Dec 082000
 

Approach to the Game – Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants, December 10, 2000: This is no time for the Giants or their fans to be feeling good about themselves after the win over the Redskins. That victory will matter little unless the Giants win on Sunday against the Steelers. The bad news for the Giants is that Pittsburgh is playing its best football right now as QB Kordell Stewart appears to have revived his career. The Steelers may only be 7-6, but they are an extremely difficult team to beat. They play football the way it is meant to be played: they are very aggressive and punishing on defense and they have a very physical running game. Teams like that are always tough. “Pittsburgh is very similar to Tennessee,” says MLB Mike Barrow. “They both have the big back and a mobile quarterback who doesn’t have to throw for 300 yards a game, and a good defense.” And we all know what the Titans did to the Giants.

The Giants control their own destiny right now, but that will change if they don’t beat Pittsburgh. This game is almost as big as last week’s affair and the Giants need to come out and match Pittsburgh’s intensity. Bill Cowher will have his boys ready to play. Will Jim Fassel?

Giants on Offense: Pittsburgh has a very good defense. Like the Giants, the defensive players there are part of a long and storied tradition of superb defense and the players buy into that tradition. Thus, nothing will come easy on Sunday. The Steelers also pose special problems for the Giants as they are one of the few NFL teams that still operates a 3-4 defense. Thus, the offensive line will have to quicky adjust to a whole new scheme. In a 3-4, it is the responsibility of the three down linemen to “two gap”, meaning that they plug the gap between two offensive linemen and aim to neutralize those two blockers, allowing the linebackers to go unblocked and make the majority of the tackles. The 3-4 can be very tough to run against and the Giants’ offensive line will have to get quicky into sync over which guys they are responsible for in terms of blocking. The defensive linemen for the Steelers are nothing special, but they do their job in keeping the offensive line off of the linebackers. When it comes time to pass, the offensive line has to be wary of the fact that a linebacker or linebackers can be coming from almost any direction – and the Steelers love to send them. LOLB Jason Gildon has ten sacks and ROLB Joey Porter has nine.

As I mentioned, the 3-4 is tough to run against and the Steelers’ personnel can make it even more so. The down three guys do a good job of occupying blockers and RILB Earl Holmes and LILB Levon Kirkland are VERY tough at the point of attack. Knowing these guys, they will make it their personal challenge to shut down “Thunder and Lightening” on Sunday. Thus, I would not play right into Pittsburgh’s hands. I’d come out aggressive and throw the football. The short passing game, as it was used against the Redskins, is certainly an excellent option. Many 3-4 linebackers often have problems in space covering backs and tight ends. But while Pittsburgh has a solid secondary, the players are not the caliber of Washington’s and I would certainly take some shots down the field, with or without Ike Hilliard (lungs/sternum) in the line-up. Their safeties, SS Lee Flowers and FS Brent Alexander, are also better against the run than the pass. The guy who would be a major focus of my game plan is Amani Toomer, who will most likely be matched up against CB Dwayne Washington. LCB Chad Scott has had his problems at times so a strong performance by the starting flanker (be it Hilliard or Joe Jurevicius) is a must. Isolating the nickel back (Deshea Townsend) with one our receivers would probably be wise too. He’s quick, but not big. I would at least take 3-4 shots deep with Toomer or Ron Dixon.

But eventually, we all know that New York has got to be able to run the ball if they are to win. Holmes, Kirkland, and NT Kimo Von Oelhoffen make it tough to run inside. The safeties are also strong in run support. I’d be more tempted to employ Tiki Barber on the perimeter of the defense. Since this is likely to be a low-scoring game (just like last week), ball security is paramount. All ball carriers must hold onto the football. QB Kerry Collins can’t get sloppy with the ball either.

It will be interesting to see what the Giants do once they get into the redzone. Jim Fassel said after the game against the Redskins, “I already talked to (Offensive Coordinator) Sean (Payton) about some things I want to change this week about how we practice some things and do some things in the red zone. As we move forward, and that’s all I’m looking at, we can’t be kicking field goals and expect to continue to win. We’ve got to set our target higher than that. We’ve got to get touchdowns when we get down in there.”

Giants on Defense: Everyone and their mother knows that the Steelers are a running team and the key to stopping them on offense is to stop HB Jerome Bettis. However, I think there is a strong possibility that the Steelers might take a page out of the Lions and Titans’ game plans against the G-Men and come out throwing. If they do, first and foremost, the Giants must prevent Stewart from scrambling for key yardage. Stewart is as dangerous a scrambling quarterback is there is in the league. This will hurt the pass rush as the Giants must maintain disciplined pass rush lanes in order to attempt to keep him under control. I also think a factor will be the quality of the coverage on Mark Bruener – one of the best two-way tight ends in the game. It seems as if Mike Barrow or Ryan Phillips often cover the tight end in John Fox’s scheme – and these two will have to step it up here. Keeping an eye on the backs out of the backfield would be a wise move too.

The other possible aerial targets are starting wide receivers Hines Ward and Courtney Hawkins (who is questionable with a knee injury). Ward is a multi-dimensional player who can catch, run, block, and even pass – watch out for trick plays utilizing him. Hawkins is a Chris Calloway-type who keeps the chains moving. If he can’t go, then Bobby Shaw or former first rounder Troy Edwards will fill in. This isn’t a particularly fast group, but they can pick up first downs and keep drives alive. The Giants’ defensive backs are certainly capable of winning these match-ups, but they must stay focused, not get fooled by play-action, and execute properly.

Stewart is guy who can look absolutely terrible, but then make some amazing play to win the game. Unfortunately, he’s playing extremely well right now. The Giants’ defenders must keep him contained and an absolute necessity is to tackle well – he made some Oakland defenders look pretty silly last week when they tried to bring him down. Don’t go for the kill shot – just stay under control and make a nice safe, solid tackle. If the Giants can keep him in the pocket and give him a bunch of different looks on defense, they can make him ineffective and cause him to make mistakes.

 

Like against Washington, much of the defensive success this week will depend on who controls the line of scrimmage. The Steelers have a tough and physical offensive line that likes to run the football. A big match-up will be DT Keith Hamilton versus LG Alan Faneca; so will DE Michael Strahan versus RT Marvel Smith (a rookie). DE Cedric Jones could find himself in the middle of the action again this week as teams continue to test the right side of the Giants defense. His opponent is LT Wayne Gandy. RG Rich Tyliski will see both DT Christian Peter and DT Cornelius Griffin – the latter seeing more and more playing time. The offensive line blocks better against the run than the pass, so the Giants could see some decent sack opportunities on Sunday – but they must keep Kordell from getting past them.

Then there is Jerome Bettis. “He’s a real good back,” says DE Cedric Jones. “He’s different than a lot of other big backs because he has great feet and he can make guys miss in the open field. With a big back you expect him to pound it and pound it, but he’s not like that because he can do both. You have to get him before he gets started. With big backs like Eddie George or him, if you let them square their shoulders up and start running full speed downfield, it’s going to be a long day.”

The Giants’ defense must swarm Bettis and gang-tackle him. The secret is to get him bottled up at or behind the line of scrimmage, as Jones pointed out. Once he gets his shoulders squared and into the secondary, he is real tough to bring down. Having big and good tackling safeties such as SS Sam Garnes and FS Shaun Williams will help. But CB Jason Sehorn and nickel back Emmanuel McDaniel are not the best tacklers around. Look for the Steelers to run the ball a bit at Armstead – he needs a big game as does MLB Mike Barrow in defending the run. The Giants defenders need to play tough, physical, and determined. No let up. Don’t do a good job for three quarters and then let Bettis get going in the fourth quarter.

But watch out for that play-action early!!!

Giants on Special Teams: In low-scoring defensive battles, specials are always huge. The Giants need to continue to improve covering kicks and punts. Rookie Hank Poteat is a decent punt returner.

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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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