Buffalo Bills 23 – New York Giants 20 (OT)

Overview: So close! A break here or there and the Giants come away from a win. Examples? The Giants forced three fumbles (two on sacks and one on special teams), but couldn’t come up with the ball; Howard Cross dropped a sure TD pass; Rodney Hampton was one ankle tackle from scoring on a long TD run on the first drive; Thomas Lewis drops what could have been a dramatic, last minute TD bomb from Dave Brown; if Thomas Randolph doesn’t jump and instead runs right at Jim Kelly and sacks him during his pass rush on 3rd-and-long in the 4th quarter, the Bills don’t tie the game; if the offensive line gives Brown just a little more time in the second half…if, if, if…the truth of the matter is that the Giants’ offense let the rest of the team down. The defense was magnificent, and the Giants outplayed the Bills on special teams. Just as important, Dan Reeves and Mike Nolan clearly out-coached Marv Levy and his staff. What a wonderful game plan on both sides of the ball! This loss hurts, and we are not really sure how this young team will react…the coaching staff probably doesn’t either. Close doesn’t cut it and no matter what kind of face you put on this game, the Giants are still 0-1 and have to play the World Champions on their home field next week. But if the Giants give this kind of effort week-in-and-week-out and Reeves and his staff continue to come up with game plan masterpieces like in this game, then the Giants will not be as bad as predicted this year.

Quarterback: Simply put, Dave was mediocre. At times, he looked pretty darn good, such as his early slant to Lawrence Dawsey on the opening drive, his 3rd-and-2 pass to Howard Cross, and his short passes to FB Charles Way with rushers in his face. His ball handling was again excellent and he didn’t make any ill-advised throws. He also wasn’t helped by two HUGE drops by Howard Cross and Thomas Lewis — both which would have been for scores and both would have effectively won the game for the Giants. However, Dave was off a few of passes to receivers. He threw behind Cross and Lewis on a couple of throws. Plus, as the game wore on, Brown looked less and less comfortable in the pocket and more and more gun-shy. Now it’s true that the offensive line didn’t give him much time, especially in the second half, but Brown held onto the ball longer than he should of on a number of occasions. He’s got to drop back, make a quick read, and get rid of the ball. He can’t dance around back there and take a big loss. He made a horrible throw on 3rd-and-long when he could have ran for the first down. The defense time and time again halted the Bills and gave the Giants’ offense excellent field position, but Brown and his offensive teammates couldn’t do anything with the ball. What’s worse, too often in the second half, it was three-and-out for the offense…an offense that only generated 3 points in the second half…3 points that were basically handed to them by Phillippi Sparks’ interception deep in Bills territory. The Giants only managed 89 yards and five first downs after halftime. Dave has to do better.

Wide Receivers: Disappointing. Granted, the offensive game plan with its emphasis on the running game and short passes to Charles Way and the tight ends did not provide a lot of opportunities for the receivers, but when given a chance, the receivers didn’t come up big. Thomas Lewis made a couple of nice grabs, one a deep out on play action and one intermediate route over the middle, but his drop of a very good deep Dave Brown pass late in the 4th quarter probably cost the Giants the game. He’s a former first round draft pick and a starting WR in the NFL, he’s got to make that play. Aside from his one reception early in the game, Dawsey was not heard from again and Chris Calloway was invisible (his streak of 41 games with a catch was broken). Toomer looked like he had a step on a Bills’ defender deep on one play, but Brown was unfortunately hit as he was getting rid of the ball. On more than a few occasions, Brown held onto the ball too long in the pocket and was sacked or forced to throw the ball away…much of this we blame on Brown, but we also have a feeling that the WR’s didn’t do a very good job of getting open on some of these plays.

Halfbacks: Hampton wasn’t helped very much by the offensive line or play calling. His best run of the night was a cutback, left-side run on the first drive, where he came so close to scoring. He had a couple of other nice inside runs, but for the most part, he was bottled up pretty effectively by the Bills, and particularly ILB Chris Spielman. We appreciate the dilemma Reeves was in…if he ran on first down, he was playing right into the Bills’ defensive strategy of playing the run on first down…however, if he passed on first down, he would have exposed his young offensive tackles to two of the premiere pass rushers in the game. That being said, we would have liked to see Reeves to take a few more chances, especially in the first half when the Giants were provided with excellent field position. On every possession in the first half, except for one, the Giants ran the ball on first down — for no or little gain each time. The one time the Giants ran play-action on first down, the pass was easily completed (a 6-yard pass to Aaron Pierce). The Bills merely focused on stuffing Hampton on first down and this strategy largely succeeded for them — there were just too many guys to block on many occasions. Ty Wheatley had a very nice inside run for decent yardage in the second quarter, but his outside runs were snuffed out by the Bills’ defense for losses. He also missed Bryce Paup on a blitz — he has to make that block. Keith Elias continues to flop as a 3rd down back and did nothing to help the offense.

Tight Ends/Fullbacks: Charles Way is a player! Last year, he showed that he was a monster lead blocker and late in the year against San Diego, he proved that he could become an effective weapon catching the ball out of the backfield. Against the Bills, he was the Giants’ best offensive weapon as he caught a number of short swing passes for good yardage — one an outstanding 37 yard catch and run for the Giants’ only offensive TD of the night. Way is so big and powerful that small defensive backs are afraid to tackle him. He has soft hands, a little wiggle, and most importantly, he doesn’t fool around and heads right for the endzone. Howard Cross blocked pretty well as usual and made a nice catch on a big 3rd-and-2 pass from Dave Brown, but he dropped a sure TD pass. Cross has always been a superior blocker with questionable hands — but as a starting TE in the NFL, he has to make that catch. On another pass intended for him, he didn’t even look like he expected the ball to be thrown to him…another “no, no.” Aaron Pierce wasn’t involved much in the offense, but did make one catch for six yards.

Offensive Line: Not a good opening debut for this group at all. We expected the line to have problems with the very talented front seven of the Bills and this in fact proved to be the case. In the first half, the conservative play-calling kept the line off of Dave Brown, but the Bills effectively shut down the Giants running game on first down, and did exert just enough pass pressure to throw off the passing game. On almost every 3rd down, there was a Bills’ pass rusher right in Dave Brown’s face. In the second half, the Bills gained complete control of the line of scrimmage and the Giants’ passing and running game never had a chance. Greg Bishop and Rob Zatechka kept Bruce Smith quiet in the first half, but Bruce dominated these two in the second half. Smith’s sack of Brown (against Zatechka) and forced fumble set up the Bills’ winning score in overtime. And no one could keep ILB Chris Spielman under control. If one player continually frustrated the Giants running game all night, it was Spielman. This will become a very good offensive line, but until they mature, the Giants’ offense is bound for some rough moments in 1996.

Defensive Linemen: Wow! Did the defense come ready to play or what! Mike Nolan called a wonderful game, but we’ll get to that when we cover the linebackers and defensive backs. Up front, LDE Michael Strahan, LDT Robert Harris, RDT Keith Hamilton, and RDE Chad Bratzke controlled the line of scrimmage against the run and were in Jim Kelly’s face all night. On the second play from scrimmage, Strahan and Bratzke sandwiched Kelly for a sack. On the third play, Strahan and Harris ran a great stunt and clobbered Kelly inside the five yard line and forced a fumble (which the Bills unfortunately recovered). All four players had their pass rush moments in the game and Strahan and Hamilton did an excellent job against the running game all night. Bratzke got good penetration and nailed Kelly a couple of times as he got rid of the ball. He also did a great job of nailing a WR reverse in the backfield. Hamilton was a disruptive force in the middle — he just has to tackle better. In the second half, Hamilton sacked Kelly on a first-and-goal play that helped to prevent a TD. Unfortunately, after the Giants went up 17-0 in the second quarter, Nolan brought in Ray Agnew, Bernard Holsey, and Cedric Jones and the Bills promptly marched down the field and scored a TD. Agnew seems to be regressing to us. He’s the Giants’ worst pass rusher on the line and we don’t understand bringing him into the game when it was clear when the Bills would be going up top right before half to try to come up with at least one TD. Holsey and Jones are two rookies who just don’t have a clue yet. Jones is known for his quickness, but he seemed to be half second late out of his stance on every play. The Giants need Cedric to play well, but so far he’s been a big bust. He needs to stop thinking and reacting so much, and just attack the line of scrimmage like he did at Oklahoma. Finally, please, please, please…we hope Strahan accepts the Giants’ new contract offer!

Linebackers: Masterful! Someone must have kidnapped the real Mike Nolan and Giants’ LB’s and replaced them with impostors. Nolan ran just about every blitz in the book and on just about every down…he brought the outside linebackers, he brought the middle linebackers, he brought the corners, he brought just about everything except the kitchen sink and it worked great. We’d rather get burned for a 60-yard TD (which the Giants did) and play an aggressive, attack-style of defense, than get slowly bled to death with a conservative bend-but-don’t-break defense any day. In the former, the defense builds its confidence and develops an attitude. In the latter, you lose field position and the players develop non-aggressive attitude. Jessie Armstead and Corey Miller played their best games as pros. Armstead (14 tackles) was all over the field. He tipped one Kelly pass on a blitz and sacked him on 3rd down on another. He sniffed out a screen pass to Thomas and nailed him as he was trying to catch the ball and almost came up with an interception on the play. He was a hitting and tacking machine all night as he punished receivers. His pass coverage was excellent. Thank God the Giants just signed him to a contract extension. Nolan let Miller do what Miller does best and that is rush the passer. In the first half, he stuffed Thomas on the first play of the game and forced a bad throw from Kelly on a screen. In the second half, he really exploded as he came up with two sacks. Inside Corey Widmer played a solid, but not great game. He still has some problem navigating through traffic and disengaging from interior linemen inside, but the Bills’ running game wasn’t much of a factor on Sunday night. In pass coverage, Widmer was usually near his man. Against both the run and the pass, he tackled well. If we had one problem with Nolan’s game plan, it was keeping Widmer in on pass coverage on 3rd-and-long late in the game. Ever hear of situational substitution?

Defensive Backs: When you live by the blitz, you sometimes die by the blitz and the Giants’ DB’s had an up-and-down game. To be fair, a ton of pressure was exerted upon them by the fact that they were left back there by themselves as Nolan sent blitz after blitz after Kelly. The Giants played more man-to-man than we can ever remember and the DB’s youth and aggressiveness which served them well, was also their achilles heel. In the first half, Sparks (once) and Sehorn (three times) were beaten deep, but only one of the passes was completed. Sehorn played well at times. He had great coverage on an out pattern to Tasker and absolutely crushed Kelly on a blitz where Kelly fumbled (unfortunately the Bills recovered again). However, in the first half he was beaten deep three times — one pass was overthrown; and one he made a great, last second dive to tip the ball away; yet the other one was completed and set up a Thomas TD run. We still don’t think he is the answer, but at least he made some plays. In the second half, both Sparks and Sehorn were beaten deep on back-to-back plays for big yardage, setting up a field goal. Later in the 4th quarter, both were beaten again, but both balls were overthrown by Kelly. When Sparks first came into the league, he couldn’t tackle anyone. However, he’s become one of the Giants’ most aggressive and sure tacklers. He nailed Bills’ runners and receivers all night with solid, aggressive tackles and largely shut down his man in pass coverage. In the second half, he made an incredible interception and came one tackle away from almost scoring on the play (an another “what if”). Thomas Randolph played well when he played and almost came up with an interception in the first half. His biggest faux pas was leaving his feet as he was blitzing Kelly on a 3rd-and-long play. If he didn’t go for the pump fake and just went for the sack, he probably would have sacked Kelly and the Bills may have never tied the game. Tito Wooten played aggressively but didn’t make much of an impact. Jesse Campbell made a couple of solid tackles and nailed the TE on one play, but took the wrong angle on Reed’s long TD catch and run.

Special Teams: Remarkably, the Giants outplayed the Bills on special teams. Amani Toomer scored on the longest punt return in Giants’ history (87 yards) even though he received absolutely no blocking on the play. DeCamillas has to get his troops to block better on punt and kick returns. Toomer and Wheatley had no chance on kick returns. Toomer also made a big mistake in calling for a fair catch and fielding a punt inside the five yard line late in the 4th quarter. The Giants’ kick and punt return coverage units played well. Daluiso nailed many of his kicks into the endzone and when they were returned, the Giants were down in a hurry (Marcus Buckley and Rodney Young in particular on one return). His one kick out of bounds was a big “No, No” and gave the Bills excellent field position on one of their TD-scoring drives. Rodney also forced a fumble on one punt return in the 4th quarter, but the Giants again could not come up with the ball. Corey Widmer did recover one Bills “fumble” on specials when a bad Horan punt touched one of the Bills’ players. Daluiso also made both of his field go chances. Mike Horan did a superb job kicking the ball inside the 20, but also had a couple of awful punts.

Coaching: We would have preferred to see play-action from the Giants on first down in the first half of the game, especially given the field position the Giants were given through the half. However, it is tough to criticize the game plan put in by Reeves and Nolan. Reeves’ use of Way really surprised the Bills and the Giants also ran a very nicely designed reverse to Calloway that was well defended, but looked like a good play. The Giants also used a lot of deception by pulling their linemen in one direction, then throwing to the other side. We also credit Reeves with becoming more aggressive once the game was tied late in the 4th quarter and in overtime, allowing Brown to start throwing deep. As for Nolan, we hope he doesn’t put away his defensive game plan and go back to his old conservative self. When you blitz as often as the Giants did, you will get burned and you will lose games, but you will also force turnovers and create good field position for your offense — we believe this style wins more games than it loses. Most importantly, we believe it creates an air of confidence and an “attitude” with the defensive players. For all the coaches, it will be critical for them to positively reinforce the players after this game and help them keep their heads up. Close doesn’t count for much in this league, but they did almost beat what we consider the best team in the NFL.