Approach to the Game – Green Bay Packers at New York Giants, November 17, 2013: Despite the three-game winning streak, the 0-6 hole the Giants dug themselves in is so large and daunting that if one were to rationally focus on it, hope would quickly dissipate. So the goal – and challenge – for this team and its fans is to simply focus on one game at a time. Each victory brings a new lease on life. The specter of a loss is too grim to contemplate. Just win and get to 4-6. Live to fight another day.
Giants on Offense:
More games are lost in this league than are won. We must eliminate turnovers. You’re not going to beat anybody with [a turnover ratio of] minus-16. (Tom Coughlin, inaugural press conference, January 2004)
(The Giants’ turnover ratio currently stands at -13 with 17 interceptions and 11 fumbles for a total of 28 turnovers in nine games).
What the heck is wrong with Eli Manning? Everyone has an opinion. Some point to the offensive line… some to quarterback and receivers not being on the same page… some to the offensive scheme/play-calling… some say it’s just Manning playing like crap. There is probably truth in all of these explanations (excuses) and probably more. But the simple truth is the longer this sub-par quarterback play continues, the increased likelihood that the final season-ending loss will result. The Giants can only ride their defense and resurgent running game so far. In today’s game, your quarterback almost always has to out-play the opponent’s quarterback for you to win.
Eli Manning said something very interesting in his weekly WFAN radio interview. He said the Raiders continued to keep both safeties deep to play the pass, despite Andre Brown running for 115 yards (and the Giants running for 133 yards as a team). That strongly suggests that teams – at least the Raiders – still fear the Giants’ passing game more than their running game. That could change if Andre Brown and the other backs continue to be productive, but there is a certain logic in opponents using this strategy. For one, the Giants’ offensive line and tight ends are still shaky at best. How consistent can the Giants’ ground attack be in sustaining drives given the state of the offensive line and tight ends? And even if the Giants were more adequate in terms of talent and experience up front, in today’s NFL, the top offenses usually rely on big plays in the passing game to generate points. Ground and pound can win, but you usually won’t score a lot of points, and your defense and special teams have to be playing well to complement that style of football.
So the Giants face a bit of a dilemma. The emphasis on the running game and short-passing game has worked in recent weeks. But barely. And against sub-par opponents. And while the ground game seems to be improving, Eli & Company just don’t seem to be particularly adept at the short-passing game. Eli can’t throw a screen pass to save his life (literally and figuratively). He has little touch on short throws. The tight ends rarely seem to be a part of the game plan or at least targeted by Eli. Replays have shown that the Giants are missing golden opportunities for big pass plays on short throws to their backs and tight ends simply because they can’t execute these plays. Is it coaching? A fatal flaw in Eli’s game? Can it be fixed? If it can’t, then the Giants – for better or worse – are going to have to start putting more pressure on Beatty, Boothe, Cordle, Diehl, and Pugh to maintain their pass protection longer up front. And Eli has to start trusting receivers not named Victor Cruz more. Hakeem Nicks has to be a part of the solution. So does Rueben Randle and Brandon Myers. He can’t just throw to the double-covered Cruz when he is in desperate or in trouble. And when in doubt, take the sack.
My gut tells me that the Giants will only keep this winning streak going if Eli gets his head out of his ass and Cruz, Nicks, and Randle start becoming big play targets once again. That does not mean abandoning the running game. Balance the downfield passing game with the run. And it does not mean that the passing game has to center completely on deep shots way down the field. Cruz, Nicks, and Randle can all do damage after the catch. I would also still use Andre Brown and Peyton Hillis as receivers on a few plays. They have just missed on some huge plays to Hillis.
Pessimists will charge that the offensive line can’t do it. And/or they will say that Eli is playing scared and forcing throws because the unit’s previous and anticipated inability to protect him. If they are right… if the line can’t improve… if Eli’s psyche is too damaged this season… then the Giants are toast. But… if…just if… the line can improve steadily… and Eli accepts the hand he’s been dealt and focuses on the job that needs to be done and starts to carry this team again like he did in 2011, then Giants have a shot. Keep in mind, the offensive line wasn’t very good in 2011 either, and the rushing attack was terrible. So was the defense for much of the 2011 season. Eli has a better defense now and what is looking to be a better ground game. He just needs to get back to being the old Eli.
As for the Packers, a 3-4 defense, they are tougher up front than they are in the secondary. The corners are decent, but their safeties have given up some big plays. The one big pass rusher remains LB Clay Mathews, despite playing with a cast on his hand. LB A.J. Hawk is having an excellent season. The defensive line is big and talented, but a bit beat up. Dom Capers is still the defensive coordinator and he will send the blitz from all angles, as indicated by the fact that the Packers’ 23 sacks are spread out throughout the defensive unit. With that comes risk and opportunity. The Packers are going to take some chances on Sunday. Can Eli, his blockers, and receivers make them pay?
Giants on Defense: As I said, this unit looks stronger to me than the 2011 version. It’s becoming sounder, more consistent. What’s missing is the 2011 version of Jason Pierre-Paul to put it over the top. JPP looked ready to break out against the Raiders before he hurt his shoulder. If his shoulder injury is serious, or if he starts to sulk and let it get to him mentally, then the defense probably can’t take that next step. Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka are playing better, but they are not difference makers. JPP can be the difference maker up front. It is uncertain if JPP will be able to play against the Packers, and even if he does, how effective he will be?
The game plan against the Packers is obvious. Stop rookie RB Eddie Lacy. He’s a big, powerful back with good instincts and he has given the Packers a running game that they have lacked in recent years. Last week against the Raiders, with the outside threat QB Terrelle Pryor represented, the Giants looked much softer in the middle of the defense against RB Rashad Jennings. What is worrisome is Lacy and Jennings are similar in style. However, I anticipate the Giants’ run defense to rebound strongly as QB Scott Tolzien isn’t the threat Pryor was to run the ball, so the Giants can focus more completely on Lacy. I also don’t think it sat well with Beason & Company to see Jennings do as well as he did last week.
Defensively, to me this game comes down to the Giants’ ability or inability to ground the Packers’ passing attack. We Giants fans know not to take any back-up quarterback lightly. Tolzien is not the kind of guy you want starting in this league. He’s not big, he’s not mobile, he lacks a strong arm… but he is very smart, he really studies, he’s mentally and physically tough, and he’s very confident in his ability to lead an offensive team. Plus, he’s in the right system for a quarterback that lacks a canon for an arm and with the right coaching staff who likely will game-plan around his strengths. In short, Tolzien is no Aaron Rodgers, but the Giants would be foolish to take him lightly. Reports out of Green Bay say he has having a sharp week in practice. With the Giants gearing up to stop Lacy, play-action could be a problem for New York. The pressure will be on the linebackers and safeties to make good decisions.
The good news is that Tolzien is small and immobile. The Giants should be able to bring the heat and not worry about him scrambling with the football. And though Tolzien is very smart and studies hard, Perry Fewell may be able to confuse him with different looks. Because of his style of game (lack of strong arm) and concerns about the Giants’ pass rush, look for quick passes to the backs and tight ends. I’d be very wary about the screen game. And it would not shock me if the Packers have a trick play in their back pocket. When Tolzien throws down the field, he has a number of good targets, but none more dangerous than Jordy Nelson, who is having a great season. I’d like to keep Prince Amukamara on Nelson. This is the kind of opponent who Amukamara can really make a name for himself if he covers Nelson well. But James Jones and Jarrett Boykin are no slouches either, and like Nelson, they are averaging over 15 yards per catch. With or without Rodgers, this is still a dangerous passing attack.
The Packers are a bit banged up on the offensive line, but their injured players are expected to play this week. They are a big and physical group, but they can be vulnerable on the pass rush.
So the number one challenge is to stop Lacy. Be wary of play-action and the short-passing game, especially screens. The Giants need to play physical against the run, but they have to play smart against the pass.
Giants on Special Teams:
Special teams and winning the battle for field position must become our catalyst for victory and not our Achilles’ heel. (Tom Coughlin, inaugural press conference, January 2004)
The Giants are arguably the worst special teams unit in the NFL. Just when you think it can’t get worse, some new hole appears. The kickers seemed to be getting back on track until Steve Weatherford had probably his worst day as a Giant, averaging only 30 yards per punt. I’m not sure anymore why Jerrel Jernigan is on the team. He certainly isn’t a reliable kick returner. Rueben Randle flashes as a punt returner, but continues to make poor decisions on when to field punts (especially inside the 10-yard line). As we all know, the Giants have given up three punt returns for touchdowns this year. This week they face Micah Hyde, who is third in the NFL in punt returns, averaging over 15 yards per return. Watch out for a trick play on special teams if the Packers’ offense struggles (fake punt or field goal, onsides kick, etc.).