Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Eagles - Giants post mortem II - 6 plays that lost it for the Giants

I hate to whine. Really, I do. I feel so much like a Cowboys fan or an Eagles fan when I do. Cowboys fans are always complaining about how they're America's team and therefore entitled and empowered to win every game just because they show up. When they don't win, it's the refs, it's the league, it's a conspiracy, sunspots, you name it. They always want to change the qb, change the coach, change the WR, in other words - find the one thing that is wrong that is ruining what would otherwise be their guaranteed trip to the promised land, because everything else on their team is superior. Eagles fans.... it's not really whining so much as being constantly and permanently ticked off about their city and their sports franchises. I am sure you know the famous line(s) about Philly sports fans that aptly describes their approach to life. Actually, there are two: Philly fans would boo a funeral. Alternatively: Philly fans would boo Santa Claus. It's perfect really - Eagles have never won a Superbowl and they have to be ticked off about something all the time. So when McNabb, that brilliant student of the game, didn't quite grasp the rules about overtime and the difference between a regular season and playoff game, the Eagles fans were ready to kick him to the curb. Andy Reid, the brilliant coach was also thought to be half out the door. (His other half was stuck inside the room, because it couldn't quite fit out the door). Side point - I can't wait to see Andy Reid's tearful retirement press conference, when he says that he wants to spend more time with his family, nurturing his children. (Sorry - that was a cheap shot.) Eagles fans were alternately kicking McNabb to the curb for never quite taking them to the promised land, and lauding him for leading them successfully to (now) their 5th conference championship game in his 10 year career. It's perfect for Eagles fans, really. They can root hard for McNabb and love him for getting them so close and then boo him like crazy for not pushing them over the top. They can talk about what a great qb he is and admire his wins, compliment him for his stats while never having great WR's to throw to and then call him a bum for choking (literally) in the one Superbowl that he took them to. So I won't whine on this blog at all. Rather I will take a dispassionate approach to analyze what happened in that dreadful, disappointing loss on Sunday. If I start doing what sounds like whining, please stop me.
The reason this loss was so darned disappointing is that the Eagles are not a better team than the Giants. The Eagles offense is mediocre and definitely inferior to the Giants. The Eagles defense is better than the Giants, but not by much. The problem I think that the Giants ran into on Sunday is one of matchups, the undercurrent in every sporting event that make teams over perform or under perform slightly. In this case, the Eagles defense matched up very well with the Giants offense. Of course, they were further helped by a substandard performance by Eli Manning and the windy conditions which exacerbated his off game. But - that sounds like whining - the Eagles defense themselves forced a lot of what happened to Eli and deserve credit for a superior defensive performance. They know the Giants offense so well and know their personnel so well that they were able to blunt what the Giants do. The absence of Burress and the inability of the Giants to hit deep in the passing game allowed the Eagles to blitz often with impunity, and allowed the S, even when they weren't blitzing and weren't playing tight up to the line of scrimmage at the snap, to come hard and aggressively forward on running plays. They charged hard on the outside and stripped the Giants blockers on their outside runs, the bread-and-butter of the Giants ground game. The Eagles DE's are quick and the Giants T's are athletic, not huge. In fact the same is true of the Eagles LB's - they are quick rather than big. The Eagles DE's did enough to disrupt the flow of the Giants outside runs and prevented the pulling G from leading the play in good shape. The Giants ran more effectively inside, but Gilbride did not stick with Jacobs or the inside runs enough, in my opinion. Quentin Mikell played particularly well and Dawkins is always a hard charging aggressive safety. Without the deep ball to worry about and with the Eagles CBs matching up well against the Giants WRs, the Giants offense was out of synch. Giants ran super power personnel grouping more in this game than I have ever seen them throughout the entire year. They used 2-TEs and a FB very often, especially in the 2nd half. Those 3 blockers in the game means that you only have 1 WR and it strongly advertises that you are going to run. Still, the Giants occasionally tried to pass out of this formation with little success. Furthermore, all year long the 2-TE set was a running formation and the Giants would use Boss and Matthews in those spots. This game, they used Darcy Johnson instead of Matthews as the second TE. I am not quite sure why - Johnson is a good receiver for a TE and is an inferior blocker. It just didn't make sense to me - it wasn't deceptive enough to create confusion in the Eagles defense if the Giants passed and it hurt the blocking if the Giants ran out of that formation. Back to matchups - I guess Gilbride wanted to go extra big to use the power running game against the somewhat smaller Eagles defensive front, but the blitzing LBs, the quick DE's and the S that are particularly good in run support ruined this plan.

On defense, there were no real matchup problems for the Giants. They actually played well, certainly well enough to win. McNabb made one great play (more about that later), but Giants were very effective stopping the run and the Eagles did not make a lot of yards in the passing game. The Giants defense gave up only 16 points and set up 5 itself with the safety and the Robbins INT. Furthermore, they were hampered by bad field position on the scoring drives that they did allow.

Notwithstanding all the above analysis and matchup challenges, the Giants ran for 140 yards, outgained the Eagles significantly in the running game and were only 37 yards less in the passing game. In fact, 50 yards of the Eagles 217 yard passing total came when the game was already effectively decided, with Giants trailing 20-11 and having been stopped on the second of their two 4th down tries. But of course, that sounds like whining about statistics, and I won't do that here. My point is that the game was closer than it seemed. Giants played very well all year - they were crisp, they were sharp, they had very few ugly games and ugly wins. We fans expected not only a win against the Eagles, but we expected to see them play well and show that they were the superior team. Style points. They did not. It left a bad taste in Giants fans mouths, that although our team lost and when the clock ticked down the final score was not close, the game was very winnable.

An analysis of the six key plays that cost the Giants the game. (subtitled-field position)

1. The unfathomable INT that Eli threw to Asante Samuel setting up the Eagles first score. I simply don't get why Eli threw the ball. The play call was a little risky - Giants had just scored on their first possession and forced an Eagles punt after allowing them only one first down on their possession. Giants had the ball apparently in good field position after the punt and a 16 yard return by Hixon to the 42. But two penalties on that punt return against the Giants: Blackburn for an illegal block and Phillips for pushing the gunner while he had a foot out of bounds, took away this great field position and gave them the ball instead on their own 13. That's a 29 yard penalty, even though the stats only show it as 13. Eli looked a little shaky throwing the ball on the Giants first possession, letting a wobbly pass get knocked down by the wind instead of throwing a nice tight spiral that might have reached the intended target, a wide open Steve Smith. On a windy day that would probably be dedicated to lots of defense and not much offense, you should be conservative in that position on the field. Then again, I can't blame the play call that much, because Eli should have known better than to let the ball go. He had two rushers with their arms up right in his face and he probably could not see Hixon, the intended receiver when he let the ball go. Furthermore, with the two rushers right in his face, he was forced to step back and throw off his back foot instead of leaning into the throw and stepping forward, which is what caused the ball to sail on him and hit Samuel right between the numbers. It was a terrible decision by Eli to throw the ball, he should have thrown it out of bounds since he was outside of the pocket or if he couldn't, he should have taken a sack. In addition to the bad decision, it was also a terrible throw. He hasn't made a play like that all year. And I mean that literally, not figuratively. With the meager offense the Eagles were able to generate in the 1st half and even in the entire game, giving the the ball away at the 2 for an easy TD was inexcusable. The main improvement in Eli's game this year versus last year was not turning over the ball and this turnover was a killer.

2. Carney missed FG # 1. Giants had just forced a safety and got the ball back at their own 32 after the free kick. Giants moved the ball down to the Eagles 28 after a sharp 21 yard pass from Manning to Boss. Jacobs ran on 1st down trying to go outside behind McKenzie and was stopped for no gain. A run up the middle might have been better, but then Manning attempted two passes, one on which he slightly overthrew an open Hixon. Hixon was bumped by the CB right before he made his last lunge to adjust and reach the ball and the refs should have called either PI or at least illegal contact, but the pass fell incomplete. After another incompletion, Carney came out for a 46 yard kick, which he missed. This would have given the Giants the lead and some momentum, but instead, the Giants left the field with nothing and gave the Egales good field position at their own 36. From there, Eagles got 2 first downs followed by a McNabb INT to Dockery on a deep throw. However, Giants were pinned back on their own 20 and this INT did not hurt the Eagles - it was almost like a punt. Safeties are often game turning plays, but Giants got only the 2 points and nothing more.

3. Carney's successful FG to give the Giants the lead 8-7. The reason that I say this was a key play in the game was the failure of the Giants to push it in for a TD and the curious play calling by Gilbride that contributed to it. After the INT by Dockery, Giants moved down well to the Eagles 21. On first down, Jacobs ran for 24 yards out to the 44. Sheldon Brown made a great play to make a saving ankle tackle on Jacobs preventing a TD. Brown came from the complete opposite side of the field and made a great hustle play to stop him. If Hixon had engaged Brown in a block before he started running cross field for even a second, something that Plaxico and all good WRs should do, Brown would not have made that tackle. After that play, Ward ran for 5 and Eli hit Boss for 26 yards down to the Eagles 26. There was an offside penalty on the Eagles and the Giants had 1st and 5 on the Eagles 21. Call me crazy, but with the Giants running game showing some signs of life, I would've tried to run it from there. With three tries at 5 yards, Giants would probably have gotten another first down and may have been close enough to the goal line to push it in. Instead, Gilbride called 3 passes from shotgun formation advertising what the Giants were going to do. All three were ineffective. The first two were incomplete and the last, with Ward lining up split out to the right, was an obvious bubble screen to him which gained only 4 yards and did not have a chance of success. Pay attention to this bubble screen call later in this post. Carney kicked a FG to put the Giants ahead 8-7, but they should have scored a TD with that possession.

4. Carney's other successful FG. Robbins INT on opening kickoff of 2nd half set the Giants up at Eagle's 33. Jacobs puts together 2 nice runs for 11 yards and 5 yards pushing the ball to the Eagles 17. On 2nd and 5, Eli goes into shotgun and throws 2 incomplete passes. Giants had trouble in the passing game all day and had particular trouble with the passing game in tight quarters around the goal line. Gilbride made a bad mistake by not sticking with the run there. The FG put Giants ahead 11-10 but they should have come away with 6.

5. McNabb 3rd and 20. With the 11-10 lead and apparently gaining some momentum, Giants had Eagles in a 3rd and 20 at the 15. McNabb was back to throw, Giants generated a pass rush and had McNabb in their grasp, but he made a great athletic play to pull away from the tackler and complete a pass 15 yards downfield to WR Avant. Webster was not in good enough position to make the tackle right after the catch and Avant made a nice play to lunge forward for the 1st down. Eagles went on a nice drive for a FG to retake the lead and that play by McNabb/Avant was the game changing play. Giants would have gotten the ball back in very good field position with a chance to add to their 11-10 lead and instead found themselves behind 13-11. I guess we can't complain too much about a play where a qb wiggled out of a sure sack to complete an important pass (remember Manning to Tyree?). What goes around comes around.

6. Carney's second missed FG. Eli hit a nice pass to Hixon for 34 yards but Giants offense stalled. Carney tried a 47 yard FG which he missed badly. Eagles then had the ball in good field position, with momentum swinging in their favor after the results of the previous two possessions. They went on a killer TD drive helped by an obvious facemask penalty against Pierce. The next two possession for the Giants were their two missed 4th and short attempts, but the game was close to over by then. Eagles had clearly taken control of the game.

These 6 plays / sequences were the killer plays of the game. If the Giants had any two of the six go in their favor, they would have won the game. Instead, all six went the Eagles way and the Giants were done.

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