By Eric from BigBlueInteractive.com
Approach to the Game – New York Giants at Pittsburgh Steelers, October 26, 2008: OK, the Giants did almost as well as one could hope for during the soft part of their schedule. Going 3-3 or worse would have been borderline disaster. At 5-1, the Giants are in good shape to start the meat of their schedule. This is a time of year that hasn’t been very kind to Coughlin’s Giants. They’ve stumbled near the midway point of each season since Tom Coughlin arrived as head coach. Some of those stumbles were worse (2004, 2006) than others (2005, 2007).
Looking at the big picture, the next three weeks are a brutal stretch. It’s not that the Giants can’t beat these three teams. The Giants are arguably the best team of the bunch. But the physical and emotional toll the team will take over the course of the next few weeks will be tough. The Steelers are a very physical football team. Win or lose, the Giants must recover quickly. Of the three games, the game against the Steelers is the least important (AFC game). But if the Giants can manage to win two of their next three, they will be in fine shape. If they drop two of three or worse, it’s going to be another dog fight down the stretch this season.
Giants on Offense: The Steelers are the #1 defense in the NFL. They are so good not only because they have good players, but they have employed the same defensive system for decades. It’s another 3-4 defense and the Giants do not always play at their best against a 3-4. And a two-gap 3-4 defense often is especially problematic on a slow field and the field on Sunday is supposed to be a bit of a mess.
“They are the number one defense in the league, plain and simple,” says RT Kareem McKenzie. “You can definitely see why. They play well with each other, like New England did last year and two years ago. They know their schemes very well. They know their integral parts and what to do and what not to do. They don’t make very many mistakes. They do it very well, they have done it very well for a long time and they have a very good group of veterans in there to fill those positions and they’ve been around for a long time.”
All good or great defenses are predicated on stopping the run first and foremost. Pittsburgh’s game plan will be to stuff Brandon Jacobs, make the Giants one-dimensional, and then get after Eli Manning. Rattle him. Force mistakes and turnovers. Pittsburgh allows less than 70 rushing yards per game and holds opposing rushers to less than three yards per rush. That’s run defense.
The two ways the Giants could approach this game would be to either (1) don’t play into Pittsburgh’s strength and come out throwing, or (2) say “screw it”, you may be good at stopping the run, but we can run the ball against anyone. It will be interesting what approach the Giants will take. The Giants have largely been balanced so we will probably see both, but don’t be surprised if the Giants come out throwing more often early.
But throwing against the Steelers isn’t easy either, they allow fewer passing yards than any other team (less than 160 per game). So pick your poison.
The Giants are a good offensive football team. The Steelers are a good defensive football team. The field may be an issue. This isn’t going to be pretty. The real key, in my mind, is minimize the mistakes. Don’t turn the ball over. Keep negative yardage plays, including sacks and penalties, to a minimum. The team that makes the most mistakes will likely lose.
As in any good 3-4 defense, the heart of the defense is the linebacking corps. The edge rushers, the outside linebackers, are particularly dangerous. James Harrison has 8.5 sacks already and LaMarr Woodley has 7.5. James Farrior and Larry Foote, the inside guys, round out a very strong unit.
“The key to that defense is their linebacking crew,” says LT David Diehl. “Those guys are diverse, they can do a lot of stuff, and if you look on third down they are blitzing almost 70 percent of the time. This is a team that plays well at home, they have the same record as us, they are looking to get a win and keep their season rolling, and we know it is going to be a tough battle. We are going to have to go in there and play our best football, convert against that package, pick it up, and that is the time when big plays happen.”
Making things worse for the Giants is that NT Casey Hampton, a Pro Bowler, is likely to return this week after missing the last three games due to injury. He gums things up inside. The job of everyone up front is to free the linebackers. However, LDE Aaron Smith may miss the game due to personal reasons (late note: he is listed as “questionable”).
The secondary will be without CB Bryant McFadden, who has both started and played nickel back this year. The Giants may be able to take advantage of his absence. Deshea Townsend is the right corner and Ike Taylor is the left corner. They are solid, but they can be beat. The safeties are former Giant Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu, a very aggressive and physical safety who is coming off a concussion.
For better or worse, my guess is that the Giants pass the ball early, attempting to use the passing game to open up the running game. Coughlin may decide to stick with what brought the Giants here however. If the Giants don’t turn the ball over or make a bunch of mistakes, they should be able to generate enough points to win if the defense does its job. But those are big offensive and defensive “ifs”.
To me, the focal point offensively will be the Giants’ offensive line (this will be their toughest challenge by far to date) and Eli Manning (the Giants absolutely need him to out-duel Ben Roethisberger).
Giants on Defense: On paper, the one advantage the Giants have in this game is their offensive line. Pittsburgh’s line has struggled this year, especially in pass protection. And with LT Marvel Smith (back) ailing (late note: he will not play), this is an advantage the Giants must desperately take advantage of. The Steelers have some size, but the Giants are by far more athletic. Hopefully the field won’t prove to be the big equalizer here. A slow track hurts quickness.
The Steelers had expected Willie Parker (knee) to return this week, but he has not progressed as hoped and may not play (late note: he is listed as “doubtful”). If healthy, he can hit the homerun. But his back-up, Mewelde Moore, is dangerous as both a runner and receiver. He’s a guy who has presented some problems for the Giants in the past when he was with the Vikings. Don’t discount him.
Like the Steelers, the Giants will attempt to shut down the run and make Pittsburgh one dimensional. This is especially important in order to take advantage of the Steelers’ pass protection woes. What helps too is that Roethlisberger will hold onto the football.
Though the Steelers prefer to run the football, they will go four wide and throw it. Hines Ward has top intangibles, he just knows how to get open and make plays. He has five touchdown receptions already. Santonio Holmes is more of the deep threat. The Giants’ corners will be challenged by both, though there is some question whether or not Holmes will play as he was just arrested for drug use (late note: he will not play). Third receiver Nate Washington is an important cog in the passing attack as is TE Heath Miller. Watch out for Moore on screen passes!
I expect this game to be a brawl. I think the Steelers will attempt to out-muscle the Giants and wear them down. New York also has to be very wary of the trick play – a flea flicker or an option pass from a receiver or back. The key for the Giants will be to stop the run and get after Roethlisberger. The Giants will have to be tough and physical, but they also need to take advantage of their speed advantage. Will the grass field negate that?
Giants on Special Teams: Knock on wood, but the Steelers’ return game hasn’t proved to be particularly dangerous this season. However, the Steelers are solid everywhere else. In close games, between good teams, special teams play often decides the contest. Don’t be surprised if this is the difference in the game…for better or worse.