The Approach to the Game – New York Giants at Baltimore Ravens, August 2, 1997: Here we go! The first game under the new Jim Fassel regime. For the players, they can finally beat up on somebody else besides their teammates. Since the Giants are just learning their new offensive and defensive systems, the coaching staff will probably keep things mostly vanilla. On offense, Fassel is slowly but surely installing his new system, but it will take time for the players to become comfortable with it. On defense, Defensive Coordinator John Fox’s new aggressive defense will be under the spotlight. He too will most likely keep things basic as he doesn’t want to give away too many of the Giants’ new wrinkles. It is important for most fans to realize that the first preseason game is more of a glorified scrimmage and that the team is not likely to look sharp as it has just begun its ascent on the learning curve.
The Giants on Offense: The “West Coast” offense makes it debut in New York. Get ready for a more sophisticated passing offense that entails more throwing to running backs and tight ends. Fassel has also just begun to implement a system that also should get the ball to receivers while they are moving forward, and thus, dramatically increase the yardage gained after the catch. The Giant quarterbacks will be provided with a number of options on each and every passing play. If the primary receiver is covered, the quarterbacks will be able to dump the ball off to a number of shorter receivers. Routes are designed to create mismatches and confusion amongst the opposition. The new offense is definitely more “finesse” than Giant fans have become accustomed too. Fassel’s system is very much based on rhythm and timing — the style of football that Bill Walsh became famous for in San Francisco.
Key to the success of this offense will be the play of the quarterbacks, most notably starter Dave Brown. Dave has been immersed in the new system since Fassel took over in the spring, but the learning process will take a lot longer than a few months. It took such fine quarterbacks as Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Brett Favre a couple of years to become totally comfortable with the “West Coast” offense. Brown has looked very good at times in camp, but he has also had his setbacks. He needs to improve his overall play in a consistent fashion. Because he is not totally comfortable with the offense yet, there has been hesitation in his play at camp. Hesitation can kill one in an offense based on timing and rhythm, yet only experience and playing time will allow him to become more comfortable. It also wouldn’t hurt if Brown started to win the support and confidence of his teammates by making plays on the field. Such support and success would undoubtably help his own confidence and self-esteem, leading to a snowball effect.
Brown is expected to play about a quarter and a half on Saturday. The bulk of the remaining playing time will go to Danny Kanell. If Dave Brown does not pan out this year, Kanell might very well be the Giants starting quarterback in 1998. Kanell doesn’t have the arm that Brown does, but he is a very instinctive quarterback who’s skills may be well suited for the new offense. Most importantly, Kanell has not received the physical and psychological beating that Dave has had to face in recent years. Rookie Mike Cherry may also play, but is a couple of years away from contention for a starting position.
Also under the spotlight on Saturday will be the offensive line which has been re-vamped on the left side. OG Greg Bishop has been shifted from left tackle to left guard and second-year man Roman Oben now starts at left tackle. Bishop also faces tough competition from Lance Smith and Rob Zatechka for his starting spot. Due to injury (Brian Williams) and holdout (Adam Schreiber), the center position is currently a mess. OG/OC/OT Jerry Reynolds will start, despite not being very experienced at the position. Rookie Derek Engler, a rather ordinary rookie free agent, backs him up. The right side is more settled with OG Ron Stone and OT Scott Gragg. Also trying to make a statement on Saturday will be back-ups RT Deron Thorp and LT Alan Kline. Because of the problems at center and the transition on the left side, the line may struggle quite a bit against Baltimore.
As for the skill positions, the focus will be on the young guns at wide receiver, tight end, and running back. Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard are trying to win Thomas Lewis’ and Chris Calloway’s starting jobs. David Patten, Kevin Alexander, Omar Douglas, and Alfonzo Browning are all competing for the final fifth or sixth roster spot at receiver. At tight end, Howard Cross is attempting to beat off the challenge from Aaron Pierce. Rodney Hampton’s knee injury also will allow HB’s Tyrone Wheatley and Tiki Barber to show their stuff. At fullback, the competition for the back-up fullback spot is a dead heat between Eric Lane and Matt Calhoun.
The Giants on Defense: The Ravens have a very good offense and they should provide the new-look defense with a good challenge. John Fox has promised to implement a more attacking defense that provides greater freedom (and responsibility) to the defensive players. Pass rushers will be given more freedom to rush the passer, defensive backs will be allowed to play more aggressively, and linebackers can call defensive audibles. These changes will increase the chances for big plays, both for the Giants and the opposition. Besides the new system, the biggest change for the Giants this year on defense is the addition of Christian Peter to the defensive tackle rotation, the replacement of Jesse Campbell with Maurice Douglass at strong safety, and greater depth at linebacker.
In a 4-3 defense, it all starts up front with the defensive line. The defensive tackle position looks very much improved this year with the addition of Christian Peter as well as the continued development of Keith Hamilton, who has played well in camp along with Peter, and Robert Harris, who has the physical tools to excel. Hamilton and Harris will start, but Peter is pushing Harris for a starting job and will play a great deal this season regardless. A fierce fight is developing for the final DT spot between Bernard Holsey (who seems to have the lead), Darnell Gilliard, Ramon Okoli, and Matt Keneley. Every preseason game is critically important for these gentlemen.
At defensive end, much of the focus will be on Cedric Jones, the fifth player taken in the 1996 draft. Jones is healthy for the first time in his brief Giant career and the Giants will be looking for him to add to the pass rush this year. Jones has had a very quiet camp thus far. Unfortunately, Jamal Duff (hamstring) is not healthy and he probably won’t play on Saturday. Starters Michael Strahan and Chad Bratzke get more freedom to rush the passer, but will be facing two outstanding OT’s in Jonathan Ogden and Orlando Brown.
The starting linebacking group is set with Corey Miller, Corey Widmer (who has had a great camp), and Jessie Armstead. However, the play of the back-ups will be worth watching. Pete Monty and Doug Colman have the tools to eventually replace Widmer down the road as does Jason Phillips with respect to Corey Miller. Marcus Buckley has been moved back to the weakside by the new coaching staff and seems to be reborn. Scott Galyon is an excellent cover man from the weakside.
In the secondary, the only real question is who to keep at strong safety and who starts at free safety. At cornerback, Phillippi Sparks, Jason Sehorn, Thomas Randolph, and Conrad Hamilton will make the team. Kory Blackwell will be battling Marc Williams for a practice squad birth. At free safety, Tito Wooten and Percy Ellsworth both will make the squad, but who starts? Tito seems to be ahead right now. At strong safety, a fierce competition is brewing for three roster spots. Rookie SS Sam Garnes won’t start, but he has been impressive and will make the team. Favored starter Maurice Douglass is attempting to fend off Rodney Young and Picasso Nelson. The Ravens have some very good receivers and a dangerous passing attack. This game will be a good test for the Giants’ more aggressive approach.
The Giants on Special Teams: The biggest change here is the replacement of Mike Horan with Brad Maynard. Maynard has the tools to become a Pro Bowl player. Brad Daluiso doesn’t really face any competition this year. The Giants will be looking for dramatic improvement among their coverage teams this year and a number of rookies will be trying to make the roster through their play here. The Giants also have to nail down who their punt (Toomer, Barber, Lewis, Calloway?) and kick (Hamilton, Patten, Wheatley, Walker?) returners will be this year.
The Outlook: Don’t read too much into this game! The first preseason game is usually very sloppy and the Giants have a lot to learn. However, it would be nice to see some positive play from Dave Brown, Tyrone Wheatley, Roman Oben, Greg Bishop, Aaron Pierce, Amani Toomer, and Cedric Jones.