New York Giants 27 – Cleveland Browns 10

Game Overview: This was a fairly easy victory for the Giants, but the tenor of the game would have been vastly different had the Browns not fumbled at the Giants’ 5-yard line on their first drive of the second half of the game. To their credit, New York then drove 95-yards (99-yards really when you consider the first play was a 4-yard loss) in 11 plays to put the game away.

The team continues to get better across the board, but there is still a lot of improvement needed in order for the Giants to compete with the big boys in the NFL. The run defense has been shaky at times and the offense is capable of putting more points on the scoreboard than it has thus far this year. Depth in the secondary is secondary is a concern with the injuries to Shaun Williams and Omar Stoutmire.

Offense: The Giants finally got the ground game moving and the offense picked up almost 400 yards of total offense. Just as importantly, New York did not turn the ball over. While the run blocking improved, there were some breakdowns in pass protection on the right side of the line. It was good to see Amani Toomer contributing in a big way.

Quarterback: Kurt Warner (19-of-27 for 286 yards, 0 touchdowns passing, 0 interceptions, 1 touchdown rushing) keeps plugging along with his efficient, accurate style. He’s got quite a rapport with Tim Carter developing and best of all, he and Amani Toomer have started to get on the same page. One big difference between Kerry Collins and Warner is that moves around the pocket very well. He usually feels the rush and will step up or slide to avoid the pressure. Warner also doesn’t get flustered at all in the pocket. And he will get rid of the ball quickly if he sees a free blitzer coming. I’ve been surprised at how accurate Warner is when throwing on the move to his right. The Giants’ ran a few play-action rollout passes to the right against the Browns and these plays were mostly successful.

Warner got things started for the Giants on New York’s second drive of the game with 16- and 47-yard strikes to Toomer, setting up HB Tiki Barber’s 8-yard touchdown run. Warner also found Carter for 7 and 20 yard on the next drive as the Giants moved to the Cleveland 34-yard line, but Warner made his worst decision of the young season on 3rd-and-13 when he tried to force a pass to Ike Hilliard that almost was intercepted. Warner’s 18-yard pass to Carter on the next drive set up a field goal and the Giants would have kept getting closer had Carter not dropped a Warner pass.

In the second half, the key pass on the Giants’ 95-yard drive was Warner’s well-thrown 38-yarder to Toomer. Warner had kept this march alive earlier in the drive with an accurate 6-yard throw to TE Jeremy Shockey on 3rd-and-4.

Wide Receivers: Amani Toomer finally got in sync with Warner and had a big day (5 catches for 126 yards). Toomer caught 63 yards of that in two plays on the Giants’ first scoring drive of the game. Toomer’s best catch was his over-the-shoulder grab of Warner’s 38-yard pass on the Giants’ second touchdown drive of the game. On the downside, Toomer was flagged with one false start.

Tim Carter (3 catches for 45 yards) is seeing a lot of action and making a difference. He also is playing with a lot of emotion and helping to keep his teammates fired up. Carter’s first reception was a 7-yard effort on 3rd-and-5 to keep a drive alive. Two plays later he caught a 20-yarder. Carter then made a superb 11-yard catch on the sideline on the next play to move the ball to the Cleveland 20-yard line, but the ridiculous officials (including the instant replay official) ruled that the pass was incomplete. Carter’s 18-yard reception in the second quarter helped to set up PK Steve Christie’s 43-yard field goal. But on the very next play, Carter dropped a Warner pass that would have picked up another first down.

Ike Hilliard (3 catches for 26 yards) needs to start making some big plays. To his credit, his run blocking did improve this week as I spotted him effectively blocking down on inside pursuit on outside running plays. For example, he got a good block on Barber’s 8-yard touchdown run. But I also spotted him missing a block on another Barber run to the outside; later in the game, he made a good block on another Barber run in the 4th quarter. Hilliard came very close to breaking a big gain after a short reception in the third quarter, but was just tripped up.

Running Backs: Tiki Barber (23 carries for 106 yards and a touchdown; 1 catch for 41 yards) had a strong game. The fact that he was consistently effective is proved by the fact that while his yards-per-carry average was 4.6 yards, his longest run was only 11 yards. It looked like a younger version of Barber on the playing field as he was very quick, elusive, and fast. I originally thought he was being forced to bounce many plays to the outside as the blocking wasn’t there, but after looking at the plays and the blocking schemes (with the tight ends and the receivers blocking down on the pursuit), it quickly became apparent that these runs were by design. As the game progressed, much of his yardage came between the tackles or off tackle, yet he was still picking up good gains as he often squeezed through small openings very quickly. Barber also demonstrated an excellent burst on some cutback runs. A big play in the game was Barber’s 41-yard reception out of the backfield late in the 4th quarter after the Browns had cut the score to 17-3. Barber easily beat the linebacker in coverage on the play and showed very good running instincts and moves after the catch, reaching the 1-yard line (and I thought the end zone).

I wasn’t particularly impressed with Mike Cloud (6 carries for 12 yards and a touchdown). He looks like an ordinary runner to me with little outside speed. Cloud did do a good job on his 5-yard touchdown run of following his block and squirting into the endzone. He did a great job on one blitz pick-up however where he took the guy right of his feet.

FB Jim Finn is seeing less and less time as the Giants use more of a 2-TE set with either one or both of the tight ends in the backfield. Finn did get a good block on a late Barber run on the Giants’ final scoring drive of the game.

Tight Ends: Jeremy Shockey (5 catches for 41 yards) was more involved in the passing game this week, but his greater impact may have been in the blocking department. Both Shockey and Visanthe Shiancoe made a lot of key blocks on running plays, particularly on the outside efforts where they were called upon to either block down on the end or lead the play and take out a linebacker or defensive back. Like Shockey, Shiancoe is being called upon to block from a variety of positions (tight end, H-Back, fullback, etc.). And like Shockey, Shiancoe seems to have the hardest time getting used to leading plays from the backfield. But that will come with experience. The only big negative I saw from Shockey was he missed a block on DE Ebenezer Ekuban on a Mike Cloud run. Shiancoe did a good job of picking up blitzers this week.

In the passing game, Shockey was mugged on the first pass thrown in his direction but the penalty was not called. Shockey had a key 6-yard catch on 3rd-and-4 on the 95-yard scoring drive with two defenders on him. The Giants tried to hit Shiancoe in the end zone at the end of the 95-yard drive, but Shiancoe was mugged in the end zone (the penalty was called) and Warner scrambled for the touchdown.

Offensive Line: The run blocking was dramatically improved this week as the rushing numbers obviously suggest. However, there were some pass protection breakdowns on the right side by David Diehl and Chris Snee.

In the running game, some items of note: I liked the way David Diehl helped out Snee with the defensive end and came off to engage the linebacker on one 6-yard Barber run on the first drive. However, this drive stalled when Luke Petitgout allowed his man to penetrate into the backfield on a 3rd-and-1 sweep to disrupt the entire play. Snee and Diehl did a good job when the ground game was focused in their direction, but surprisingly (given the Cleveland injury situation), the Giants ran a lot to their left behind Petitgout and the tight ends and did so successfully. Jason Whittle does fit in better at left guard as he is very good when pulling to both his right and his left, but he still has some problems with power over his head. He got beat by DT Orpheus Roye for 4-yard loss on a Barber run coming off the goal line right after DE Michael Strahan’s fumble recovery. And both Whittle and OC Shaun O’Hara whiffed on their run blocks on 1st-and-goal after Barber’s 41-yard reception. However, Whittle got a lot of key blocks on his pulling efforts. O’Hara and the two guards got some good movement in the running game in the fourth quarter. Snee got the key block on Cloud’s 5-yard touchdown run.

When the pass protection was good, it was outstanding such as on Warner’s 47-yard throw to Toomer. Petitgout kept Kenard Lang, who had 3 sacks coming into the game, mostly quiet. In the second quarter, both Diehl and Snee got beat in pass protection as Warner got clobbered as he was unloading the ball (the Giants’ are fortunate that it was not ruled a fumble). On the very next drive, on 3rd-and-8, Diehl and Snee got beat on a stunt and this pressure forced Warner to dump the ball off quickly. On the last drive in the second half, Diehl got beat cleanly to the outside by Ebenezer Ekuban for a sack. In the fourth quarter, Whittle got beat cleanly to the outside by Lang on the play where Kurt Warner was sacked and hurt.

One thing of note, keep in mind that Jason Whittle is playing with a big cast on one of his hands. I can’t even imagine trying to block a guy without the full use of your hands.

Defense: Cleveland was limited to 89 yards of offense in the first half and simply couldn’t move the football. The defense was not as sound in the second half as the Browns accrued almost 200 yards in offense. The pass defense was excellent, but the run defense was too soft at times (Cleveland finished with 124 rushing yards). Run defense is something that the Giants need to improve quickly. The linebackers still do not inspire me and this position will have to be addressed in free agency next offseason. The Giant players said that they really didn’t mix it up much against the Browns on Sunday, but there was still a fair amount of blitzing. Kudos go out to rookie Gibril Wilson who played a very solid game at strong safety.

Defensive Line: DE Michael Strahan’s stats (6 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries) are a bit misleading as Michael was unblocked on one of his sacks (this is a direct result of Tim Lewis’ blitzing schemes that cause confusion). However, Strahan played much of the game with a very sore left hand and despite this, got fairly regular pass pressure on QB Jeff Garcia. Strahan’s run defense was really up-and-down. There were times when he made outstanding plays run both at and away from him, but there were also times where he got handled at the point-of-attack. And he completely took himself out of the play by rushing too far upfield on HB William Green’s 49-yard touchdown run that was called back. Where Michael still excels is his aggressive pursuit down the line of scrimmage to hit ball carries from the side; yet Strahan never seems to get fooled by playaction rollouts in his direction. And he wasn’t fooled by the Browns’ misdirection fake reverses. Surprise, surprise, the freaking officials finally called not one, but two holding penalties against Strahan’s opponent! Hallelujah!

The rest of the defensive line was pretty non-descript. Fred Robbins’ followed his stellar game last week with a 1-tackle effort this week. He did flash on the pass rush occasionally. I’ve been a little disappointed with Norman Hand (2 tackles). He hasn’t been bad and he certainly has helped to gum things up in the middle, but I expected him to be more forceful at the point-of-attack more often. There are plays when he is and he stuffs the run or allows someone else to do so. But there are also plays where he is being moved off the ball. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I expected him to be more active and to make more plays.

Keith Washington (1 tackle) left the game early and did not make much of an impression either. Osi Umenyiora (2 tackles) struggled against the run on a couple of plays, but most of Cleveland’s rushes were not in his direction. Umenyiora did get decent pass pressure on Garcia despite not coming up with a sack. I really liked the way he hustled on a screen pass on the other side of the field to make the tackle.

William Joseph (1 tackle) continues to see a lot of playing time. He was pretty solid against the run and flashed on the pass rush, particularly late in the second half.

Linebackers: The most solid guy here again was Barrett Green (6 tackles). Green isn’t a big guy so there are plays where he gets easily taken out by big blockers who get a hold of him. However, his mobility does allow him to evade blockers and make plays in the hole too. He’s playing more physically than when he did in the opener. On the downside, he committed a stupid roughing the passer penalty and missed one tackle.

I still haven’t made up my mind about Kevin Lewis (2 tackles) though I suspect that the Giants are merely getting by with him. There are times when he makes very good plays such as the 3rd-and-1 stuff in the second quarter (Gibril Wilson was also a factor on this play). There was another play in the first quarter where he played off a block and made the tackle in the hole (though he wasn’t credited for it officially). But he did not get in on a lot of tackles on Sunday and Lewis does get effectively blocked too often on running plays.

Carlos Emmons’ stats (6 tackles, 1 sack) look more impressive than they really are. He did a good job on the pass rush where he picked up the sack, but I’ve been disappointed with his play at the point-of-attack on running plays. Too much yardage came in his direction (and at Strahan’s) as he was wired to the man in front of him. On the positive side, I really like the physical way Emmons roughs up receivers in his area in pass defense. I hoping that he simply rusty from missing all the practice time at the mini-camps, training camp, and preseason.

Defensive Backs: The strength of the defense on Sunday was the secondary. Garcia was held to 180 passing yards and until late in the second quarter only had 5 passing yards. The Browns have a very dangerous receiving corps, but you wouldn’t have known it on Sunday. And unlike the game against the Redskins, the Giants’ defensive backs were not the beneficiary of dropped passes by their opponents. The secondary had good coverage on the receivers. Quincy Morgan and Andre Davis only had 6 receptions between them.

Interestingly, Curtis Deloatch (5 tackles) saw a lot of playing time in the game in the Giants’ dime packages. The Giants moved him to left corner and put Will Allen inside (in more of a safety position) in these packages. Everytime I saw Deloatch on the field, I said, “Oh crap!” But the guy played a very good game when you consider that this was his first real test in the NFL and that he was often lining up against Davis. He also did a really good job on the 3rd-and-4 play to Dennis Northcutt right at the end of the first quarter. Deloatch gave up a few short receptions in front of him but was not challenged deep. This was a good experience for him.

Will Allen (6 tackles, 1 sack) and Will Peterson (3 tackles) were excellent. The only negative play I saw from either was the 3-yard touchdown pass to Morgan against Peterson. Peterson got beat on the play and was forced to interfere with Morgan, who caught the ball anyway. Peterson was aggressive in run defense and Allen made a couple of nice open-field tackles. Peterson also did a good job of knocking away a 3rd-and-5 pass to Davis.

Nickel back Terry Cousin had a good game too. He got beat for a 16-yard reception on 3rd-and-10 on the Browns’ opening drive of the second half, but Cousin had good coverage on the play (it was a perfect pass by Garcia). Cousin was flagged with an illegal contact penalty late in the game. On the positive side, he clobbered Garcia on one CB blitz.

Much of the success of the pass defense almost must go to the safeties – FS Brent Alexander (6 tackles) and SS Gibril Wilson (8 tackles, 1 interception). The only real negative I had on Alexander was his missed tackle on Green’s 49-yard touchdown run that was called back. Wilson played surprisingly well. He was very physical and aggressive in run defense and came up with an interception on the Hail Mary pass at the end of the half. Of course, his big hit late in the game on the sideline was really good stuff. The personal foul call was bogus. Keep it up Gibril!

Special Teams: The Giants played pretty darn well on special teams against the Browns. The biggest negative was that PK Steve Christie’s kickoffs remain an issue. His kickoffs were fielded at the 22, 3, 15, 9 (after a 5-yard penalty), 11, and 11 (after a 5-yard penalty). Having kickoffs land at the 22 and 15 is really bad. Unfortunately, the Giants are probably going to have to live with this all season. Kickoff coverage was mostly good, especially when you consider the short kickoffs. Brown returns went for 14 (Nick Greisen on the tackle), 30 (Curtis Deloatch), 17 (Willie Ponder), 21 (Marcellus Rivers/Jack Brewer), 10 (Jack Brewer), and 13 (Jack Brewer). The 30-yard return was obviously not good, but the rest of the returns were well-covered. Curtis Deloatch and Wes Mallard were flagged for being offsides however.

The punting of Jeff Feagles was excellent as he and his coverage men continually pinned the Browns deep in their own territory in the first half as well as keeping a very dangerous punt returner (Dennis Northcutt) under wraps. Feagles punts went for 36 (fair caught at the Cleveland 14-yard line), 30 (downed by David Tyree at the 4-yard line), 29 (fair caught at 10-yard line), and 45 (Northcutt run out of bounds at 8-yard line). Both Tyree and Brewer did a good job of getting down the field as gunners.

As for the Giants’ return game, both kick returner Willie Ponder and punt returner Mark Jones have the look of guys about to break big returns. Ponder lost his footing on his first return, and if he hadn’t, he might have been off. Ponder is a very aggressive north-south returner with an extra gear and that’s what you want in a kickoff return man. I like the way he flies in there behind his blocks. Ponder’s returns went for 29 and 27 yards.

Mark Jones came very close to breaking a big one on a 21-yard return. He is very quick and has some excellent moves. His other returns went for 7 and 3 yards. Willie Ponder was flagged for an illegal block on one of Jones’ other returns. Jones was also flagged with a holding call on a punt that he decided to let roll.

Special kudos go to Jack Brewer for his coverage work and for fielding the onsides kick in the 4th quarter despite taking a big shot.

(Box Score – Cleveland Browns at New York Giants, September 26, 2004)