Monday, December 29, 2008

Interesting point spreads and games

All 4 games have the road teams, who are all lower seed, as favorites for the games this coming wildcard weekend.

Falcons are favored by 2 1/2 over the Cardinals in Phoenix.

Colts are favored by 1 1/2 over the Chargers in San Diego.

Ravens are favored by 3 over the Dolphins in Miami.

Eagles are favored by 3 over the Vikings in Minnesota.

I don't track these things historically, but I can't imagine that there was ever a time when all the lower seeds were favored. If I were a betting man I would take the Eagles, Ravens, Colts and Cardinals.

Eagles are playing well now and are a good matchup defensively for the Vikings. They can walk extra guys up to the line of scrimmage to stop the run and have sufficiently talented DBs to handle a mediocre passing attack led by qb Tavaris Jackson.

Chargers are a funny team - they were only 8-8 but they lost 4 games in the last minute by only a FG. If they get on a roll they can score a lot of points. I like the Colts.

Ravens will beat the Dolphins - their defense will hold down Pennington and they will score enough points against the Dolphins to win going away. Ravens might make it to the Superbowl.

Falcons and Cardinals are too close a game to feel confident about. Cardinals have played poorly since they had the division clinched, but they play well at home and have a lot of talent at the WR position.

Vikings post mortem

Ugh. Giants lost. Who cares. Giants ran the ball fairly well, but Eli was not sharp. He missed Hixon twice on deep balls that could have been TDs. It will be important for Eli to connect with Hixon on deep throws in the playoffs in order to get balance in the offense and move the defense off the line of scrimmage.

After watching the game again tonight, I was actually fairly impressed with how well the Giants ran the ball. Vikings have one of the top 3 run defenses in the league, they moved extra defenders up to the line of scrimmage to stop the run and Giants still ran for 140 yards or so.

Carr looks like he has some talent.

Defense was fine, but you have to be a little concerned about the long plays that the defense seems to be letting up every game.

Very impressive sequence for the Giants happened right at the end of the half from the perspective of coaching, clock and game management as well as execution. Vikings had a 3rd and 1 at about the Giants 40 with about 30 seconds left in the half. Vikings ran a play and Giants stopped it for no gain, but the Vikings got called for an illegal motion penalty. If the Giants had accepted the penalty, Vikings would have had a 3rd and 6, would have run two plays and run time off the clock and Giants would not have gotten the ball back with only 30 seconds left. So Giants coaching staff declined the penalty bringing up a 4th and 1. Vikings went for it on 4th and 1 because they were too far for a FG and there was little time left in the half, so Vikings thought that the Giants would not have time to hurt them. Giants Tuck stopped Tavaris Jackson for a 2 yard loss and because there was a change of possession, the clock stopped with 27 seconds left in the half. Eli completed 2 to hixon for 35 yards, both sideline patterns where Hixon was able to get out of bounds to stop the clock and they moved the ball down to the 25 where Carney hit a 42 yard FG as time expired. If the Giants had played with the same sense of urgency the entire game they would have won by 3 TDs.

The only kick Carney missed all year (that wasn't blocked) was the last one of the year that could have given the Giants a 5 point lead and forced the Viking to go for a TD instead of FG at the end of the game.

Ward played well. I know everybody loves Jacobs, but both Ward and Jacobs are FA's and I am not sure the Giants wouldn't do just as well with Ward as with Jacobs. Danny Ware got some carries and you can't judge anything on 2 carries for the year, but I think I see why coaches are high on him and he will probably be the third back in the 3-headed-backfield next year.

The refs were once again ridiculous in this game. Phantom holding call on Snee took away a 30 yard run by Ward. Phantom holding call on Diehl combined with a penalty on Koets on the same play for not reporting as eligible wiped out 35 yard TD run by Ward. Best of all, however was the blatant holding call by the Vikings LG against Tuck on Peterson's 67 yard TD run. It was a very good tackle. He grabbed Tuck with both hands on the outside of his shoulder pads and threw him to the ground right at the point of attack making the huge hole for Peterson open up.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

NFC Playoffs

A few weeks ago I predicted on this blog that the Eagles would make the playoffs. I hate to brag and make it sound like I am saying I-told-you-so. Frankly, that's entirely not true - I actually love to say I told you so. Anyway, I saw the Eagles coming on hard and saw the Cowboys fading. I didn't expect the Eagles to lose to the Redskins last week, but I was fairly confident that they would beat the Cowboys at home in the season ending game, which they did. If they had won out they would have made the playoffs in a walk. As it turned out, they needed help from two unlikely sources: Raiders beating the Bucs in Tampa and Texans beating the Bears, but they got the help and got in.

Eagles looked very strong and Cowboys looked awful. Romo is the most overrated qb in football. Calling him overrated doesn't mean that he stinks: he doesn't. But he is touted as one of the best qbs in football and he is far from it. With the skill position players he has on the Cowboys, he can take bad defenses, put up tons of points against them, fatten his statistics and make the opponents look silly. He is the A-Rod of qb's, who hits most of his HRs in games that are already 8-0, against aging middle relievers. But against tough defenses, in big games, Romo doesn't do so well. He is not a great pure passer, is not very accurate, but he can make some snazzy plays on the move and improvises well. Those improvisations all make the SportsCenter highlights, but they don't win you championships. For every one of those sexy, ad-lib, successful plays, there are five other plays that end in turnovers or big sacks because he holds on to the ball too long to try to make that big play instead of getting rid of it more cautiously.

The Cowboys OL is also a bit overrated. I think they are a throwback to the style that was in vogue a few years ago when the strategy for the OL/DL was to get the biggest, most massive bodies you could and punish the other side by roadgrading them. The game has changed with emphasis on the passing game and with an inclination to slightly smaller, quicker and more athletic players in the OL and DL. Cowboys OL can provide good pass protection when the other team tries mostly to bull rush or to use standard rushing techniques. But when the opponents are very quick and when they come with a variety of creative blitzes, which requires the OL to be cohesive and cerebral in their blitz pickups, and requires them to be quick and nimble in moving laterally to pick up a different man than the one who started the play lining up right in front of you, they are not as skilled and effective. I think this is why the Eagles toasted them in the last game of the season and why the Giants did well against them defensively in the playoff game last year, especially in the second half when the overweight Cowboys OL got tired from being on the field so long.

Vikings looked very ordinary against the Giants, even though they won. They needed a last second 50 yard FG to beat a team in a game that they themselves had to win but meant nothing to the Giants and they were playing against mostly subs. I think the Eagles will beat the Vikings and the Giants will draw the Eagles as their first playoff opponent this year. Eagles are a little up-and-down, Andy Reid is not a good game manager or big game coach and McNabb can win or lose any game all by himself, so I am not certain that the Eagles will beat the Vikings. But I think we will see McNabb in the Meadowlands this playoff season.

Interesting observation: there is only one NFC team in the playoffs this year that also made the playoffs last year. That team would be your New York Football Giants. Last year Bucs won the NFC South, this year it was Panthers. The Packers won the NFC North last year, and this year it was the Vikings. The Seahawks won the NFC West last year and this year it was the Cardinals. I don't have to remind you that last year the Cowboys won the NFC East and this year the Giants won it. The wildcards last year were the Giants and the Redskins, while this year it was the Falcons and Eagles, for a 5-out-of-6 team change in the NFC playoff lineup.

In the AFC, the Colts and Chargers are repeat playoff teams while the other four: Titans, Steelers, Dolphins and Ravens did not make it to the dance last year.

All the experts, the analysts and even many of the players in the league itself continue to adhere to the opinion that the 2007 Giants were a good team that got hot and lucky at the right time to get on their Superbowl run. None of them said that the Giants were a good team that grew into a great team because: (1) the qb matured or (2) the many young players that the Giants had on their team from the recent few drafts started to mature or (3) Corey Webster exploded onto the scene and became a star etc. Nobody could come up with those ideas, because it required too much analysis and required the experts to admit that their previous assessment of the team was wrong. They had decided that the qb and the team were mediocre, and it would take a miracle and three acts of congress for an "expert" to admit a mistaken opinion. Even when the Giants showed they were the best team in the conference this year and played consistently and brilliantly for most of the year, the experts jumped on the Giants bandwagon begrudgingly and were not moved from their assessment of last year's lucky run. Coming back after the Superbowl as the ONLY team from the conference to make a repeat trip to the playoffs and the best team in the conference, you would think that some of the experts would reassess the Giants with some retrospection and consider them a team that had come of age last year and had become an elite team. It's not going to happen. Giants are a blue collar team with a qb who has a personality as outgoing as yesterday's leftover pizza. Nobody will pump them up and tout them until and unless they actually win. It's ok with me - Giants are set to be playoff contenders for the next few years.

I sure hope Jerry Jones sticks to his word and brings Wade Phillips back, because he is thoroughly incapable of getting control of his players and turning the Cowboys situation around. As the Cowboys get further and further away from the Parcells era, the influence that Bill had on the character and work ethic of the team and, perhaps more importantly, the influence that he had on personnel decision, they will slowly but inexorably decline.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

What a difference a year makes

Last year going into week 17, the question was whether Coughlin and Giants would take their last game of the season seriously. Having clinched a playoff spot the week before against the Bills and being locked into the # 5 seed, there was nothing for the Giants to gain for themselves except of course, the historical obligation of trying to knock the Patriots out and prevent them from completing a perfect 16-0 regular season record. Of course you know what happened - Giants played all out against the Patriots, lost two players to injury in the game: Shaun O'Hara and Kawika Mitchell. Both missed time in the playoffs, but Eli played his best game of the season against the Patriots, the team gained confidence and went on their magical playoff run.

This year, the situation is somewhat different. Giants are not lacking for confidence, they have the top seed locked up and have nothing to play for this weekend against the Vikings. But - the Vikings and Bears are battling for a playoff spot and the Bears need to win themselves and need the Giants to beat the Vikings in order to make the playoffs. From a league and ethical perspective, Giants should play hard this week. It is not fair to lay down, let the Vikings win and prevent the Bears from making the playoffs. Furthermore, I think the Vikings are a much bigger threat than the Bears in the playoffs. They have a great RB in Peterson, a qb in Tavaris Jackson who is inexperienced but has a strong throwing arm and is a great runner. He's not a great, pure, accurate passer, but he has been playing much better since he began starting again the last few games. They have a great OL, with a LT in Bryant McKinnie that I salivate over and would love to have play for the Giants. He is huge and athletic. They have a LG playing next to him, Hutchinson who makes the pro bowl every year and is a very good player. They are dangerous in the playoffs and Giants might do well to try to beat them this week and not let them get into the playoffs at all. A qb who can run presents a dimension that can move the offense even in bad weather of the Meadowlands.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Breakdown of a running play

I mentioned in an earlier post what a great game Boss and Hedgecock had blocking and what a huge boost that was to the running game. I want to break down one particular running play that had a big affect on the Giants win to demonstrate how important they were and how the Giants OL works so well together.

Giants got the ball back on a Carolina punt in OT, and had the ball on their own 13. The first play was a run to Ward right up the middle and here's how it worked:

RG Snee fired straight ahead into the LDT and RT McKenzie ignored the LDE he was lined up against and fired out to give a one-handed push on the LDT helping Snee momentarily with a double team, but immediately ran to the second level and blocked the MLB. The LDE that McKenzie had left alone was free to charge into the backfield and disrupt the play, but Boss had him one-on-one and knocked him back with perfect form. O'Hara pushed forward and took on the RDT one-on-one and sealed him perfectly, pushing him to the left, opening a hole between the two DTs. Since O'Hara took on the LDT, this freed Seubert to pull behind O'Hara and run through the hole between the two DTs and take on the OLB which he did, pushing him back 2 yards. Hedgecock also led to the right and engaged the other LB. Because all these blocks were successful and Giants pushed them back a few yards, the back side of the Carolina defense could not run down the line and provide back side pursuit. Ward burst through the hole provided by O'Hara and Snee and the second level hole provided by McKenzie and Seubert and he literally was not touched until he was well down field. The WRs did a good job engaging the CBs and 51 yards later Ward positioned the Giants for the winning TD.

The OL blocked perfectly on this play, but it would have been a harmless 3 yards if Boss had not been able to defeat the Panther LDE on the play.

Giants are running draw plays more often out of shotgun formation. It worked really well against Carolina and it is a smart reaction to teams putting 8 in the box to stop the Giants running game. Lots of teams run draws to keep the defense honest, but it is more than that with the Giants. They are using it on 2nd down and other times when they go into passing personnel groupings. It influences the defenses into a pass defense personnel grouping and allows the Giants to stay with the running game. Instead of running a straight draw, Giants are pulling OL-men from that formation and running lead draws and power runs out of what looks like a passing formation.

I continue to be really impressed with the Giants coaching.

The key to how far Giants go in the playoffs may be how much rest the Giants defense can get from the bye week and the last meaningless game against the Vikings. Giants had the earliest bye in the league, after week 3 and have not had a break in their schedule, playing only good, playoff-contending teams for the rest of the season. I think they need a rest and the bye week might be the perfect remedy.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Odds and Ends

Ward has 948 yards rushing on the year, following his 215 yard performance and if he gains 52 in the finale against the Vikings, Giants will be one of only a few teams in NFL history that have had two 1000-yard rushers.

Ward won the game for the Giants with this performance but also assured himself of the following: (1) he's going to make a lot of money next year (2) he's going to be making that money for some team that doesn't wear royal blue jerseys. Both Jacobs and Ward are free agents at the end of this year and it's hard to imagine that Giants will re-sign both of them. A team simply can't invest too much money into one position on the field. Giants will most likely re-sign Jacobs, even though I think that Ward may be a more polished, complete player. I think Reese re-signed Ward this year to use as leverage or insurance in case Jacobs was a bust, got injured or made unreasonable salary demands for 2009. Jacobs did get hurt a few times this year and missed some games. People may say that a big guy like BJ who takes (and dishes out) so much punishment is an injury risk and will not have a long career. That may be true, but while RBs are almost a commodity in a pass-oriented league, the Giants have shown that running the ball can be the core of your offense and Jacobs is the only RB in the NFL that you can truly call 'unique' because of his combination of size and speed. He is a game changer and Giants should probably keep him. That said, I am a huge Ward fan and will be sorry to see him go.

Against the Vikings this week, Giants should play hard, play to win, play all their starters, but give everyone who is even the slightest bit nicked up, the game off. IMO, they should deactivate the following: Jacobs (knee), Tuck (flu and lower leg), McKenzie (back), Hixon (ankle), Robbins (shoulders), Ross (concussion - he may be out anyway) and anyone else that needs rest. Two weeks off is huge at this time of year.

Keeping Hixon out may require Eli to throw and develop some rapport with Manningham and/or Moss, which could be important. With Burress out, it is important to have a second deep threat beside Hixon to spread the field or to provide backup in case of injury.

I thought the LB's had a weak game against the Panthers. Pierce made some nice plays including some tackles for a loss and for no gain. But Clark missed some tackles and both he and Blackburn were schooled on some of the big Panther running plays. I never thought I would say this, but: Giants may be missing Kawika Mitchell.

A priority for next year that would make this defense dominant is a great LB. Terrell Suggs is a FA in Baltimore, and while he would be very pricey, he would elevate this defense, especially with Osi coming back. Kiwanuka has played well enough at DE, that I would not move him back to LB. That said, I would like to see Kiwanuka pick it up and get more qb pressure in the playoffs.

If I had a blank checkbook and no salary cap, I would try to acquire the following for the Giants: (1) a killer OLB, (2) a great LT so I could move Diehl inside or back to RT when McKenzie's contract expires (3) a great WR as deep threat to replace Plaxico, because I believe he will never play for the Giants again.

Another good pickup for the Giants would be a long snapper, because I believe Alford can be a budding star at DT and the LS duties takes away focus, preparation and practice time with his DL-mates. The FG snapping was shaky on Sunday and Feagles made some great catches and spots to save some PATs and FGs. I can't help but think that because Alford is on the field a little more with Robbins injury, that his hands are getting beat up and maybe he's getting a little tired and this may have affected the snaps.

Giants defense picked it up in the 2nd half of the Panthers game and it's not a coincidence that Dockery was in the game replacing Ross. Dockery is a very good young player. He is small-ish and therefore not a great tackler or blitzer, but he has good CB skills.

My brother Barry proposed the following trade: Giants to give up a 1st, 2nd and 5th round draft pick to the Lions for Calvin Johnson. The Lions just traded Roy Williams to the Cowboys for a 1-2-5, so they may be in a mood to consider the same for Johnson. Lions are going to be 0-16 and for their rebuilding, they need a lot of players to restock the team, not one great player at WR. They may consider this, but to sweeten the pot for them, I would throw in Mario Manningham, a U-Michigan product who would be a popular home-town favorite and might give the front office some protection that they at least have some budding potential to replace Johnson. Giants have an extra 2 and 5 that they got in the Shockey trade, so they would still have a decent compliment of draft picks.

If you haven't seen Johnson play, I can tell you that he is other-worldly. He is as fast and athletic as Randy Moss, is as big and powerful as TO, has meat-hook hands and doesn't drop anything like Larry Fitzgerald, runs precise routes like Andre Johnson and is a great young man with his head screwed on straight like Jeremy Shockey (just kidding about that last one). He would make the Giants offense positively illegal. (I really don't think this is one of those sports-talk radio trades like: do you think the Yankees should trade Brett Gardner for Albert Pujols? No?... how about if we throw in Melky Cabrera??) I actually think the trade makes sense for the Lions because they need lots of players.

Whom do you want to see squeeze in as the last wildcard? If Cowboys beat the Eagles, they get it. But if Cowboys lose, the Eagles will get in only if the Bucs (at home) lose to the Raiders. The Bucs game is at 1PM and the Eagles-Cowboys is at 4:15PM, so the Eagles will know if they are eliminated when they start their game. If they are eliminated, it probably gives the Cowboys a psychological advantage because the Eagles would have nothing to play for.

I still think that the Cowboys have the most talent and match up best with the Giants, posing the biggest threat to knocking the Giants out of the playoffs. If they lose, Phillips will probably be fired as coach and I don't want that to happen. They could get in to the playoffs and would draw the Vikings/Bears in the first round; a game they would probably win. If they win their first round game, they would come to the Meadowlands to play the Giants in the divisional playoff round. Cowboys probably pose a bigger threat than the winner of Cardinals/Falcons wildcard game.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Panthers post mortem II - Field position

When it comes to analyzing football games, I have become a field position freak. By that I mean, that if you reduce football down to its core elements, field position is everything and dictates the outcome of games more than any other factors. Even the turnover differential that everyone refers to is only important because of how it influences field position. Let me explain with a ridiculous, obvious example that is so simple you will think it is stupid. When the offense gains 60 yards on a drive, if it starts at its own 30, it ends up with a FG. If it starts at its 40, it gets a TD.

Sorry to be so obvious, but I just want to emphasize how the hidden yards of kick returns and starting field position is often overlooked. I tried to develop a system to evaluate this that included kick returns, punt returns, interception returns, distance of down field pass before the INT, etc. but gave up after a while because they were too many variations and it was more complex than it was worth. But I will say that it is one reason that offensive yards gained and defensive yards allowed, while far from being perfect statistics to describe the ability of the teams, are at least slightly indicative. If a team gets the ball at its own 20 and has to punt, you may consider the drive a failure, because it didn't produce any points. But if they get 2 or 3 first downs and then punt from midfield, giving the opponents the ball at their own 10, the drive was effective in the ebb and flow of the game. In that previous example, if the defense holds, they might get the ball right back at midfield and be in a position to score. The reason turnovers are so important is because the other team gets the ball back without giving the offense the opportunity to push them back with some first downs and an effective punt. An INT on a 50 yd pass with no return hurts a lot less than an INT on a 5 yard out pattern followed by a 30 yard return. I know this is all ABC's of football, but sometimes we don't focus on it during a game and my philosophy is that this is WAAAAAY more important than we sometimes realize. I think I became most keenly aware of this when I started to go to games regularly after watching on TV for so many years. At the games, with the entire field in front of you, you get a spatial appreciation and awareness of how big the field is and how important positioning is.

With this introduction, let me highlight two factors in the Panthers game that were really important. Based on the theory that field position is king, the average starting field position for a team in a game is an important statistic. Comparing this stat for the Panthers-Giants game reveals that the average starting field position for the Giants in this game was their own 29.8 and for the Panthers, their own 31.1; obviously not much of a difference to give one team or the other a decided advantage. But you may know from my previous post about probability that I am interested in mathematics and statistics and it is certainly true that there is more behind this stat than meets the eye. Specifically, the average field position for the entire game was unduly influenced by one possession for each team: the punt by Feagles that pinned the Panthers on their 1 and the following possession by the Giants that gave them possession on the Carolina 44, but I'll delve into that exchange a little later.

Back to average field position: my contention is that the Giants are getting killed on their kickoff return coverage and I have the stats to prove it. If, instead of looking at overall average starting field position for every possession in the game, and you consider instead, only average starting field position after kickoffs, you will find the following: Giants average starting field position after kickoffs (sometimes referred to as ASFPAK) was their own 23 1/2 and the Panthers ASFPAK was their own 33 1/2, for a full 10 yard difference. Since there were 6 kickoffs for each team it means that the Panthers had a 60 yard advantage for the game in this statistic, far from insignificant. Giants outgained the Panthers by 110 yards in the game, but if you throw in the 60 yard kickoff advantage and the 85 yards that the Giants gained on their extra possession in OT, you can certainly see why the game was so close. I am not sure Giants should replace Carney with Tynes simply because of kickoff depth, because Carney is 100% on FGs this year except for the two that were blocked. I am just pointing out that it is a consideration because of the disadvantage the Giants have on kickoff returns and it might come back to hurt the team at some point in the playoffs.

Based on my 'field-position-rules' philosophy I think you will agree that the single most important play in the game, without which the Giants would have lost, was the punt by Feagles and the incredible, intelligent, athletic play made by Terrell Thomas to down the ball at the 1. Here's the setting: Giants were down 8 and had the ball at the Panther 30 with 10 minutes left and were facing a 3rd and 7. I thought for a moment that this might be 2-down territory for the Giants and that Coughlin might consider going for it on 4th down if they didn't convert the 3rd down. Therefore, since Giants were running the ball so well, perhaps they would consider running on 3rd and 7 and running again on 4th and short; or going for it on 4th and 7 if there was an incomplete pass on 3rd down. The decision was taken out of Giants hands because Eli was sacked on a pass attempt leaving the Giants with a 4th and 15 at the Panther 38. Then comes the biggest play of the game: Feagles comes in and hits a perfect coffin corner punt which rookie CB Thomas swats out of bounds on the 1.

With the ball on the 1, Panthers correctly play conservatively, run the ball 3 times and are forced to punt from the back of the endzone. Even with a great punt from those cramped quarters, Giants get the ball back on the Panthers 44, essentially the same place they punted from and are able to push it in for a TD on the short field. If Feagles had made a sloppy punt and kicked it into the endzone, or even out of bounds on the 10, Panthers would have had the ball with better field position. In addition to the 10 or 20 yard in field position that theoretically would have gained, perhaps more important is that they would have had their entire playbook available to them, would not have had to be quite so conservative and could have pushed the Giants back to their own territory with a long field to go for the tying TD.

Like I said: field position is everything.

Panthers post mortem I

The Giants offense has regained its mojo. Giants ran for 301 yards with Ward gaining an incredible 215 yards on only 15 carries. Ward had a big game; he ran well. He hit the holes quickly and found the creases that the OL made, but the creases were definitely there and the OL played with great force and effectiveness. I was talking to my son Darren this morning and I think he convinced me of the following proposition. I never put much stock in the theory that Jacobs wears down the other team and then Ward and Bradshaw come in and make the big plays. I always attributed Ward/Bradshaw's effectiveness simply to the change in style that the two runners employed and that it's hard for a defense to prepare for both. Jacobs is a straight ahead battering ram, certainly with more speed and footwork than people give him credit for, but a power back to be sure. Then Ward/Bradshaw come in and while the defense is used to the slightly slower bullying running of Jacobs, they then get the slashing running of Ward who is a bit more elusive and hits the holes a little more quickly which affects the timing of the defense. Surely that is a part of it, but after watching last night's game, I'm starting to come around to an equal contribution to the "wearing them down" theory. At the beginning of the game, Jacobs was getting stopped for 1-2-3 yard gains. Then as the game wore on, those 3 yard gains became 4, then 5 then 10. The changeup to Ward is like seeing a Mariano Rivera fastball after hitting against a Wakefield knuckleball all game. (Sorry for the baseball metaphor, and even sorrier for mixing Yankees and Red Sox, but it was just illustrative of my point.) Even more effective is the way the Giants use the backs, which is switching off from series to series or even play to play. I think the combination of wearing down the defense as well as changing the styles contributes to the effectiveness of the Giants running game.

But regardless of the style of the two Giants running backs, the running game doesn't go anywhere unless the OL plays well. Last few games, in the two losses against Eagles and Cowboys and even including the win against the Redskins, Giants running game has been held down. Opposing defenses were walking an extra safety up to the line of scrimmage and playing very aggressively against the run. Giants had to adjust their blocking schemes and find a way to get the running game going. They did a very effective job against the Panthers in subtly changing the blocking. First, Jacobs was able to pound forward and make some yards even with extra defenders. Second the Giants OL pulled the guards hard on counters and perimeter runs with a TE or FB pulling ahead of them and ran at tighter angles than the usual wide outside runs. The tighter angles allowed them to get upfield more quickly and with more power making the play more effective.

The other interesting thing they did was how they used the TE Boss in the run blocking. On several plays, instead of having Boss lining up tight and blocking down on the DE or leading and pulling down field from the tight position, they started Boss split out wide. From that position he would run down the line hard to seal the DE or would run down field to engage a DB or LB and make space for Ward's run. On all of the outside successful runs by Ward, Boss made critical blocks in space or down on the DE. It was Boss' best game blocking for the run: he was great. The other thing this does is move the 8 defenders out of the box, becasue Boss is a pass threat and someone has to move out to cover him. Boss has become a better blocker, but when he lines up tight to the line and has to block in the box, it requires the blocker to bend down low and use leverage to push the defender. This is hard for Boss since he is very tall and has trouble bending all the way down. He loses balance and leverage when he does that. Sunday against the Panthers, more often he was making blocks from a running position, where he could use his great athleticism and basketball-hands to engage the defensive player and block him. Like I said, he was outstanding.

One more word on Boss - he has also become an outstanding pass receiver. He perhaps is not as dynamic a player as Shockey used to be once he gets his hands on the ball. But Boss has two attributes that far exceeds Shockey's contributions: he actually catches the ball when it is thrown to him; he runs the routes that are called so the qb knows where he is going to be. I maintain that in Eli's nightmare performance against the Vikings last year throwing 4 INT's, 2 of them were on Shockey running the wrong route.

Many of Wards big runs were on the perimeter with a pulling G, FB and TE leading the way. Several of them were quick bursts up the middle, right between the DTs. On two runs, the Panthers moved their S up to the line right behind their DE. Gilbride called a quick hit up the middle, O'Hara and Snee obliterated the two DTs and created space between them which Ward burst through. Because the defense was at the line, but spread out across the line, when Ward could burst through the first level, and then make one man miss, he was gone. Giants may have found a way to get the running game going against these extra guys up at the line. Run quick hitting plays and find the weak spot in the line. Of course, this works better when the opposing DL is not as good; Panthers have a great offense but not a great defense. With the big Panther DT out of the game, this plan to attack the middle of the defense was effective. When big DT Kemoeatu did not play, that was the soft spot in the defense to attack and it worked. The hard, quick developing pulls to the inside which Ward bounced outside were very effective.

Eli was great. I was particularly impressed by his calm and control in the pocket. I loved his first long pass play to Hixon. He was chased out of the pocket, stepped up but did not have the time or a clean area to reset his feet and step into the throw. Instead, he just flicked the ball, all shoulder and wrist and threw a strike to Hixon 45 yards down field. Eli is brilliant in his understated style. You want somebody to put up big numbers - take Drew Brees. you want somebody to break tackles, scramble down field, make plays out of the pocket and make ESPN Sportscenter highlights take Donovan McNabb or Ben Roethlisberger. You want jewelry on your qb's hands - I'm taking Eli. It's actually a great skill to make great plays look ordinary and Eli does a wonderful job at it. It's shocking that people don't get it and that people don't give the Giants the proper respect. I understand that last year, the Giants were a 10-6 team that went all the way, that people would attribute it to the fact that they were a good team that got hot/lucky and all the breaks at the right time. But when the same team continues this year with the best record in football, you would think that the experts would figure out that last year it wasn't just a good team getting hot, but it was a good team growing into a very good team led by a talented qb who is morphing into a star before their very eyes. But because he is not flashy, he doesn't get the accolades. It's OK. He's got the jewelry.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

NFL Playoffs: a probability lesson

Bucs and Falcons have two games left. One of them has to lose one of their two remaining games in order to give the Cowboys or Eagles a chance to sneak in as the last wildcard. I have said that I expect the Eagles to win today against the Redskins and win next week at home against the Cowboys and therefore sneak into the playoffs. But that would require the Bucs or Falcons to lose one of their last two remaining games. My contention is that probability favors one of those two teams losing one of their last two games. Here's why.

The probability of the Falcons and Buccaneers winning all four of those games is the product of the probability of them winning each one of their games. For example, suppose I flip a coin that has a 50% chance of coming up heads (or tails). The probability of getting 4 heads in a row is 1/2 raised to the fourth power, or 1/16. Bucs have two weaker opponents and Falcons have one tough game and one easy game. So suppose their chances of winning each of these games is 50% for the one tough game and 65% for the easier games. The chances of those teams winning all 4 games is .5 X .65 X .65 X .65 = 13.7% Obviously, the chance that they will not win all four of these games and lose at least 1 of these games, is 100% - 13.7% = 86.3%

So the Eagles have a 86.3% chance of getting into the playoffs if they win their last two games. That's a big if, of course, because the Eagles may not win both of their last games. I'm just saying that, by this logic, there will be a likelihood of 86.3% that the door will be opened for them. If they can win both games, they can walk right through.

If you give the Falcons and Bucs a slightly better chance of winning their games and say the Falcons have a 55% chance of winning their tough game and they both have a 75% chance of winning the other three games, it lowers the Eagles chances, but still gives them a good shot. In this case, the likelihood of the Bucs and Falcons winning their last four games is 23.2%, which means the Eagles have a 76.8% chance of making the playoffs if they win their last two games.

Go Giants.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Giants Panthers weather update as of Saturday night

Latest from is that the rain and snow will clear up at 3PM and by 6PM the weather should be clear. Unfortunately it will be cold and windy which could affect the offenses. The Giants simply have to get a good game out of their OL in order to control this game. They played poorly last week against Dallas and after watching the Ravens run wild on the Cowboys defense, you can see how they are not as unbeatable as they looked last week. Panthers have a good defense, but it is not overwhelming. If Giants play well, they can get the offense cooking again. They do need to be patient and not take needless chances. With the difficult weather and with the knowledge that the Panthers have not beaten a good road team this year, Giants should rely on their defense to hold the Panthers more or less in check. Be aggressive offensively, but not reckless.

A few more things: I said in an earlier post that the Eagles and not the Cowboys would make the playoffs from the NFC East. Looks like that will be the case. Cowboys looked bad getting toasted at home by the Ravens in this Saturday night week 16 game. Because of tiebreakers, the Falcons might beat out the Eagles, but if the Falcons lose one of the last two, and the Eagles beat the Cowboys in Philadelphia in week 17, the Eagles are in. In either case, whether Falcons win two or not, if the Eagles beat the Cowboys next week, which I think they will, the Cowboys are toast.

I maintain that Wade Phillips is a bad coach. He got beat again by a special teams play - fake FG - and the defensive calls he made resulted in two 75+ yard TD runs, on consecutive snaps by the Ravens offense. He is gone next year, in my opinion. His only hope is somehow squeezing into the playoffs this year, but I don't see that happening.

My only worry is: how did the Ravens look so good against the Cowboys tonight, when Giants looked so bad against them last week. It all comes down to the blocking of the OL. Ravens handled the Cowboys front and Giants didn't. Giants OL needs to step up and play the way they did earlier in the year. Eli and the offense need to make enough plays down the field to keep the defenses honest.

This is a big game for the Giants in the standings, but perhaps more important in terms of turning things around. It's funny how fast the national media has jumped off the Giants bandwagon. It took them a long time to get on board: they were reluctant, stuck in the belief that the Giants last year were a good team that got hot/lucky in the playoffs. They only got on board when they had to, when the Giants were 2-3 games ahead. And they used some code words that showed they were reluctant supporters. They didn't say: Giants are great, or Eli is a top qb, or anything like that. They talked about Giants balance, about Giants being well coached and methodical, about not beating themselves. But never did they say that they had superior players. Then, as soon as the Giants lost 2 in a row, they jumped off the bandwagon so fast and so hard that they broke some ankles hitting the ground. I don't mind. Giants get motivated by the "we-don't-get-no-respect" card, but it would be nice to build up some confidence and turn things around with a good game.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Parcells - Coughlin

There are many successful NFL and college head coaches that have come off the Bill Parcells coaching tree. I am doing this by memory, so I may miss one or two, but here goes:
Coughlin, Bellichick, Handley, Groh, Crennel, Weis, Erhardt, Fassell (though he was hired by Parcells but never worked under him.... Parcells quit before Fassell started). Let's not forget Tony Sparano and Sean Payton who coached under the Big Tuna in Dallas. I think even current Jets coach Eric Mangini worked for a while under Parcells in New England. That's a fairly impressive list and there are some others who are prominent assistant coaches that I left out, including Mautice Carthon among them.

Parcells was the best special teams coach ever and knew more about catching punts and blocking for the return than any other coach. In his Superbowl year in New England, in addition to being HC, he was also special teams coach. It was somewhat ironic that they lost that Superbowl to the Packers largely on the special teams returns of punt/kick returner Desmond Howard.

One of Parcells great strengths, aside from X-es and O-s was that he is reputed to have been a great motivator of his team. He believed in instilling fear and badgering his players to motivate them and felt that a player afraid of losing his job played with a little edge and played better. I believe Coughlin followed this pattern and fortunately realized last year that times have changed, players are different now and you need to have a better working, respectful and professional relationship with your players. That's why his player's council and slightly easier style worked so well last year.

Despite his severe, riding attitude, one of the things Parcells always did was to not beat a player when he was down and not to build him up when he was on top of the world. He believed in team first, in keeping everything on an even keel. So when the Giants used to go on a short losing streak, instead of yelling at them and railing at them through the media, he would be conciliatory, supportive and kind in trying to rebuild their confidence. When they won a few games in a row and looked good, that's when he would come down on them and find flaws in every play that didn't work, to make them apply themselves and work harder.

I can't help but think that Coughlin learned this little lesson from Parcells and we saw a little example of it this week. Giants were on top of the world and breezing through the league at 11-1, but Coughlin was very workmanlike and somewhat muted in his praise. He kept talking about things that the team has to correct and work on to play better. Then the Giants hit a little skid and lost these last two games. So what does Coughlin do - come down hard on his players, chastise them for playing badly and try to browbeat them into playing better? No - that would have been the exact wrong thing to do. Players were trying hard, the effort was there. By coming down hard on his players, Coughlin would have only increased the pressure on them and - if they were playing tight - would have made them feel the pressure and start playing even tighter. Instead, Coughlin did precisley what he should have done and what he did this week. He got up before the media all smiles and joyful excitement. he did some jumping jacks, for gosh sake, to show how pleased he was with the team's position. He took the big picture approach and reminded everyone that the Giants are exactly where they wanted to be at this point of the year: with the division and a playoff berth clinched and in great position to get a bye and home field advantage for the playoffs.

There's no doubt that Coughlin is a superior X-es and O-s coach, prepares fastidiously and is a great special teams and offensive coach. These skills he developed on his own and gleaned from the master Parcells. It seems to me that he also inherited the philosophy of motivation from the Big Tuna: deflate them a little when you see they're getting overconfident, but pump them up when they need it, and that may be even more important.

Injuries/weather for Panthers game

Some interesting news on the injury front that could benefit the Giants:

Giants DT Robbins returned to practice yesterday and looks like he has a good chance to play.

Panthers DT Keomeatu, one of the big beefy guys in the middle of the Panthers defense is nursing an injured ankle, has not practiced and probably will be out for the game. He is listed as questionable and Darwin Walker will probably start in his place. Panthers are giving up some talent and about 50 lbs. with this change. If the weather is bad on Sunday night, which it looks like it will be, this could be an important advantage for the Giants.

Panthers db-field is not great. Ken Lucas is one starter at CB and Chris Gamble starts on the other side. Both are good players but after those 2, Panthers are pretty average. In passing plays, Giants should try to go after their lesser DB's which means that Boss and Steve Smith could be important players in this game. Maybe even Manningham and Moss, who returned to practice, could show up. Manningham may be a good option this week, because in bad weather, his added size could be beneficial.

Giants should look to get the RBs in the passing game and Bradshaw could be a big weapon this weekend, if he actually gets into the game. In bad weather, a short swing pass could be a big play - you throw a relatively high percentage pass and get an elusive guy out on the edge in space.

Derrick Ward also returned to practice and - most important - so did Hixon.

The weather forecast is 100% chance of precipitation with winds from the west at 20MPH. This is actually bad for the Giants, because the Giants have a better passing game. Eli has had some good games in bad weather (conference championship last year v Packers) but some bad ones also (Redskins and Bills games last year). It's wind that hurts a qb more than precipitation or cold. Delhomme and Eli both grew up as warm weather qb's, we can hope or project that Eli has gotten more accustomed to the elements playing for the Giants in the northeast that Delhomme has in playing with the Panthers in the south.

When the Panthers gained 300 yards rushing against the Bucs 2 weeks ago, it was less a result of great OL play than it was elusiveness by the RBs and a ton of missed tackles by the Bucs secondary. Ronde Barber missed 4 or 5 tackles himself. Panthers do not run inside alot and like to get to the edge, which gives them the opportunity to challenge DBs to make tackles. Giants db-field is generally very good at tackling. They miss an occasional tackle, but overall, seem like pretty sure tacklers. In fact the entire defense is like that. Cowboys made them miss a few times last week, but it is important that the LBs and DBs especially, really wrap up this week.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A look ahead to the Panthers

Giants are in a bit of a funk offensively, or so it seems from the last two weeks. At the superficial level, it seems straightforward: with Burress gone, defenses don't have to respect the deep passing game and can walk a S (or two) up to the line of scrimmage to stop the running game. With Jacobs out against the Cowboys and the second half against the Eagles, the offense was yet more limited.

On the other side of the field, the Panthers have won 3 in a row and 7 of 8, putting up huge numbers in the running game against Tampa Bay and Denver. The combination of Carolina running the ball down the throat of the Giants defense and Giants offense in a slump running the ball seems like a tough combination to overcome.

But this ignores the most important aspect of how well you're playing and what your record is. Specifically, it leaves out considering who your opponent is. Panthers ran up huge running numbers the last two weeks against Bucs and Broncos, but those teams are rated 23rd and 30th against the run defensively. By contrast, Giants are one of the best teams defensively against the run, ranked 4th in the league. I am sure the Panthers will run against the Giants, but I am counting on the fact that they will not be able to gash the Giants in the running game like they did the Broncos last week. If Giants stop the Panthers running game without having to commit a safety to do so, they should be able to keep Steve Smith and Delhomme more or less under control. Delhomme has a big arm, but he is not the most accurate of passers. I see the Giants defense doing to the Panthers what the Cowboys and Eagles did to the Giants the last two weeks: take away the running game, get Delhomme in some uncomfortable passing downs and then get after him with a pass rush. Delhomme is not a great runner, so Giants can be creative and aggressive with how they rush him.

The other aspect of who-the-opponents-are is the Panthers record at home and on the road. Panthers are a perfect 8-0 at home and 3-3 on the road. That's a good formula in the NFL as it is in any sport: dominate at home and split on the road. But the Panthers 3 road victories have come against teams that are now under .500 and their 3 road losses came against Falcons, Bucs and Vikings. These are hardly the elite teams in the league, but they are good teams and they thoroughly dominated the Panthers in those games. Panthers are playing well, but Giants can handle them.

Giants game plan defensively should be to try to make the Panthers one dimensional - concentrate on making them a passing team by taking away the run and get after them with the pass rush. This might be a little harder this week because Robbins is hurt at DT. But I have a lot of confidence in Cofield and Alford and I think the Giants can make some plays against them in the running game. When Giants lost to Carolina in that playoff game 3 years ago, Giants LBs were decimated by injury and Giants literally signed players off of the street to play, who had not been in the NFL the entire year. Fox came up with a game plan to go after the Giants LBs. He ran a lot of screens, got the RBs out in pass routes over the middle and ran short and medium crossing routes that tested the middle of the field usually patrolled by LBs. Last year the Giants were vulnerable to TEs over the middle and medium crosses, partly because the LBs were not good and because the S play was overrated. The LBs are a little better this year and the S play is much better, but I still think the LBs are the weakest part of the defense. The Eagles attacked the middle of the field against the Giants with TE LJ Smith and RB Westbrook and the Cowboys made some plays with Choice at RB and Witten and gave up some big gains on screen passes. I would think Fox would try to do something similar this week, because as good as the Giants defense is, the LBs are the weakest part of it and the Panthers have strong RBs. Giants will need a big game from their DL and from the S group to handle this. Panthers will go after the Giants with screen passes. Steve Smith is a deep weapon and Giants need to handle him carefully.

On offense, I think the Giants can run against Carolina. Cowboys have a great front 7 and Eagles dropped a S or 2 down to the line of scrimmage to stop the run. But both these teams are strong against the run to start with. Giants ran for 200 yards against the Eagles in the first matchup, but that was one game: Eagles are 5th in the league against the run and Cowboys are 7th. Panthers are 18th. No doubt, Panthers will bring extra guys up to the line to stop the run, but I think Giants will still be able to run the ball against them. Giants should have a normal balanced offensive game plan against the Panthers. They have to have a good mixture of pass and run and give some help to Diehl against Peppers in obvious passing downs. Panthers db-field is not great and Giants need to take some shots down the field on 1st and 2nd down to test them. Hixon did not practice on Wednesday, but I think he will play. Giants will need some productivity from Manningham in the passing game because Sinorice Moss looks to be out.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Wednesday practice report

It's a little too early to do my preview of the game, so let's just look at some practice report info.

Jacobs practiced on a limited basis, which means he did not take part in the walk through and simulated game part, but he did individual drills. He said he is feeling better and expects to play. I know this is a big game, but the playoffs are bigger. If he's not 100% and an additional week of rest would help him, I would sit him.

Ward did not practice because of a leg injury.

Hixon did not practice, but apparently did not re-injure his ankle in the Cowboys game, he was just sore from running on it.

Sinorice Moss is out with a strained calf muscle. Moss is probably out for Sunday and I doubt that they will bring him back next year. He looks like he may have some talent, but he hasn't made many plays and he gets hurt too often.

If Moss is out this week, we may have a Mario Manningham sighting. He will be elevated to the # 4 WR, behind Toomer, Hixon and Smith.

McKenzie, the RT was also limited in practice. We need to have the OL very sturdy against the Panthers. I am thinking back to that playoff game a few years ago, when they pasted us 23-0 and we could not block their DL.

Panthers are 9th in the league in sacks and Peppers is an absolute stud at DE with 12.5 sacks. Diehl gets Peppers and the OL playing well is a key to the game. In a sense, this defense will be similar to the Cowboys. Fox will put 8 in the box to stop the run and will rely on Peppers and friends to pass rush in passing situation. I'm getting into a preview for the game, which I said I wouldn't do in this post. Suffice it to say - the OL is really important to the Giants this week and for the rest of the season.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cowboys post mortem II

OK - you're going to think I am nuts, or an unreasonably optimistic Giants fan, but despite all the negative aspects from the Cowboys game, the Giants actually had chances to make some plays and to win the game. They did not miss by much. I reviewed the video of the game and it wasn't as bad as it seemed watching it live Sunday night. When the Giants were down 14-3, they pinned the Cowboys inside their own 5 and forced a 3rd and 12. They sacked Romo for a safety and got the ball after the free kick in fairly good field position. They moved the ball well into Cowboy territory. Then Eli threw a perfect ball to Toomer that should have been a first down inside the 10 yard line. Toomer was blatantly interfered with but Giants did not get the call. On the next play, Eli threw another perfect pass on a go route to Hixon. Hixon was 2 steps behind the CB and the ball was over the DB's head and hit Hixon right in his hand. Hixon did not look back early enough and did not locate the ball otherwise it was an easy TD. As it was he got one hand up in the air and the ball deflected off his hand. If they score a TD there, it is a 14-12 game and the Giants just need to get a stop and a FG to win the game.

I'm not now looking at the world through rose colored glasses and claiming that the loss against the Cowboys was bad luck and a very close game that could have gone either way. After all, the Cowboys did sack Eli 8 times. I'm just saying that the OL doesn't forget how to block in two weeks after doing a great job for the better part of 12 games. As important as Burress is to the offense, the other WRs are decent and can make some plays even without this important player. Giants have to make some adjustments to handle this press coverage and aggressive run stuffing defense, but they have capable personnel and should be able to handle it. And - I am saying that despite getting hammered by the Cowboys pass rush all night, Giants still were a play or two from winning the game and those plays were within their reach.

The best draft in history

Jerry Reese has gotten lots of credit for the 2007 draft, in which every draft choice made the team and several played significant roles for the Superbowl win. This credit is well deserved and the players he picked up continue to play well this year and form an important part of the team. To refresh your memory, the draft choices in 2007 were: Aaron Ross (1), Steve Smith (2), Jay Alford (3), Zak DeOssie (4), Kevin Boss (5), Adam Koets (6), Michael Johnson (7A), Ahmad Bradshaw (7B). That was a very good draft class.

I maintain, however, that the best draft anyone ever had was the Giants 2005 draft. Before we analyze it, let's get the setting straight. In 2004, Giants drafted Phillip Rivers and traded him for Eli Manning, giving the Chargers a boat load of draft picks along with Rivers. Giants gave up a 3rd rounder in the 2004 draft and in the 2005 draft, also gave up a 1st and 5th rounder. Since they had already traded their 7th round pick in another deal, the Giants had only four picks in that 2005 draft, in rounds 2,3,4 and 6. Before we jump to that 2005 draft, you could argue that the 2004 draft was pretty good also, since we got Manning, Snee and two other productive players that are no longer on the team: Gibril Wilson and Reggie Torbor. A budding star in Snee and the Superbowl MVP might be considered a pretty good draft by most standards, but I'm trumpeting that 2005 draft as the best ever. With those 4 picks in 2005, Giants drafted one DE, Eric Moore in the 6th round who got injured, never made the team and did not get picked up by any other NFL team. That was their one miss. With picks 2-3-4, Giants drafted Corey Webster, Justin Tuck and Brandon Jacobs. Giants already locked up Tuck to a long term contract- rightfully so, because he is one of the top 2 or 3 DL-men in football. Webster is an absolute star at CB. Giants would not have come close to winning the SB last year without him. He neutralized TO in the Cowboys game, made the big INT to win the Packers game, and held Randy Moss in check in the SB, mostly in single coverage. He opened up the field for Spagnuolo to give help elsewhere in the secondary where needed and give the opening to blitz more aggressively if that was the right call to make. My friend Ray pointed out that the biggest proof that a CB is feared is when the opposing team doesn't throw at him. A recent example: against the Cardinals a few weeks ago, Warner threw 52 passes and only 5 tested Webster.

I don't need to tell you about Jacobs. He is a stud and in a league where RBs are practically commodities, Jacobs is a one-of-a-kind RB who forces opposing defenses to game plan for him and opens up the possibilities for the rest of the offense.

The priority for re-signing Giants own FA's is clearly Webster, because great CB's transform a defense and besides qb and perhaps OT, might be the most important position on the team. I'd like to sign Jacobs also, but Ward and Bradshaw form an effective running combination also and his re-signing is a lesser priority in my opinion. Ward is also a FA as is Amani Toomer. Now that Plax is gone, Toomer has a better chance of coming back next year. Oh - it might be a good idea to re-sign Eli also, even though he is locked up for a few more years.

Back to that 2005 draft..... Giants had four picks and found three stars that form the foundation of the championship team. I rest my case.

BTW - Reese looks like he's doing pretty well with the 2008 draft class too: Phillips at S is already a stud and Terrell Thomas at CB looks like a very good player also.

Cowboys post mortem I

Not yet time to panic, but this beating was worse than the loss to the Eagles, not just because we hate the Cowboys so much. Against the Eagles, the Giants had at least some successful offensive plays and we could rationalize that the Eagles took away the run and the wind took away the pass. But Sunday night, no such rationalizations were available to assuage the hurt and the embarrassment of this loss. To me, it was fairly simple: the OL had its brains beaten in. It got worse in the 2nd half when McKenzie and Seubert left the game, but it wasn't their injuries that made the difference. Cowboys were beating the Giants OL all night long. And they weren't just beating the Giants at one weak spot. Giants got beat by speed rushers from the outside, by missing blocks on the inside and by generally having the pocket collapse at other times. There wasn't even any place for Manning to escape to. I thought that Eli actually played very well and was throwing the ball very well when he had even a moment to throw. But he just couldn't get time to throw. He was sacked 8 times and threw 35 passes, meaning he was sacked on 8 of 43 times that he dropped back. He was hurried and hit another 12 times, by my count, which means that he did not have a clean pocket to throw out of on nearly half his pass attempts.

Cowboys, as everyone knew and as I suggested in my preview post would do two things offensively: play aggressive run defense by keeping an extra S at the line of scrimmage and against the pass, blitz often and play agressive in coverage. But it was actually more than that: they kept their entire team up at the line of scrimmage, playing press coverage nearly all the time on the Giants WRs. They did not respect any WR going deep so they were playing tight man-to-man on every down. In order to defeat that kind of coverage, you have to beat them deep. But when you want to go deep, you need to have your qb hold the ball an extra second or two and the OL was unable to protect the qb long enough to let their WR get down the field. The WRs were not getting any separation at all. Every throw that Eli made was into a narrow window and even when he completed them, the WRs were tackled right away, there were absolutely no YAC yards. Giants never made the adjustments to get the running game going, to run some screens or to deceive the Cowboys defense in some other way. But when the OL is overwhelmed like they were Sunday night, there is not much you can do scheme-wise or in the play calling area to make things work.

Burress being gone was a much more important factor than Jacobs being missing. Ward is not as powerful a runner as Jacobs, but without holes or a good push from the OL, no RB is getting through. The absence of Burress invited the Cowboys to play the press coverage that the Giants WRs could not handle. It looked to me like Hixon was not right, he was not running as hard as he usually does. But for whatever reason, he simply could not separate from Newman.

The bigger effect of the loss of Jacobs was not in the running game but was in pass blocking. Jacobs is a crushing pass blocker and is very capable picking up blitzers, chipping the DE and giving max-protect help assisting the OL.

Diehl had a particularly bad game at LT. He handled Ware in the playoff game last January, but other than that has trouble against Ware. McKenzie got beat also and Boothe was beaten twice for sacks.

It's not time to panic yet. Giants still have time to make adjustments in the running game and passing game and get the ship back on its course. There is no doubt that Burress' absence has hurt this team and will permanently lessen the capability of the offense. But there is enough talent on the offense to be productive. Giants have to play better in the OL, have to throw more screens and more to the TE to open up the passing attack and move the defense off the line of scrimmage. Giants got away from running their traps and counters last night, but when the OL is getting beat up and dominated like it was last night, deception will not help. Next week's game against Carolina is an important game to restore the confidence and offensive rhythm of the team.

A word about the refereeing.

I really don't get it. Giants did get one questionable PI call with Newman 'arm-barring' against Hixon, but there were two other plays where there was a blatant armbar on Hixon and it was not called. Particularly egregious was the PI call that was reversed to offensive PI against Steve Smith. The TV replay showed Smith pushing off, but they did not show the entire play. The Cowboy DB pushed Smith and was holding him. Smith pushed him back so he could have both hands free to catch the ball. What really ticked me off though is that the ref on the sideline initially called defensive PI. That's his call. What did someone else see to convince him to reverse the call when the refs convened? Any other ref that saw something else did not have as good a view and it is outrageous that the call was changed to offensive PI.

I counted twice where Flozell Adams jumped early and should have been called for a false start, because the C Gurode often double-clutches on a shotgun snap. It should be a basic test for referees that if they don't see a 360 lb man move, he can't be a referee.

There was a blatant defensive PI call against Toomer towards the end of the game when the Giants had to settle for a FG. It was not a close call where the ref has to judge whether there was incidental contact or a small bump of insufficient impact to throw a flag. The DB tried to hit Toomer hard in order to jar the ball loose, but he hit him well before the ball arrived.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Look Ahead to the Cowboys

This is such a tough game to figure, there are so many variables that are in play.

Was the Eagles game an indication that the Giants are coming back down to earth after their torrid first 3/4 of the season, or was it just one of those games... Eagles with their season on the line, windy conditions disrupting the Giants passing game, a couple of key dropped passes. Or... is the loss of Burress something that disrupts the balance in the Giants offense, giving opposing defenses a method to stop the Giants.

Are the Cowboys the same wounded, dangerous, desperate team that the Eagles were last week and ready to lay a beating on a suddenly shaky Giants team. Or... will the Cowboys continue what some think is becoming a pattern for them in big games against tough teams: they play well enough to show how talented they are, but find some way to make some key errors and lose.

Obviously, Las Vegas feels the same way, because the Cowboys are 3 point favorites. The game is in Dallas and the home field usually counts for 3 points in Vegas, so the game is essentially even. I find this a little strange, a first place team playing a team with 5 losses is an underdog. But it shows how far Giants have fallen in the eyes of the betting public and Las Vegas because of the events of the last two weeks, including Burress and the loss to the Eagles. The line hasn't budged since it was set, meaning that the betting public isn't putting too much money on one team or the other

It's funny how things turn around so quickly in the NFL. Three weeks ago it looked like the Eagles were done and the Redskins, Cowboys and Giants were the cream of the NFC East. Now, the Cowboys look like they have all kinds of internal dissension with TO (that stands for Team Obliterater, not Terrel Owens) picking on the qb for making bad decisions, the owner sniping at the teams star RB for being soft, the coach generally getting no respect from the players and all kinds of injury problems. The Redskins offense has totally disintegrated in the past 3-4 weeks and on top of that, their OL is decimated by injuries with their two starting OTs, Samuels and Jensen out for the year, the star RB Portis feuding with the coach and the team on a losing streak. Giants have their own problems with the Burress mess and (gasp) a game they actually lost. Suddenly, it looks like the Eagles are the most stable franchise in the division and are coming hard for a playoff spot. If Eagles win their last 3 games and Falcons don't, then the Eagles are in the playoffs.

Back to the Giants-Cowboys game:

I actually think that in analyzing this game, we should not overemphasize the emotional, impossible-to-measure aspects of the game like motivation and focus/concentration and stick to the things we can measure and evaluate.

Cowboys defense is solid, but not great. Defenses are usually ranked by yardage allowed which is not the best way to measure them. There are many other things to look it, so let's just say that the Cowboys defense is ranked in the upper half of the league in both run defense and pass defense. Their front 7 in their 3-4 scheme has some very good players and it is central to their defensive scheme to stop the run and get a big pass rush, rather than rely on their db-field to cover. DeMarcus Ware at OLB, is a very good player with 16 sacks on the year. Ratliff is very good on the interior of their DL and Bradie James is a very good ILB. Often the NT in the 3-4 scheme does not make a lot of tackles, but is responsible for stuffing opposing blockers and preventing them from getting to the next level and firing out on the LBs. But Ratliff makes a lot of plays in the running game himself and is having a very good year. IMO, the Cowboys db-field is not that good and they have some injuries there as well, which make their secondary somewhat vulnerable. I am sure the Giants will try to establish the run, but it may be smart to come out throwing against the weakest part of the Cowboys defense. In order for the Giants to win, Eli has to move the ball through the air and they have to involve new WRs and routes in order to be effective. The LBs are fairly quick in their drops and they do like to blitz quite a bit. The key to beating any defense is to block their DL, but it is certainly true against the Cowboys, because the front 7 is the real heart of the defense and the key to their stopping the run and the pass.

Against the Giants defense, Cowboys will probably try to run the ball a little bit, even with rookie RB Choice replacing Marion Barber. I was impressed with Choice when the Cowboys came in to the Meadowlands earlier this year. He is very quick and elusive and made some good runs against the Giants defense in the second half of that game. Last week against the Steelers, Choice had a particularly good game, with some good runs and some very good pass receptions out of the backfield. He put up more than 160 yards from scrimmage. But I expect them to put the ball in Romo's hands and try to throw the ball down the field especially to their TE Witten. Giants had trouble defending TEs in the middle of the field last year but seemed to have improved this year with improved play of their safeties. But last week, the Eagles effectively attacked the middle of the field with throws to LJ Smith and Westbrook. I look for Romo to try and do the same this week to Witten and their new TE Martellus Bennet, who looks like a real good player. Giants need a big game out of their LBs and S in pass coverage this week.

Hixon has a foot injury and it could really hurt the Giants passing attack if he is out. If he plays well and if the Giants use their other WRs, I expect that the passing game will be effective and the Giants have a good chance this week in Dallas.

You can't really say that this is a huge game for the Giants in the standings or even in the playoff seeding competition. Giants can lose and if they beat Carolina next week, they will lock up the #1 seed. If Carolina loses this week and Giants win, then the Carolina game next week becomes a little less important because Giants can lose that game and still carry the # 1 seed if the beat the Vikings in the last game of the season. If Giants win 1 of their last 3 games they will guarantee a bye in the first round, though not necessarily # 1 seed. If they lose all 3, they will need help to get a bye in the first round: they will need the Vikings to lose 1 of their last 3. It would be nice to get the # 1 seed, but I wouldn't mind seeing the Giants go on the road and playing in warmer weather against any of the NFC teams that might make the playoffs.

Because of the fact that this game is important only for mental health of the team and not a do-or-die game for making the playoffs or even for seeding in the playoffs, I would be smart and cautious with slightly injured players. To me that means that Jacobs sits this week and maybe next week to get ready for the playoffs.

Distractions - Talent

The Burress affair was handled as well as possible by the Giants. Allowing the Burress affair to linger would no doubt have led to lots of locker room chatter and posturing, debate about what to do, speculation about what the league or the team would do and in fact could have hurt preparation for the upcoming game. Instead, they cut out the cancer quickly, decisively and without rancor. This had the affect of keeping any possible distraction to an absolute minimum. I don't think the problem with the Giants is any distraction caused by Burress legal issues or lack of focus from the team. The problem is that the Giants are not as good a team without Burress. Plax is a great player who can make catches under any circumstances, in any kind of weather, against man-to-man defense, against zone defenses, he sheds CB's that try to play him physically and chuck him at the line of scrimmage, he catches the ball in traffic, he can take short passes, break a tackle and make a big gain out of it. He's a great player. Losing a great player makes the team weaker; it's the talent loss, not the distraction.

I was a little bored last night and took out the DVD of the Giants 2007 season and Superbowl run. I had forgotten how many great plays Burress made for the team last year, how many great catches he made and how great a year he had despite his ankle injury. Just to refresh your memory and bring up a few highlights: in the 3rd game of the year, Giants at 0-2 and the season on the line, were down 17-3 at halftime. Burress had a monster second half, caught a few balls to set up two TDs and scored one himself on a 33 yard play. He also made huge plays against the Jets, against the Eagles and practically won the Conference Championship game single handedly against the Packers.

But it's more than just how many big plays he made, it's the type of plays he made. Of course he was a threat to catch a deep ball, but was also a threat to catch a short hitch, make a DB miss and turn it into a big play. That made it very risky to blitz the Giants, especially once Eli got his bearings and was able to read defenses better. He was a big threat at the goal line because of his size and he was able to make adjustments on the ball because of his size and catch balls even though he was not wide open. Remember the catch he made on the first drive of game 17 against the Patriots last year. He wasn't wide open, the safety was right behind him; but he went up and took the ball away from him. He was an enormous threat and disrupted defensive game plans.

We may have forgotten or minimized how good he is now, because the Giants have been winning this year without enormous contribution from him. The running game has been strong and Eli has stepped up and is spreading the ball around, so it seems like the only thing the Giants have to worry about is the distraction factor. But it's not so - he will be missed greatly, especially in the playoffs when Giants play the better teams with the rugged defenses and offensive yards are harder to come by.

Giants OC Gilbride and HC Coughlin have to be creative to compensate for the loss of Burress and for the different ways teams are sure to defend the Giants from here on out. Actually, I am not sure that the Cowboys will be so much different than they usually are, because Wade Phillips is an unimaginative coach and while the Cowboys are creative and dangerous offensively, on the defensive side of the ball they are fairly predictable. They play 3-4, they do like to blitz on passing downs, but are fairly predictable in the db-field when they show zone or man. Nevertheless, Gilbride has to replace the deep play threat that Burress gave the team.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Giants Burress-less

Hixon looks like he will be a good player, but Burress, despite somewhat limited production this year, is a star and one of the top WR's in the game. Hixon is inexperienced and, truthfully, we just don't know how good he will be. There's always a huge difference between a player that plays every play, every down, every game and achieves a consistent level of performance versus one that plays occasionally as a substitute and shows flashes of brilliance in his limited opportunities. It is true in every sport but particularly true in football when the stress and drain of the game wears on the players, where the challenge to play against different types of defenses, in different weather conditions and under pressure conditions distinguish the flash-in-the-pan or the one-time-wonder looking to capitalize on a few good plays from the star who has a record of excellent performance in all circumstances.

We clearly have not seen enough from Hixon to be confident that he will be able to replace Burress without the Giants suffering a drop off in the productivity of their offense. Burress was a unique kind of player. He was not the fastest WR in the league, but he was fast enough to get deep and his incredible size and ability to catch the ball in traffic meant that he did not need to beat his man by 3 yards. Eli could throw it up high for him and he would come down with it in traffic. Burress ran great routes and was a real student of the game. He was strong and could occasionally overpower a defender once he had the ball in his hands. No matter how well Hixon plays, the Giants offense will be reduced by the Burress absence. The Giants had no choice but to separate him from the team - it's not their fault. But his absence will hurt.

Even this year when his productivity was not impressive, he demanded double teams all the time and changed the balance of the passing game by his mere presence on the field. Going back a few years, when LT was playing for the Giants in the late '80s and early '90s, opposing offenses had to game plan for him, had to worry where he was going to line up and had 2 or 3 blockers paying attention to him. During one stretch, LT had an ankle injury and missed a few games and the dominant Giants defense took a big hit. LT did not make every tackle when he was out there - but when he was gone, suddenly the Giants defense was playing 11 against 11 instead of 10 against 8. When LT was out there, the opposing offense had 2 or 3 guys blocking him so the other 10 on the defense had 8 guys that they had to defend against and worry about. It is somewhat analogous with Burress - he was double teamed much of the time opening up passing lanes and running lanes for the rest of the offense. We'll see now how effective Boss can be, how effective Smith will be, whether Toomer can still make some plays when the opposing safeties and defense can play straight up.

Fortunately, I think that Eli has progressed so much as a qb in the area of making the right reads, making the right decisions, making accurate throws and executing great ball placement on his throws, that I don't think the defense will crash. If guys get open, he will still be able to find them. In fact, Eli is the perfect qb to handle this situation. The offense won't disintegrate, but it certainly will decline.

I think the offense has to change its tone a little bit and become more aggressive with deeper throws in the passing game to regain the respect or the fear of defenses and compensate for the loss of Burress. Giants have not thrown a lot of deep balls in this middle part of the season. They relied on the fact that the running game was very effective, they moved the chains with their passing game and threw medium and deep passes just enough to keep the defenses honest and to make it easier to score. Now, with Burress out, you can guarantee that the Giants will see lots of 8 man fronts from opposing defenses and Giants have to take what the defense gives them. If they take away the run, Giants have to pass. Throwing 5 yard hitches and hooks will not get the defense worried and move them off the line of scrimmage. Giants should use Moss more effectively, on deep routes, because he is the fastest of the Giants WR's after Hixon. Giants have to be a little less predictable because the dominant position of their offensive personnel is somewhat diminished. They have to change their style subtly to regain the balance on their offense.

NFC playoff chase

The division leaders now seem locked in. Giants have clinched the NFCE; Cardinals own the NFCW; Vikings are ahead in the NFCN; in the NFCS Panthers have a leg up with their MNF win over the Bucs, but the Bucs have a game lead over the rest of the field for the first wildcard slot.

It's possible that the Bears will overtake the Vikings for the NFCN lead, but no teams from the North or West are going to get into the playoffs as a wildcard. The two wildcards will come from the South and the East. Bucs have a 9-4 record and lead three teams with 5 losses: Cowboys (8-5), Falcons (8-5) and Eagles (7-5-1). It seems like the Bucs are a lock to make the first wildcard, because they have a one game lead and two games that they should win: hosting the Chargers and Raiders in last two weeks of the season. Even if they lose this week at Atlanta, 11 wins will lock up a wildcard.

That leaves the last wildcard up for grabs among Cowboys, Falcons and Eagles. Examining their remaining opponents, Cowboys clearly have the hardest schedule. They get the Giants and Ravens at home followed by a week 17 game in Philadelphia, which I think will decide the final playoff spot. The Falcons have one easy game, facing the Rams in week 17 and two challenging, but winnable games coming up. The Falcons get the Buccaneers at home this week and are at Minnesota next week. If the Falcons split those two games and end up winning 2 out of the 3 remaining games, they will have a 10-6 record and will have 6 conference losses.. If the Cowboys also win 2 of their last 3 and end up tied with the Falcons at 10-6, the most number of conferences losses they can have is 5 and they will beat out the Falcons for that wildcard on the basis of better conference record.

But the unknown dark horse in this is the Philadelphia Eagles. They are 7-5-1 and look like they have the easiest schedule of all the 3 wildcard contenders. Eagles get the Browns this week at home, which is a sure win. They get the Redskins next week in Washington and the Redskins offense and team has completely fallen apart. In addition to not being able to score any points their all pro OT Samuels is out for the season. Redskins should be easy pickings for the Eagles. Then it comes down to the last week of the season against the Cowboys. No matter what the Cowboys do in the weeks before that, if the Eagles win their last 3, they will end with a 10-5-1
record. Since their last opponent is the Cowboys, if the Eagles beat them, Cowboys can be no better than 10-6 and Eagles will make the playoffs. As good as the Eagles looked against the Giants, I think they will run the table and make the playoffs as the last wildcard.

It's really funny how things turn around in the NFL. Three weeks ago, the Eagles looked done. They lost at home to the Giants; they tied the Bengals and they got absolutely pasted by the Ravens benching their all-world qb in the process. Since then they beat two division winners in the Cardinals and the Giants; because of their easy remaining schedule they have an inside track to make the playoffs.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Eagles post mortem

Giants got beaten soundly on Sunday; there's not much doubt about that. When you get a special teams TD on a blocked FG and still don't win, it means you were outplayed by a lot. Somehow though, after reviewing the game on video, I think it was not as bad a beating as it seemed on the day of the game itself. The bad things were of course that the offense didn't score any points until the last garbage time TD and that the defense could not get the Eagles off the field in the second half. But if you're looking for me to say that this is a negative sign of things to come for this team, that without Burress it is a shell of itself and that it doesn't have a passing attack, look somewhere else, because I don't think that is the case at all. I really think that the Eagles outplayed the Giants by a little at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The Eagles DL didn't knock the Giants down on every play - Giants had quite a few successful running plays. The problem was a confluence of circumstances that converged to give the Eagles defense a leg up on the Giants. Eagles did exactly what I said they would in the pregame prediction. They tried to take away the Giants running game by bringing an extra S up in run support. But it was really much more aggressive run defense than that - they had their LBs and BOTH safeties running down hill towards the line of scrimmage. They run blitzed very often and had both safeties walking to the line of scrimmage. Eagles DC Johnson said after the game that when Burress is in the game, they keep a S back to defend him specifically because the Eagles CBs are so small. Burress has had huge games against the Eagles in the past and they change their game plan to account for him. When the defense plays this aggressively, the offense has to take some shots down the field to stretch the defense and move the S off the line of scrimmage. The wind made it very difficult to throw down field and the drops by Giants WRs on key plays - the deep ball by Hixon, the 4th and 3 drop by Smith combined to make the Eagles aggressive strategy work. In addition to that, I thought Jacobs ran tentatively and when Giants OL pierced the first level of Eagles run defenders, he was not able to make any big plays. Giants are going to get other chances to handle this defensive scheme, because you can guarantee that every team will play the Giants this way. Ravens did it four games ago, Cardinals did it three games ago and Redskins tried this defense last week and in all cases, Eli was able to move the ball through the air, get the defense moved off the line and get the offense cooking. The difference this week is that the weather conditions were made for this type of defense and the Eagles play this defense all the time. If the Cowboys try this approach, I have confidence that the Giants will be able to attack their overrated secondary and make plays to Hixon, Toomer and others. Of course, the worrisome news is that Giants will have to do this without the best WR on the team, but I am confident they can do it. It is naive to think that they are just as good without Plaxico as with him and that Hixon can fill in seamlessly. But, as I've been saying, the offense will not fall apart.

I think that if opposing defenses sell out to stop the run like the Eagles do, it is more important than ever to get Bradshaw some touches. He is very elusive and if he can make one guy miss, he goes for 80 yards, not 20. That's what Westbrook did on Sunday in his 30 yard TD run when we had 9 guys advancing to the line of scrimmage, all at the same level. There was a mistake in coverage by S Butler on that play, but once Westbrook go past the first level, he was gone. He didn't need to weave his way through the db-field.

Still on the offensive side of the ball - Boss had a very bad day blocking in the running game. He could not handle the S that he was matched against - they were too quick for him and they got him out of position several times. On the end around to Manningham that lost 12 yards, Boss missed a block badly on the LB or that play could have gone for decent yardage. Giants seemed out of sync at times in their blocking assignments and were not able to operate as smoothly as in the past.

Uncharacteristically, Hedgecock had a bad day blocking also and missed several blocks. When he engaged the guy he defeated him, but I counted 3 times where he whiffed on his block.

Giants are not using Sinorice Moss correctly. They have not yet used him to stretch the defense down the field with his speed. They are using him on short hitches and hooks; he always gets a big cushion because of his speed and he seems to catch every ball. They also use him on the drag routes over the middle trying to pretend he's Wes Welker and hope that he'll catch one out of the view of the defense, make someone miss and run for a big gain. But it's too easy to defend that route and the Eagles got in his way and bumped him preventing him from getting open. This doesn't hurt the team as much when Hixon and Burress are both deep threats, but when Burress is out, you have to get Moss moving down the field.

Eagles didn't do much on offense against the Giants defense, but they did enough, especially in the second half. They converted a string of 11 out of 12 first downs, mostly because McNabb played such a good game running the ball. Giants had no sacks but they did have pressure on McNabb several times and he ran away from it to complete passes and to run himself for several first downs. Giants strategy against Eagles in the first game and yesterday was to not to bring a lot of pressure and blitzes because they don't think McNabb is an accurate enough passer to beat you with his arm. Keep him in the pocket and make him beat you by throwing the ball. It's not a bad strategy, even though I would have preferred being a bit more aggressive. The problem Sunday was that even when Giants got pressure with their DL, they were not able to keep McNabb contained in the pocket. He broke out several times to make plays and it made it look like the Giants DL was completely dominated, but it really wasn't that bad.

A little mathematics/probability lesson for you all to show you how close the game could have been and how truly unlikely it was for the Eagles to keep the ball that long in the second half. Eagles converted 11 out of 12 first downs in the 2nd half. Teams would be thrilled to have a 40% or 50% conversion rate. Assuming they have a very strong 60% conversion rate on any individual 3rd down play, the probability of converting on 11 of 12 3rd down plays is 2.7%.

Giants LBs got toasted in this game. McNabb beat them on some of his scrambles. Westbrook beat them on his two big plays. TE LJ Smith beat them for several key receptions. Kenny Phillips missed a few tackles on Smith also. In fact, on both of Westbrook's long plays, it looked like Pierce was the victim, but the S should have given him help. You have to give the Eagles coaching staff credit, this is the first time I have seen Spagnuolo out coached. Their blocking schemes kept the Giants from sacking McNabb, they found the right plays for 3rd down conversions, kept getting Westbrook enough touches until they could find him in favorable match ups where he could make a big play. They attacked the weak spot of the Giants defense and made enough plays to win the game. Westbrook had an absolutely great game, blocking, running and catching passes. He is a great player.

The refs failed to call a few fairly obvious PI penalties against the Giants and against the Eagles.