Dec 182015
 
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Cullen Jenkins, New York Giants (December 6, 2015)

Cullen Jenkins – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Carolina Panthers at New York Giants, December 20, 2015

THE STORYLINE:
Despite the fact that the Giants are tied with the Eagles and Redskins for first place in the NFC East, they are in deep trouble. If the Giants lose to the Carolina Panthers as expected, and the Eagles and Redskins both win, the Giants are all but officially eliminated from division title contention and most likely any serious shot at a Wild Card playoff spot. Thus, for all intents and purposes, this is a playoff game for the Giants. If they lose, they have to pray the Bills beat the Redskins in Maryland and/or the Cardinals beat the Eagles in Philadelphia.

The Giants could not have picked a worse opponent for a must-win game. The undefeated 13-0 Panthers are the most physical team in football. The are top five defensively against both the run and the pass and they are the second-best running team in the NFL. The Panthers are +18 in turnover differential having forced a league-leading 33 takeaways (21 interceptions and 12 forced fumbles). They average 31.6 points per game while only allowing an average of 18.7 points per game.

“The hard thing for the Giants is the Panthers are such a physical team on both sides of the ball,” ex-Ravens Head Coach Brian Billick told The New York Post. “That’s typically been a hallmark for the Giants, but I don’t know if you can look at the Giants and say they are a physical team. That’s going to be the challenge for them: Can they raise up and be that physical team? That Panthers defense looks like a Giants defense. They put pressure on you with the four-man rush. They make you pay in the open field. They are going to have match physicality on both sides.”

THE INJURY REPORT:

  • WR Dwayne Harris (shoulder – questionable)
  • LT Ereck Flowers (ankle – questionable)
  • DE George Selvie (concussion – out)
  • DT Markus Kuhn (knee – out)
  • LB Devon Kennard (hamstring/foot – out)
  • LB J.T. Thomas (ankle – questionable)

NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE:
The 4-3 defense of the Panthers is #3 in the NFL (#4 against the run and #5 against the pass). They are third in the NFL in sacks with 40, eighth defensively on 3rd down, and 9th in red zone defense. They are a physical AND fast group that has a league-leading 33 forced turnovers, including four defensive scores.

They are strong at all three levels, particularly in the front seven. Carolina has arguably the best defensive tackle duo in football in Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short (9 sacks). Left defensive end Charles Johnson and right end Jared Allen have been two of the better ends in the NFL for years and they are backed up by very good players in their own right such as Kony Ealy and Mario Addison who each have 5 sacks on the season. As good as the defensive line is, particularly inside at tackle, the entire linebacking corps may be the strength of the defense. All three starters are fast, physical play makers who can defend the run, rush the passer, and cover. The headliner is Luke Kuechly, arguably the best middle linebacker in football. He is not only his team’s second leading tackler but he has 4 interceptions and one touchdown. Weakside linebacker Thomas Davis and strongside linebacker Shaq Thompson are also very good. Davis is the team’s leading tackler, has 5.5 sacks, and has picked off 3 passes and forced 4 fumbles. The secondary is led by Josh Norman (4 interceptions, 16 pass defenses, and 2 defensive scores), who some suggest has replaced Seattle’s Richard Sherman as the best cornerback in football. Free safety Kurt Coleman has 7 interceptions, including one for a touchdown. Ex-Saint Roman Harper is a physical player. Ex-Bear Charles Tillman returns this week after missing four games with a knee injury. Ex-Titans dickhead Cortland Finnegan now mans the nickel spot due to the loss of Bene’ Benwikere.

In short, these guys are damn good.

The Giants are not going to be able to run the football. Right guard John Jerry will not be able to move Lotulelei off of the line of scrimmage and right tackle Marshall Newhouse will likely have trouble with Johnson over his head. Short is having an All-Star year and will probably be the toughest opponent left guard Justin Pugh sees this season. That is, as long as Pugh doesn’t have to shift over to left tackle again with Ereck Flowers struggling with a high ankle sprain. If Pugh has to shift and Dallas Reynolds has to come in and block Short, forget it. At that point, the running backs and Eli Manning will want to check their medical insurance coverage. Allen may be in the twilight of his career, but the savvy veteran will still be a handful for the hurting Flowers.

The only shot the Giants have in this game is to use the quick passing game with an occasional deep shot down the field. They may sprinkle in some shot-gun runs just to keep the rushers honest, but Rashad Jennings and crew simply are not going to be able to do much on the ground. To pull off the upset, Eli will have to play at the level he did against the Dolphins. He doesn’t have to complete 87 percent of his passes, but he has to be able to carry the offense and NOT turn the ball over against a defense that thrives off of interceptions and forced fumbles. The issue here, however, is also match-ups. Norman has erased some of the best receivers in the game including Mike Evans, Dez Bryant, and Julio Jones. For a team that lives or dies based on the performance of Odell Beckham, a sub 8 or 9 catch and 100+ yard performance would be devastating to the Giants chances. Also, the linebackers of the Panthers can cover and take out Shane Vereen and Will Tye. In short, the Giants chances may come down to Eli getting repeatedly hit with no running game and having to rely on Rueben Randle and Dwayne Harris (who is hurt and may not play) getting open and have near 100-yard performances, all while not turning the football over. What are the chances of that? If I’m McAdoo, I move Beckham around all over the place…slot, backfield, put him in motion…find different and unique ways to get the ball in his hands.

NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE:
No other team has an offense like Carolina’s. They are the only team in the NFL that runs the ball more than it passes. The Panthers lead the NFL in scoring with over 31 points per game. However, much of that productivity is due to their defense giving their offense the ball in plus territory and having scored a league-high 117 points off of the mistakes from other teams. That said, this is a very physical offense that wears down opponents. They are 11th overall (2nd running and 26th passing). The Panthers are superb in the red zone, being 4th in the NFL.

It all begins and ends with quarterback Cam Newton, who is not only having a career year but an MVP season. He already has a career-high 28 touchdown throws in addition to seven rushing touchdowns. Newton has thrown 20 touchdowns and no interceptions in the red zone. This despite the fact that Newton is only completing 59 percent of his passes and his leading wide receivers are journeymen.

Newton’s leading target is tight end Greg Olsen (65 catches for 969 yards and 6 touchdowns). That’s bad news for a Giants team that has had issues covering tight ends in the middle of the field all season. His leading wide receivers are journeyman Ted Ginn, Jr., who only has 37 catches but is averaging 17.4 yards per catch with 8 of those receptions going for touchdowns. No other receiver on the roster has more than 29 receptions but they do have 14 touchdown receptions to complement the 14 scored by Olsen and Ginn.

The issue for the Giants is Newton’s mobility. The Panthers are the last of the teams to feature the read-option. Newton has an astounding 111 carries, averaging 4.3 yards per carry and the aforementioned seven touchdowns (the Giants only have three rushing touchdowns all season!). Newton is able to handle the pounding because he is so big and strong. This is huge problem for a Giants team that has struggled with the read-option for years, and even just last Monday when Miami’s Ryan Tannehill was running it against them. New York still doesn’t seem to have a feel as to how to defend this type of offensive scheme. Ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Robert Ayers were caught out of position a number of times by Tannehill. Newton’s mobility also causes huge issues in the passing game where he still tends to do more damage outside of the pocket when a play breaks down. Sacks will not be as important this week as pass rush discipline. Keep Newton from scrambling, either to extend a pass play or rushing for yardage. The Giants may want to spy Newton.

The good news for the Giants is that Carolina will be missing their feature running back, Jonathan Stewart. Newton and Stewart have been the ground game for the Panthers all year. Their next leading rusher is their fullback, Mike Tolbert, with 45 carries. No one else on the roster has more than 18 carries this year. So the Giants lucked out or they are going to turn some unknown player into a star this week. The offensive line of the Panthers is really a no-name group that has performed well given their lack of pedigree.

On paper, other teams should not be having as much trouble with the Panthers as they have been. It’s an offense with a running QB, a good tight end and running back, a one-trick pony deep threat at wide receiver, and not much else. But the Panthers rush the football well (2nd in the NFL), don’t turn the football over (only 15 all season), and score in the red zone (4th best). And Cam Newton is playing out of his mind. The Giants are fortunate that Stewart isn’t playing. The keys are obvious: defend the read-option and cover the tight end. But these are two things the Giants are terrible at. If they can somehow, for one game, manage to reverse that, they will have a shot to really slow down the Panthers’ offense.

NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
Punt returner Ted Ginn, Jr. has four career punt touchdown returns, including a 71-yarder against the Giants as a Cardinal last season. But he has also fumbled the ball away 12 times in his career on punt returns. The longest kickoff return Carolina has all season is 33 yards. Place kicker Graham Gano has converted on 84 percent of his field goal attempts and 64 percent of his kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks. Punter Brad Nortman is averaging 45.7 yards per punt with none blocked.

Tom Coughlin never calls for trick plays on special teams. Against this opponent, he may have to in order to keep his team’s playoff chances alive. The Giants also need a special effort from the injured Dwayne Harris, who may not play.

FROM THE COACH’S MOUTH:
Steve Spagnuolo on defending Cam Newton: “We’ve talked about how dangerous he can be when he gets out(side the pocket). When he gets out, the guys on the back end are in a bind. Do you stay in coverage, and he runs for a number of yards? Or do you come out of coverage and try to tackle? Then he has a tendency to dump the ball off or get it downfield…he does that a lot when he scrambles. Better if we just play the percentages and keep him in the pocket and have some tighter coverage downfield, we think that might be helpful. Now really, keeping him in the pocket means we’d like to finish it and maybe get a sack or a knockdown. Look, the guy’s a quality quarterback. We’ll try to mix it up a little bit and hopefully we’ll get some success on the front end with the pass rush.”

THE FINAL WORD:
The Giants are still largely a finesse team that has issues with more physical football teams. And the Panthers are the most physical football team in the NFL. The Giants are not going to be able to run the ball so they must move it through the air without making too many mistakes (turnovers, sacks, penalties). It will have to be quick passing with an occasional deep shot. It will be interesting to see how the loss of Stewart impacts the Carolina offense. Pray the Giants don’t turn one of the no-name running backs into a hero. The defense is going to have to reverse its shoddy play against the read-option and covering tight ends to slow down the Panthers’ offense. Keep in mind, the Panthers’ offense has thrived off of good field position provided by their defense. How the Giants’ offense performs could very well impact the play of the defense this week.

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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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