Sep 222011
 
 September 22, 2011  Posted by  Game Previews and Reviews
New York Giants 28 (1-1) – St. Louis Rams 16 (0-2)

by rnargi for BigBlueInteractive.com

Game Summary: The New York Giants defeated their former defensive coordinator and the St Louis Rams in their 2011 home opener on Monday Night Football 28-16.

It was a strange game.

The Giants started getting some of their walking wounded back as the defensive line welcomed DE Justin Tuck into the fold.  It may still be a couple or more weeks before CB Prince Amukamara and DE Osi Umenyiora return, but the fact is they are returning.

The same can’t be said for the offense.  Travis Beckum, possibly the softest TE ever to play the game, is still out.  After a scare and being questionable with a knee injury all week, Hakeem Nicks played.  However, WRs Mario Manningham (concussion) and Domenik Hixon (torn ACL) left the game as both injured themselves just on the Giants’ last drive before the half.

The Giants again seemed just ill at ease on the field Monday night for the majority of the first half.  One got the feeling that the offense was finally untracked on the first drive, and then stalled almost entirely until the final drive of the first half.  As for the defense, they somehow survived the initial and sustained no huddle onslaught of the Rams, holding them to two first quarter field goals.

At halftime, many Giants fans had to be wondering just how in the world they could be up by 15 points.  Good fortune and a timely two minute attack aided by a questionable Rams holding penalty really were where the credit could be placed.

The Giants did improve in many areas on Monday night.  They converted 33% of their 3rd downs, 5 for 15, and although they originally didn’t get credit for it, they converted 1 of 2 4th down attempts.  (Nicks has since been ruled in-bounds on the play where  he was interfered with prior to the Giants’ first touchdown).

They committed less penalties, only 5 for 55 yards.  Unfortunately 3 (2 were unsportsmanlike conduct) were on Special Teams and the Giants were fortunate none hurt them as two of them came late in the game with St. Louis looking for anyway to get back into the game.  The other 2 were a false start on TE Bear Pascoe and a hold on C David Baas.  The defense didn’t commit a penalty on the night.

Despite the good things the Giants did, let’s fact facts.  The Giants scored one touchdown off a short field following the recovery of a muffed St Louis punt; they scored another on a gift when QB Sam Bradford threw a backwards pass to RB Cadillac Williams (who never tried to pick up the ball) that was alertly scooped up and returned for a touchdown by Michael Boley; scored a third on a two minute drill in which one receiver botched a sure touchdown and another blew out his knee making a circus catch.  On the other side of the ledger, 3 times St Louis had the ball inside the 10 yard line and came away with just 9 points.  Those facts were truly the difference in this game.

Offense: It was a mind numbing first half for Giants fans watching this offense.  Before the final drive, the Giants had run just 27 plays, suffered five 3 and outs, and had “sustained” two drives of just 6 plays each.

The Giants came out on fire, gaining 43 yards on their first 5 plays, mainly on the run with Bradshaw.  Then came a 1st and 10 play from the St. Louis 37 yard line.  The Giants had lined up in a single TE set with FB Henry Hynoski and Bradshaw in the backfield with Manningham and Nicks lined up wide to each side of Manning.  Facing an 8 man front, Manning had single high safety and man coverage on his wideouts.  TE Jake Ballard released all alone, with no one within 5 yards of him, into the right flat while St Louis brought all eight at Manning.  Mario Manningham went right by Rams CB Justin King, who was caught cheating down on Ballard.  Eli, bird dogging Manningham the whole way, underthrew him and S Quinten Mikell came from the middle of the field for a relatively easy interception.  Maddening.  Just a little height on that ball and it’s over Manningham’s shoulder for an easy, easy six.

The only other drive of note before the final one of the half was the 38 yard touchdown drive that required 4th and 4 conversion.  On the play, Nicks made a sensational one handed catch that should have originally counted.

After that mini drive, the Giants suffered through four straight 3 and outs before they got the ball back at their own 14 yard line with 2:58 minutes left in the half.  All of a sudden, and aided by a defensive holding call, the Giants caught fire and scored a touchdown to extend the lead to 15 at the half.  Even so, it seemed the most tenuous 15 point lead in the history of football.

The second half and specifically the 4th quarter was dominated, in terms of time of possession, by the Giants.  The Giants had only four drives of consequence in the second half, but they sustained them with 10 plays, 8 plays, 6 plays and 9 plays running 18:54 off the clock.

The big drive of the second half was their first, an 81 yard touchdown march aided by 3 St Louis penalties for 37 yards (15 yard personal foul, a 5 yarder turning a 2nd and 13 into a 2nd and 8, and a pass interference for 17 yards which converted a 3rd and 6).  The score answered an opening drive field goal by St. Louis, extending the lead to 19 points.

Quarterback: Once again, QB Eli Manning is taking a ton of heat for the sputtering performance of the Giants’ offense this week.  It’s an amazing phenomenon, but many fans of the New York Giants simply do not appreciate their quarterbacks until they are long gone.  On Monday night, Phil Simms was cheered wildly as he commemorated the 25th anniversary of their first Super Bowl Championship.  He had to wonder about the years of boos he endures, boos that were rained down on Manning earlier in the night.

Eli started off the game with a nice 16 yard completion to Manningham on a designed roll to his right and then fired off incompletions (and the interception) on 9 of his next 11 passes.  Yes, at one point Manning was 4 of 13 for 50 yards 1 TD and an INT.   Then, all of a sudden, he got red hot and completed his last 6 of the half, leading the Giants to their 3rd touchdown of the night.  In fact, Manning completed 15 of his last 17 passes, and only threw 2 incompletions in the second half.  On the night, Manning finished a respectable 19 of 30 (63%) for 223 yards, his first 2 touchdowns of the year and an interception.  On the night, Manning accumulated a QBR over 94.

Manning never really put the ball in harms’ way other than the ill-fated interception on the first drive.  As mentioned above, Eli never looked the safety off and didn’t get the ball out to where Manningham could make a play on it.

Manning also made it a habit to check down to his running backs and took sacks when there wasn’t an option downfield to go to.  On the night he threw to his backs a combined 8 times and 2 more to his TEs.  I would like to note here that Star-Ledger beat writer Mike Garafolo mentioned that Eli missed open receivers all night long.  Not being able to see the entire field, I cannot comment on whether he did or didn’t but it would be a serious knock on him if he did due to the amount of checkdowns and sacks Manning took on the night.

Many people in The Corner Forum deride Manning for throwing 25 interceptions last season, and now that he’s clearly trying to take better care of the ball (yes, he has two interceptions in two games, but the first was NOT his fault), people are deriding him for taking sacks and not converting 3rd downs.  What isn’t being acknowledged is that he’s playing with 5 players in different positions around him and on Monday night he lost two more in Hixon and Manningham at the half.  One can be optimistic about this team, but one cannot state that losing Steve Smith, Kevin Boss, Mario Manningham, Dom Hixon, as well as starting last years’ 3rd string TE, a rookie FB and a revamped line doesn’t hurt Manning’s ability to get the ball downfield in the second half of the game on Monday night.

Even so, he came out in the second half, managed the game and led the team to an score on the opening drive of the third quarter.  All in all, he completed 9 of 11 second half passes and although he took sacks on all 4 drives in the half, he did not force the issue and cause a disastrous turnover.

Another thing Manning did well on Monday was to just snap the ball at times.  Several times he got to the line, called out “55’s (LB James Laurinaitis, one of the best in the business) and snapped the ball instantly.

It’s time to cut Eli Manning some slack.

Running Backs: It was reported during the week that HB Ahmad Bradshaw was upset at the relatively low amount of touches he and stable mate HB Brandon Jacobs received against the Redskins the week before.  He can’t be very upset this week, as he and Jacobs combined for 37 touches on the Giants’ 71 offensive plays.  Bradshaw ran for 59 yards on 15 carries, a 3.9 ypc average.  Bradshaw also caught everything thrown his way, resulting in 5 catches (most of any Giant on the day) for 45 yards including an incredibly well run screen.

On the first Giants drive of the 3rd quarter, the Giants found themselves in a 3rd and 18 situation from the Rams’ 32 yard line.  The Giants lined up in shotgun with Bradshaw on the weak side with Brandon Stokley in the slot and Nicks on the outside.  Pascoe was lined up as a TE on the strong side with Manningham split wide right.  The Giants caught the Rams in a man look, bringing four downline men and two linebackers in on Manning.

On the snap, Stokley ran a deep in, taking his man completely out of the play.  Pascoe, Snee and McKenzie sealed off the entire right side of the defense, and Beatty did an excellent job of routing his man inside and away from Bradshaw.  C David Bass came back and rode the MIKE linebacker Laurinitis out of the play and downfield Hakeem Nicks was riding the CB out into the endzone.  Bradshaw ran practically untouched behind Diehl and Beatty and easily picked up 23 yards and a first down.

Bradshaw did a great job of settling into the open spots and taking check downs from Manning all night as well.

Brandon Jacobs also had a productive night, rushing 16 times for 50 yards and a touchdown.  Big Brandon carried 8 times in the 4th quarter in which the Giants dominated time of possession, running more than 12 minutes off the clock.  Jacobs also took a nice swing pass in the flat off his own play action for a huge 17 yard gain at the beginning of the 4th quarter.

HB DJ Ware also got into the act on Monday night, carrying 3 times for 22 yards.  Though he gets a lot of grief in The Corner Forum, Ware just continues to produce.  On a critical 3rd and 2, Ware took a quick pitch to Manning’s right against a 6 man line, 8 in the box look.  On the play, TE Bear Pascoe came in motion from the left of the formation.  As the ball was snapped, he turned up field and crashed down on and sealed LDE Clint Long, allowing McKenzie to sprint to his right and pummel OLB Chris Chamberlain and drive him over to the New York bench. RG Chris Snee pulled around Ballard and got to the hole ahead of Ware and stonewalled S Quinten Mikell.  All Ware had to do was follow his blocks for an easy 1st down and 12 yards.  Twice in the 4th quarter, Ware converted third and short yardage and he nearly converted on a 3rd and 7 play.

FB Henry Hynoski continues to learn, and with learning comes growing pains and good times and bad times.  Hynoski caught 1 pass (thrown to twice) for 8 yards.  His best play of the night may have been his lead block on Jacobs’ 9 yard touchdown run where he stoned the WILL in the hole.  More on that play later.  Hynoski’s worst play on the 4th and 1 play late in the 4th quarter in which he whiffed, horribly, on OLB Chamberlain who made the play behind the line of scrimmage.  Had Hynoski engaged and pushed back Chamberlain, Jacobs would have probably converted.  Earlier, Hynoski missed picking up LB Brady Poppinga causing Bradshaw to turn an otherwise perfectly blocked play inside for no gain.  It would’ve goon for big yardage had Hynoski gotten his man.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends: The Giants struggled early and often to get the ball to their wide receivers. Mario Manningham caught 3 of 7 balls thrown his way (including a crucial drop on an early 3rd down) and Hakeem Nicks was targeted 8 times and caught 4 balls.  Manningham only played one half as he left due to a concussion.  After bobbling but catching what would’ve been a cinch touchdown, he was unable to return.  To make matters worse, on the very next play after the would-be touchdown, WR Domenik Hixon made an unbelievable acrobatic catch for a touchdown in which he tore the same ACL that was torn last summer.    Boom, another Giant out for the year at a critical position.

As Eli Manning said after the game, newcomer Brandon Stokley’s small package got a lot bigger in the second half and will probably continue to this week.  Stokley saw extensive action in the second half, and was instrumental in drawing a 17 yard interference penalty on a critical 3rd and 6 play on the Giants’ final touchdown drive of the night.

All you need to know about how tenuous the receiver situation has become is to have paid attention to Manning having to tell WR Victor Cruz to “watch the hots, watch the hots” before a play when the Giants were breaking the huddle.  Ironically, nobody at all ran a hot route, the Giants were in an empty backfield set and Manning got sacked.  Cruz did catch a nice 9 yard slant from the slot off a hot read, so maybe he’s learning.  Cruz and Hixon both finished with 2 catches, meaning the Giants completed just 11 total passes to the five WRs who played in the game.

Hakeem Nicks made an acrobatic touchdown catch on a quick hitter in the endzone in which he reached around the defender to pluck a somewhat poorly thrown ball out of the air.  Nicks also made an unbelievable 1 handed catch but was originally ruled out of bounds on the early 4th and 4 play in which Nicks drew and interference penalty.  If not for the penalty, HC Tom Coughlin surely would have challenged and won.  (NOTE: This has officially been changed to a 23 yard reception for Nicks).

Other than the one play in which I called out his solid block, TE Bear Pascoe was pretty awful.  On the first drive of the night he dropped an easy 7 yard pass on a 1st and 10 play.  As for Jake Ballard, he was no better than average as a blocker, as evidenced by him getting blown up by DL Chris Long off motion, causing Jacobs to settle for 1 yard as he fell over Ballard.  Absolutely unacceptable.  Ballard is usually fine on seal blocks, but anytime he’s on the edge or asked to square up he’s in trouble.  Ballard did catch a critical 13 yard pass to move the chains late in the ball game.

Offensive Line: The offensive line again had an up and down night.  The Giants were able to run the ball effectively, for the most part, in the first half and in the second half they ran it enough to chew up time and move the chains, albeit not for any significant yardage.

One well-blocked running play was the 9 yard touchdown run by Jacobs.  On the play, C David Baas did a great job locking up the right defensive tackle, allowing David Diehl to get to the second level and road grade the MIKE linebacker out of the way.  While this was going on, LT William Beatty had nullified the RDE and FB Henry Hynoski got enough of the WILL linebacker to open a huge hole for Jacobs and an easy touchdown.

A play on which the line looked particularly bad was a 2nd and 3 from their own 42 yard line in the 2nd quarter.  The Giants were lined up in a jumbo set with Stacy Andrews eligible outside of McKenzie, and Ballard lined up a yard behind and to the right of him.  On the snap, RDT Fred Robbins shot through the gap between McKenzie and Snee as Snee stunted around McKenzie to lead Jacobs.  Unfortunately, McKenzie never got to Robbins who nearly took the handoff and planted Eli for a 9 yard loss.

In the run game, the Giants are suffering from substandard blocking from the fullback and tight end positions.  They are simply incredibly inconsistent.  The second one thinks they’ve figured it out, a head shaking play occurs.

In pass protection, the offensive line did have a few breakdowns, particularly by RT Kareem McKenzie and LT William Beatty.  To be fair to Beatty, however, the Rams sent several overload blitzes his way and on at one occasion HB Ahmad Bradshaw did not pick up the blitz and Manning had to get rid of the ball and on another the Giants were in an empty backfield and Beatty couldn’t block them all.

Overall, however, Manning wasn’t pressured much in the first half, and during the two minute drill despite facing 4 blitzes on the last 7 drop backs he was never close to being hit.

In the second half, Manning was smothered on that empty backfield blitz, was sacked on a 4 man rush in which Snee lost his man, then was sacked on a 3rd and 2 by Chris Long who beat McKenzie cleanly and Ware was looking the other way and didn’t get over to help McKenzie.

That was it folks, 3 sacks and it’s safe to say that only 2 were really on the offensive line.  One of them Bradshaw missed a blitz pickup.  A positive is that on none of them did Manning attempt to throw into coverage and lived to fight another day.

Defense: The return of DE Justin Tuck was a welcome sight for all Giants fans, and he made his presence known on the very first defensive snap of the game when he caught a slipping Cadillac Williams for an early 5 yard loss on a swing pass.  After that play, however, the Giants became one of the most Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde teams that’s ever been seen.

The Rams immediately jumped into a no-huddle hurry up offense that destroyed the Giants inside the 20s, but once St. Louis managed to get to the Green Zone the Giants nearly completely shut them down.  St. Louis did nearly all their damage to the Giants via the pass, as they never got anything sustained on the ground.

On the day, New York held the Rams running backs to just 44 total yards on 16 carries and limited QB Bradford to 3 scrambles for 15 yards.  The Rams converted just 1 first down rushing the ball all evening.

The passing game was another story all together.  Bradford, under pressure much of the night, still managed to throw for 331 yards on 22 completions in 46 attempts.  Bradford made some good throws, too, so it wasn’t always bad coverage.

Despite the no huddle up tempo charge by the Rams on their first two drives, the Giants continued to send the house on Bradford and that may well be why they were successful in defense close in to their goal line.  Although they only sacked Bradford twice, they officially hit him 9 times.  It sure seemed like it was more than that.

The Rams had 5 drives in which they gained more than 40 yards (4 that gained 60 yards or more) and came away with only 16 points.  On those 5 drives, the Rams ran 46 plays, averaging better than 8 plays per drive. On their other 7 drives, the Rams ran just 23 plays, suffering five 3 and outs, and netting just 30 yards. As said, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  In the critical 4th quarter, the Giants held the Rams to just 3 yards on 9 plays.  In fact, if you factor in penalty yardage the Rams actually lost 7 yards on 9 plays in the 4th.

Front 7: Never mind that they shut down the run nearly completely, the real story was the amount of pressure they were able to get on QB Sam Bradford all night.  In his return to action, Justin Tuck had one sack and shared another with DE Jason Pierre-Paul.  Tuck had 3 QB hits and was in on 5 total tackles.  The rest of the front 7 was busy as well as 4 different players (Tuck, Boley, JPP and Tollefson) recorded QB hits.  Greg Jones, Chris Canty, JPP and Tuck all recorded tackles behind the line of scrimmage (6 total).

The defensive line got a lot of help as the Giants blitzed often and from everywhere. Rocky Bernard, Canty and JPP also batted balls at the line of scrimmage.  It’s uncanny, though, that the Giants are able to deflect that many balls at the line and so rarely come away with an interception.  The ball always seems to fall within 1 or 2 yards of 3 or 4 Giant defenders.

The linebackers were excellent in run support, but they seemed lost quite often in coverage where the middle of the field was routinely left wide open.  Rookie MIKE linebacker Greg Jones made a couple of nice plays on the first Giants’ goal line stand, and SAM backer Michael Boley had a career game on Monday.  Boley got in on the  QB hit action, saved a touchdown with a pass defensed on which Aaron Ross had been beaten on an inside slant move, saved a first down deep in Giants territory (and possibly a touchdown) with a great open field tackle on a St/ Louis receiver short of the sticks, and alertly picked up a lateralled football and ran it back for the first defensive touchdown for the Giants in two years.  Boley also led the front 7 in tackles with 6.

Secondary: The back end of the Giants, a perceived strength at the onset of training camp, is beginning to look like a grade A liability.  A great breakdown of the long passes completed against the Giants can be found here, provided here by BBI Corner Forum contributor “Futurevoid.”

The fact is Aaron Ross is getting smoked on one play and looking like an All Pro on the next.  For the record, Ross had three very nice pass defenses on Monday night.  Unfortunately, he was also burned several times and if not for a timely jump by Michael Boley he’d have been the goat on another touchdown.  What’s most disturbing to me, however, isn’t that he gave up the completions but twice he failed to follow through on the play and touch the receiver down.  The first time, S Kenny Phillips chased down the receiver and saved a touchdown with an all out hustle play.  Not to single out Ross, but S Deon Grant also had an opportunity to touch down the receiver and neglected to do so.

Ross was eventually benched and Michael Coe substituted but did no better while he was in there, including giving up the only St. Louis touchdown on the evening to WR Denario Alexander after giving up a 4th and 6 completion to Mike Sims-Walker.

S Kenny Phillips had a pretty good game despite the fact that a lot of balls were caught over the middle.  As mentioned, he saved a touchdown by staying with the play after Alexander got up and continued the play after Ross and Grant failed to tag him down.  Phillips also had two passes defensed and was solid in run support and had a QB hit to go with his 4 tackles.

The other safeties, Grant and Tyler Sash were nearly invisible on the night.  Tyler Sash wasn’t even in on a single tackle and I don’t recall hearing his name except on specials where he did have a key play. More on that later. Then there’s BBI whipping boy Antrel Rolle who has been pressed to play in a situation he thought he wasn’t going to have to play in again this season.  It was said that Rolle would be playing a deeper rover look to allow his ball hawking skills to come out instead of asking him to cover in the slot and come down into the box to support the run more.  It’s just the way things turn out, and it’s not his fault he has to fill in for players that are not available.  Ideally, no way he’s playing as the third CB in the slot, but that’s how it goes.  Rolle didn’t have a pass defensed, but he did lead the team in tackles with 9 (8 solo) and forced a fumble that happened to roll out of bounds.  (Remember when Manningham fumbled on a similar play last year and instead of it rolling out of bounds it just sat there on the sideline?  As mentioned above, it seems those lucky breaks never go the Giants’ way).

The Giants have got to figure out what they’re trying to do in the back end, including how the linebackers can contribute in coverage or it’s going to be a long season.  They won’t always be facing teams that haven’t learned how to play inside the Green Zone.

Special Teams: Once again, the Giants suffered two 15 yard penalties on their coverage teams.  That is unacceptable.  Giving the Rams a gift and letting them out of a hole on their 5 yard line late in the game when you’re trying to kill their spirit is unforgivable.  The coverage teams were not bad, as S Tyler Sash made a great play to keep the ball away from rookie PR Greg Salas and giving Dave Tollefson the opportunity to recover the muff in Rams territory and leading to the Giants first touchdown.

Punting and kicking were both fine, though it would be better if Tynes would simply put the ball out of the endzone and don’t even worry about the returns.  Only 2 of 5 Tynes kickoffs reached the endzone and only 1 ended as a touchback.

The Giants return game with Devon Thomas is fine if for no other reason he only returns about 35% of the kickoffs.  As for the punt return game, it is once again in shambles due to the season ending injury to returner Dom Hixon.  Aaron Ross appears to be the heir apparent to the position but Jerrel Jernigan may be back in the mix.

Tynes hit all four of his extra point attempts and didn’t attempt a field goal.

Coaching: HC Tom Coughlin once again had two successful challenges on the night, both that I originally thought would go against him.  The first resulted in an incomplete pass and overturned a converted first down at the Giants’ 4 yard line and forced the Rams to settle for a field goal.  The second resulted in a 15 yard sack by Tuck, but even though the Rams were placed in a 2nd and 25 situation they converted.

It’s hard to argue with Coughlin going for the 1st down on 4th and 1 late in the game.  Pick up the yard and all they had to do was kneel out the game.  As for the 4th and 4 which turned into a first down due to a 23 yard catch by Nicks that was originally ruled out of bounds and Nicks interfered with, that’s a little more difficult to understand.  It worked, and it was at a critical juncture when the Giants were trying to establish momentum after recovering the muffed punt, but the play call is a head scratcher.  I’d rather see a play with a higher percentage of being successful being attempted.

DC Perry Fewell has a lot on his plate right now.  He did a great job of getting his plays in and his players in and out during the hurry up Rams offense early.  Had the Giants broken there, they could have been in a very quick 14-0 or 14-7 hole.  Who knows how this game would’ve ended up had St. Louis been able to build a lead.  His defense bent, but it only broke once.  Not only that, but as indicated above his defense completely shut down the Rams in the 4th quarter.

Final Thoughts: All of us at BBI are realists.  Well, MOST of us are realists.  The fact is, had this game been played against the Packers, Saints, or Patriots the field goals would not have been field goals and the mental mistakes made by the Rams probably don’t happen.  This would most likely have been a blow out.  As it is, the Giants have the Eagles next week in Philadelphia.  If the Rams’ wide receivers were that wide open, just imagine what Maclin, Smith, Jackson and company will do to this team?  The Giants have a couple more days to tighten things up and get ready for a team that has to be licking its chops after watching film this week.  No matter how you slice it, that was one of the least satisfying wins of the Tom Coughlin era.

(Box Score – St. Louis Rams at New York Giants, September 19, 2011)
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