By Eric from BigBlueInteractive.com
Approach to the Game – St. Louis Rams at New York Giants, September 19, 2011: This is going to be less of a game preview and more of a status report because I think BBI needs it.
Giants’ fans want answers. They want to know how their team could have lost to the Washington Redskins? The answers are actually pretty simple, but will be difficult to digest for many:
(1) The Redskins are an improved team and played better. QB Rex Grossman played a good game and so did the Redskins’ defense. The other side gets paid to win too.
(2) I talked about it all August and last week – this team is in transition. Some people hate me using that word while others disagree with me vehemently. I will speak more about that below.
(3) Injuries. In my mind, if you asked me in August who the five most irreplaceable Giants were, I would answer Manning, Tuck, Nicks, Webster, and Thomas. The Giants were without both Tuck and Thomas against the Redskins. The situation was made worse on defense by the absence of Jon Goff and Prince Amukamara. There was a domino effect on the entire defense and the way the game was called defensively with softer coverage and more inexperienced players being forced to play key roles earlier than expected.
(4) Finally, the Giants didn’t make the plays that needed to be made in order to win the game. The Giants could have prevented the Redskins from scoring their first touchdown by stopping them on 4th-and-5, but they didn’t. The Giants went up 14-7 near halftime. But that advantage was quickly surrendered when Washington went 80 yards in five plays to tie the game. Then at the start of the 3rd quarter, the momentum really swung in favor of Washington with the defensive score. The Giants had chances to get back into the game but could not convert on 4th-and-1 and 3rd-and-1. Those plays were the difference in the game. Most games come down to a few plays and the team that makes them wins.
So where does that leave the Giants? 0-1. It is not time to panic yet. In the Tom Coughlin era, the Giants are 4-4 on opening day. There seems to be no correlation at all between winning and losing the opening game under Coughlin and making the playoffs or not. But it does mean that the game against the Rams becomes very important. A 0-2 start and heading into Philadelphia on a short week is not an ideal situation. The Giants really need to even their record at 1-1 on Monday night.
Giants on Offense: Every time the Giants lose, the anti-Coughlin, anti-Manning, and anti-Gilbride tribes come out of the wood work. To be frank, the criticism is simplistic scapegoating, tiresome, and usually not accurate.
“Coughlin’s act has worn thin. The game has passed him by.” Giants’ fans continually overrate their team’s own talent. This is not endemic to New York as fans in other cities fall prey to the same trap. Since 2005, the Giants have had good talent and sometimes outstanding weaknesses, often worsened by a long bad streak of bad luck with injuries focused at specific positions. In Coughlin’s first seven years with the Giants, the team has four playoff appearances, one Super Bowl, one NFC Championship, two division titles, and two wild card appearances. They barely missed the playoffs last year at 10-6. That’s a pretty good record.
“Gilbride is a bad offensive coordinator.” This simply isn’t supported by the statistical productivity of the offense – a well-balanced offense that is usually one of the league leaders despite not being flush with talent. For example, last year the Giants had six starting offensive line combinations and were signing wide receivers off the street to start. Missing time due to injury were Diehl, O’Hara, Beatty, Andrews, Seubert, Koets, Boothe, Nicks, Smith, Hixon, Barden, Cruz, and Boss. Despite that, the Giants had one of their most productive offensive performances in team history with 6,000 yards of offense. The Giants finished 5th in the NFL in total offense in 2010. They finished 8th in 2009 and 7th in 2008 (1st in rushing). “Well, they should be ranked even higher!” Why? Because you think they should? The Giants don’t have a Pro Bowl running back or tight end. The offensive line usually plays better than the sum of its parts. The receivers have been up and down due to injuries and inexperience.
“Manning is regressing.” Again, this is not really supported by the evidence. Many fans seem to forget that Manning was on the hot seat with fans in 2007 until the playoff run where he out-played every other quarterback in the playoffs. 2008 was really his breakout year – a Pro Bowl year where he passed for 3,238 yards, 21 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and a 60.3 completion percentage. In 2009, he passed for 4,021 yards, 27 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, and a 62.3 completion percentage. In 2010, he passed for 4,002 yards, 31 touchdowns, 25 interceptions, and a 62.9 completion percentage. The only area where he “regressed” is the interception total last year and 7-8 of those picks were off the hands of wide receivers. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t need to be more careful with the football, but he certainly hasn’t regressed (see yardage, touchdowns, and completion percentage). And he’s done all of this with a receiving/tight end corps – outside of Nicks – arguably has gotten worse with jail time, injuries, and free agent losses.
“His interception against the Redskins cost the Giants the game.” The interception was not on Eli. If Kareem McKenzie blocks the outside linebacker like he should have, the pass is easily completed. McKenzie blew the block and the linebacker made a hell of a play. It happens, but it was not a mistake by the quarterback. In fact, Eli was pretty darn careful with the football on Sunday, throwing the ball away and taking sacks instead of throwing it up for grabs.
“He didn’t do enough to win the game.” The Giants had two impressive scoring drives in the first half of the game in Washington. Another first-half drive ended with a dropped pass by Victor Cruz that would have been a first down. In the second half, the Giants’ offense was regularly started off in poor field position except for one situation. They started off at the 18, 20, 9, 10, Washington 27, 20, and 17. To make matters worse the offensive line played worse in the second half, allowing regular pass pressure and sacks on Manning as well as not opening the same type of holes that it did in the first half for the ground game. The two times the Giants threatened in the second half – one after a nice 41-yard strike to Jake Ballard and the second after the JPP sack and forced fumble, the drives ended with the failure of the offensive line to move the Redskins out of the way on 4th-and-1 and 3rd-and-1. The second half failures were not on Manning. They were on the offensive line.
“What’s the problem then?” Manning did not seem comfortable on Sunday. He didn’t seem comfortable all preseason. On Sunday, the offensive line wasn’t giving him very good protection and that will make any quarterback uncomfortable. But really what makes the situation worse is that Eli doesn’t seem to have many receivers he really trusts. I think he trusts Nicks. I don’t think he really trusts Manningham. And Victor Cruz, Domenik Hixon, and Devin Thomas didn’t play much. And to be frank, they actually may not be all that good. We’ll have to see. The good news is that Jake Ballard made a couple of really nice catches, but the same comfort level that Manning had with Kevin Boss is not there. And Eli really, really misses the pre-injury Steve Smith. Smith was his go-to inside receiver. All the passes on Sunday seemed to be outside the hashmarks. That’s not good. If some receiver can’t step up and threaten the middle of opposing defenses, opposing defenses will have a relatively easy time of defending the Giants’ passing game. To be clear, almost all quarterbacks with sufficient skills to play in the NFL will sink or swim based on the performance of their surrounding talent. The Giants’ surrounding talent did not play very well on Sunday. The offensive line needs to play better, the receivers other than Nicks need to play better.
“How come Eli can’t be Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady?” Because he’s not. He’s good but he’s never going to be those two guys. Plus, those two guys have far better receiving corps. Phil Simms wasn’t Joe Montana or Dan Marino either, but he was still damn good. Eli is your quarterback. Accept it and get behind the guy. Stop sabotaging your own team.
“So what do the Giants do to improve offensively?” They have to pray the offensive line comes together fast. The talent is there, but the line now isn’t playing equal to or greater to the sum of its parts. That will only come with playing time. How much? That’s the million dollar question.
The Giants also need Jake Ballard to continue to develop. Sunday’s game was very promising for him. But Hakeem Nicks needs help. Mario Manningham has to play smarter and better. And someone has to become a legitimate third receiver. If not, teams will double Nicks and dare the others to beat them.
Giants on Defense: The patchwork defense looked fine at times on Sunday, especially against the run. And the pass rush was surprisingly effective without Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora. Grossman was sacked four times and hit a bunch of other times. The problem was pass coverage. To the credit of the Redskins, Grossman played a very strong game. But the Giants’ zone coverage was terrible. Part of that has to do with injuries. With Goff out, as I feared in my preview, the Redskins took advantage of the middle of the field with inexperience of Greg Jones and Jacquian Williams. Not having Terrell Thomas also had a domino effect on the nickel and dime packages.
But Perry Fewell came to the Giants last year with a reputation as more of a zone guy. I think the Giants’ personnel – most notably Corey Webster and Aaron Ross – are better suited to man coverage. And on Sunday, the man coverage appeared to be fine. It was the zone coverage that got the Giants into trouble. That doesn’t mean the Giants shouldn’t play zone. Like all teams, they have to switch it up, but I would tend to play more man (which is riskier) rather than zone (which is playing it more conservatively). It’s easy for me to say that because it’s not my job on the line, but I would play to my strengths. And when it’s 4th-and-5, I certainly don’t suggest playing off coverage like the Giants did. Challenge the receivers and let your pass rushers have a split second more time to get to the quarterback.
The problem the Giants have here – even if Tuck does return – is a talent/experience issue. Look, I think Greg Jones, Jacquian Williams, Spencer Paysinger, Mark Herzlich, and Tyler Sash are going to be decent and maybe even very good football players. But they are not right now. They are too green. The game is too fast and complicated for them as rookies. They are going to make mistakes. The Giants are going to miss Jon Goff in the middle more than most of us realize simply because he was mentally ahead of the game. He knew where he was supposed to be and he was the on-field director of the defense.
And when the Giants start facing quarterbacks and receiving corps far more dangerous than the Washington Redskins, I’m not sure they have the talent at cornerback to compete. Much depends on Prince Amukamara, but I’m not sure it is fair to count so heavily on a guy that had absolutely zero offseason/preseason work and is a rookie on top of that. Corey Webster, Aaron Ross, Brian Williams, and Michael Coe have to play lights out. And Kenny Phillips and Antrel Rolle have to be better than just average safeties. The good news regarding Phillips was that he was actually laying some wood on Sunday. Rolle flashed in run defense (again), but he needs to make plays on the football in the air.
Giants on Special Teams: Special teams weren’t as bad as many think on Sunday. The punting game was good. The punt return game was also good. The Redskins did not do much on punt and kick returns other than the 25-yard punt return by Banks, but there was flagrant block-in-back penalty that was not called on that play.
The negative was the really bad effort by Lawrence Tynes; he is solely responsible for the blocked field goal. And there were too many penalties on special teams. But I thought overall it was a step in the right direction.
Approach to the Season: This game on Monday is crucial. At the very worst, the Giants need to come out of the first six games at 3-3. This is similar to 1988 when a revamped offensive line led to an inconsistent 3-3 start before the Giants finished 10-6 (and barely missed the playoffs unfortunately). If the Giants lose, we may have to accept the fact that this is simply a down season for the Giants, a rebuilding year that may or may not include the current coaching staff in 2012. But keep in mind, if the current coaching staff is canned, 2012 is likely to be a rebuilding year too. That’s the problem with coaching changes. And there is no guarantee the new coaching staff will be better than the old one, even if it is led by Bill Cowher.