Sunday, November 30, 2008

A look ahead to the Redskins

I was settling down to write my Redskins preview post when the news came down this afternoon that Plaxico Burress literally shot himself in the foot. I don't want to go into the details of how it happened or how badly hurt he is - but I would guess that Plaxico Burress has played his last game as a New York Giant. He will surely be out for a while, probably the whole year. I am sure that the team, the coaches, the front office does not want this distraction on the team, no matter how good Burress is and he will not return to the team next year. The distractions and behavior was bad enough this year, between fines, suspensions and benching. The annoying and perplexing thing to the team has to be that the Giants caved and gave him his big contract. I am 90% certain that he will not be on the team next year. Maybe Sean Payton has some more draft choices to give to us and Plax can go down to New Orleans with Shockey.

On to the Redskins:

Burress was out anyway, so except for the distraction factor, this gunshot thing would not have hurt the Giants personnel-wise. Giants shut down the Redskins running game in the season opener and put the ball in the hands of Campbell to try and beat them, which he couldn't. Everyone said that the Redskins weren't used to the Zorn offense and that is why they looked so bad in that season opener. I don't get that - they were terrible in week 1 because they didn't get the Zorn offense; after 6 weeks of training camp, 4 preseason games, mini-camps, Organized Team Activities during the off-season and other learning opportunities. But then magically in the one week of practice between weeks 1 and 2, they finally "get it" and go on a 4 game winning streak. I don't think so. I think the Redskins are an average offensive team that rely heavily on the running game and the performance of Clinton Portis. Giants were (are) very good at shutting down the opposing team's running game and that's what they did to Washington in that opener.

After Redksins won 4 in a row, they have been 3-3 since then and have not been particularly impressive. If the Giants can control the running game of the Redskins, they should be able to hold their offense relatively in check. Redskins do have a decent OL and Santana Moss is a dangerous WR, but Campbell is not a great qb and I think Giants defense will have a good game.

On the other side of the ball, Redskins defense is very good. They have excellent CBs in Carlos Rogers, Fred Smoot and now D'Angelo Hall. The Redskins have some injuries at LB, including Fletcher. Giants will probably try to establish the run, especially on the edges against the Redskins. They ran effectively in the first game and Brandon Jacobs should be coming back Sunday. No doubt Washington will scheme to stop the run because of Giants success in game 1, so Giants must be prepared to pass to keep ' Skins honest. If they play carefully and intelligently, they should be able to move the ball, even though the Giants scored only 16 points in the first game. Burress had a big game against the Redskins in week 1 and he will be missed tomorrow. Redskisn S LaRon landry is an excellent player and Eli will have to know where he is on passing plays

Friday, November 28, 2008

Cowboys and playoff picture

Cowboys looked real strong on Thanksgiving Day clobbering the Seahawks. Truthfully, the Cowboys might be the only team in the NFC that can line up man-to-man with the Giants and win on purely personnel matchups. There are other teams that are dangerous - Carolina and Tampa Bay are both 8-3. Atlanta looks pretty good and Arizona with those great WRs can give any team trouble on any given day. Even the Saints, with that big offense can be a challenge, although they are only 6-5 right now and trailing in the wildcard race. But all of these teams have some weaknesses and the Giants, with their balance can find a way to just line up and beat them. Dallas is a different story. Their personnel is outstanding: 13 pro-bowl players and a 13-3 record last year was not an accident. Romo is good at qb, he's probably the 2nd best qb in the NFC East. Their skill position players are outstanding and their defensive front is also excellent. The Dallas weaknesses are in their DB-field which is overrated and in their OL, which, though very large is not that athletic.

Despite these small weaknesses, their personnel matches up well with the Giants and I would like to see them not make into the playoffs. The Cowboys are 8-4 and have 4 relatively hard games left: @ Steelers, Giants, Ravens and @ Eagles. If they split these 4 games, they will finish 10-6 and have a good chance of nabbing the wildcard. It looks likely that one of the wildcards will come from the NFC South and only one this year from the NFC East. The Redskins, after their game this Sunday against the Giants, play: @ Ravens, @ Bengals, Eagles, @ 49ers. Redskins have an easier last 4 games than the Cowboys with two games against very weak teams, even though three are on the road. Redskins rely so much on their running game, I can see their matchup against the Ravens who defend the run so well, could be a tough game for them. But if Giants beat the Redskins and lose to the Cowboys, the Cowboys will be one game up on the Redskins and it will probably come down to a tiebreaker. Head-to-head is first and Redskins-Cowboys split their two games. Next tiebreaker is division record and conference record, which Cowboys will have a good chance to win if they beat the Giants.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

How good are the Giants

Some interesting ways to look at how good the Giants really are:

Giants are the second team in NFL history to win five consecutive games against teams that had a winning record at the time that they played them.

Giants have only played 11 games so far this year, but if you look at their last 16 games, which is a full season's worth, you realize that:
(1) over their last 16 games, including the last regular season game of 2007 and the 4 playoff games at the end of 2007, Giants are 14-2
(2) 9 of those 16 games were against teams that made the playoffs in 2007 (Cowboys-2, Redskins, Buccaneers, Packers, Patriots-2, Steelers, Seahawks)
(3) 9 of the 16 teams had winning records at the time that the Giants played them
(4) the difference between points scored and points allowed is 121, by far the highest in the league this year

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Cardinals post mortem II (the game)

Eli was outstanding. Every throw was on the money and his decision making was impeccable. He spreads the ball around to all his WRs, in fact, there was even a Sinorice Moss sighting. (Digression - two years ago Giants had 4 players on their team who had brothers that were also NFL players - Manning and Moss are the two that are still on the team. Can you name the other two?). He hit a very high percentage of his passes and made it look easy. He had a terrible drop by Toomer on the Giants first possession that would have set the Giants up in great field position. Burress dropped one also, but at least the DB made a good play on that ball. I guess Eli likes playing in Glendale.

In other games this year where Eli excelled, the OL did a great job pass blocking and gave him a clean pocket to throw out of. Eli was under some pressure this week in Arizona and he made several throws under a rush and moved in the pocket several other times to avoid the rush and give himself some extra time and space to throw. My favorite play was the 30 yard pass to Steve Smith down the sideline. Eli saw a blitz coming, saw that he had one-on-one coverage on Smith, waited until the last second and lofted a perfect throw just as he was being hit 40 yards down the field. Smith made a good play on the ball, but it was a great play by Eli.

Everybody is talking about Warner being the potential MVP this year and he wasn't even the best qb on the field this past Sunday. Switch qbs and the Cardinals win the game.

Hixon is a very gifted player - not just WR and not just return guy, but he is tough and a good runner. On the end around, he needed to be elusive to get 11 yards and on a play in second half, he caught the ball right at the first down marker and shrugged off a tackle by a LB to get the extra yard or two and make sure that Giants would get the first down and not rely on the refs to give Giants a favorable spot. He is a great player and if Giants play him more, their offense will become even more productive than it already is.

By contrast, well dressed Amani Toomer is tough and a real gamer, but he never had the speed that Hixon has and he is probably a half step slower than he was a few years ago. He drops the ball too often considering he is more of a possession receiver now. But one thing that makes me crazy about Toomer is that he leads the league in: catching a 3rd down pass 3 yards short of the 1st down marker and getting stopped 1/2 yard short of the first down. OK - so maybe the NFL doesn't track this statistic, but it happens with him way too often. He's not elusive enough to get around the tackler and he's not powerful enough to knock him back that extra half yard. It happened again on Sunday in the second half. BTW - this almost cost us the Superbowl - I am sure you all remember the game winning drive, where Jacobs got a 1st down on a 4th and 1 right before the two minute warning. The reason it was 4th and 1 instead of 1st and 10 is because Toomer was stopped a foot short. It ended happily, but you get my point.

Giants running game was effective when it had to be and got just enough to keep the game balanced. Cardinals absolutely sold out to stop the run. They played a single safety high, instead of two deep and often had 9 guys in the box to stop the run. They run-blitzed often and flowed to the ball hard to stop the run. Even against these defenses Giants occasionally ran successfully. The plays that worked most effectively were counters, getting the defense flowing one way, and running back the other way. Giants also used trap blocking effectively on a few plays. Snee is a star and the entire OL plays very cohesively together. I am afraid of losing Spagnuolo to a HC job at the end of the season, but I am almost as much afraid of losing OL coach Flaherty. After the success former Cowboy OL coach Sparano is having as HC in Miami, I am sure some copy-cat team will pick off Flaherty.

Giants defense played much better than the statistics might indicate. Giants gave up 350 yards passing and 29 points, but somehow, never seemed overwhelmed or out of control. Cardinals only had one pass play more than 18 yards. The strategy was to try to keep the Cardinals WRs in front of them, tackle surely and force a turnover or two from Warner. This worked perfectly. Actually, the Giants DB's dropped 2 or 3 other balls that could have been picked off and played very well. If the refs had not given the Cardinals a gift TD with 3 very questionable penalties on one 2nd half drive that made the game closer, Giants would have won in a rout. Giants defense completely shut down the run and are very good at making teams one-dimensional. Giants also have great depth in the db-field. Terrel Thomas looks like a very good player and he is probably the 4th best CB behind Webster, Ross and Dockery. Corey Webster has become a star. The depth is evident in the fact that the Giants best two db's last year - Madison and McQ rarely get on the field and don't even dress for some games.

I give the Giants coaching staff a lot of credit for their cerebral approach to the game, and I love how they use personnel (with the Hixon/Toomer thing one notable exception) and are keenly aware of game situations. Case in point: when Burress got hurt, they took Hixon out of kick-off return duty, figuring that he would play a bigger part of the offense and they wanted to lighten his load and not wear him out, so Bradshaw came in to return the next kickoff. Then, Cardinals got called for an offside on that kickoff and the coaches, rightfully expected that they could get a big return out of the next kick. The kick was going to be from 5 yards further back, but most of all, the kick return team was probably tired from just having run down field covering the previous kick. So they put Hixon back in to replace Bradshaw after the penalty, Giants kick return team blocked it up real well and Hixon went for 80 yards. He did so well, that they left him in after that and he had a few other big returns. I call this subtle brilliance.

Finally - a word about the refereeing. When world's records in track are set in meets that are outdoors, sometimes there's an asterisk that goes next to the record calling it 'wind-aided'. Cardinals first TD drive of the 2nd half that made the game a bit closer should have an asterisk next to it and be called 'ref-aided'. There were three penalties called against the Giants db's and all were very questionable, ticky-tack calls. The first one, the PI on Ross on the 3rd and 15 was particularly bad. There was almost no contact on the play.

How is it possible that the Giants defense was blitzing and rushing all day, hitting Warner often, but not a single holding penalty was called against the Cardinals OL?

Giants missed first downs by inches on two bad spots by the officials, the last one on the 3rd and 8 draw play by Derrick Ward in the 4th qtr, preceding the Giants last FG. Giants missed that first down by less than one inch and I replayed the play several times, frame by frame and the refs missed the spot by at least half a yard. Speaking of measurements - explain this to me: When they put the sticks down initially, they simply eyeball where the nose of the ball is and put the stick at that point on the sideline. Then when they want to measure, they carry the sticks on to the field and approximate by eye where the stick should go down. They also line up by eye the stick so that it is directly behind the ball, so the chain is perfectly straight. Then with all this eyeball approximation to locate the back end stick of the chain, they measure to the inch whether the ball has been advanced 10 yards. Pretty stupid when you think about it. Approximations everywhere, but that final measurement is to the inch.

Cardinals post mortem I (big picture)

Perhaps the spectacular is becoming somewhat mundane to us, as Giants fans are getting accustomed to these kinds of superior performances from our team, where the Giants show how good they really are. Before I start analyzing in detail, let's take a big picture approach and consider the following:

  • Cardinals are putting up piles of points and gobs of yards in the passing game with a revived two-time MVP qb and probably the best WR group to ever play on one team.
  • The climate conditions are perfect for a pass oriented team in the desert and to make it even more perfect, the dome was closed. No wind, no sun, no cold weather to worry about.
  • Cardinals have won 6 in a row at home dating back to last year
  • Giants are (at least statistically) a run oriented offense and are going against a team that stops the run very well.
  • Giants are missing their star RB, Jacobs
  • Giants are missing their star WR, Burress.

Sounds like trouble. So what happens? Giants put the ball in Eli's hands and he has a masterful game throwing the ball, maybe his best game of the year. Derrick Ward steps in capably and runs the ball fairly well, but the big boost comes from special teams where Hixon has a monster game and has 180 return yards. Giants win comfortably.

Giants were missing their best RB and their best WR and they still put up 37 points. Let me re-emphasize how good this was by way of a simple example. Consider our upcoming opponent, the Redskins, currently 7-4 and in good position to make the playoffs. Now remove Santana Moss and Clinton Portis from their team and put the game in the capable hands of qb Jason Campbell. Are they scoring more than 10 points? Actually, they only scored 20 against a pitiful Seatle team with both of those stars in the game. It's a gross understatement to say that the Giants have good depth. It's much more accurate to say that many of the substitutes on the Giants would be starters and perhaps stars on most other teams. In fact, I can not understand why Toomer is playing ahead of Hixon right now. Hixon is an absolute stud and it is almost inexcusable to have him sitting on the bench. He is a speed guy, who has great moves and never drops the ball. Toomer is a possession guy who occasionally drops the ball. I like Toomer - he's tough, he's clutch and he's well dressed. But - Hixon is a star waiting to happen and he has to get on the field more.

Burress missed two games this year: Seahawks (suspended) and Cardinals (injured). In both games, Hixon starred and Eli had his two best games of the year. Actually, I thought Eli was spectacular in the Steelers game also and come to think of it - Burress didn't start that game and was fairly invisible. Maybe there's a pattern that we can figure out. NFL analysts still think that Eli is an efficient, capable, unspectacular qb who is slightly above average. They don't have a clue. I don't care what kind of numbers Brees puts up, how many tackles Roethlisberger breaks, what Rivers qb rating is, or how many starlets Romo goes out with, Eli is the top qb in the game today. OK, maybe he's a hair behind brother Peyton, but I am not so sure about that and considering his age and his future, I certainly would not trade Eli for any player in the league.

More on the game itself in later posts.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Last look ahead to Cardinals

Brandon Jacobs practiced, though he was listed as 'limited', but it appears he will be ready to go. This is his FA year, so he is going to do anything he can to make sure he will play.

Gerris Wilkinson and Kevin Dockery were both practicing Thursday without restrictions, so they should be ready to go. It will be interesting to see if Dockery wins his starting nickel job back from rookie CB Terrel Thomas who has been playing very well in his absence. I would not be shocked if Giants dress extra DBs this week. Cardinals play a lot of 3 and 4 WR formations and are a pass oriented offense. Giants will play a lot of nickel - I even think it should be their base personnel package this week to defense the Cardinals dangerous passing game. The thing that leaves you open to is a power running game, if you are short 1 LB on the field. but the Cardinals RB is Hightower, who is a small speed guy, so the extra DB might not kill the Giants in trying to stop the running game. Of course, it's not only about who the RB is - it's more about having stout guys to take on the opposing OL, but I think it is still worth the risk based on how little the Cardinals run and how well they pass.

Wilkinson will probably not start because Blackburn has been playing well, but I would like to see Wilkinson take a lot of snaps, because he is the fastest OLB on the Giants and will provide the best down field coverage against the passing game.

Speaking of LBs and personnel packages - Antonio Pierce is one of the very few players who almost never comes off the field. Because of personnel packages to combat passing versus running downs as well as getting players a rest during the game so that they will be fresh in the 4th qtr, almost every player sits for several snaps each game. Pierce almost never comes off the field. He is quick enough to get down field to defend the pass, strong enough to take on the run, but most of all, he is very aware of the offensive plays and is masterful at moving the defense around, even after the play call has been sent in by the DC from the sidelines.

Plaxico Burress has a hamstring injury and did not practice. If it is at all close, I would hold him out. Giants have lots of depth at WR and they certainly don't want a lingering hamstring injury to hamper Plax in the stretch run.

Just a follow up on the game plan post from yesterday: in that post, I said that the Cardinals looked like they might be somewhat vulnerable in the passing game and Giants have to be prepared to throw the ball more than they have the past few games. What may argue even more strongly for that point is that the Cardinals appear to be fairly strong in defending the run, allowing an average of about 3.4 yards per carry. I always say that defensive statistics can be very misleading. If the Cardinals score a lot of points, opposing teams may be forced into passing and may stay away from the run. However, we're not looking at total rush yards, we're looking at yards per carry, which should be indicative that they are good against the run. Giants will have to pass the ball.

If that's the case, the loss of Burress might hurt, but I have great confidence in Hixon and the others in the WR corps. Eli's best passing game of the year came with Burress out. Granted it was against the pitiful Seahawks, but Cardinals are not sending many shut down CB's out there either.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A look ahead to Cardinals - II (game plan)

Cardinals will be a formidable opponent especially in the desert where the weather conditions will be perfect and their impressive passing game, which is fueled by the two best WRs in football, Boldin and Fitzgerald and a revitalized Warner at qb, can really put up some yards and points. Cardinals have scored 289 points, tied with the Jets for second in the NFL, trailing only the Giants with 292. As good a thrower as Warner is, his reputation is that he tends to hold the ball a little too long - at least he did when he was playing for the Giants, he can be bothered by a pass rush (what qb isn't?) and he tends to fumble a lot when he gets hit. I once did an analysis of which qb's have fumbling problems, because I felt that simply looking at total number of fumbles was not an accurate enough indicator. Some qbs may not fumble because they have a great OL and never get hit, for example. The converse of course is also true; qb's that play behind an awful OL are more likely to fumble. In order to do my analysis I needed to look at the number of times the qb was hit, the number of times he fumbled and therefore could develop the fumble rate. To get the number of times the qb was tackled, I looked at number of runs and number of sacks and used that as the denominator to calculate the fumble rate. I didn't do this for every qb that was then playing in football, but I did take about 20 of the starters in the league at the time. The qbs that scramble and run a lot were near the top of the list - Daunte Culpepper was very high up there, as was former Saints qb Aaron Brooks, but right near the top of the list were Kerry Collins and Kurt Warner. I haven't done this in a few years so the stats surely have changed, but it was an instructive exercise. Kerry Collins started fumbling less the year after I did this analysis so maybe Warner has cleaned up his act also, but the point remains - if you get after Warner with a pass rush, because he is not mobile, you can bother him and you may be able to force him into some turnovers. The converse is certainly true - if you don't pressure him and he is allowed to sit back in the pocket all day, he will kill you in the passing game with those outstanding receivers.

From the statistics, it appears that Arizona's OL is pretty good and they protect Warner well. Cardinals have allowed 18 sacks this year, while Giants have allowed only 12 of Eli Manning. But the Cardinals have attempted way more passes than the Giants, 386 to 305, so the rate at which the Cardinals allow sacks is only a little worse than the Giants. Cardinals allow Warner to be sacked on 4.7% of his pass attempts, while Eli is sacked 3.9% of the time, not a huge difference. Incidentally, the lowest rate in the NFC is the Saints at 2.0% and the worst is the Lions at 11.2%. The Cardinals average only 3.4 yards per rush and have run for 869 yards on the year. They have passed for 3,058 yards - an incredible average of 305.8 yards per game, so clearly they are a pass-based offense. Whereas the last few weeks, the Giants came in with a defensive game plan to stop the Ravens, the Eagles and the Cowboys from running the ball, clearly this week they have to come in with a game plan to stop the pass and to rush the passer. The Cardinals have turned the RB duties over to rookie RB Hightower and benched Edgerin James, so maybe their running game will be more dangerous and they will be more balanced offensively.

Last week Flacco made some plays against the Giants in the passing game particularly when the Giants were sitting back in zone defenses. Giants gave a cushion underneath in their zone and Flacco was able to find and hit his men. They blitzed selectively against the Ravens, which is a pattern they have been following the last few weeks. I think the Giants will be a little more aggressive in their pass rush and their defense this week for a few reasons: (1) they will not be afraid of Warner scrambling away from them and therefore will come with more blitzes, more line stunts, wider pass rushes that don't require the rushers to stay in their lanes and keep the qb in the pocket. (2) they may show some zone, but I think they will play more man-to-man with safety help because the Cardinal WR can make yards after the catch if they give up easy stuff underneath a soft zone.

Corey Webster and James Butler came out of the last game healthy and Kevin Dockery practiced fully on Wednesday, so he should be coming back this week, meaning that the db-field will be at close to full strength. I would like to see a lot of K Phillips this week at safety instead of Butler, because speed and range at the safety position will be more important this week to contain the passing game than a strong tackler like Butler who does well in giving run support.

Because the Cardinals pass so well and run relatively little and not very effectively, Giants should play a lot of nickel, getting an extra DB on the field, even when Arizona is not in a sure passing down and when they don't have 3 or 4 WR's in the game. Giants should trust that they can control the running game even without the extra LB in the game. Danny Clark and Chase Blackburn are not great in pass coverage, so I think this is particularly important against the Cardinals this week.

On defense, the Cardinals front is very quick and athletic but a little undersized. Giants run the ball well with a power running game, so the strong temptation will be to pound the ball with that power running game against their defense, even if Jacobs has to sit out the game with his sore knee. However, I think the Giants can't rely purely on the running game this week, they have to be prepared to pass the ball and put up some points against the Cardinals defense. It's hard to imagine that the defense, as well as they have played, will be able to completely neutralize the Cardinals incredible passing game. AZ will make some plays in the passing game and will put up some points - Giants have to be prepared to answer. Furthermore, the Cardinals are a little banged up in the secondary and they are in the middle of the league as far as passing defense, having allowed about 210 yards per game. But here is where I think they might be a little vulnerable in the passing game: they have allowed 19 TD passes which is the most in the NFC and they are allowing 7.3 yards per pass attempt, which is fourth worst in the conference, ahead only of the Seahawks, Rams and Lions. Teams have a passer rating of 91.2 against the Cardinals, also fourth worst in the conference, ahead only of those same three teams. I think they are vulnerable in the passing game and Giants should not take the approach that they only need to control the clock and shorten the game by running the ball. Giants should go after the Cardinals with a balanced attack and not be afraid to pass.

A look ahead to the Cardinals - I

Bill Parcells popularized the expression: you are what your record says you are. Cardinals are 7-3 and have the 3rd best record in the NFC behind the 9-1 Giants and the 8-2 Panthers, so on the basis of Parcells statement they should be considered to be a formidable opponent, especially at home. But while Parcells was known for that quote, I also heard him make another statement which I think is applicable to the idea I'm about to introduce here. The context of the upcoming quote is that reporters would ask him something like: "why didn't that play work" or "why didn't you do x instead of y, or y instead of x" or "why couldn't the qb complete that pass". In response to questions like that, the Big Tuna was fond of saying: "Hey, we're not playing solitaire out there". The intent of this response was that there is another team on the field, other players out there and they influence what you do, when you do it, and most of all - the quality of the opponent relative to your own determines the success of a play and the outcome of the game.
So, in the spirit of the "we're not playing solitaire out there" comment, I'd like to take a look at how the Cardinals manufactured their 7-3 record and how the Giants got to 9-1. Maybe there's an inference to be drawn.

Cardinals are playing in what most people agree and what can be probably demonstrated to be, the weakest division in football. Just on the basis of record, you could argue that the NFC North is not too good either, with no teams having better than a .500 record and 0-10 Lions living in the cellar. But three teams are .500 in NFC-N, so there are at least a few mediocre teams in the division (and I personally think the Packers are about to take off). By contrast, the NFC West has the Cardinals at 7-3 and the best of the other three teams is the 49ers at 3-7. Rams and Seahawks are both 2-8, giving the three teams a cumulative record of 7-23, a .233 winning percentage. Four of the Cardinals 7 wins have come against the weak sisters in their own division, which could lead you to question how much their record is indicative of their true team strength.

Futhermore, their other three wins have come against Miami in week 2, before they started playing well for new coach Sparano; against the Bills who have now been exposed as a weak team that built up an early good record against the soft part of its own schedule; and against Dallas. We have to give the Cardinals credit for that Cowboys game, they really got after Romo and their offense moved the ball well against the Cowboys defense. But that is their only good win of the year against a quality opponent that was playing well at the time they met them.
Their 3 losses came against: Redskins in Washington; Jets in NY, in a game that they gave up 34 points in the first half and turned the ball over about 100 times to the Jets defense; Carolina on the road.

To summarize, Cardinals have 4 wins against sub-.500 teams; 1 win against a .500 team; and their record in the 5 games they've played against teams that are currently better than .500 is 2-3. Maybe this takes a little bloom off the rose of their 7-3 record, even if you can only play the teams on your schedule and "you are what your record says you are".

Looking at the Giants - they have three wins against the same weak NFC West and one against the 1-8 Bengals, but in their five games against teams that are currently above .500, they are 5-0. They have beaten Redskins (6-4), Cowboys(6-4), Eagles(5-4-1), Ravens(6-4) and Steelers(7-3).

I can't recall if we've had a big win in Phoenix, Arizona. Any help from guys with better memories than me?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Stats and stuff

Giants are the highest scoring team in football with 292 points, only 3 points ahead of the Jets and this week's opponent, the Cardinals. Giants defense is not the leader in fewest points allowed - they are the 5th best in the league. But they are the leader in terms of point differential. They have allowed 170 points and therefore have scored 122 more points than they have allowed. The only other team in the NFL with numbers close to the Giants are the Titans who have a point differential of 113. The next closest team is the Eagles who have scored 71 more than they've allowed followed by the Jets (68) and Panthers (67).

Point differential is an interesting statistic. Yards allowed and yards gained are not good measures of how good the defense and offense truly are. Points can be a little misleading also, but after 10 games, which is a large enough sample to smooth out the effects of one huge game, I think they are more descriptive than yards gained/allowed. The >100 point differential is a great indicator of team strength.

Strength of schedule is an important influence to all team stats as well as to its record, of course. I think the Titans are a real good team, but they only have 2 wins against teams that are currently over .500: Colts(6-4) and Ravens(6-4). By contrast, the Giants have beaten 5 teams that now have a better than .500 record: Redskins (6-4), Eagles (5-4-1), Cowboys(6-4), Steelers(7-3) and Ravens(6-4).

The rest of the way, 5 of the 6 teams that the Giants play are over .500 and the Titans have only 3 of their remaining 6 opponents in that category. Interesting schedule twist: if the Titans go 15-0, the qb standing in their way for a perfect regular season will be the brother of the qb that tried to block last year's Patriots game 16 - Titans versus Colts.

Giants have the best running game in football, averaging 170 yards per game and have gained more than 200 yards in 5 straight games. But the passing game has declined and it has been a while since the passing game generated more than 200 yards. That's not good. The Giants have to get their passing game going if they're going to play their best and win in the playoffs. My feeling is that the Giants will have to get their passing game going this week and put up some points, because they could get into a track meet against the Cardinals and their incredibly gifted WR's. More on the upcoming Cardinals game in a later post.

Monday, November 17, 2008

General NFL stuff

NFL's dirty little secret is that the US public gambles on the NFL and that the popularity of the league is increased by gambling. The crawl on the bottom of the screen during the game is for gamblers who need to know what's going on in all the games that they may have money on. Yesterday's Steelers-Chargers game was a test for the NFL to see how they handle public scrutiny and their implicit admission that they know about gambling on the games. You know what happened - Steelers were giving 5 points and were ahead by 1 with 11 seconds left. Chargers threw a short pass and hoped to lateral the ball back and forth a few times, hoped that the Cal marching band would walk on the field and someone would break free for a TD. Instead, Polamalu picked up a loose ball on one of these laterals and scored a TD, which would have given the Steelers the win by 8, more than the 5 they were laying. The refs reviewed the play and first called it a TD, then changed their mind and overruled the TD, leaving the final margin 1 point, so those that bet on the Chargers got the win. NFL tried to backtrack, explain what happened, that it should have been, shouldn't have been, backpedaling as fast as NFL cornerback. Why was the NFL concerned - if nobody bets on the games, nobody cares. NFL is not saying why they are so concerned, but it is obvious that they want to protect the integrity of the game, but also want to protect the confidence of the betting public in the honest results of the game. No truth to the rumor that Tim Donaghy was the referee.


Donovan McNabb had an interview after their tie with the Bengals that was absolutely stunning to me. McNabb was asked about the tie and he said that he expected the game to continue until someone scored and a winner was declared. When he found out this was not the case, he said in the interview:

"I didn't know that. I've never been part of a tie. I never even knew it was in the rule book. I was looking forward to getting the opportunity to get out there and try to drive to win the game. But unfortunately with the rules we settled for a tie"

Yep, old Donovan is a real student of the game. Please see my posts after the Giants-Eagles game when I delicately describe Donovan as not a perfect match to the Giants cerebral approach to the game. Put it this way - if McNabb were not a world class athlete able to play professional football at a high level, his alternate job would probably not be neurosurgery or rocket science. McNabb threw 3 INTs and lost a fumble which set up 10 of Bengals' 13 points. His turnovers also undermined the significant advantage that the Eagles had in yardage over the Bengals. He's a great athlete but not a great passer or quarterback.

Titans are a good team and have a fairly easy schedule the rest of the way. They have a good chance to go undefeated this year.

I was really rooting for the Redsksins to beat the Cowboys on Sunday night. Cowboys are a dangerous team. I think they are a little overrated and they have some weak spots on their team, but they do have a lot of talent, especially at the skill positions on offense. They have two games coming up against weak opponents, 49ers and Seahawks both in Dallas and they will surely be 8-4 and right back in the mix. After those next two games, Dallas plays at Pittsburgh, home with the Giants, home against Baltimore and they close in Philadelphia. Cowboys could beat the Giants in Dallas and if they do, they could win all 6 and make the playoffs or even challenge the Giants for the division, if the Giants lose a game that they shouldn't. Cowboys have 4 of the last 6 at home, Giants have 4 of the last 6 on the road. Even though the Giants are good and are playing well, they have a tougher schedule. It's not inconceivable that the Giants could lose at Arizona, and lose any of the three remaining NFC East games. Even though Giants are 9-1, I don't think the division is completely locked up. If Dallas wins the next two against the NFC West opponents, they will be 8-4 and only have to split their last 4 to get to 10 wins, which probably gets them in the playoffs.

Ravens post mortem I

I am starting to get really impressed with this team.

In the parking lot before the game, performing the mandatory pregame tailgate ritual, I observed some troubling signs. I had enormous trouble getting the charcoals lit no matter how much lighter fluid I put on the coals, mostly because I had trouble lighting the match. Even with my normal trick of putting the briquettes in a paper bag and lighting the match inside the paper bag, so the match was shielded from the wind, I had trouble keeping the fire going. Before you think I'm one of these crazies that looks for supernatural omens for the outcome of the game - calm down, I think you know me better than that. I was not worried that a bad tailgate experience = lost game for Giants. The troubling sign was the wind itself. Wind blowing out the flame before the coals were going, wind making paper plates fly all over the place, even knocking over a hot dog or two, portended trouble for the passing game. My concern was that the Ravens defense was great against the run, would commit even more to stop it and the wind would stop the Giants passing game. I was worried that in a low scoring, wind blown game, anything could happen and the fact that I think the Giants are better than the Ravens would be mitigated by the weather conditions.

Silly me. Giants can run against anybody. Ravens have a powerful interior DL and they stopped the Giants several times for no gain on running plays. But Giants OL is so good and the running attack has become somewhat varied, that they can manufacture a running game against nearly any team. Ravens came into the game allowing 65 yards per game on the ground. Although that number was probably somewhat better than it should have been because they played a soft-ish schedule, it still shows they are very good run stoppers. Last year, Giants seemed to have 1 primary running play which they executed well and did predictably - the stretch off tackle run. They ran occasionally between the tackles, but the running attack was conservative. This year, the Giants have added a counter play where the RB takes a step one way, influences the defense to flow that way and then reverses himself and runs in the opposite direction. With the power of Giants running game, defenses sell out to stop the run, swarm to the ball and overpursue, leaving big running lanes on the back side of the defense. This is particularly effective with Giants runners: Jacobs is huge and they have to bring a lot of people to stop him; Ward is shifty and can find the holes and Bradshaw is sneaky fast and explosive.

To compliment the runner, the OL is not of enormous size, though they are pretty tough. But what makes this OL go is how athletic and smart they are. Snee is so quick and so agile that he can pull quickly and get to the perimeter in good shape. O'Hara and Seubert are so stout in the middle that they can fill the lane left vacant by the pulling Snee and Diehl is also very quick and can get downfield. On these counter plays, the OL starts out pushing the DL in the direction they think the RB is going, in the direction that he took his first step. They let themselves get beat slightly and take the DL in the direction they want to go, sometimes called an influence block. Then, when the RB cuts back to the other side of the field, the DL is slightly out of position, but more important the OL has them set up for the perfect blocking angles to keep them moving away from the RB. Then it's up to the TE, FB or WR to lead the blocking on the back side of the field and turn it into a big run.

On Jacobs first 35 yd run on first TD drive, it was not a counter play, it was a straight dive off tackle to the right side of the OL. Jacobs hit a Raven defender and bounced off, taking it back to the left side of the offense, which had the same effect. Ravens were swarming towards the ball, but Jacobs scooted back to the left before they could catch up. On Bradshaw's 75 yard run, it was a counter play and once Bradhsaw got through the first layer of defenders, he cut back to the opposite side, found a crease and made a big play. BTW - I'm still impressed that the Raven DB caught him from behind. Opposing defenses have to commit so much to stop the run that a counter or cutback can turn into a big play with these RBs. The three RBs are different in character: Jacobs is brute force; Ward is polished and quick; Bradshaw is lightning quick and tough. Of the three, Ward is the best pass receiver out of the backfield, but the thing that all 3 have is great vision, great feet and great desire.

Giants have now run for 200 yards in 3 straight games against teams that have very strong defenses - Cowboys, Eagles, Ravens. Overall they have run for 200 yards in 5 of their 10 games. To use the vernacular - that's sick. It's supposed to happen once or twice per year and the Giants have done it in half their games.

There were a few bothersome things to take from this game, but it may only be nitpicking. Perhaps because of the dominance of the running game, the Giants passing game has not been as sharp as it can be. The INT Eli threw at the goal line could have iced the game if Giants had scored a TD there, going into halftime with 24 point lead. I don't know how Eli missed Ray Lewis in the middle of the field - he was stationary and red zone turnovers are a killer.

The kickoff return coverage has not been strong, seemingly all year. Giants are giving away too much field position and the kick return team has not been good either. I'm not sure why Hixon is not returning kicks. I guess he has a slightly more prominent role in the offense than Bradshaw does, so they want to spread the load - but Hixon is fast and a great returner. Bradshaw is more quick than pure fast, though of course he does have good speed.

I was disappointed that the Giants could not punch it into the endzone after Bradshaw's 75 yard run, but it does attest to how tough the Ravens defense can be and therefore, how good the Giants offense was the rest of the game.

The other troubling thing is that this is the second week in a row that Giants did not get much of a pass rush. Giants will need a pass rush next week against Arizona. More about the defense in a later post.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Eagles post mortem IV

Some other observations and game notes:

Not all turnovers were created equal. The fumble by Jacobs gave the Eagles life and put them back in the game. Eagles went up 7-0 and on the next 3 possessions, Giants stopped them twice and forced a fumble on the kickoff return in between. Giants had scored on all three possessions that they got and they were marching down field. Jacobs fumble gave the Eagles a short field which they converted and trailed by only 17-14. If Jacobs had not fumbled, Giants, who were moving the ball, could have put some more points on the board and would have had a comfortable lead at halftime. Jacobs fumble was huge.

McNabb and Reid are terrible in the clutch and terrible game and clock managers. Yesterday, Eagles got the ball back from the Giants for their last try to win at 3:14 left in the 4th quarter. They completed one pass for 17 yards and the clock now showed 2:43. Next play was an interception by Terrell Thomas that got called back because of a questionable holding call on Pierce. 2:35 left. McNabb throws an incompletion. 2:29 left. McNabb scrambles for 7 yards making it 3rd and 3 with 2:23 left. Instead of hurrying in another play, Reid and McNabb let the clock run down to the 2:00 minutes warning. They could have gotten off at least one and maybe two more plays in that 23 second span. Bad clock management. The play selection of running Westbrook twice to the right would have been fine if it had been the Giants - with Jacobs and Hedgecock leading the way. But the Eagles FB flopped down and didn't block anybody and Chase Blackburn made the tackle... btw it was his only tackle of the night.

Eli seemed a little jumpy in the pocket at times and wasn't as sharp on some throws as he could have been.

Giants pass rush didn't get to McNabb, but I think they were trying to be very disciplined in their rush lanes and make sure McNabb didn't get out of the pocket where he is a more dangerous passer and can hurt you with a run.

Desean Jackson looks like a great player for the Eagles. Westbrook did not look good at all. It wasn't just that Giants were handling the Eagles OL and not giving him space, but Westbrook did not make anybody miss all night and did not use his speed to outrun anybody either.

Toomer did not drop anything but he looks slower and slower. Giants have to get Hixon and Moss in the game more often, on other than a 4 wide or 5 wide receiver personnel package.

Rushing for 200 yards in a game is supposed to be a very rare event. A team should get it once every year or so. Giants have done it 4 times in 9 games this year.

Giants dominated the Steelers, Cowboys and Eagles on consecutive weeks and, in my opinion, they haven't put it all together yet and have not played one of those perfect games where nearly everything is working and firing on all cylinders.

The reason Eli gets no respect is that he doesn't look like a mean, physical player like Roethlisberger or McNabb; he doesn't pile up lots of stats like Brady, Brees, Peyton because the Giants run the ball so well; he does not have that cute smile and doesn't go out with divas and movie starts like Romo; he is not loud and blustery, does not talk trash like... hmm .. like nearly everyone else in the NFL. He's not good copy, because he has this aw shucks, Opie Taylor kind of attitude and always says the politically correct thing. That's ok - he's going to win us some ball games and win us some playoff games too. Let the other guys get fawned over by the press. I still would not trade Eli for any qb in football.

Eagles post mortem III

I said in my "Look ahead to the Eagles" post that on a neutral field Giants would win by 10 points. If Giants had made the two point conversion after their last TD and if you believe Vegas that the home field is worth 3 points, then the margin would have been exactly 10. I'm just saying.

I hate going for a 2 point conversion that early in the game. I especially hate it if you are ahead and want to pad the lead a bit, like Giants did. In this game - Giants missed the 2 points and therefore were up 12. Eagles scored a TD which reduced the Giants lead to 5. Eagles got the ball back with 3:30 left. If they had scored a TD with 1:00 left, for example, the 6 points would have put them up 1 point. Then, they could have gone for the 2 point conversion and if they make it, they are up 3. After trailing by 3, if Giants move down in the last minute to kick a FG, they would only have been able to tie the game. By contrast, if they had taken the sure one point, they would have been up 13, and if the same events played out, if/when Eagles had scored a second TD they would have kicked the 1 point conversion since 2 would do them no good and they would have been up by 1 point. Then, if Giants had moved down for a last minute FG, it would have been to win the game, not tie it. The only time to go for the 2 point conversion is when you absolutely, positively need it.

Giants play calling was very conservative Sunday night. They threw down the field hardly at all. They ran a lot - very effectively - no complaint there. Except they did not take any shots down the field. Their passes were intermediate, which at least stretches the defense a little, but nothing deep. I think they were very concerned with the Eagle pass rush and blitz packages, and they were confident that they could run on the slightly undersized Eagles front. They were right. It's hard to complain when you put up 36 points, but a good deep passing game is important.

On the 3rd and 1 in the 4th qtr where Ward was stopped giving the ball back to the Eagles for one last try - the entire stadium, and all of the millions of eyeballs watching the game on TV absolutely KNEW what the play call was gong to be. The entire Eagles defense was withing 3 yards of the ball at the time it was snapped and the play had absolutely no chance of working. Giants should let Eli fake a handoff, roll out to his right and either run if it is open, throw a short ball to a TE if it is wide open or flop to the ground if nothing is there.

On defense, Giants are blitzing less, relying on the DL to get a pass rush and the much improved DB-field to stay with their receiver. Corey Webster is a star. Michael Johnson and Kenny Phillips play very, very well at S. Terrell Thomas looks like he will be a good player also. I haven't heard when Dockery is coming back, but I wouldn't rush him.

An ex's-and-o's note: play action passing is made more effective by the entire team showing run, not just the qb faking the ball to the RB. The defense is taught not just to look into the backfield becasue they can be tricked by the qb. Rather, they look at and key on the OL, usually the G to see what play is coming. On a running play, the OL pushes forward and tries to push the DL backwards to make room for their RB. On a passing play, the OL usually sags backward and forms a semicircle around the qb to protect him. The T sometimes steps backwards even on running plays if it is going to the other side of the line and he engages his man later, so that is not as reliable a read as the G. Sometimes on short passes, where the qb takes a 1 or 3 step drop, the OL punches forward as if it were a running play to give the qb some throwing lanes. If they push forward, the DL can not get their hands up and block the vision of the qb, becasue they are engaged with the OL. Giants do something interesting on play action passes to fool the defense more and they did it a few times against the Eagles. They actually had Snee pulling from his RG position and running to the left side of the offense on a passing play. Since the G is usually a key for the defense to read the play and since the Giants like to pull their G's often on their bread and butter off tackle running play, this is a very effective way to get the defense to bite on the run and give Eli a clean pocket to throw in. Snee starts to pull, then slows down and helps block on the left side of the DL. C O'hara fills his slot and if necessary, Seubert and Diehl slide to the right side of the defense to fill the space left by Snee and Snee blocks on the left side, where he pulled to.

Eagles post mortem II

Some interesting notes from the game:

McNabb threw one INT but is lucky he did not have 3 more. Aaron Ross had one in the first half that hit him right between the numbers but he dropped it. Rookie Terrel Thomas intercepted one at the end of the game that was called back because of a holding penalty on Pierce that had nothing to do with the play. There was a 3rd throw that McNabb made when he was under pressure that Pierce could have caught, though admittedly it would have required a great catch while diving to the ground. McNabb is a great athlete and a very overrated passer.

Before the game everyone was saying how Westbrook is finally completely healthy again; he ran for 130+ yards last week; how great Westbrook is; how different the Eagles offense is with him in there; yada, yada, yada. Then, Giants completely shut him down hold him to less than 40 yards rushing and stop him cold on the two 4th qtr runs that ended the game and everyone is suddenly saying that he must be hurting. Of course - it couldn't be that the Giants defense shut him down, he must have been hurt. In fact Madden said at the end of the game that if you've ever had a rib injury, you know that it doesn't get better in only two weeks. Um, John... he ran for 130+ last week.

Speaking of Madden - I think he's losing it. He said that Hedgecock is now a great blocker, maybe the best blocking FB in the NFL. No argument there - except big John said that it was a great improvement over last year, when Hedgecock was only an average blocker. Really?? John must have confused him with the other Hedgecock in the NFL, because the one that plays for the Giants was a stud from the first week they got him, which is why Reese tore up his contract and extended him 5 years within his first few weeks on the team.

Brian Dawkins is the dirtiest player in the game. He hits late and hits in the head all the time, I don't know why he never gets called for it. He's the one who hit Jacobs in the helmet with his elbow forcing the fumble after Jacobs was already on the ground on the first challenge of the two that Reid tried and lost.

It was a great move by Eli to tell Coughlin and coaches to look at the play carefully and consider challenging the illegal forward pass call. I don't know if you noticed, but right after he threw the pass, you could see Eli looking backwards and down, no doubt checking where he was to make sure he was not over the line. On TV, they were talking about the red line and then later the readjusted red line. All you had to do was look at the sticks at the top of the TV screen and it was further forward than even the readjusted red line. It was almost exactly on the 20 yard line and Eli's foot was therefore actually behind the line, not on it.

Boss is really coming into his own. He dropped one easy TD, but the one he caught was gorgeous. Shockey would not have caught that ball. Change of scenery seems to have done Schockey a lot of good. He's winning friends and influencing people in New Orleans just like he did in New York.

A few comments on the reffing in the game: The holding penalty on Pierce that took away an interception from Terrell Thomas and would have ended the game right there was completely bogus. Kiwanuka was engaged with the TE LJ Smith and it looked like they were wrestling pretty good, but no more than normally happens on the OL between blocker and DL. The flag came out after LJ Smith released from Kiwanuka and bumped into Pierce, so it was not a mistake by the ref getting the number wrong. He threw the flag right at the feet of Pierce and was intending to call it on him. Bad call, could have cost us the game.

The holding penalty on Michael Johnson that canceled the TD on the punt return by Hixon was a TERRIBLE call. Not only was it not a holding penalty, it was a perfect text-book block by Johnson, who had his arms extended, was not clutching the opponents jersey, did not have his hands around his shoulders. It's the way the coaches teach it in training camp. I also saw the ref who threw the flag standing on the sideline upfield from the block. He was in a direct line behind the Eagle player. In other words, if you were to treat Johnson, Eagle and ref as dots on a pad, and you tried to connect the dots, it would be a perfect straight line. Of course, this means that the ref had absolutely no possible way to view the blocking technique that Johnson used on the Eagle player. All he could see was the Eagle player fall down and he threw the flag. It's one thing if the ref makes a mistake on a judgement call, but here he simply imagined what Johnson was doing and assumed that since the Eagle player fell to the ground, it must have been holding.

After the Eagles TD that made the score 36-31, Giants had a 3rd and 1 at about their own 40 yard line. I'll talk about our play calling in another post, but now I am talking about the reffing. Ward ran up the middle and was stopped for a 1 yard loss. The ball came loose and the Giants recovered for another 3 1/2 yard loss and they had a 4th and 5 1/2. Giants punted and the Eagles were offside, but sine they had lost 4 1/2 yards on previous play, the 5 yard offside penalty would not have given them the first down, so they declined the penalty, because Feagles got off a great punt - 50 yards, no return - and Giants were happy with the field position. Here's where the reffing comes in: Ward did not fumble, he was completely down before Dawkins came over and stripped him. I say completely down, because it wasn't one of those close calls with his knee or his elbow being down, rather his entire body was down, he was actually lying on his back. I don't know how the refs missed it and didn't call it down by contact right away. Coughlin had a challenge left and he could have challenged the spot, but that would have been dumb move, the only thing to gain was a few yards before the punt. Here's the funny thing - it would have been better for the Giants if the Eagles had recovered that fumble. Then Coughlin surely would have challenged; the refs would have ruled down by contact and Giants would have had a 4th and 2. Then the offside penalty would have given the Giants a first down.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Eagles post mortem I

Before I talk about the actual game, the key plays, the interesting twists, I want to take a broad, panoramic view of the Giants. Giants are a gritty team with character and are completely unflappable. Nothing seems to faze them and apparent momentum turning plays by the other team just don't work against this team. Virtually every other NFL team would have folded or at least stumbled for a quarter or so after the start that the Giants had. Playing on the road, in particularly hostile territory, national game, players and fans completely pumped, the Eagle fans may have even had a few drinks to get them even more stoked and they are howling and as loud as they can be. This builds to a peak as their defense takes the field and on the third offensive play, Eagles get an interception on a great play (though admittedly slightly lucky) by their DT. They score a TD right away on a trick play, no less, with a direct snap to a WR and the house absolutely comes down. It was as loud as I have ever heard it and this emotion surely transferred to the players on the field. Many other teams would flat out lose the game right there. They'd go three-and-out, maybe turn the ball over again and the opposing offense would charge down for another score. Some other teams might not completely fold, but surely would go into a funk until half time and dig a hole for themselves probably too deep to recover from. But instead, the uber-composed Giants take the kickoff, march right down the field and score a TD. They have composure and are so cerebral, it is a pleasure to watch this team.

In fact they don't get too pumped up and overconfident either and this is also connected to the cerebral, studied approach they take to the game. It is surely one of the reasons that Shockey was not a match for this team, but I don't think that is a great test, because I don't think Shockey is a match for any team except perhaps the Oakland Raiders. Actually, he would fit well in Philly also. Donovan McNabb is not too.... let me not get into trouble here, so let's just put it this way. You won't run into Donovan McNabb on your way into a MENSA meeting. Before the game, McNabb was asked a series of questions about the upcoming Giants-Eagles game, including: was the game critical for their season and if the Giants win, would he concede that the Giants would be the best team in the division. In fact, here's the transcript:

Q: Just to clarify how you feel – if they do beat you on Sunday you wouldn’t be conceding necessarily? At least at that point they would be the best team in the NFC East?

A: Yes, that is what I am saying. What would you expect me to say?

Q: I just figured that if they had a three-game lead on you with seven games to play that it would be an indication that maybe you would consider them to be at the top of the division at that point in terms of being the best team.

A: Do you think they were the best team in the division last year and they won the Super Bowl. (PAUSE) Hello.

Um - yes Donovan - Giants were the best team in the division last year. In fact, they were the best team in football.

Sheesh - Giants still get no respect. Even from a loser like McNabb. What did he lose - like 4 conference championships in a row at home and then he finally wins one, goes to the Superbowl and chokes - literally... upchucked, yuked, did the old rainbow yawn in the 4th quarter of the game against the Patriots.. and loses the game.

While we're on qb comparisons - let's take a look at the comparison between our boy Eli and Donovan McChoke. McNabb on a team with TO as his WR loses to a very good Patriots in the Superbowl, a team that did not have Randy Moss as its WR. Then two short years later, Eli beats a much better version of the Patriots, a team that has Randy Moss as its WR and has come off a ridiculous 18 game winning streak. Far from yuking in the clutch in the 4th qtr, Eli throws for 150 yards and 2 TDs in the 4th qtr, the second TD coming after the Patriots with their all-world qb Brady marched them down field and scored a go ahead TD with a few minutes left in the game. That's the composure of a winning qb. The attitude that the team has of not panicking when things look rough certainly cascades downward from Eli who embraces that attitude himself. When Giants were losing a few years ago, everyone was saying - why can't Eli get angry. Now they are rightly realizing that quiet steady leadership at the qb position is more important.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Look ahead to the Eagles

On a neutral field, Giants would win by 10 points.

Eagles have a good qb, average OL and really only one special player on offense in Westbrook. They have a rookie WR in DeSean Jackson that has lots of speed, but I haven't seen enough of him yet to claim that he is the second coming of Randy Moss. Giants defense is based on speed and under ordinary circumstances, I would think that the defense should be able to come up with a plan to at least contain Westbrook and their offense.

On defense, Eagles are a tad overrated. They go for the throat and can stomp on mediocre teams, they can make you look bad at times if you don't pick up their blitz, but you can also make some plays down the field on them when they are gambling.

Giants should try to establish their power running game because that will limit the opportunity for the Eagles defense to get us in trouble. But just like the Cowboys stacked the line of scrimmage early in the game to stop the run last week, look for the Eagles to do the same thing. Giants need to respond the same way that they did against the Cowboys. Throw early and often when Eagles drop the safety down to the line of scrimmage to stop the running game. I think Giants can do some damage in the passing game. But if the Giants can rush for 120 yards, I think they should win the game.

If Giants get into an obvious passing situation, they always need to have a hot receiver in case a blitzer comes free (obviously). But they should try to attack off an anticipated Eagles blitz by increasing the protection scheme, keeping an extra blocker in and try a double-move to Burress. This is not intuitive, because the double moves take longer to develop and against a blitz you think of getting rid of the ball quickly. But the defense knows this too and the DB's typically play very tight when the defense blitzes to take away even the short throws and calculate that the offense will not have time to develop something down the field. Consequently, the DB's will go for the first move that the WR makes and might be vulnerable to a double move. Remember the TD by Plax that won the Superbowl? It was not a double move, but he faked a slant and ran a fade to the corner of the end zone. Eli did not pump fake on the play and the WR did not completely stop and start like they might on a double move , but because the Patriots were in an all out blitz, the CB bit on the first move that the WR made and was vulnerable to the fade route. That was a particularly easy play because the slant fake was very quick by Plax; he really just tilted his shoulder to the inside and the DB was not worried about the WR going long, because they were already backed up defending their own goal line. It may not be as easy in the middle of the field, but I think it will still be there.

Last week, when Eli threw the INT, he did not read the CB coming up. But the CB saw Eli take a three step drop, read correctly that it was going to be a short throw because of the short drop, saw Eli lock onto the receiver and started jumping the pass route long before Eli let go of the ball. Eli did not see the CB jump the route, but obviously Burress did and he turned up field and was going for a long ball. If Eli had seen Burress turn up and if he had been able to hold on to the ball a second more despite that short drop, it could have been a big play.

It is a similar situation when Eagles blitz. Their DB's are looking to come up the field and make a play on the ball and could give up a big play. Of course, you have to block up the blitzers and be ready to get rid of it if it doesn't work, but it is worth a try. Of course this could be done against any team, but because the Eagles blitz so much and it is the mantra of their defense, it is more likely to work. It also might be particularly effective against the Eagles because they often will bring a safety on the blitz, not just LB's, making the deep ball even more open.

Because of the propensity of Eagles to blitz they will often leave the TE unguarded or 1-on-1 with a LB. Look for Eli to go to Boss at some key moments. Steve Smith will also have a big game as the hot receiver on those Eagles blitzes.

Like I said - on a neutral field, the Giants would probably win. But on Sunday night, national game, in their home stadium, with the added motivation that if they lose their NFC East division hopes are probably gone and with the prize of knocking off the Superbowl champs, the Eagles are by far the more desperate team.

On defense

Giants defense is playing very well this year and DC Spagnuolo gets (rightfully) lots of credit for being the architect of the defense. He makes the schemes, calls the blitzes and the defensive calls. The Giants position coaches on defense are very good as well, especially DL coach Mike Waufle and DB coach Giunta. It is true that they have a lot of good raw material and talent to work with, but they are getting a lot out of them and they are improving their players in their fundamental techniques, not only within the larger design of carrying out their assignments on defensive schemes.

It is largely thought that Spagnuolo simply imported the defense that he learned when he was in Philadelphia under legendary DC Jim Johnson, but this is a great discredit to DC Spags who calls a much different game than Johnson does. Johnson is thought of as being a blitz-oriented DC, also called a very aggressive coach. (Digression -Just once, I want to see a new DC get hired and say something like: I will not run an aggressive defense, I believe in having a shy, retiring, timid defense.) Spagnuolo is aggressive but is much more thoughtful and cerebral in his defensive calls. In the last few weeks, he has blitzed selectively. In fact, I have seen him blitz more early in the game and show blitz formations in the 2nd half but blitz less often. He will bring one LB instead of an all out blitz and rely on the DL to beat their man to generate the pass rush.

Maybe by blitzing in the 1st half, he gets the opposing offense conscious of the blitz later in the game. Then when the Giants show blitz, the offense could make one of two mistakes: they could misread the blitz and keep extra blockers in to protect making it easier for the DB-field to defend; or - even if they read correctly, there is still a moment of hesitation to read whether the defense is coming and the offense is slightly more tentative coming off the ball. This was an adjustment that Spagnuolo made after the Bengals game when we blitzed a lot and the Bengals were able to max protect, pick up the blitzes and make plays down field. He has a much more cerebral approach to defense than just "blitz, blitz, blitz".

Some Giants Nostalgia

The last time the Giants got off to this good a start was 1990 when they were 10-0 through the first 11 weeks. The 49ers also got off to a 10-0 start and the Giants had their 12th game set as a Monday night match up against those Montana-led 49ers. The entire country was looking forward to the Giants and 49ers beating their opponents in game 11 and having two 11-0 teams facing each other for the first time in NFL history, and doing so on the national stage of Monday Night Football for some added circus.

But to get to that 12th game undefeated, Giants had to get past game 11 against the Eagles in Philadelphia and 49ers had to get past the Rams (then still playing in Los Angeles). Instead of setting up that perfect 11-0 matchup, both the Giants and the 49ers lost their 11th games making that Monday night game a contest between two teams that were 10-1 rather than 11-0.
The 49ers, led by legendary qb Montana, won that Monday night game against the Giants in a close, low scoring defensive struggle and went on to a 14-2 season, preparing to go for their third straight Superbowl, the three-peat. Giants finished the season at 13-3 and lost their starting qb, Phil Simms in their 14th game against the Bills. Jeff Hoestetler came in at qb and you know the rest: Giants beat the 49ers in San Francisco in the conference championship game 15-13 on a Matt Bahr FG as time expired to prevent the three-peat. They won the Superbowl against the Bills 20-19 when Scott Norwood missed a FG at the final gun. If I remember correctly, he was wide right from 47 yards away on a grass field. Check the record books, I might have that wrong.

But of course, what's relevant to this week is the Eagles game coming up in Philadelphia and I'll take a look back to that Eagle game in 1990 in Philadelphia. I'm going on memory now about that game to recapture what happened and reconstruct the events, but I think I have most of the details right. Giants had a bruising running game that year led by power runner OJ Anderson and a huge OL led by Jumbo Elliot, William Roberts, Eric Moore, Brian Oates and Doug Riesenberg. They used that power running game to make their offense go and relied on Simms to Bavaro and some other good-but-not-great WR's to compliment that running game. They controlled the clock in most games, got a lead early, never turned the ball over, played very conservatively on offense and then relied on their great defense, led by LT and Carl Banks to win. For some reason, Parcells decided that this was the week to take the shackles off of Simms and the passing game and throw the ball all over the field against the Eagles defense. The Giants came out throwing, scored a TD right at the end of the half but missed the PAT and were behind 14-13 at half time. They did nothing offensively in the 2nd half and the Eagles got a turnover and got some late scores to win going away. Randall Cunningham was the qb of the Eagles and he dominated the game. Parcells took quite a bit of heat and second guessing for turning away from his trusted running game. In the succeeding weeks of the regular season, Giants lost two more games - to the 49ers and the Bills, but beat both of those teams in the playoffs to bring home the title. Once again this year, the Eagles stand in the Giants path with a game in their home stadium early in the 2nd half of a season when it looks like the Giants are set to make another playoff run. Let's see how it turns out this week and this season.

Eagles coming up: glass half full or half empty?

A 7-1 team going to play a 5-3 team.... so how come the 7-1 team is a 3 point underdog and how do we look at this upcoming game? As always there are two ways to look at this contest.

Glass half empty:

It's true the Giants are 7-1 but if you want to be negative, you could say that all of the 7 wins are tainted based on the opposition the Giants have faced. 3 of the wins came against the weak NFC West division, including the Rams, Seahawks and 49ers. One more win came against the Bengals, who are now wallowing at 1-8. It's true that the other 3 wins came against teams that are now above .500 and that made the playoffs last year, but those teams were celarly not at full strength when the Giants played them. Specifically: Redskins were still getting used to the Jim Zorn offense in the season opener; Steelers were injured when Giants played them two weeks ago and were missing their LT, their star RB Willie Parker and their best deep threat at WR, Santonio Holmes. When Giants beat the Cowboys last week, they were missing several players including their star qb Romo, starting CB Newman and their rookie speed RB Felix Jones. This is not the Giants fault, of course, you can only play the teams on your schedule but you know the old football adage - "it's not who you play, it's when you play them". While it doesn't completely discredit the Giants, it does give you the opportunity to question exactly how good they really are.

On the other hand, from the Eagles perspective, they struggled with some close losses early in the year, had some injuries to some key players, particulary Westbrook, but now are healthy and on a roll, having won their last 3 games. They play an aggressive, blitzing defense which can give problems to opposing offenses. In the past, these blitzes were not a big problem for the Giants to handle, because it left Plaxico and other WRs in 1-on-1 coverage. So, if the Giants could pick up the blitzes, they had a chance to make some plays down the field. But, this year, Eagles have upgraded their DB-field with signing of Asante Samuel in the offseason and might be better prepared ot handle 1-on-1 matchups with Giants WRs.

Glass half full:

Giants have looked dominant at times this season against all comers. While it may be true that the Redskins were still getting used to the Jim Zorn offense in week 1, it's hard to believe that in that one additional week of practice between weeks 1 and 2 of the NFL season, magically the Redskins "got it" and were transformed into a team that won 6 of their next 7 including victories on the road against the Cowboys and these very same Eagles. More likely, the Redskins were the same team in week 1 as they were in 6 of next 7 weeks and the Giants were just a better team than they were.

It may be true that the Steelers were slightly shorthanded when the Giants played them, but to beat a tough team in their building with some minor injuries is still a quality win for the Giants. Moreover, Steelers were not missing superstar players and the Giants, without Osi Ueminyora who is gone for the season, were missing a far better player than anyone the Steelers were missing. The fact that the Giants have depth to replace one of the best DE's in football means that they are simply a better team.

Against the Cowboys, the loss of a starting qb is an injury that most teams cannot navigate around. But the Giants didn't just beat the Cowboys, they trampled them. The victory was not gained at the expense of the substitute qb, though of course that helped; rather the win was achieved through complete dominance by the Giants on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Romo doesn't play defense and he was not going to stop the Giants from getting 200 yards rushing. Romo doesn't block at the OL and while he might have eluded some of the rushes, he would have been bothered by that pass rush and would not have been the difference in Cowboys winning that game.

If you want to denigrate the quality of the Giants 7 wins, you can certainly do the same with the Eagles schedule. The Eagles have 5 wins and, like the Giants, 3 have come against NFC West weak sisters Rams, Seahawks and 49ers. This 3 game winning streak that they're on that makes everyone think that they're the hottest team in football this side of Tennessee, have come against the Falcons and two of those NFC West teams. In fact, the only quality win that the Eagles had came against the Steelers; the Falcons are the only other > .500 team that they have beaten. Falcons are a nice story and they are playing fairly well, but they are still probably a year or two away from being a playoff contender. Eagles 3 losses have all been close games: they lost to the Cowboys, lost to the Bears on the strength of a goal line stand by the Bears in the 4th qtr and they lost a close game to the Redskins. A few plays in each of those games and they could be at the top of the division with the Giants, but that's how you win the close games, by making key plays at critical moments. The fact is they did not make those plays and maybe they don't have the playmakers or character to do it.

Playing on Sunday night on a national stage on the road is a tough place to play. Eagles entire season is on the line and the Giants can probably suffer a loss and still have a successful season. The emotion favors the Eagles, by far the more desperate team. I just have a feeling about this game.