Approach to the Game – New York Giants at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, January 6, 2008: One of the tidbits released by the Giants this week was that the team’s post-season berth this season was the 29th in team history, tying them with the Dallas Cowboys for most in NFL history. It’s the type of statistic that makes one feel proud to be a fan of one of the NFL’s flagship franchises.
Until one digs a little deeper.
In their entire history, the Giants are 16-23 in playoff games. Worse, and almost unbelievably, the Giants are 3-14 on the road in the playoffs. Three road playoff wins in 74 years!!! (The Giants were founded in 1925, but the first playoffs were not until 1933).
Since the 1990 season, the Giants have won only three playoff games and none on the road. That’s 17 years ago.
Most Giants’ fans were ready to jump ship after the humiliating loss to the Washington Redskins three weeks ago. Now with a feel-good win against the Bills and a feel-good loss to the Patriots (if there is such a thing), fans are thinking positively about this team and the season once again. I’ve even had folks e-mail me this week saying that regardless of what happens on Sunday against the Buccaneers, this has been a good season.
This is the third time in three years this team has been to the post season. If the Giants are one-and-done once again, I don’t see anything positive about this year. The Giants will be merely treading water. The Giants need to knock off a very beatable Buccaneers team and advance to play in the next round. Anything else will be a huge disappointment.
Giants on Defense: The big worry here is the status of the Giants’ secondary. CB Sam Madison apparently has pulled a muscle in his rib cage, which is very painful, and looks unlikely to play. Even if he does, he will likely be limited. That’s very disconcerting since he would normally be lining up against Tampa’s most dangerous offensive weapon – WR Joey Galloway. Galloway is a deep threat that can put six on the board quick either on a fly pattern or with his run-after-the-catch ability. Making matters worse for New York is that the team’s third corner, Kevin Dockery, did not play last week against the Patriots and is very iffy for this game as well with a hip flexor injury. If neither can go, Corey Webster, perhaps the weakest corner on the team, will be facing Galloway. Depth is a huge issue as well since the primary back-ups would be R.W. McQuarters (the new nickel) and Geoffrey Pope, who was just signed off of the Practice Squad.
CB Aaron Ross will line up against ex-Giant Ike Hilliard, unless the Giants swap corners. Hilliard is not much of a deep threat. But he is shifty and a favorite target (62 catches) of Bucs’ QB Jeff Garcia when it comes to keep the chains moving. Hilliard has stated this week that he still holds hard feelings for the Giants getting rid of him. You can bet he will be fired up for this game.
Tampa’s offense is not overly impressive, but in a game where points will most likely be at a premium (Bucs’ defense allows less than 17 points a game on average), a big play here or there by Galloway and Hilliard could make the difference. The Giants must prevent the cheap score and force the Bucs to drive the length of the field.
Tampa Bay operates a West Coast Offense that features a short passing game. Garcia, who has a history of hurting the Giants (see the road playoff losses in the 2002 and 2006 seasons), is a good fit for this type of offense, which he is very experienced at running. He is a veteran who makes quick decisions and gets rid of the ball quickly. Since the West Coast Offense features passes to the tight ends and running backs, the Giants linebackers and safeties need to play well. For example, HB Earnest Graham has 49 catches despite not starting the entire season. The Bucs will also employ two-tight end formations. If Kawika Mitchell (knee) plays, he will be tested. If he doesn’t, his replacement (the inexperienced Gerris Wilkinson) will also be tested. Covering the tight end is not a strong suit of Reggie Torbor either.
Where the Giants must absolutely exert control – or they are in trouble – is at the line of scrimmage. Tampa has a very young and inexperienced offensive line. The Giants need DE Michael Strahan to out-play second-year RT Jeremy Trueblood, especially since the Bucs are likely to supply double-team support against DE Osi Umenyiora. Umenyiora will face back-up, second-year LT Donald Penn. Inside, the right guard (Davin Joseph) is also in his second season and the left guard (Arron Sears) is a rookie with an ankle injury. Only the center, John Wade, is an experienced veteran.
The Bucs can run the football. Graham is averaging over four yards a carry and has 10 touchdowns. He is a north-south runner who is tough to bring down. The defensive tackles will have to play well as will MLB Antonio Pierce.
The Bucs will use play-action quite a bit and this is where the defense needs to play disciplined football. Don’t bite on the play fake. Since Garcia is more effective outside of the pocket, the ends must not let him get around them on play-action rollouts. Cover the receivers short, but beware of the occasional deep shot to Galloway. Unfortunately, Garcia does not throw many interceptions (only four interceptions in 327 pass attempts).
Stop the run. Don’t bite on the play fake. Keep Garcia in the pocket. Cover the tight ends and backs.
Giants on Offense: The prevailing opinion is that the Giants should heavily focus on the ground game. Tampa has a very quick and fast defense, but they are not the most stout since they lack size. This would suggest heavy dose of the inside ground game featuring HB Brandon Jacobs and letting QB Eli Manning manage the game, rather than try to force plays against one of the very pass defenses in the NFL. However, if the Bucs are able to move the football against a depleted Giants’ defense, New York may need a more balanced attack. Points and big plays usually come out of the passing game.
Tampa Bay has the #1 pass defense in the NFL because it rushes the passer well and covers well. The back seven on defense, including the linebackers, are very good in coverage. Opposing tight ends and back usually have a hard time getting open. Kevin Boss and Michael Matthews are not likely to do much damage against this group (though LB Cato June is limited with a foot injury). When the Giants do throw, Manning needs to be careful with the football. Tampa thrives off of turnovers. If they don’t win the turnover battle, they usually lose. So protect the football. That said, I would take my shots with WR Plaxico Burress against CB Ronde Barber and WR Amani Toomer against CBs Phillip Buchanon/Brian Kelly. Steve Smith could be a bigger factor this week as he is getting back into the flow of things. The Bucs are likely to be afraid of the Giants’ running game. If the Bucs crowd the line of scrimmage, don’t be afraid to take shots down the field. Tampa’s defense is not overly complex. They don’t blitz a lot. Manning should be able to read the defense and adjust accordingly.
That said, I would like to see a heavy dose of Jacobs against the smaller defense. Don’t run too much outside. The Bucs’ defense is too fast. Pound the football between the tackles and off tackle. Ahmad Bradshaw and Reuben Droughns are good inside runners too. The Tampa Bay tackles are not big and neither are the linebackers. Most importantly, hold onto the football.
Up front, LT David Diehl faces 1st round pick DE Gaines Adams, who is better rushing the passer than defending the run. I’d like to see the Giants run left quite a bit. DT Jovan Haye is 6-2, 285lbs and DT Chris Hovan is 6-2, 300lbs. Punish them. Have FB Madison Hedgecock clobber the linebackers. The Bucs don’t allow a lot of big plays in the running game and their rush defense in terms of yards-per-carry is quite good. But they haven’t seen a rushing attack like the Giants yet.
Giants on Special Teams: The Giants’ special teams is getting hot at just the right time. The Giants now have two quality kick returners in Bradshaw and Domenik Hixon. Michael Spurlock returned the first kickoff for a touchdown in Bucs’ history just a few weeks ago. The Giants need to keep him under wraps. Ex-Giant Matt Bryant is having a very good year in Tampa and is looking to hurt his old team. Ike Hilliard has been seeing some action at punt returner.