Monday, September 21, 2009

Giants: Cowboys game post mortem

This was a great win and it put the Giants in a great position in the division. Giants are the only team in the NFC East that is 2-0, both games intradivision wins. I am not going to go over the same old stuff you can read in the newspapers, but I am going to try to give it my analysis and slant.

Coming into the season, if you ask any of the experts and analysts who the better QB is, between Romo and Manning, 60% of them would say Romo is better. Of the other 40%, some would be undecided, but they would all agree that Romo has tremendous talent, occasional brilliance but makes mistakes and occasionally has bad games. But - he is brimming with ability and if he can harness it, he can be a star and be a Super Bowl caliber winning QB. They will also tell you that Eli has average talent, and while he has become more consistent than he was earlier in his career, he is not a playmaker or a great QB. Well I got news for them - Eli is so far ahead of Romo it isn't even close. If they were running a race, Eli would have lapped him by now. I am not saying that Romo stinks, he seems to have an NFL caliber arm, can scramble and improvise and is good at making plays outside of the pocket. But the reason that he has this reputation as a playmaker is that he has played his career with the best (or second best) WR of his generation and the best TE in football, behind a mammoth OL that lets him sit back there for days picking out a target. Perhaps more important for his reputation is this aura that he has - the infectious smile, the boyish good looks, knowing exactly what to say to the press to appear humorous, confident, yet humble at the appropriate times. Mostly, there is the great story of where he came from and how he got here - small school, Eastern Illinois, undrafted, found on the scrap heap by legendary coach Parcells, fights his way to be the starting QB for America's team - it's a great story. My advice -make a movie out of this story, but give me Eli as my qb any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

The problem Eli has in getting the recognition he deserves as the 4th best QB in football (behind only Peyton, Brady and Brees) is that everyone likes to take first impressions, put them in a box, tie a neat ribbon around it and never take the trouble to evaluate again. Eli in his first year or two had mechanical flaws throwing the ball. Everyone says he was throwing off his back foot, which led to innacuracy and some occasionally ugly, wobbly passes. That's not what it was, but without going into the details of Eli's early flawed mechanics (I'll do this in another post later this week) suffice it to say that Eli's early difficulties branded him for life in the minds of many as a bad passer who got drafted because of his geneology rather than his talent. From 2007 on, his mechanics are sound and he looks like a different QB. Eli's passes no longer wobble, he throws tight spirals. He is no longer inaccurate, he throws a great deep ball, has great arm strength and great touch on the intermediate throws. But the first impression remains with many.

Sorry for going off topic - this was supposed to be about the Cowboys game Sunday night. My point is that Eli is a far superior QB to Romo and in some ways we saw a matchup between the most underrated QB in the league in Eli and the most overrated in Romo. I heard a quote from Parcells right before he left the Cowboys. He was asked if Romo will continue to mature and grow even after he (Parcells) leaves as coach. Parcells said that Romo would be fine if he remembered that he was a football player and didn't instead try to be a celebrity QB of America's team. I'm not sure Romo has followed this advice.

Speaking of Eli, the calm demeanor he has and the consequent repeated success he has had at leading game winning 4th quarter drives gives the team complete confidence that he will do it every time they are in that situation,. This makes them calm, allows them to perform at their highest level and therefore makes it more likely that they will in fact succeed. One of the OL-men was asked what Eli said in the huddle when they were 2nd and 20 with about 3 minutes left in Dallas. The OL-man said: he looked Seubert in the eyes (who had been penalized for the phantom holding call), then glanced around the huddle to everyone and simply said: "Everybody be calm, we've been here before, you know what to do". The OL-man added that everyone in the huddle was completely confident that he would lead them down the field. That's the QB I want leading my team.

Back to the game....

If we were worried about seeing if any Giants WRs would step up and become playmaking threats, we can probably relax. Manningham looks like a star in the making. I have been touting Manningham for a long time on this blog and Eli himself announced that he was particuarly high on the ex-Wolverine all through the preseason, even when he had some dropped balls. I am still high on Nicks and I think Hixon will contribute, but I am glad Manningham is stepping up.

Mannigham looks like he has the goods; he is not a one dimensional receiver and he has shown it already in two games. He has a great football body with a upper body strength and chiseled arms, obviously very important for WR. He has very good straight away speed, very quick feet to make cuts, has jumping ability and excellent hands to catch the ball in a crowd, great body control to adjust on a ball and great balance and footwork to work the sidelines. We have seen all of these attributes already in just two games. He has caught little WR screens and shimmy-and-shaked his way past defenders several times for big gains; he used straight away speed to get behind the DB for a 50 yard completion against Dallas,; went up and caught a 25 yard fade on a pattern that was supposed to be a go route; he caught the ball over the middle several times on crossing routes; he showed the hands and the body control on that juggling catch for a TD on Sunday night.

My point is that sometimes WR's come in as unknown quantities, make a big splash up front but then don't sustain the success. Often this is because they have great speed but not much else; the defense is not prepared to guard them and they surprise with some big plays. When they have to become complete WRs, they don't have the necessary skills. Two examples that come to mind are Devin Hester and perhaps the Cowboys' Roy Williams. I am not predicting stardom for Mannigham, but he certainly has the complete toolbox of skills that a WR needs in order to perform at a high level. The most encouraging development besides the physical skills is that his seriousness and mental grasp of the game seems to be strong. The knock on him coming out of college was that he had off-field issues, did poorly on the Wuderlick test and was not a great student of the game. He seems to have put these behind him and is tight with Eli on sight adjustments, audibles and accurate route running.

Steve Smith is also stepping up, but he has shown us most of his skills before. He has great feet and is a great route runner. He has shown more quickness this year and while he is not a pure burner, he has enough speed to go deep occasionally.

The Giants runing game has been substandard in the first two games and was particualrly bad against the Cowboys. I think there are several reasons for this and I am not really worried (yet). For one thing, the Cowboys are very difficult to run outside on. They have very quick LBs in a 3-4 scheme and Ratliff is tough at NT. I know that Tampa ran for 180 against them in week 1, but that performance might be a little misleading. Cowboys scored 3 times on long 1-play drives and their defense was forced to get on the field in steamy Tampa with aboslutely no rest in between. Tampa piled up most of their yards in the 2nd half when the game was decided and Dallas defense was gassed. Second, Dallas and Washington were both walking an extra S up to the line of scrimmage and playing their LB's very tight to the line to defend the Giants running game. Dallas also did a lot of run blitzing and got good penetration preventing the Giants from running. The Giants did not totally abandon the run, but Gilbride did what they had to do - passed 60% of the time (same as against the Redksins) instead of getting closer to a 50-50 mixture, which Coughlin likes to do. As a result, the Giants running game was not effective, but this defensive alignment gave the Giants opportunities in the passing game which they certainly took advantage of. Eventually opposing defenses will start respecting the pass and give the Giants a better chance to get the running game going.

What I like about the passing game is how it seems to be have been remade this year with the different WRs. Burress and Toomer were big, not very fast targets. The Giants therefore ran a lot of hooks, a lot of out patters and an occasional deep ball to stretch the offense. With these quicker, more explosive WRs, Giants are throwing more deep balls, more quick slants and crossing routes. I often criticize Gilbride (I am about to in the next paragraph) but give him credit for fitting the attack to the skills of the players. He's coaching the team rather than forcing a scheme onto the players.

One thing that I will blame Gilbride for is the continued red zone difficulties. If you have a good OL, a big RB and can run the ball, have good WRs, have a big target at TE and a heady QB there is no reason you shouldn't be able to be more efficient in the red zone. My contention is that 90% of goal line success, assuming you have the tools, is playcalling. Giants pack the OL tight and try to ram it through, seemingly every time. This week, they tried to run outside with Bradshaw out of thie tight formation, but that didn't work either. They should occasionally try spreading things out instead of packing everyone so tight and using play action pass on 1st or 2nd down with a pass to the TE. This used to be the Giants favorite goal line play in the Simms-to-Bavaro days. Maybe Gilbride should revive it with an Eli-to-Boss reprise. Gilbride has to get a little more creative on the goal line.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Giants DB-field was absolutely brilliant. Terrell Thomas may not give the starting job back when Ross is healthy and can return - he has been that good. Romo may have had a bad day throwing the ball, but he did not have many open WRs anywhere. Bruce Johnson has been a find as the undrafted rookie FA and the 3rd CB. He's not a shut down CB, but he has good quickness, speed and does not seem to be out of position. He looks to be very well coached.

Let me wax eloquent on Giants coaches for a minute - I think we have among the best position coaches in the NFL. Flaherty is widely regarded as the best OL coach in the NFL. But I think DL coach Waufle is excellent and DB coach Giunta is a top coach as well. So many players improve on their individual technique and don't seem to miss too many assignments, something that is particualry important for DBs. Look how much Corey Webster has improved since the Tim Lewis regime has departed. Thomas looks very polished at CB and Dockery has also improved. Of course the DB's need the natural talent, but a big part of their progression is the coaching. The coaches don't only install the schemes and call when the team will blitz. The position coaches teach technique and it is a big plus for the team.

By contrast, Cowboys have two young, fast, well regarded CBs in Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick (along with a star in veteran CB Newman). Unfortunatley, they have no idea how to play. Manningham beat Jenkins several times, beat Newman for his TD and had Scandrick so confused that he was standing still waiting for Manningham to present his route before he responded (and trailed him badly). Scandrick was also the one who fell on his a$$ on the Steve Smith TD. Every CB gets beat, but Scandrick's technique on that play was so flawed that it bears analysis. First, Cowboys had only one S deep and the Giants had a WR (I think it was Moss) running deep down the sideline, so the S had to slide over and give deep help there. Scandrick was on Steve Smith who was in the slot on that play. Because the S was cheating to the sideline, Scandrick had no deep help and was essentially covering Smith 1-on-1. With no deep help, you need to play a little more conservatively and make sure to keep the play in front of you. Furthermore, with the S to the outside, you should probably play an inside technique and force the WR to the outside, forcing him where you have some help. Finally, in addition to keeping the play in front of you, the CB should watch the WR until he is sure he has committed to his route and only try to make a play on the ball after it has been thrown. Scandrick did every one of these things exactly wrong. He let Smith go to the inside; he bit on the first outside fake instead of reading the route; instead of keeping the play in front of him, he gambled on the outside move and was reading Eli's eyes instead of playing the man. He was looking for the big INT instead of playing good football. You saw the results, Eli baited him by looking to the left side of the field. Smith made a little move to the outside and then cut back to the inside on a post and Scandrick was so badly beaten that he actually fell down on the play. Sometimes a CB gets beat and there's nothing you can do about it. Here, the player did everything wrong, so we can ascribe at least some fault to the coaching.

Finally, we can be concerned about the abysmal run defense against the Cowboys. Here too, I am going to give the defense a pass and assume that they will get their act together. This may sound like a rationalization and if it does, I welcome your comments, but I think there are reasons that the run defense was bad. First of all, the run defense was awful in the 2nd half and not as bad in the 1st half. Giants had only 3 DTs dressed with Canty out. Tuck always takes some snaps at DT and when he went out, the DT rotation was really thin. Add the fact that the night was hot and humid, that the Cowboys have a huge OL that is allowed to hold, trip and put hands to the face on every play and you can understand why the run defense wore down and was so bad. I don't think it was a coaching or a scheme thing. I think that they physically beat up the undermanned DL. Having said that, Osi looked really bad against the run - nearly all the Cowboys runs were to the left side of their OL, right at Osi. That could also be contributed to by Tuck's absence, because he is the Giants DE that is most stout against the run. I am willing to see if they can get better before I panic.

The Giants may reinforce their DL, particularly if Canty and Tuck are out for a few games. I would not be surprised to see them sign Douzable, who was cut when Boley was added to the team after week 1. This would mean that they would have to cut another player - maybe Wilkinson.... maybe even Sinorice Moss.