Jan 102008
 
 January 10, 2008  Posted by  Game Previews and Reviews
New York Giants 24 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers 14

Game Overview: This was a monumentally huge win for the Giants.  Had the Giants lost, the franchise’s two most prominent figures – Head Coach Tom Coughlin and QB Eli Manning – would have come under increasing fire from fans and the media.  What has become clear since these two arrived on the scene at the Meadowlands after the 2003 NFL season is that the fortunes of both seem to be implicitly tied together.

What does this victory mean?  It means that Coughlin will be the head coach of the Giants for the foreseeable future.  It also means that Manning will be the quarterback of the Giants for the foreseeable future.  Contracts will be extended.  For better or worse, this win cemented the future of the Giants in one particular direction for the next few years at the very least.

The win was a complete team victory – perhaps the most complete win of the season.  Offense, defense, and special teams out-played their Tampa Bay counterparts.  In short, the better team won.  Other than the final score, what was the most telling statistic of the game?  The Giants’ +3 turnover differential.  Coming into the game, the Giants had been –9 and the Bucs +15 on the season.

The biggest negatives?  Once again, as has been the case for much of the year, the Giants were slow starters on both offense and defense.  The defense gave up yet another early scoring drive and the offense once again had problems moving the ball in the first quarter.  In their last six games, the Giants have not scored in the first quarter in five of those contests.  That will come back to haunt the Giants if they don’t end both of those trends.

Quarterback: The numbers are not gaudy (20-of-27 for 185 yards, 2 touchdowns, 0 interceptions), but this was one of Manning’s best games as a pro.  The important thing to keep in mind is that Manning and his offensive teammates – minus key components such as Jeremy Shockey, Derrick Ward, and Shaun O’Hara – have played exceptionally well against two of the very best defenses in the NFL in back-to-back weeks.  Tampa Bay has the #1 ranked pass defense in the entire NFL.  Their goal from the get-go was clear – load up against the run and dare Manning to beat them.  And that’s what Eli did.

New York’s ground game was not very good.  In the first half, HB Brandon Jacobs had been limited to 18 yards on 9 carries (2 yards per carry) while HB Ahmad Bradshaw was limited to 7 yards on 2 carries (3.5 yards per carry).  So that aspect of the Tampa Bay defensive game plan worked.  What the Buccaneers did not count on was for Manning to remain calm, patient, and deliberate – taking what the defense gave him, and that was the short- to medium-range throws –many of which came on quick, 3-step drops.  This game was really out of character for Eli and a big improvement in that he did remain patient and made a lot of accurate shorter throws to keep the chains moving.  Most importantly, he did not turn the ball over – no interceptions and no fumbles.

The Giants stumbled badly on their first three possessions of the game – all three-and-outs.  The first drive ended with an incomplete 3rd-and-8 pass.  The second ended with failed 3rd-and-1 conversion attempt by Jacobs.  And the third ended with a sack on 3rd-and-9 where Eli never had a chance.

But in the second quarter, on New York’s fourth and fifth drives of the game, the Giants began to take control of the game.  During these two touchdown drives, Manning connected on 9-of-10 passes for 99 yards and a touchdown.  Indeed, the only incomplete came when WR Steve Smith dropped a perfectly placed throw.  Cumulatively, on both drives, the Giants only managed 19 yards rushing.  Critical plays included Manning’s 13-yard completion on 3rd-and-9 on the first drive (where he did a real nice job of spotting a CB blitz by Ronde Barber) and his 21-yard completion on 3rd-and-2 on the second drive.  Of Eli’s 14 throws in the first half, there were only three incompletions (including the drop).

One very nice new addition to Manning’s arsenal is his increased usage of the pump fake.  Interception-hungry defenders who think they have a good read on Manning are now being caught out of position as they fall for Manning’s pump fakes, leaving much clearer throwing lanes and/or voids in the defense.  For example, on the Giants’ first touchdown drive, Manning pumped right before coming back to his left to hit Toomer for a first down.  On the second touchdown drive, on the critical 21-yard completion on 3rd-and-2, Manning’s pump helped Steve Smith to break free of the defender.

In the second half, Manning was not quite as sharp, but still good.  He completed 9-of-13 passes for 77 yards and another touchdown.  Manning did miss a wide-open TE Kevin Boss on a bootleg pass in the red zone at the beginning of the third quarter on what may have been a touchdown (Coughlin said that Boss, not Burress, was the intended target on this play).  Later on this drive, Manning badly overthrew Burress on a fade and then was guilty of not getting the snap off in time and a delay-of-game penalty was the result.  The Giants were forced to settle for a field goal.  On the Giants’ next possession, Manning threw two poor, low passes – one intended for Boss and another intended for Bradshaw.  The latter was unfortunate because Bradshaw had a lot of room to run on 3rd-and-15.

Of course, the best drive of the game was the 15-play, 92-yard marathon that cemented the victory.  Not only did the Giants go up by 17 points, but they also took over 8 and half minutes off of the clock, leaving Tampa Bay with only eight minutes in the game.  On this drive, Manning completed 6-of-7 passes for 56 yards, including an 11-yard completion on 3rd-and-7 and a 4-yard completion on 3rd-and-goal for the touchdown.  Again, on both of these passes, Manning used the pump fake to help the receiver get open.

Wide Receivers: The major contributor was Amani Toomer with his seven catches for 74 yards and a touchdown.  Indeed, many of Manning’s key completions in the game were to Toomer.  Toomer had three important catches on the first scoring drive for 17 (nice run after the catch), 10, and 13 yards, the latter coming on 3rd-and-9.  On the last touchdown drive, Toomer had catches of 11, 11, and 4 yards.  The first came on 3rd-and-7 and the last on 3rd-and-goal for a touchdown.

Plaxico Burress was held to four catches and 38 yards.  He also was flagged for an obvious offensive pass interference penalty.  Burress did have two catches for 20 yards on the second touchdown drive and a 14-yard reception on the last touchdown drive.

The only other receiver to get involved was Steve Smith.  Smith did drop a perfectly thrown pass on the first touchdown drive.  But he also had a critical 21-yard reception on 3rd-and-2 on the second touchdown drive.  Smith finished the game with three catches for 29 yards.

Tight Ends: The Giants do miss Jeremy Shockey, but Kevin Boss has done a good job of filling his shoes.  Boss only caught two passes for 14 yards, but opposing defenses do have to respect him now as a receiving threat.  Boss’ biggest contribution was his 11-yard reception on the last scoring drive.  Boss’ blocking was actually pretty decent.

With FB Madison Hedgecock seeing so much playing time, I didn’t see much of Michael Matthews in this game.  He had one low pass thrown in his direction.

Running Backs: The running game was not overly productive (100 yards on 30 carries) but it was an important factor in the win.  Despite the fact that the Buccaneers loaded up against the run and held to the Giants to 25 rushing yards in the first half, the continued pounding took its toll on Tampa Bay until they finally wilted on the 92-yard touchdown drive.  Most importantly, the continued threat of the running attack opened things up for the passing game.

I thought Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride called a decent game.  However, the one thing I did not like was that the Giants kept trying to run wide on the Buccaneers.  It never worked, even when the attempts were made by the faster, quicker Ahmad Bradshaw.  Tampa’s front seven was simply too fast for the blockers.  When the Giants ran between the tackles or off tackle, they had much more success.  But for some reason, the Giants didn’t highlight the inside running game until the second half.

Brandon Jacobs’ two best plays of the game were his scoring plays.  The first was a middle screen where Jacobs made a heck of a catch on hard, somewhat low throw with a defender’s hand flashing in front of him.  The second was hard-charging, 8-yard power run behind a good block from FB Madison Hedgecock.  Jacobs finished the game with only 34 yards on 13 carries (with a long carry of nine yards).  He also had two receptions for 16 yards on screen passes.

The Giants appear to have finally found a true “Thunder and Lightening” backfield in Jacobs and Bradshaw, though truth be told, on this day, Bradshaw was also more thunder than lightening.  While not as physically imposing as Jacobs and thus not as likely to wear out a defense, Bradshaw is quicker, shiftier, and has fine power for his size.  After Jacobs had softened up the Bucs’ defenders, Bradshaw left them gasping for air on the 92-yard march as he carried the ball seven times for 38 yards.  Bradshaw finished the game with 17 carries for 66 yards (with a long carry of eight yards – though late in the game, he came damn close to breaking one).

You’ve got to love the intensity that both Jacobs and Bradshaw bring to the game.  The Bucs were clearly trying to intimidate Bradshaw, but Bradshaw would have none of it, jawing back at defenders and really letting them have it during the 92-yard march.

Hedgecock has been quite a pickup.  His blocking was excellent and it’s got to be a scary image for linebackers to see Hedgecock leading Jacobs in the hole.  Hedgecock also caught one pass for five yards.

Offensive Line: The offensive line was not able to generate a great deal movement in the ground game, but the Buccaneers held most opponents to sub-4 yards per carry performances in 2007.  As I mentioned above, part of the problem was the strange decision to attempt so many wide runs, particularly in the first half.   Nevertheless, the Giants did produce 100 yards rushing against a top defensive team that sold out against the run.  In addition, pass protection was very solid – Manning was only officially hit twice.

It is important to note that the Giants were without their starting center for the entire game and their starting left tackle for the bulk of the 15-yard touchdown drive.  Thus, special mention must go to Grey Ruegamer and Guy Whimper.  Ruegamer’s strength is when he blocks the defensive lineman right in front of him, but he lacks the mobility that Shaun O’Hara has.  For example, on Jacobs’ first carry of the game, a 1-yard loss, Ruegamer was not able to engage the middle linebacker at the second level on this play – and it was the middle linebacker who made the play.

RT Kareem McKenzie was spotted writhing in pain on the ground early in the contest with an ankle injury.  He gutted it out, but did give up the Giants’ lone sack as rookie #1 draft pick DE Gaines Adams simply raced around him.  McKenzie also missed his block on the defensive tackle on a 4-yard loss when Jacobs was hit in the backfield before he could get going.  McKenzie was flagged for a costly false start penalty on 2nd-and-goal from the 7-yard line.  RG Chris Snee was flagged for holding.

On the failed 3rd-and-1 play on the second drive, David Diehl was actually playing tight end on the strongside.  He got pushed into the backfield however and that penetration caused the play to be blown up.  Diehl did give up one pass pressure where Manning was clobbered.

LG Rich Seubert did a nice job on Jacobs’ touchdown run, first giving double-team support to Ruegamer on the defensive tackle, before coming off and taking out the linebacker.  However, Seubert did give up a couple of pass pressures.

Defensive Line: The stats don’t show it (1 sack), but QB Jeff Garcia was under duress all day.  Garcia rarely had time to survey the field and many of his bad throws were the direct result of immediate pass pressure by the front four.  Officially, Garcia was hit 11 times and 10 of these hits were by defensive linemen.  But Garcia was pressured even more than that.  For example, after the Giants went up 14-7 in the second quarter, on the ensuing Buccaneers’ drive, Garcia was running for his life.  First Michael Strahan pressured him, then Osi Umenyiora, then Justin Tuck (from RDE), and then Tuck again (from RDT).  It was great.

The run defense was OK, but a bit soft at times, especially up the gut.  Halfbacks Earnest Graham and Michael Pittman combined for 68 yards on 19 carries (3.6 yards per carry).  If the Giants are going to knock off Dallas, the defensive line will have to play much stouter.

Michael Strahan (9 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 3 quarterback hits) had his best series in the second quarter between the Giants’ two touchdown drives.  First, he bullrushed the right tackle and sacked Garcia, forcing a fumble.  Then on the very next play, he read the screen to his side and limited the play to a marginal gain.  Earlier in the game, on the Bucs’ first touchdown drive, Strahan made a nice play in run defense, but then missed a tackle near the 5-yard line that allowed the back to get down to the 1-yard line.  Strahan’s pressure on Garcia was a key factor on Garcia’s underthrown pass in the end zone that was intercepted by Corey Webster.  Later, Garcia took another big hit from Strahan when the Bucs’ foolishly decided to let the tight end try to handle him one-on-one.  This play resulted in an incomplete deep pass to no one.

Both Strahan and Osi Umenyiora (3 tackles, 2 quarterback hits) did a nice job of keeping Garcia inside the pocket.  Umenyiora was not very active against the run and I did spot him getting clobbered on one 4-yard gain.  On the play preceding Strahan’s sack, Umenyiora got a good lick on Garcia just as he released the ball.

Justin Tuck (3 tackles, 1 quarterback hit) is one of the Giants’ most valuable players.  He played a lot on Sunday, spelling not only both defensive ends, but also the defensive tackles.  And he was regularly applying pressure against Garcia.  His biggest negative was that he missed a tackle on Graham’s 11-yard cutback run on the first touchdown drive.  Tuck got good pressure on Garcia’s errant pass that was picked off by R.W. McQuarters late in the game.

While Fred Robbins (2 tackles, 1 quarterback hit) and Barry Cofield (1 tackle, 1 quarterback hit) applied some pressure up the gut, both were so-so against the inside run.  At times, they were quite stout, but at other times, the Bucs generated too much of a ground game up the gut.  I thought Cofield’s roughing-the-passer penalty was bullshit.

It’s too bad Jay Alford (1 quarterback hit) got hurt.  He had a real nice pass rush before he was injured.  Dave Tollefson (1 quarterback hit) came into the game late and had one real nice pass rush where he beat the block of the tight end and the chip from the running back to clobber Garcia and almost get a sack.

Linebackers: The linebackers weren’t real strong in pass coverage against the backs as Michael Pittman, Earnest Graham, and B.J. Askew caught 11 passes for 101 yards in the game.  Indeed, the backs were Tampa Bay’s most productive receivers.  But the tight ends – with support from the safeties – were kept under control (four catches for 31 yards).

Antonio Pierce (6 tackles, 1 pass defense) looked sluggish to me.  I don’t know if he is injured or aging rapidly, but the backs made him look silly in coverage at times, including a 14-yard gain by Graham on the first touchdown drive and a 26-yard gain by Pittman on the last touchdown drive (though to be fair, on this latter play, Pierce was caught in a no-win situation as Garcia was scrambling towards him).   But Pierce was beat again for 17 yards by Pittman late in the game.  Pierce did do a nice job on TE Anthony Becht on one play, knocking the pass away.  I also didn’t think Pierce was very active against the run at the point-of-attack.  Both Pierce and Kawika Mitchell got fooled badly on a 10-yard draw play in the third quarter.

Gerris Wilkinson (7 tackles) is the most athletically gifted of the Giants’ linebackers and the one best suited for coverage.  He also has good range, flashing such after short pass completions by Garcia.  Wilkinson did lose backside contain on Graham’s 10-yard cutback run on the first touchdown drive however.

Reggie Torbor (3 tackles) tackled WR Joey Galloway for a 4-yard loss on an end around early in the game.  His blitz up the gut also helped to disrupt a running play that lost three yards.

Kawika Mitchell (3 tackles) played on a limited basis as his knee is still an issue.

Defensive Backs: One of the stars of the game was clearly CB Corey Webster (1 tackle, 1 interception, 2 pass defenses).  No one expected Webster to shut down WR Joey Galloway and that is what Webster did, holding Galloway to one catch for nine yards.  Granted Galloway re-injured his shoulder and that most likely affected his play, but still the performance by Webster was impressive.  Interestingly, Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo had Webster follow Galloway around even when Galloway lined up at flanker.  On the Bucs’ first drive, Tampa Bay tested Webster deep with Galloway along the right sideline but Webster stayed stride for stride with the receiver and the pass fell incomplete.  On the second drive, the Bucs went deep to Galloway, but Webster stayed with him again, this time along the left sideline.  Late in the second quarter, Webster expertly broke up a slant pass intended for Galloway.  Webster’s made a huge play in the game when he intercepted a poorly thrown pass by Garcia in the endzone for a touchback.  On this play, Webster covered Galloway like a blanket, and unlike many Giants’ corners of recent years, easily came down with the football for the turnover.

The other starting wide receiver, former Giant Ike Hilliard, only caught four passes for 27 yards.  Reserve Mark Clayton was actually the most productive receiver with three catches for 39 yards.  All in all, the corners and safeties did an excellent job of the wide receivers.  Bucs’ tight ends – center pieces of the West Coast Offense – caught only four passes for 31 yards.

CB Aaron Ross (4 tackles) largely kept his man quiet.  He did get beat by Hilliard for an 8-yard gain on 3rd-and-8, but this drive ended when Ross blanketed Hilliard over the middle on 3rd-and-5, leading to an incompletion and punt.  Ross also did a nice job of staying at home on Galloway’s end around that lost four yards.

CB Kevin Dockery (3 tackles, 1 pass defense) did not start but played quite a bit.  He got good pressure on Garcia on one CB blitz, causing an incompletion.    He also knocked away a pass intended for Hilliard in the fourth quarter.

CB R.W. McQuarters (1 interception, 1 pass defense) sealed the win with a fantastic sideline interception of an errant deep pass by Garcia late in the game.  McQuarters somehow managed to keep both feet inbounds as he twisted his body around to make the pick.

FS Gibril Wilson (4 tackles) was pretty quiet.  He was beaten for a touchdown by the tight end late in the fourth quarter.  SS James Butler (6 tackles, 1 pass defense) was also pretty quiet though he did nail Graham for a 3-yard loss on the play where Torbor blitzed up the middle.  S Michael Johnson (1 tackle, 1 pass defense) almost came down with an interception as he cut underneath a receiver.  Had Johnson held onto what would have been a tough catch, he may have scored.

Special Teams: The Giants’ special teams have been playing very well down the stretch and Sunday was no different.  Guys who really stood out in coverage included Domenik Hixon, Tank Daniels, Zak DeOssie, and Corey Webster.  By the way, what the hell has happened with David Tyree?  You rarely see him make a play anymore.

PK Lawrence Tynes made his only field goal attempt – from 25-yards out.  His kickoffs were fielded at the goal line, 4-yard line, 7-yard line, 10-yard line, and 4-yard line.  Kick coverage was solid with Tampa Bay returns going for 21 (Zak DeOssie on the tackle), 22 (Domenik Hixon), 25 (Tank Daniels), 20 (Rueben Droughns), and 18 yards (Corey Webster).  Daniels forced a fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half that Webster recovered – this was a big turnover in the game and led to a field goal.

P Jeff Feagles was excellent, averaging 44.5 yards on six punts (43.7 yard net).  Only two of his punts were returned for a total of five yards.  Daniels and DeOssie made the tackles on those two returns.  Hixon gets down the field very fast as a gunner and forces fair catches.  Daniels crushed Hilliard on Feagles’ worst effort of the day.

The Giants’ return game was not dynamic.  Hixon’s two returns only went for 18 and 19 yards.  Droughns also had a 17-yard return.  R.W. McQuarters returned two punts.  One only went for a yard, but he did manage a solid 14-yard return.

(Box Score – New York Giants at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, January 6, 2008)
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Eric Kennedy

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

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