Dec 182008
 
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12/18/2008

By Eric from BigBlueInteractive.com

Approach to the Game – Carolina Panthers at New York Giants, December 21, 2008: The 2008 NFL season has already been a success for the Giants. Since I was born, the Giants have only won seven division titles, the seventh being this year. The Giants are going to the playoffs for the 14th time in my lifetime, including each of the past four seasons.

It’s been a good season. But it will only become a special season based on what the Giants achieve in the post-season.  The Giants will dramatically enhance their chances of reaching the Super Bowl if they can earn a bye, for the simple, obvious fact that a bye means the Giants would be forced to play one less playoff game.  In effect, a bye equals a playoff win.

But more than that, the Giants are a pretty beat up team right now.  They have a lot injuries to key players.  If the Giants earn a bye, everyone gets a week to heal up.  And everyone is able to mentally re-charge their batteries.

But even more of than that, the Giants-Panthers game will decide who the #1 seed in the NFC is.  The team that earns the #1 seed will play the NFC Championship game at home, if it is good enough and lucky enough to reach that round.  If the Giants earn the #1 seed by beating the Panthers, the Giants could also afford to sit injured players in the season finale against Minnesota.  In effect, injured players such as Brandon Jacobs and Fred Robbins could get a three week break.  That would be huge.

So this is a big game.  A loss does not mean the season is over.  It also does not mean the Giants won’t still get the #2 seed and a bye (a loss by the Vikings this week or a Giants win against the Vikings the following week would ensure that).  But it is an important game.

Giants on Offense: To be blunt, the Giants’ offense had been dreadful the past two weeks.  In the first 12 games of the season (3/4 of the regular season), the Giants were one of the very top offensive teams in football.  During the past two games, they may have been the worst.  What the hell?

I’ve been a huge advocate of Plaxico Burress ever since he came to the Giants, stating often that he is the most talented receiver the Giants have had in my lifetime. He’s a difference maker, forcing other teams to adjust the way they defend New York. That all said, this is still a very talented offensive team.  There is no excuse for the impotent offensive performances of the past two weeks.  And EVERYONE is to blame – the players (all of the offensive players) and the coaches.  Everyone has to perform and coach better.

The loss of Burress has turned what had been considered a very talented wide receiving corps into an ordinary one.  This is what has become clear:  Mario Manningham may have a world of talent, but he either isn’t ready to contribute or the coaches and quarterback don’t trust him yet.  Sinorice Moss, who is hurt yet again, has had his third disappointing season in a row.  He may be a bust.  That leaves Amani Toomer, Domenik Hixon, and Steve Smith.  It’s up to these three to raise their game.  If they don’t, the Giants’ passing attack will continue to struggle.  Toomer, who may be in his final year as a Giant, has not excelled since the game against the Redskins.  The fear here is that he has finally slowed down enough that he no longer presents much of a threat to opposing defenses.  Hixon, who has been ailing with ankle/foot injury issues, has a ton of ability, but he has to produce in the clutch against starting-caliber corners.  Steve Smith has to become more than an intermediate slot receiver.

If I’m the Giants’ offensive coach braintrust, I adjust my game plan to what it was last post-season.  Stop taking so many shots deep down the field (the deep threat outside of Hixon isn’t there regardless).  Start concentrating on the short- to intermediate-passing game.  This not only means the wide receivers, but tight ends, and running backs.  Throw the ball more to Kevin Boss and Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw.

But before even throwing the ball left and right and down the field, concentrate on the running game!  Go back to your roots from earlier in the season and play smash-mouth football behind a talented offensive line that can maul opposing defenses.  The Giants miss Brandon Jacobs, but Jacobs wasn’t terribly productive in the Redskins’ game either before re-injuring his knee the following  week against the Eagles.  It’s not just Jacobs (Ward and Bradshaw are good running backs).  The offensive line, tight ends, and fullback have to block better.

The Carolina Panthers have a very solid defense, ranked 10th in the NFL.  And Giants’ fans know how good a defensive mind John Fox is.  However, the Giants should not be overly intimidated by a Panthers’ defense that is 18th against the run and 12th against the pass.  Carolina’s run defense also may be missing their stout, run-stuffing tackle, Maake Kemoeatu (ankle).

The scariest match-up for the Giants is DE Julius Peppers (12 sacks) against either offensive tackle. The Giants may be forced to provide the tackles with double-team support.  Peppers is the most significant pass rush threat on the Panthers.  If the Giants can keep him under control and adjust well to the blitz, New York should be in good shape.

The Panthers’ secondary is alright, but can be exposed at times. LCB Chris Gamble is solid and Amani Toomer may have problems getting open once again. RCB Ken Lucas has had some issues this season. Look for Domenik Hixon to finally break a big play or two.  The safeties don’t make many plays on the football.

The linebackers are very athletic, but smaller. Pound the football. Stick to the run Coughlin and Gilbride, especially if Kemoeatu is out or limited.  I would stick with inside or off-tackle runs.  The athletic linebackers should have more success on outside runs.  DT Damione Lewis is on the lighter side as well.

The Giants don’t have Plax.  But they still have Pro Bowl QB Eli Manning, a very talented offensive line that includes two Pro Bowlers, very good running backs, and a solid tight end.  This is a game where the Giants need Eli and the offensive line to step up and be the difference.

Giants on Defense: Carolina has a very productive running game and has put up big numbers in recent weeks against somewhat questionable competition.  Nevertheless, since the Panthers average almost 150 yards per game on the ground, the game plan is obvious: stop the run. The Giants’ front seven must play a very physical and aggressive game this week, playing with toughness, discipline, and leverage. This is the kind of game where MLB Antonio Pierce can really shine by putting his defensive mates in the correct position to make the play.

The Panthers have a two-headed monster at halfback: DeAngelo Williams (1,229 yards, 5.5 yards per carry average, 14 touchdowns) and Jonathan Stewart (751 yards, 4.8 yards per carry average, 9 touchdowns).  That’s obviously superior production.  Williams is more of the big play threat while the rookie Stewart is more of the power back.

The way to make very good running backs look ordinary is to win the battles at the line of scrimmage. RDE Mathias Kiwanuka will face Pro Bowl LT Jordan Gross while LDE Justin Tuck battles mammoth rookie RT Jeff Otah.  The interior trio are LG Travelle Wharton, OC Ryan Kalil, and RG Keydrick Vincent.  The beef is on the right side of the line with Otah and Vincent, though Vincent has been bothered by a groin injury.  Assuming Fred Robbins (shoulder) plays, it will be up to Robbins and Tuck especially to play tough against these two big linemen.  The Giants must do a good job of playing off blocks from the fullback (Brad Hoover) and tight ends (Jeff King).  The Giants’ linebackers haven’t made much of an impact in recent weeks.  The Giants desperately need Pierce, Chase Blackburn, and Danny Clark to earn their salaries on Sunday night.

You never really know which version of QB Jake Delhomme you will get. At times this season, he’s been simply atrocious.  The strategy is obviously to stuff the run and make Delhomme beat you.  If you can get pressure on him, he will throw interceptions.

The big play receiver in Carolina remains the explosive Steve Smith (70 catches, 1,240 yards, 6 touchdowns).  The other wideout, Muhsin Muhammad (54 catches, 764 yards, 4 touchdowns) is the bigger, slower, possession receiver.  Both Giants’ corners should match up well with Muhammad; the key is that Webster and Ross have to do a good job on Smith.  The Giants should shade their coverage to his side.

The Panthers’ offensive coaches have no doubt noticed how the Giants’ linebackers have struggled in coverage in recent weeks.  Be careful of passes to the tight ends (Jeff King and Dante Rosario) and the backs (especially DeAngelo Williams).

Stop the run!  Stop the run!  Stop the run!  And let’s create some turnovers this week!

Giants on Special Teams: Ex-Giant Mark Jones is the primary punt and kickoff returner.  He’s has a very respectable 11.7 yards per return on punts so Feagles and the punt coverage unit needs to be on top of their games this week.  Jones also has a long of 59 yards on kickoff returns.

It’s been a while since the Giants have broken a return.  They are due.

Prediction: The Panthers are a media favorite right now, but they haven’t played a team like the Giants.  The slump is over.  New York spanks them.  Giants 30 – Panthers 13.

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Eric Kennedy

Founder and owner of BigBlueInteractive.com, which is now entering its 20th season. Follow Eric on Twitter @BigBlueInteract.

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