Jan 192010
 
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Minnesota Vikings 44 (12-4) – New York Giants 7 (8-8)

by The Hack for BigBlueInteractive.com

Game Summary: The New York Giants barely went through the motions of a football team on Sunday against Minnesota, showing even less emotion than they did a week ago against Carolina. It’s truly hard to believe what was seen, as the Giants caved like a house of cards against a team that came into the game struggling mightily on defense and had played just one good half of offensive football all month.

It’s not necessary to break down the game here. Everyone has read the quotes from WR Steve Smith, who summed it up perfectly when he said, “I just think we didn’t go out there playing tough enough. We just weren’t motivated. Some games it seemed like we had great weeks of practice, but we didn’t show it on game day.”

Smith went on to discuss the team attitude and leadership saying, “I don’t know, I’m not the decision-maker, but I would say I think we need an attitude adjustment maybe. Guys have to look themselves in the mirror and see if they’re ready and focused to win.”

“Maybe leadership needs to take another role and talk to guys and maybe see what guys are thinking,” Smith said. “Do some different things, try some different things next season.”

Wow. Who would have thought that prior to the season, when the big question mark amongst the pundits was whether the young wide receivers could step up and produce, that third-year man Steve Smith would be the one calling out the team at year’s end? Frankly, that in a nutshell speaks volumes about who the leaders are on this team. Or, more accurately, who the leaders aren’t.

In the final two games of the year, New York was outscored 85-16. They were out-gained on the ground over the past two weeks by the count of 376-95 yards. That’s right folks, the Giants did not crack 100 yards rushing, total, over the final 120 minutes of football in 2009.

We all saw the game, and once again it was over before the halftime festivities arrived. Against Carolina, the score was 24-0 at the half. This week, it was 31-0. Combined, that’s an extremely hard to believe 55-0 at the half in the final two games of the year. Again, this is just a difficult to imagine and completely unexpected effort from a Tom Coughlin-coached team that was a favorite for a league championship THIS YEAR.

Following the game, in which Tom Coughlin insisted, “I do think we tried. I’m not going to say it was a great performance, but they all came to the stadium wanting to play.” (Ok, ok, Corner Forum…stop laughing now). And then Tom spoke at the final press conference about “fixing things” in the offseason while not going into a single specific issue. Giants’ owner John Mara raked the entire team over the scorching embers of his anger, claiming he would not stand for the “status quo” and was disappointed in “everything.” Mara spoke of seeing a lack of mental and physical toughness, and even derided the team for lack of effort and non-competitiveness even before the final two games of the season. In summation, Mara said, “I’m probably as disappointed as I’ve ever been in my life at this team, given the expectations we had this year, given the roster I thought we had, given the way we started out and given the embarrassment of the last two weeks.”

Yikes. It’s probably a good bet that after hearing those remarks, DC Bill Sheridan no longer felt that he’d “absolutely return.” Within a couple of days, both he and (somewhat surprisingly) defensive line coach Mike Waufle were fired. Interestingly, there were words of support for Sheridan in the locker room. It’s too bad none of the players actually stood up on the field and fought for Sheridan as much as they did after their showers. Disappointment was also expressed at the firing of Waufle, but again, that begs the question, why didn’t the line step up and fight on the field for their coach?

(Author’s note: According to published reports, Waufle was allegedly fired following a meeting with the Giants brass in which he expressed displeasure with his salary amongst other issues).

So the Giants 2009 season is over, laid waste by a number of factors and the bloodletting has begun. The future is uncertain in many areas, but for the rest of this article I’ll be focusing on the 2009 season and what’s transpired since training camp.

2009 Season Review

It’s not that difficult to pin point where it all went wrong for the 2009 New York Giants. The defense did not play up to expectations for a variety of reasons. Injuries were never overcome by the players who stepped into starting roles. The secondary was horrible, specifically in the middle of the field. The interior of the defensive line could not get sustained pressure or “push” against the pass. The three major free agent additions did not perform to the standards that were expected, due to injury, apathy, or both. The linebacking corps was in constant flux, with players in and out of the starting lineup all year long. Continuity, communication, and frankly simple play-making and tackling were sorely lacking all along the defense.

Again, injuries were a major factor. But every player that stepped on the football field was a professional athlete expected to perform at a high level. Poor tackling and communication skills be damned, reserves should be able to play the game.

Special teams were also a huge issue, specifically coverage teams, much of the year. It’s difficult to pinpoint why there seems to be such a lack of emotion covering punts and kicks. One would like to believe that they simply aren’t very good at it, but there were several games where they performed very well which leads one to believe that they just don’t care enough.

Along with the players’ performances between the sidelines, one must question some of the coaching tactics employed in 2009. Although the offense had another stellar year, there was an obvious decision to pass the ball more in 2009 than in 2008, resulting in a shorter time of possession advantage in a year when the defense needed all the time on the sidelines it could get.

The offensive braintrust never figured out the green zone issues, either, as the Giants were one of the worst teams in the NFL in green zone efficiency.

There are even more questions on the defensive side of the coaching ledger. First and foremost, Bill Sheridan was out of his element down on the sidelines and was a clearly different type of leader than his predecessor. Why was he Tom Coughlin’s choice, despite his cerebral approach to the game which was in stark contrast to the up tempo, hands-on approach of his predecessor?

Sheridan’s attack philosophy was supposed to be much in the same vein of Steve Spagnoulo, and there was even talk of attempting to get even more pressure on the quarterback than in previous years. That never materialized, and many times it appeared as though the defense was confused on what play calls were actually being made.

Finally, the tight man-to-man, physical corner play wasn’t employed nearly as often as in past years, and the zone was shredded due to the lack of coverage skills by the linebacking and safety corps.

In hindsight, the Sheridan hiring is quite puzzling and may be the root cause of the defensive problems in 2009.

2009 Offense

I believe that it’s safe to say, despite an apparent philosophical change from a power running team into a passing team, the offense did enough to win a lot of games in 2009.

The Giants started just two new players on offense: Steve Smith, who led the team in receptions in 2008 from primarily the slot position, at flanker and Mario Manningham, overtaken late in the season by Hakeem Nicks, opposite him. Everyone else returned for their 2008 roles, with two exceptions. Ahmad Bradshaw was the full-time second back and Darcy Johnson took over for Michael Matthews as the number two tight end.

The questions surrounding the team in the offseason centered on one unit – the wide receivers. In retrospect, it’s actually pretty amazing what that unit provided given the hand wringing and whining over the need for a “true number 1 receiver” that went on in every corner of Giant fandom, including The Corner Forum. Who now, in hindsight, would trade a number 2 and Mario Manningham or a number 1 and a number 3 for Anquan Boldin or Braylon Edwards?

The running game was not on par with the 2008 Giants, and there are a myriad of reasons for the difference. First, though Ahmad Bradshaw played reasonably well on two bad ankles and at least one broken foot, he was not the physical threat that Derrick Ward was during 2008.

There was a stark physical difference to the team when Bradshaw spelled Brandon Jacobs that wasn’t there in 2008. Bradshaw and Jacobs are so different in style that it could be argued that the blocking schemes and thus the type of play calls should be radically different for each back, and that is not the case. Each back is expected to be able to perform all the tasks of the other, and that’s not a reasonable expectation, given their obviously different and unique skill sets. This was not the case when Ward would spell Jacobs, as Ward was able to run the power sets that Bradshaw is not best suited for.

All of that said, the 2009 New York Giants offense was very good and very productive, ranking 8th in the NFL in points with 25.1 per game, 8th in total yards per game at 366, 11th in passing yards per game at 251.2, and 17th in the NFL in rushing yards per game at 114.8.

Here is a quick look into the major 2008 and 2009 statistical categories:

2008 2009
Total First Downs 338 323
First Downs (rush/pass/pen) 130 – 176 – 32 103 – 194 – 26
Third Down Conversions 88/204 90/210
Fourth Down Conversions 5/11 9/15
Total Offensive Yards 5,695 5,856
Offense (Plays-Avg Yards) 1,021 – 5.6 1,017 – 5.8
Total Rushing Yards 2,518 1,837
Rushing (Plays-Avg Yards) 502 – 5.0 443 – 4.1
Total Passing Yards 3,177 4,019
Passing (Comp-Att-Int-Avg) 298 – 491 – 10 – 6.8 338 – 542 – 14 – 7.8
Sacks Allowed 28 32
Field Goals 36/39 27/32
Touchdowns 45 46
TDs (Rush/Pass/Ret/Def) 19 – 23 – 0 – 3 14 – 28 – 1 – 3
Time of Possession 33:19:00 31:41:00
Turnover Ratio 9 -7

As you can see, the Giants actually ran more plays, gained more yardage, had the same amount of touchdowns, and converted third and fourth downs at a very similar ratio. The glaring differences are the 59 less rushing attempts, the nearly full yard drop in average yards per rushing attempt, and the loss of more than a minute and a half in time of possession advantage.

Obviously, the deficit in the rushing game was more than made up in the passing game, as the Giants threw for nearly 900 yards more in 2009 than in 2008 and increased their yards per passing play average by a full yard.

The Giants also could not figure out the ‘green zone.’  The Giants were tied for 8th in the league with 3.5 green zone appearances per game, but finished 12th in the league with 1.7 green zone scores per game. That may not look too bad, but the stat that actually matters is green zone scoring percentage, and the Giants were 24th in the league at 48.2%. Not good.

Finally, turnovers were huge this season. In 2008, the Giants lost just 12 fumbles. This season, Eli Manning himself lost 8 of 13 and the Giants lost 17 of 30 overall. Combine that with 4 more interceptions than last season and the Giants went from committing just 22 turnovers in 2009 to committing 31 this year. The offense did a good job of capitalizing on opponents’ miscues, scoring 99 points off turnovers. Still, the Giants went from a +9 turnover ratio in 2008 to a -7 in 2009, and more than half the blame is on the offense for that. It is unacceptable and must be addressed this offseason.

The Quarterbacks

Eli Manning had a career year across the board despite playing through a nagging foot injury for more than half the year. After pummeling the Oakland Raiders in just one half en route to a 5-0 start, Manning was a legitimate MVP candidate. However, the plantar fasciitis that he suffered in week four caught up to him in week 6 and Eli struggled over his next four games. It would make a good discussion, now in hindsight, as to whether it may have been better for the team to have started QB David Carr for a couple of games during this stretch to let Eli rest.

Maybe Carr could have pulled out a win or two in the stretch against New Orleans, Arizona, and Philadelphia. At any rate, these were three of Eli’s worst games, and he was clearly not himself. In the first five games, Eli had four games with a QBR over 104 and one at 93.5. In the next three against the teams noted above, his QBR’s were 61, 47.5, and 55.7. Just some food for thought which raises another question as to whether the coaching staff really did the best thing for the team by letting Eli continue to play through his injury.

Overall, Eli’s stats were fantastic. He set career highs in completion percentage at 62.3, yards at 4021, average yards per pass attempt at 7.9, yards per game at 251.3, touchdowns with 27, passes completed of 20 yards or more with 60 (blew that one out of the water), and passes completed of 40 yards or more with 12. Eli’s QBR on the year stood at a very respectable 93.1.

I believe that it’s safe to say, at the young age of 29 and after 5 full seasons in the NFL, Eli Manning is an elite quarterback in the National Football League.

David Carr filled in well when needed, appearing in six games and compiling stats very similar to Manning ratio wise. It’s a good bet that Carr will not be back next season, as he’s ready to compete for a starting job elsewhere and there are plenty of openings available.

The Running Backs

The Giants fielded, statistically, a better than average rushing attack in 2009. Understandably, it didn’t seem that way after they boasted the number 1 rushing attack in the league one year earlier. The team ran the ball 60 fewer times for 700 fewer yards this season, and the average yards gained per rush dropped from a scintillating 5.0 to a rather pedestrian yet better than average 4.1.

There are several reasons for the drop off, not the least of which was offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride’s proclamation in the offseason to get the ball downfield more often. It can be argued that he successfully employed that tactic, evidenced by Eli’s 60 completions of passes greater than 20 yards. Last season, Eli completed just 32 passes over 20 yards. But, the question is, at what cost did the Giants successfully employ the downfield passing game? Was it employed due to necessity after injuries to all three running backs took their toll?

It’s been acknowledged that HB Brandon Jacobs suffered a torn meniscus in one of his knees during the opening game against Washington. To his credit, Jacobs managed the injury and probably would have continued playing had the Giants advanced to the playoffs. Once they were out of contention, Jacobs was shut down. Even so, Jacobs played in a career high 15 games and had a career high 224 carries. His yards per carry plummeted, however, from 5.0 last season to a paltry 3.7 average this year, gaining just 835 yards. Jacobs also scored just a third of the rushing touchdowns he had last season, compiling just 5 on the ground and adding another through the air.

Much was made about Jacobs’ running style early in the year, with many ‘experts’ claiming that he was dancing too much before hitting the hole and/or moving laterally to the line of scrimmage, which is not his strength. As mentioned above, all three running backs were hurt at one point or another, and Jacobs was required to run the plays that were supposed to go to HB D.J. Ware after he got hurt on the season opening kickoff.

It’s fair to attribute Jacobs’ off year on several factors. First, he was injured and attempted to play through it all year long. Second, he was running some plays that are not his strong suit, specifically getting to the outside. Third, Jacobs vowed to play a full 16 game schedule, and it’s fair to assume that he was being more careful with his body to obtain that end. Fourth, FB Madison Hedgecock was playing with a torn labrum in his shoulder all year, which explains his sporadic play leading the half backs through the hole. Fifth, the offensive line seemed to be living off past glory and an easy opening schedule and did not step up when needed. Finally – The Corner Forum and its absurd notion of the BBI Giant of the Year trophy curse notwithstanding – Jacobs was inexplicably removed for large portions of games in which he was playing well in favor of the other backs. Gilbride never went with the ‘hot hand’, and instead insisted upon his rotation all year.

HB Ahmad Bradshaw assumed the role of relief back for Jacobs and finished with 778 yards on 168 carries for a 4.8 ypc average. Bradshaw also had 21 receptions for 207 yards, and finished with 7 touchdowns. Amazingly, he did all that on two sprained ankles and at least one broken foot for much of the season. Bradshaw missed just one game in a season where many would be on IR.

While Bradshaw did put up good numbers, they were no match, in fact they weren’t even close to the numbers Derrick Ward put up from the number two spot last season. It remains to be seen whether Bradshaw can handle the load of a half time, let alone full time, halfback in the NFL. It’s possible that he was better suited in his role as the third head of the three headed monster from 2008.

Speaking of this season’s projected third head, HB D.J. Ware had what can only be described as a lost season. Injured on the opening kickoff of the season, he appeared in just 8 games and carried just 13 times for 73 yards and caught 3 passes for 15 more. Not exactly what was expected of the young man, who is rumored not to take his job very seriously and was dogged prior to training camp for not stepping up and taking full advantage of the chance that was clearly ahead of him.

Frankly, with Gartrell Johnson on the roster and Andre Brown on the mend and expected to be in the mix next year, it’s safe to assume Ware will not be back with Big Blue next year.

Speaking of the practice squad steal of the year from San Diego, Gartrell Johnson also received 13 carries this season. He’s a hard-nosed, downhill runner that will punish defenses, and once he has a full off season and training camp under his belt he should be in the mix for playing time.

All in all, you have to say that the Giants’ running game was successful, if not spectacular. New York suffered at times from lackluster offensive line play, injuries to every back on the roster save Gartrell Johnson, and got spotty and often times shoddy blocking from the TE and FB positions. Even so, the Giants put up the 17th best rushing attack in the league.

Fullback Madison Hedgecock played the majority of the 2009 season with a torn labrum in his shoulder, which explains why he wasn’t on the field nearly as much as last year and why TE Darcy Johnson saw playing time out of motion into the FB position. Many times, it appeared that Hedgecock was out of sync with both the offensive line and the halfbacks, leading either the wrong way or the backs simply didn’t follow him for reasons unknown. At any rate, it was a rather disappointing season for a fullback who has All Pro ability.

Honestly, it appears that a change in the way the running game is deployed would help this unit. Rotating backs based on what series it is shows their tendencies never change, and plays right into what the defense expects. It just doesn’t make sense to take a running back who is pounding the opposition for 5+ yards per clip out of the game in order to maintain your balance. Too many times, after either Jacobs or Bradshaw dominated a series, we didn’t see them again for a quarter or so due to this surreal obsession with balancing the load. It didn’t work, and it will be interesting if they continue to try it in the future.

The Wide Receivers

After much consternation and worry, the New York Giants wide receivers had arguably the best year in team history. Believe it or not, Giants wide receivers caught 236 balls this season which is 37 more than the wide receivers caught last year. Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, and Hakeem Nicks, basically two rookies and a third-year man out-performed Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, and Domenik Hixon. This bodes very well for the future, as it appears the Giants have a new version of Earth, Wind, and Fire only at another position. If Ramses Barden can polish his game enough to become a factor, this will be the most potent crop of wide receivers the Giants have ever had. Hell, it can be argued that as constituted right now, they are the most potent group the team has ever had.

Steve Smith, a third year starter, shattered the Giants’ single-season reception record with 107 for 1220 yards and 7 touchdowns. This all comes from a guy who every single pundit laments as not being a “true number 1.”  Smith led all NFC wide receivers in receptions, the first time I can remember such a feat by a New York Giant. Unbelievably, Smith was not elected nor was he selected to go to the Pro Bowl. I suppose, however, that’s all anyone really needs to know about what the Pro Bowl is all about.

Hakeem Nicks had the best rookie season in the history of New York Giant wide receivers, hauling in 47 receptions for 790 yards and 6 touchdowns. With the ball in his hands, Nicks is deadly. Nicks had an astounding 423 yards after the catch. That’s nearly 10 yards for every single reception. Believe it or not, that put Nicks at #8 in the league amongst wide receivers and #18 in the league overall. That’s with just 47 catches!

Nicks had his share of drops in 2009, but considering he was a rookie he bounced back repeatedly and continued to make plays and never got down on himself. As he matures and becomes a better route runner and becomes more accustomed to Eli Manning, Nicks should develop into one of the most dangerous receivers in football.

Second year man Mario Manningham, who had most of his rookie season wiped out by injury, came back to record 57 catches for 822 yards and 5 touchdowns.  That’s eye popping when you consider that he came off a 2008 rookie year in which he caught just 4 balls for 26 yards.  Quite the improvement!

Manningham is sometimes criticized for being somewhat lazy and possibly not the sharpest tool in the shed, and he did lose his starting job to Nicks late in the year, but overall he’s becoming an outstanding receiver and should also continue to grow into the role as he becomes more familiar with Eli and the offense as a whole.

Overall, the Big Three combined for a total of 211 receptions for 2823 yards (a 13.8 yards per reception average) and 18 touchdowns. Who would NOT have signed up for that before opening day?

The Giants have adequate depth at WR, and Domenik Hixon and Derek Hagan should both be back as each contributes heavily on special teams. As for Sinorice Moss, there is no way that cat has another life. Moss caught just one ball all season after another fantastic training camp. The caveat?  This time he was never injured. Bye bye, Sinorice.

The Tight Ends

The tight ends had a very strange year, beginning with the quizzical decision to cut Michael Matthews, blocking TE extraordinaire, and keeping Darcy Johnson on the squad. Normally, no one would question such a move but when you consider that they kept an H-Back on the team in Travis Beckum who couldn’t block his way out of a paper bag, it really made no sense to go with Johnson over Matthews.

Kevin Boss isn’t human. No person should be able to absorb the hits he took to the head and walk away unscathed, yet time after time he’d just sit there for a second, shake off the cobwebs, and return to the huddle. He also suffered what looked to be a catastrophic knee injury on a goal line play early in the season. It was so bad, you could hear his scream on the TV feed. However, after a couple of plays, he was back on the field. How that wasn’t a season ender is beyond me. Boss set career highs in receptions (42) and yards (567), and scored 5 touchdowns on the year. Boss’ statistics were nearly identical to those of the departed Jeremy Shockey, and he finished in the middle of the pack for NFL tight ends. The problem with Boss’ game resides in support of the running game. When Boss gets position and leverage, he’s tough to move and does a good job. The problem is, he has trouble getting to the position and/or influencing his man into a manageable position and gets knocked over because he gets caught standing straight up. He has improved, and he will likely continue to improve. More and more, due to his tenacity and toughness, Boss reminds me of Mark Bavaro.

Darcy Johnson did yeoman’s work for the Giants, but he didn’t often do it very well. It seemed that Johnson was best working either off motion either into the line or to the FB position, in which he led for the backs. As a straight TE off the line, Johnson seemed to be overwhelmed by DE’s and blitzing safeties. As the second pass-catching TE, he only caught 5 balls on the year.

H-Back Travis Beckum was touted as a guy who would be a matchup headache for any linebacker or safety he would encounter. That may be true, but we’ll have to wait until next year as he encountered very few defenders at any position this season. Overall he played in 15 games and caught 8 passes for 55 yards.

The Legend of Bear Pascoe began on a Monday night in Washington, DC when he caught the opening pass of the game (his lone catch of the season) for 9 yards, sparking the Giants to a rout of their hated rivals and their final victory of the decade. Ok, I got carried away there. I have no idea what the plan is, if any, for this kid.

The Offensive Line

The Giants saw their entire offensive line return again this season, and with them came their press clippings which they must have been reading ad nauseum. As far back as the early preseason game reviews, I mentioned that it appeared that the line wasn’t opening the same holes as in the previous years and the running game was stalled. Overall, injuries played a part in the problems that they had, but both Kevin Boothe and William Beatty played well in relief.

Statistically, the line allowed plays for a loss on 20 runs to the right and 20 runs to the left (6th worst in the league for both categories and only allowed 3 runs for a loss running up the middle. That was the best in the league. They also allowed 32 sacks, 4 more than in 2008. Granted, however, the Giants threw a lot more this season than last, giving the line more opportunities to give up a sack. Interestingly, both David Diehl and Kareem McKenzie gave up more than 25 QB pressures, and as a whole the line gave up 74 QB hits, good for 18th worst in the league.

Along the line, it’s been well-established that despite the calls for his head, David Diehl is one of the top left tackles in the business. This doesn’t mean he should stay there, but he’s more than adequate.  Diehl gave up 8 sacks in 2009, and that’s damned good when you consider the competition he’s up against in the NFC East alone.

Kareem McKenzie is also a solid contributor, and it’s a little surprising that there is so much talk about letting him go, as well.

Rich Seubert may be the weak link on the line, but he’s still a solid player as well. The same goes for Chris Snee and Shaun O’Hara. The statistics bear out that they are all above average players. William Beatty is still learning and will eventually be a very good LT, but there is really no need to rush him.

The offensive line seemed to become somewhat complacent in 2009. I would bet the farm that they round back into form this offseason and come back with a vengeance. There was no precipitous drop off at any position, and a case can be made that without Matthews and blitz specialist Derrick Ward in the lineup coupled with a severely injured fullback and limited blocking expertise from the TE position, this unit was due for a letdown. I believe that the jury is still out on this unit as far as becoming ineffective.

Defense

It’s the belief of many football minds that you build a successful team from the lines out on both sides of the ball. If you control the line of scrimmage, you control the game and thus your chances of winning go up dramatically.

In 2008, the Giants lost Osi Umenyiora to injury and Michael Strahan to retirement before the season ever started and the defensive line, though solid for most of the year, faltered at the end due to fatigue more than anything else. Jerry Reese and Tom Coughlin sought to make sure that scene wasn’t repeated in 2009 by signing two big name DL free agents in Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard and then added pass-rushing LB specialists Michael Boley and Chris Sintim to the mix.

Along with the new personnel up front, the Giants went into 2009 with a new defensive coordinator, the former linebackers coach Bill Sheridan. Sheridan’s hiring was questioned early for two reasons. First, he was the personality opposite of Steve Spagnuolo and preferred a cerebral, quieter approach to coaching. He also preferred to call the game from the booth, which Tom Coughlin nixed early in pre-season. Secondly, right off the bat there seemed to be philosophical differences between him and his players, as Osi Umenyiora walked out on an early meeting and didn’t return for almost a day. It appeared from the outset that Sheridan might be in over his head.

From the earliest preseason games, the Giants had a tough time stopping first-team running attacks. This turned out to be a theme for the year, and never was totally squared away. As we learned of the severity of the injuries suffered by Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield – that they were both coming off major knee surgeries – it was understood why Canty and Bernard were brought in. As it turned out, however, even while battling recovery, Robbins and Cofield turned out to be the two most productive DT’s on the line. Granted, that’s not saying much.

As was pointed out in pre-season, the Giants were coming into 2009 with a defensive backfield that was on the verge of being scary good. On paper, they appeared to have the best defensive backfield in the NFC save maybe Green Bay. Even so, many Giants fans in The Corner Forum and elsewhere had a wary eye cast at what seemed to be a startling lack of depth at the safety position. The worst case scenario occurred in Week 2 against Dallas, when S Kenny Phillips was inconceivably lost for the season after playing a great game and seemingly getting out of it ok. The Giants, with little hope of finding any significant help, claimed off of waivers the recently cut Aaron Rouse, and with bailing wire, bubble gum, and C.C. Brown attempted to push on.

To make matters worse, CB Aaron Ross was lost for most of the year and was replaced by Terrell Thomas. Thomas had a great year, but it could be argued that the defense would have been better suited with Thomas as the nickel with Ross on the outside. Instead, rookie street free agent CB Bruce Johnson was called upon to do more than he should have had to, and an argument could be made that since Kevin Dockery seemed to forget how to play football for great stretches at a time that it was his fault Johnson saw so much time.

At any rate, without a single cover safety on the team, the Giants were exposed in the defensive backfield, and that was magnified even more by the lack of pass rush from the front seven.

The linebacking crew was another area of question leading into 2009. Danny Clark, Antonio Pierce, and Chase Blackburn – the three players who started the season – do not strike fear in any opposing offense. When Michael Boley returned from injury, he was a force at times and lost at others. Jonathan Goff finally got an opportunity in the middle following the injury to Pierce and a two game stubbornness for playing Chase Blackburn in the middle, and he flashed at times.

When you boil the season long failure of the defense down to its root cause, one has to point out the injuries. Projected starters Chris Canty, Michael Boley, Aaron Ross, Kenny Phillips, and Antonio Pierce missed significant time. That’s a lot of talent up the middle, and that’s where they were exploited with regularity.

Although not privy to the schemes or coaching philosophy of defensive coordinator Sheridan, it’s safe to say that the defense looked confused and downright lost a lot of the time. Players were out of position, pointing to one another after giving up big plays, and at times seemed to not care at all. It will be interesting to see how the Giants respond to new defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and his coaching style, as it appeared that these Giants didn’t respond at all to Sheridan.

Statistically, the Giants defense finished 31st in the league in points allowed, giving up 427, or 26.7 per game. Amazingly, the Giants were just a little above average in total yards (325 per game, good for 14th in the NFL), passing yards allowed (214 per game, good for 15th), and rushing yards allowed (110 per game, good for 14th overall).

This begs the question, “How could they be better than average defensively overall, yet be near the bottom of the league in total points allowed?” The answer is simple. The Giants allowed 3.9 green zone attempts per game to their opponents. Only Oakland (4.1) and Detroit (4.4) were worse. Wait, though. It gets worse. The Giants were dead last in the league in allowing teams to score in the green zone, giving up 2.6 scores per game. Simply put, the Giants could not stop their opponents once they got inside the green zone, and the Giants let them get there a lot.

That’s not the only eye-popping statistic on defense, here are several more. The Giants regressed from 42 sacks in 2008 to only 32 this season. The leading tackler for the Giants was CB Terrell Thomas with 85. Strongside linebacker Danny Clark had just 37 solo tackles on the year. The Giants had just 13 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries all season. They were -7 in turnover ratio on the year and were -0.4 in turnover margin per game, good for 27th in the league.

That about explains it all regarding the 2009 defense. Injuries, plus the lack of sustained pressure on the QB, combined with the inability to force turnovers and stop opposing teams in the green zone equals doom.

The Front Seven

It’s impossible to overstate what was expected of this unit. Following the free agent acquisitions of defensive linemen Chris Canty and Rocky Bernard, the pundits were lauding this group as the most fearsome in the league and talk was of the record sacks they would record this year. Even we, the usually tempered BBI crowd, wondered aloud at the lofty promise this unit held.

Before the heat of summer could even begin to fade to the start of the regular season, however, the cracks appeared. First, no one knew just exactly how close Osi Umenyiora was to 100%. Then we found out that the surgeries on the knees of both Fred Robbins and Barry Cofield were more serious than originally reported. Soon after, one of the key reserves expected to stop up this year, Jay Alford, went down and was placed on IR. Finally, DE-convert to DT Chris Canty was injured for most of camp and then the first half of the regular season after a one-game comeback. Even with Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka still in the lineup, that amounts to a huge hit to the line.

Speaking of Tuck and Kiwanuka, both had solid seasons and if not for the injury inflicted on Tuck by cheap shot artist Flozell Adams, Tuck would have been dominant. Kiwanuka, probably the most consistent of the DEs, led the DL with 61 tackles while Tuck, injured shoulder and all, was right behind him with 59.

The defensive line, as a whole, made 202 tackles in 2009. That’s 66 less than the unit made in 2008, when they were in on the stop 268 times. Even Renaldo Wynn had 25 tackles in 2008. That’s 12 more than Canty had this season, and 3 more than Rocky Bernard.

Osi Umenyiora had a season to forget, finishing with just 29 tackles (19 solo) and 7 sacks. Eventually, Osi was replaced on running downs by Kiwanuka, and the stats show why. Osi was obviously frustrated and spoke out against his benching following the Panthers debacle, and naturally a rather vocal contingent in The Corner Forum called for his trade or release this offseason. It doesn’t seem to be the time, however, to jettison Umenyiora. Now that he’s more than a full year removed from his reconstructive knee surgery, and the Giants have hired an aggressive defensive coordinator, he should be given the benefit of the doubt and another year to work things out.

The bust of the year on the defensive line is obviously Rocky Bernard, who did nothing to help get pressure up the middle and was consistently moved out on running plays. Bernard, at this point, can only be called a thief because what he did was tantamount to stealing Mara and Tisch’s money. Canty was learning a new position and hurt for most of the year, so he should also get a reprieve. As for Fred Robbins, it appears that he’s through. His knee seemed to hold up well early, as he was still able to fight through double teams and also anchor at the point of attack. As the year wore on, however, he declined noticeably. Barry Cofield had a solid year, statistically on par with 2008. He too, however, was a culprit in not getting push up the middle. Cofield is entering his fourth year, and should be brought back unless a stud somehow falls into their laps.

The linebacking corps of the New York Giants is simply not that good. Over the past three years, New York has tried to address their linebacking needs two ways. First, sign an affordable stop-gap-type player in UFA and second use mid-round draft choices on solid developmental guys from smallish programs.

With the exception of Kawika Mitchell for one season, this strategy has been an abject failure. Danny Clark is useless unless a ball carrier actually runs in to him. Gerris Wilkinson has been stealing money for three years and needs to be gone two years ago. Zak DeOssie is a special teamer and not much more. Bryan Kehl has done very little with his opportunities and it’s difficult to pinpoint what the Giants even want out of him. He’s seen no significant playing time anywhere on the defense, and frankly if you can’t steal time from Danny Clark something must be wrong with you. Chase Blackburn is all heart and you have to love the guy’s work ethic, but he’s just not quick enough to play linebacker for any extended period of time. His footwork is horrible, he lowers his head and takes on blocks instead of trying to get free of the defender, and is also out of position way too often. Jonathan Goff got his opportunity and was up and down in relief of Pierce and then Blackburn. Goff does have speed and instincts, and he’s also very intelligent so there is hope for him to improve. Of the lot, he’s got the most upside.

Then there’s Clint Sintim, who watched a lot of football this year, considering he was a second-round selection and number 45 overall. Sintim may not even be a linebacker, as evidenced by the way the Giants almost exclusively used him on the pass rush. Again, rookie or not, if you can’t beat out Danny Clark for at least a couple series a game, there must be something wrong.

That brings us to Antonio Pierce, a favorite whipping boy of BBI. Pierce has clearly lost a step and he’s not the sideline-to-sideline player he once was. That said, he is still an outstanding on-the-field tactician and coach. He came into 2009 in the best shape he’s been in for a while, and he continued to play every down with the intensity we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from him. Blackburn was awful in the two games in which he replaced him, and Jonathan Goff was adequate though he certainly has upside as noted earlier. It would make sense for the Giants to bring back AP if the price is right and there are no viable alternatives.

Michael Boley is an example of the Giants trying to go in a different direction with regards to their linebacking corps. An unrestricted free agent signing from Atlanta, Boley was to bring speed to a group that was sorely lacking in it. It was envisioned that Boley could single-up with the three outstanding TEs in the NFC East, and also bring fierce pressure off the edge or up the middle. Once again, however, the best laid plans were laid waste when Boley required pre-season hip surgery and was in and out of the lineup all season. He did show flashes of good play, and did make the most tackles by a linebacker (84, 65 solo) on the team despite missing significant playing time. I expect much bigger things from Boley once the rest of the pieces are put in place around him.

The Secondary

As noted above, going into the season it certainly appeared that the strength of the defense would be a dominating defensive line combining with a suffocating defensive backfield that would cover the obviously slow linebacking corps.

Those thoughts went up in smoke almost immediately, as Aaron Ross missed the first half of the season with three separate hamstring injuries and then they lost Pro Bowl caliber S Kenny Phillips to a degenerative knee issue after week two. The Giants had to be taken completely by surprise with Phillips’ injury, as they allowed S James Butler to depart to St. Louis without trying to resign him (also, the Giants lost R.W. McQuarters and Sammy Knight) and then signed only in the box safety C.C. Brown for depth. Looking back on the 2009 offseason, a case could be made that the failure to sign an adequate cover safety to back up Phillips was their biggest failure.

Down two Pro Bowl caliber players in the secondary also exposed another glaring weakness, and that was the fact that somehow, Kenny Phillips was covering for the severe inadequacies of S Michael Johnson. With very few exceptions, Johnson was horrible in coverage and against the run in 2009. His inability to get to the ball carrier combined with his uncanny ability of over-running the play leads to him slipping, sliding, and falling all over himself. If it wasn’t a Giant doing it, it would be downright comical. Another aspect of Johnson’s game is his ability to get to the play JUST as it ends, only to either jump on the pile or slide by it. Prior to 2009, I honestly thought this guy was on his way to star status. All I can say now is get him off this team as fast as humanly possible.

What can you say about C.C. Brown? He did what he does well, and that’s help in run support. He’s a big hitter and he delivered the mail just fine in that capacity. Unfortunately, he was asked to cover 80% of the time, and that is not his long suit by any stretch of the imagination. His counterpart, Aaron Rouse also looks very good as an ‘in the box’ safety, but also has a tough time in coverage. Unfortunately, Michael Johnson was unable to do a single thing to help either of these guys out, and they were exposed down the middle of the field repeatedly.

Aaron Rouse should be brought back, possibly to replace Johnson, but C.C. should be shown the door. Maybe give him some nice parting gifts for doing the best he could in a no-win situation.

It’s hard to understand what happened to Kevin Dockery this season. He got into the doghouse after committing a personal foul by running into the punt returner AND for a false start during punt formation (both infractions at home and in the same game, no less) and never seemed to get out. Last season as an important part of the nickel and dime defense, he played well, and registered 43 tackles. This year, he only registered 25. That’s a significant and unexplained drop off in performance.

Corey Webster had an All Pro first half but collapsed down the stretch, starting with the Chargers game. Webster had a tough row to hoe, as he was asked week after week to take the opponents’ best receiver away yet got almost no safety help and little pass rush. In that respect, any cornerback is eventually doomed.

Terrell Thomas was one of the very few bright spots on defense, as he has developed into a quality starting cornerback and did a very good job subbing for the injured Aaron Ross. It will be quite the battle between him and Ross next summer for the starting spot opposite Webster.

Rookie CB Bruce Johnson may develop into a serviceable nickel or even possible starter in time, but following a start where he held his own (including scoring a touchdown against the Cowboys off an interception), once teams got the book on him they beat on the rookie like a rental car.

Overall, this unit was besieged by injuries, ravaged by a lack of cover talent at the safety position, and received little help from the defensive line in terms of getting pressure on the QB. With some solid depth and/or the return of Kenny Phillips and Aaron Ross, this unit can again be elite.

One final statistic concerning the back seven (linebackers and defensive backs): in 2009, they accounted for 9 sacks. Last season, they only accounted for 4.

Special Teams

The special teams were an enigma all season long. Place Kicker Lawrence Tynes had a very respectable year kicking field goals, hitting 27 of 32 attempts, an 84% success rate. Last season, the Giants attempted 41 field goals and made 37. What that tells you is the Giants had more scoring opportunities in 2008, and settled for a boatload of field goals. The interesting stat, however, is “Team Points Per Field Goal Attempt.” Last season, it was 2.7 points per attempt for the Giants. This year, it was 2.5 points per attempt, which shows that the disparity is nowhere near as bad as what The Corner Forum pundits would have you believe. Tynes was the number 6 kicker in the league this season, and frankly that’s pretty damned good despite his early-season struggle this year.

So with that fallacy cleared up, let’s look at Tynes’ kickoff performance. The Giants averaged 5.7 kickoffs a game, 6th most in the NFL. Tynes’ touchback percentage, however, was just 7% – 4th worst in the NFL. Still, that’s light-years better than last years’ 4.1% posted by John Carney. The Giants boasted one of the worst teams with regards to opponents starting field position, and it’s a twofold reason. First, Tynes rarely gets the ball deep. Second, the Giants don’t cover well. The kick coverage team is made up, primarily, of the same guys who make up the second-team defense (Tollefson, Kehl, DeOssie, Blackburn, etc). These guys are straight-line, no-speed guys that simply get caught in the wash when the returners get a head of steam and make a move. It’s not a coincidence that Derek Hagan made 11 special teams tackles and Hixon made another 7. Those two are the only guys on specials that can make a move.

The punting game was not very good for the New York Giants in 2009. First, P Jeff Feagles went into training camp with no other punter, leaving him to take every snap in preseason as well as practice. He was also grossly overweight, and looked to be very out of shape. There is no way to figure out if this work load fatigued Feagles without asking him, but the Giants were 30th in the league in gross punting average per game. New York wasn’t much better in net punting average per game, sitting 29th in the league.  Further proof of Feagles’ return to earth was his net gross per punt, which was 40.7 yards (down from 44.0 in 2008) – near the bottom of the NFL.

As for the return teams, the Giants couldn’t seem to be able to decide who they wanted returning punts. Hixon led the team with 17 attempts and had one touchdown, but Sinorice Moss also got 11 chances for a 6.7 yard average. Bradshaw, Dockery, and Webster also had opportunities.

On kick offs, the plan was originally to have D.J. Ware return kicks, but that lasted for the very first return when he got hurt. Moss was again asked to attempt it, but managed just 18.2 yards per return in 6 attempts and was benched for Hixon. Domenik had a solid year, averaging 22.6 yards a return, but never broke a touchdown this year. A lot can be blamed on the blocking teams, as they didn’t seem to want to do much.

Coaches and smart analysts talk about the ‘hidden’ yardage that special teams have to make. Starting field position is a huge key in wins and losses. This isn’t necessary return yardage. Short punts and kickoffs contribute to that yardage number, and judging by the numbers illustrated above it’s easy to see the Giants have a huge problem with their kicking game. In fact, the Giants were 26th in the league, allowing an average starting field position at the 29.6 yard line. This excerpt from a story by Ira Miller for NFL.com entitled Numbers Game: What Statistics Matter Most To NFL Coaches?:

“Field position is one of the canards that Dom Capers used to sell his players when he coached expansion teams at Carolina and Houston, and still preaches as defensive coordinator for the Miami Dolphins. So did Bill Cowher, coach of the 2005 champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

“In 1996, Capers’ second season with the expansion Panthers, Carolina had the league’s best average starting position after receiving kickoffs, and its defense had the second best position in the league after kicking off. Those numbers translated to an 8.6-yard differential for every pair of kickoffs; more than a quarter of the time, Panthers’ opponents started inside their own 20 following a kickoff, twice the league average.

“Multiply that through an entire season, and you get a lot of so-called hidden yardage.

“That wasn’t the only reason, but clearly it was one of them, that, in their second season in the league, Carolina compiled a 12-4 record and reached the NFC Championship Game. That same year, the New York Jets had the worst field position differential after kickoffs – minus-5.7 yards. The Jets finished 1-15.

“Cowher, a former special teams coach, understands the concept.

“‘I didn’t look at (kickoff return) average,” Cowher said. ‘I just look at starting position. It’s an indication of how long a field are you creating when you kick off, and how short a field are you creating when you return it’”

The Giants have a glaring hole here, and it needs to be corrected.  As solid as Tynes is on field goals, he’s a liability as a kick off specialist. Feagles has to decide if he wants to get back in shape and help this team, or the Giants need to replace him. Legend or not, they cannot allow another horrid year from the punter and coverage units.

Coaching

Ultimately, Tom Coughlin is to blame for the failures of this team. When things began to spiral out of control, all we were told was that they were working hard to fix things. Interestingly, no one got benched until Umenyiora late in the season, no changes were made to the defensive game plans, no change was made towards the offensive philosophy, and it was pretty much the same status quo offense and defense throughout the year. The Giants played without desperation or, in fact, any enthusiasm at all going down the stretch.

Tom is loyal to a fault, and until co-owner John Mara suggested that the status quo would not be stood for, it certainly appeared that defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan would be back. Frankly, Coughlin needs to kick a whole bunch of asses on his staff and a few players, to boot.

Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride continued to field a dynamic, if not prolific, offense. Until the last two weeks of the season, the Giants were ranked in the top 5 on offense. Gilbride takes a lot of heat on BBI, and there is merit to the discussion as to whether he out-thinks himself at times. Too many deep throws on third and short. Too many times going away from the hot running back to maintain ‘balance.’ The inability to come up with any reliable scheme, and the complete inability to run with success, in the green zone. These are legitimate concerns, but again, when you look at the body of work as a whole, this offense did enough to win at least 10 if not 12 games this season.

Bill Sheridan appears to have been in over his head from the outset. Again, I lay blame on Coughlin for not making a change before the season spiraled out of control. Granted, injuries were a big factor, but Sheridan got fired anyway so it wouldn’t have mattered if he was stripped of his title in say, week 11. As for the rest of the defensive staff, no one did a good job. All three phases of the defense were involved in this debacle, and Coughlin needs to establish whether it was a communications issue with Sheridan and the three units couldn’t get on the same page or if the individual unit coaches were culpable. Popular defensive line coach Mike Waufle was fired, but it appears that was by his own doing when he voiced his displeasure about his contract. If so, he certainly picked the wrong time to ask for more money.

Jerry Reese is not without fault in this debacle. Two of his three high-profile UFA purchases were hurt, and one just collected his check, so it’s difficult to pin any real blame on him for that. He did, however, let James Butler walk and replaced him with a player he knew could not step in for Phillips if he went down. That’s all on Reese, especially knowing that there were significant safeties available (Darren Sharper, anyone?) in free agency.

The 2009 draft was also a bit of a surprise, as after drafting Nicks (need)  and Sintim (need), the Giants went best-player-available and took Beatty. We all knew Beatty wasn’t going to produce big this year, but Sintim at #43 overall should have been expected to produce. Then to go with a WR Ramses Barden and HB Travis Beckum in round three, RB Andre Brown in round 4, and QB Rhett Bomar in round five looks even sillier than it did last spring. Not a single one of those players played any type of role in this season, and the two CBs that Reese did finally take in rounds 6 and 7 didn’t even make the team. The Giants needed safety and linebacker help more than anything else on the team after wide receiver, and after Nicks was taken and that area was solved it seems the Giants just made hopeful picks. It will be awhile before we can adequately grade this draft, but other than Nicks, it was a complete waste for 2009.

So there you have it, an especially disappointing 8-8 season following a 5-0 start. Reese and Coughlin are still in charge, but their 2007 luster is starting to tarnish and a repeat of the 2008 offseason failures combined with further uninspired play from the team will doom Coughlin, if not Reese. Many of us like to talk about ‘windows of opportunity,’ and how ours was just opening in 2007 and we managed to squeak through it for an early championship. The window was wide open last year and pretty much this year, as well, and the Giants stumbled badly. I believe the window is still open, but it’s beginning to shut. There will be a major overhaul on defense this offseason, and it remains to be seen whether they’ll be able to build it up quick enough to match the top-notch offense currently assembled. 2010 will be an interesting year!

(Box Score – New York Giants at Minnesota Vikings, January 3, 2010)
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