By Eric from BigBlueInteractive.com
Approach to the Game – New York Giants at Arizona Cardinals, November 23, 2008: The regular season is cruising right along and even the most pessimistic Giants’ fan has to be pleased with the Giants’ 9-1 record through 10 games. The Giants have already accomplished something that no previous Giants’ team coming off of a Super Bowl appearance has done: they have posted a winning record. With the Giants being widely regarded as one of the very best (if not the best) teams in the NFL, players and fans are walking with their heads held high.
But the regular season is not over yet. And things can go south in a hurry. Obviously, the primary regular-season goals remain: (1) win the NFC East, and (2) secure home field advantage throughout the playoffs. There are six games left and a lot can change in six games, especially considering that four of those six are on the road and half of them are against division opponents. All six teams are quite capable of beating the Giants.
Arizona is yet another first-place team the Giants will face. Arizona has won three games in a row and is 7-3. There is a good chance that the Giants might see the Cardinals in the playoffs so the head-to-head match-up here is important in case both teams finish with the same record. However, a little closer look at the Cardinals’ schedule reveals that they have fattened up on powder puffs. Their wins have come against the 49ers (twice), Rams, Seahawks, and Bills. They do have respectable wins against the Cowboys and Dolphins, but they have also lost to the Redskins, Jets, and Panthers. The Cardinals have not played a team like the Giants yet. And the Cardinals are going to have some match-up issues on both sides of the ball.
Giants on Offense: If Brandon Jacobs is not close to 100 percent, I wouldn’t play him. This is an important game, but it is not crucial. What is crucial is having Jacobs healthy and near the top of his game for the stretch run and playoffs. Jacobs will probably play, but I would limit his carries if he does. Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw are very capable of putting up superb rushing numbers (Ward rushed for 150 yards in one game last year and I’d love to see a game where Bradshaw gets 15-20 touches).
The Cardinals are 7th in rushing defense (better than the Giants), allowing less than 90 yards per game. But the Cardinals have not faced a rushing attack like the Giants. The Cardinals’ front seven on defense is solid, but not overly worrisome. The weakside ends (Travis LaBoy and Bertrand Berry) can rush the passer, but they are on the smaller size. The strongside end, Antonio Smith, is ordinary. The tackles, Darnell Dockett and Bryan Robinson, are on small side as well. Moreover, LaBoy (ankle) and Dockett (hamstring) are a bit beat up.
The linebacking corps is stronger. The star is WLB Karlos Dansby, one of the better linebackers in the League. He can do it all. MLB Gerald Hayes is solid and underrated. SLB Chike Okeafor has bounced around the League. A player instrumental in Arizona’s run defense is strong safety Adrian Wilson. At 6-3, 230lbs, he plays like another linebacker.
Despite their top-10 rush defense ranking, the Giants should be able to run on the Cardinals with pretty good success, especially if they can engage the linebackers and Wilson at the second level.
Against the pass, Arizona is very ordinary, ranking 16th in the NFL. However, there is some talent in the secondary. Wilson is a fine player at strong safety and Antrel Rolle has played better at free safety recently (he’s a former corner moved to safety). Rookie RCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has impressed; he’s a very good athlete who can run. The other starter, LCB Rod Hood (former Eagle), is solid and does well in press coverage but has been bothered by a rib injury. The nickel corner is ex-Giant Ralph Brown. If the Cardinals score more points than usual for Giants’ opponents this year, the onus will be on the Giants’ passing game. This game would be a good opportunity – given the weather and opponent – to get the passing game in more sync. The Cardinals could have problems matching up with the Giants when New York goes to 3- and 4-WR sets.
Really, if the Giants don’t turn the ball over or make stupid mistakes (i.e., penalties), and execute as they have been doing all year long, the Giants should be able to move the ball pretty well against the Cardinals on the ground, thereby controlling the clock and the tempo of the game. New York does need to finish drives with touchdowns however since the Cardinals are quite capable of putting up a lot of points offensively.
Giants on Defense: The Giants’ defense is playing against fairly one-dimensional offensive attack (2nd in passing, 29th in rushing) this week and this could play right into the Giants’ hands. After all, the Giants’ defense is constructed to defend the pass with strong pass rushers and an ever-improving secondary. That doesn’t mean that the Giants won’t give up completions and possibly big yardage to an impressive Cardinals’ passing attack. What matters most is what the scoreboard reads at the end of the day. The Cardinals will score points. They are second in the NFL in scoring.
Before we move onto the main concern – the passing game – let’s first address the Cardinals’ ground game. The Cardinals have smartly begun to minimize the role of HB Edgerrin James. Rookie HB Tim Hightower is the new starter. Hightower is a big back and he did put up big numbers against the St. Louis Rams a few weeks ago. However, he has not been overly productive in the last two games. Hightower is good near the goal line (seven rushing touchdowns). If I’m Giants’ Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, I test Hightower’s ability to pass protect by orchestrating a number of confusing blitz packages. HB J.J. Arrington saw more touches last week. He’s a got a little wiggle to his game and can catch the football.
I always start off by saying the Giants need to stop the run and force the opposition to be one-dimensional. Obviously, the Giants don’t want to allow the anemic Cardinal rushing attack (29th in the NFL) to get going. However, because the Cardinals are far more dangerous in passing the ball, I think the Giants need to think pass defense first and foremost from the very start of the game. I don’t think we’ll see a lot of three linebackers on the field on Sunday as the Giants will probably be in the nickel and dime for much of the game.
Pass defense starts with the pass rush. Kurt Warner is having a heck of a season, but he is still the same old Kurt Warner. He doesn’t like to be pressured or hit (what quarterback does?) and even better for the Giants, you touch him and he will fumble. I think a big key to this game will be being alert to the times when the ball is indeed on the ground and recovering those loose balls.
The Arizona offensive line is solid. The weak link may be LT Mike Gandy who is also battling an ankle injury. We might see a big game out of DE Mathias Kiwanuka. RT Levi Jones was drafted in the first round by the Cardinals in 2007. He faces DE Justin Tuck (when Tuck isn’t lining up inside). LG Reggie Wells, OC Lyle Sendlein, and RG Duce Lutui round out the group. Lutui is a big player, but Wells and Sendlein are not. Wells may have all kinds of problems with Tuck when Tuck moves inside. The Giants do need everyone up front to step up on the pass rush, including Fred Robbins, Barry Cofield, Dave Tollefson, and Jay Alford. It’s games like this where the Giants miss Osi Umenyiora. The Giants need to make Warner uncomfortable. Jam his receivers to disrupt timing between him and his targets. Warner will hold the football longer than he should and take sacks.
The strength of the Cardinals’ team is their wide receivers: Larry Fitzgerald (67 catches, 6 touchdowns), Anquan Boldin (62 catches, 10 touchdowns), and Steve Breaston (48 catches, 1 touchdown). Hell, Breaston, as the third receiver, has more catches than any New York Giant. Most pundits expect the Cardinals’ superb wide receivers to eat the Giants’ defensive backs up. Perhaps. But I think the Giants’ match up pretty well here. Don’t get me wrong. The Cardinals will get their yards and they will score. But Aaron Ross and Corey Webster are bigger, more physical cornerbacks, as are the Giants’ safeties. I think the Giants’ secondary has a lot of pride and I think they want to use this game to demonstrate their talent. Getting Kevin Dockery back this week will be huge.
The Cardinals don’t throw to their tight ends much (Ben Patrick and Leonard Pope have 15 catches), but they will throw to the halfbacks (46 catches). The linebackers have to do well here in coverage, especially since the safeties will likely be more preoccupied with the receivers.
If the Cardinals want to throw the football all day against the Giants, good luck to you Arizona. Defensively, this game comes down to the Giants ability to rush the passer and cover the dangerous wide receivers. The Giants must be alert to fumbles and opportunities for interceptions.
Giants on Special Teams: The primary kickoff and punt returner is Steve Breaston. He’s averaging 22 yards per return on kickoffs and 7 yards per return on punts. Neil Rackers is having a very good season in the field goal department (90 percent). Not to sound like a broken record, but the Giants sure could use some big plays in their own return game.