacular job directional punting, to his catching three high snaps on extra points and getting the ball down, laces out and all, it should not go unnoticed that Feagles not only neutralized the Bears’ most dangerous player in Devon Hester, but by converting those poor snaps, he ensured that a field goal would not tie or beat the Giants late in the game by getting those snaps down for Tynes.

Speaking of Tynes, he didn’t attempt a field goal, and he was obviously told to keep the ball away from Hester so I won’t complain too much about the two kickoffs that went out of bounds.  When he did kick it inbounds, coverage was pretty good as Hester was really able to get any room on the one kickoff he returned or any of Feagles’ punts.

Chase Blackburn had a great tackle on a Hester punt return.  He’d better get ready for a little more time on the field.

Jay Alford has to get his snaps down.  Be it an extra point or a field goal, that Alford, Tynes combo scares the hell out of me.

To Sum It Up…

The Giants should not have won this game.  No team should win a game where they turnover the ball four times and don’t force any.  Somehow they got big plays from some young guys on D, and Eli Manning was able to put behind him the seven turnovers from the previous seven quarters of football to move the team up the field impressively for two late scores.  Is all forgiven?  No way.  Does the QB need to play better? Absolutely, but the playbook needs to adapt.

With the offense reeling, Gilbride started calling run plays on 3rd and 5 and 3rd and 6.  Conservative?  B.S. He’s an arrogant fool who was trying to send a message to his team while on the road, where the home crowd wouldn’t boo that kind of play calling. You don’t take the ball out of your gunslinger’s hands on 3rd and long.  I’m all for smash-mouth football. Run on first down, run on second, but don’t guarantee a punt with play calls like that. By the grace of Grossman sucking, the Bears’ lead stayed manageable.

The coaching staff has to figure out how to simplify the playbook to accommodate the deficiencies that are present because of the mounting injuries.  So much of what makes this offense successful is Plaxico Burress drawing double teams and being a deep threat.  That is not the case anymore and defenses have figured it out.  Drop those multi reads, use the play action pass that we haven’t seen but a handful of times in the past month and a half and let the franchise QB throw the ball where he knows the receiver is going to be.

Because, with Ward done for the year, Jacobs Pierce, Wilson and Ross hurting, if this team is going to win any more games down the stretch, it’s most likely going to be because of Eli Manning.

Where the hell is Buddy Ryan when you need him?

(Box Score – New York Giants at Chicago Bears, December 2, 2007)
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