Dec 012000
 

Approach to the Game – New York Giants at Washington Redskins, December 3, 2000: Why do we love football so much? I think there are a number of different psychological factors at play. In many ways, for men, it has become one of the very few socially acceptable “fixes” for the natural warlike tendency of our species. You want evidence? Look at the terminology that is associated with the game. The game is played by “warriors” who battle it out in the “trenches”. The offense is led by a “field general” who helps to direct both a “ground and air attack” against a “determined defense”. There are “blitzes”, “shotguns”, “screens”, and “gunners”. There certainly is a lot of testosterone flowing.

But I also think there is something equally as large at work here: a sense of connectivity and belonging. When a bunch of us fans congregate at training camp each summer, there is plenty of non-football discussion. But inevitably, the talk comes back to those favorite or dreaded moments and players. We may forget our mates birthday, but we’ll be damned if we forget “The Fumble”, “The Pass”, or “The Drive”. Then there are those games – both good and bad – that stay with us. Games such as the overtime season finale against Dallas in 1981 where Joe Danelo got a second chance; Jim Jeffcoat’s interception return for a touchdown in Dallas in 1985 that cost us the division; the destruction of the 49er’s, Redskins, and Broncos in the post-season in 1986; Al Toon’s catch in the waning seconds of the game in 1988 that cost the Giants another division title; Gary Reason’s stop on the goal line in Denver that saved the season in 1989; the miracle games against the 49ers and Bills in the 1990 post-season; the late-season OT loss to Dallas in 1993 that cost us the division; the mauling of the Redskins in 1997 that won the division; etc., etc. It is the memory of those moments and our sharing of those moments with fellow believers that enable us to feel connected to others. We feel that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves – the same type of dynamic at play in religious and political movements.

For better or worse, we are approaching one of those moments on Sunday in a place called FedEx Field against Washington Redskins, the defending NFC East Champions and Superbowl favorite heading into the 2000 season. For the Giants, so very much is at stake: any chance of winning the division, the inside track on any kind of playoff appearance, the job of the head coach and all of his assistants, and the fate of many current players. For the Redskins, their playoff hopes will be on life support if they lose and their coach will be fired shortly after the season ends. Who knows if the loser will ever be this close again for several years? High stakes indeed.

But you’ve got to love a game like this. This is a perfect “David versus Goliath” scenario. The Giants will be playing a more talented team in a hostile environment. “The Giants can’t beat good teams.” “The Giant coaches will be out-coached again.” Few think that the Giants have it within them to win this game. But this just adds more drama to the moment.

The Giants can win this football game. The boo-birds are all ready to come out on Sunday if the Redskins struggle early. It won’t be easy. Despite what their critics say, the Redskins are still loaded with star talent. Their defense is excellent, they can run and pass the football on offense, and their special teams can win games (just ask the Rams). What the Giants need is to come out and play a smarter, tougher, and more physical football game. They also need their star players to come out and play like stars. I think this game will be decided in the trenches and by the play of the quarterbacks. The Giants also need to at least break even on special teams.

Finally, the combined coaching staff of the Giants must put together a winning game plan. Norv Turner has had Defensive Coordinator John Fox’s number in recent games. Offensive Coordinator Sean Payton’s game plan was not inspiring at the last meeting either. Will this be Jim Fassel’s Waterloo? Or will it be his Gettysburg? Just a couple of more days and we’ll have the answer.

Giants on Offense: The Skins are averaging giving up less than 17 points a game so the Giants must make every opportunity count. New York is in a tough spot here. Ike Hilliard is going to be sorely missed. Without him, it is difficult to imagine the Giant receivers being any kind of consistent factor against the likes of cornerbacks Champ Bailey, Deion Sanders, and Darrell Green. That does not mean that the Giants can or should ignore the down-field passing game; I just don’t think they will make a living off of it.

So how do you game plan against the Skins? Well first, let’s look at what their game plan will be. Defensive Coordinator Ray Rhodes believes that if you take away the Giants’ running game and make the Giants one-dimensional that QB Kerry Collins will not be able to win the game by with his right arm. And to be honest, Collins has bee unable to disprove this notion around the league. So the last thing the Redskins will want to let the Giants do is to easily run the football on first and second down. The likelihood that the Redskins will stack the line of scrimmage is only enhanced by the fact that Washington is convinced that their corners can not be beaten by the Giants’ wide receivers – and history has not disproved this notion either. We know how the Skins will play the Giants: they’ll attack the line aggressive to stuff the run and come after Kerry Collins.

If the Giants run the ball, they will be playing right into Washington’s strategy. It certainly would be the safer route to go. And honestly, there is a possibility that it could still work. If the Giants’ offensive line, tight ends, and FB Greg Comella are more physical and execute better than the defenders on the Skins and if Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne play at the top of their game, then the Giants may be able to pound the ball regardless. They did run it fairly well against the Skins during the last meeting. But I still think the Giants have to keep the Redskins off-balance a bit by throwing early. This is a far riskier strategy as it is prone to more traumatic errors (i.e., sacks and interceptions). What I would do is come out with a short-drop, quick release game. Get the ball to TE Pete Mitchell, FB Greg Comella, and HB Tiki Barber. Hit Amani Toomer and Joe Jurevicius on slants where they can use their size to an advantage. Don’t let Collins think too much. Maybe take a shot deep early with Ron Dixon. Get those linebackers and safeties to take a couple of steps backwards, then hit them with the run.

This kind of strategy will put an immense amount of pressure on Kerry Collins. It may be unfair and I may be proven incorrect by game’s end, but I think this is Kerry’s game to win or lose. Can he handle that type of pressure? Remember how much is at stake. History says no. But rightfully or wrongfully, I think I would sink or swim (at least early) with Collins. Kerry, for his part, has to go out there and just say, “F*ck it.” Don’t worry about making mistakes; just pretend that he is back at Penn State leading his team to a national championship. Live for the pressure, crave it…because it is those quarterbacks who succeed despite the pressure who go down in history as the great ones. He has to stop overthrowing receivers on deep throws too…if a guy gets open deep, hit him.

Whether the Giants pass or run, the game will ultimately be decided in the trenches too. Giants-Redskins games are always physical affairs and the team that is tougher for four quarters generally prevails. The Redskins have two excellent defensive ends in Bruce Smith (9 sacks) and Marco Coleman (11 sacks) and the pressure will be on LT Lomas Brown and RT Luke Petitgout, respectively, to match their intensity and performance. Inside, the battles are between defensive tackles Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson and guards Glenn Parker and Ron Stone. DT/DE Kenard Lang comes in on third down to rush the passer effectively. Throw OC Derek Zeigler, FB Greg Comella, TE Dan Campbell, TE Howard Cross, SLB LaVar Arrington, MLB Derek Smith, and WLB Shawn Barber into the mix, and this is where the fate of the running game will be determined. The linebackers are very active so I wouldn’t do much outside running on these guys unless you scheme to confuse them. Smith is a sure tackler and Arrington and Barber are very athletic players who love to run to the ball. The problem is that the Giants operate a more finesse blocking system so they will probably play more into the strength of the linebackers.

But let’s not forget the runners themselves, Tiki Barber needs to hold onto the ball and break off some big runs. Ron Dayne needs to play his best game as a pro. You’re no longer a rookie Ron – you’ve played 16 games counting the preseason. It’s time to prove your Heisman ability on the pro gridiron and take over a game. Impose your will on the defense. Make it impossible for Sean Payton not to keep calling your number. Win the game.

Giants on Defense: The bad news is that Norv Turner seems to have John Fox’s defense figured out. Unless Fox adapts, then the Giants won’t win. Turner loves to find a weakness in the Giants’ coverage and just keep plugging away at it. In 1998, it was going after the linebackers with his backs and tight ends, in 1999 it was throwing at Jeremy Lincoln, in 2000 it was isolating the Giants’ safeties. Then there have been those games where it has gotten real ugly because the Giants couldn’t stop HB Stephen Davis.

What should the Giants do? Be aggressive, but risky, and come after the running game and QB Brad Johnson or play a safer, bend-but-don’t-break-type of game? That’s a tough call…probably the answer will lie in between and Fox will most likely keep switching things up as he usually does. The argument for attacking the line with your linebackers and blitzing is that you are more apt to disrupt the running game and put pressure on Johnson. But this makes you more vulnerable to those mismatches in the secondary that Turner and Johnson seem to always find. Is it better to die slowly or quickly? Hopefully it won’t come to that.

I think what I would do is hope that my base front seven can handle the run against a banged up Davis (broken forearm) and an offensive line missing RG Tre Johnson. Like on offense, this game will be decided in the trenches. The huge match-ups are DT Keith Hamilton versus LG Keith Sims and DE Michael Strahan versus RT Jon Jansen. Lose these battles and the Giants won’t win. But DT Christian Peter, DT/DE Cornelius Griffin, and DE Cedric Jones need to at least show up and put forth a professional performance. A big play or two from Peter or Jones in particular would be very much appreciated. Yes Jones is facing the super-talented Chris Samuels – but the guy is still a rookie. The Giants need Jones to play stout run defense as they are sure to test WLB Jessie Armstead and CB Jason Sehorn in run defense (you know they want to hit Jason in the ribs). Thus Jones’ play – even just against the run – could be decisive. Peter and Griffin might be able to make some headway against the cagy, but older Jay Leeuwenburg at right guard. Mark Fischer is also a reserve-type of guy. Simply put, the front four has to get it done. They have to play quicker, faster, and be more physical.

Linebacker play is also key. TE Stephen Alexander and FB Larry Centers (knee injury that might limit him) are quality receivers. James Jenkins could also be a surprise option (Norv had done this to the Giants in the past as well). Turner may test SLB Ryan Phillips quite a bit in coverage. All three linebackers must be aware of play-action, but they also must come up forcefully against the run. It’s time for Jessie Armstead to take over a game. If he wants to go to the playoffs, he has to lead the way. This is his team. Mike Barrow can make an impact too, but he must remain disciplined and not get caught out of position. The Redskins love to run reverses and everyone must be cognizant of that fact.

Then there are the big match-ups in the secondary. Michael Westbrook is out for the season, but WR Albert Connell and WR James Thrash have been playing remarkably well. And WR Irving Friar always seems to play well against the Giants regardless of what team he is playing on. Connell (knee) is ailing, but may see limited time in the game. The starting corners of Dave Thomas and Jason Sehorn will be on the spot. Sehorn because he will probably be called to cover guys by himself and Thomas because Turner will undoubtably test him repeatedly. But the two guys who I think may decide the fate of the pass defense are FS Shaun Williams (who played terribly the last time these two teams met) and SS Sam Garnes (who the Redskins successfully isolated against a wide receiver for a touchdown in the first game). Turner will scheme to confuse the secondary again and create mismatches. The coaching staff and secondary must come together to find a way to prevent this or, at the very least, execute properly and defeat those intentions. This will probably also be a big game for nickel corner Emmanual McDaniel – he may be locked up on the likes of WR Andre Reed. All of these guys need to tackle well. Sehorn is in a tough spot because of his injury so the others must compensate.

I really think one of the keys to the game is to frustrate the Redskin passing offense early. QB Brad Johnson is not well-supported in Washington right now and the boo birds will be out if he can’t move the team. This can only help the Giants’ cause. Don’t give up any cheap big plays – especially early. Play sound and aggressive defense. Be wary of misdirection and be the more physical team. Do this and win the turnover battle and the Giants will win the game. (Oh, and if the Skins pull Johnson – don’t let that old back-up quarterback jinx take effect with Jeff George).

Finally, we all know that the Giants’ main defensive performers have to play well. But games like this are often decided by the unexpected – that one player who everyone forgot about who made a key play or two. There is an opportunity here for a defender such as Shaun Williams, Ryan Phillips, or Christian Peter to make their mark.

Special Teams: Nobody has respect for the Giants’ special teams and why should they? When Norv Turner has been in trouble, he has relied on his special teams to steal momentum away from the other team. The Giants must be wary of fakes – both on returns as well as when punting or kicking.

When the Giants punt, I would continue with the strategy where Brad Maynard is punting for hang-time rather than for distance (as he did last week) and let the coverage men get down the field to force fair catches. The kick coverage unit must keep James Thrash under control on returns.

What would really help the Giants a great deal is for them to finally, finally, finally break a kick or punt return. Much of the problem has been with the blocking. The Giants are allowing the opposing gunners to get down the field too fast. In a game where every point and every yard may mean the difference between a win and a loss, Tiki Barber and Ron Dixon have a chance to do something special.

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Eric Kennedy

Eric Kennedy is Editor-in-Chief of BigBlueInteractive.com, a publication of Big Blue Interactive, LLC. Follow @BigBlueInteract on Twitter.

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