Somehow I think the Cardinals game this past Sunday was even more disappointing and worrying than the Saints game last week. It's true that the game was closer on the scoreboard and the defense played a little better, with more enthusiasm and with more of an aggressive, attacking style than they did against the Saints. Furthermore, statistically at least, the Giants defense did well enough, allowing less than 300 yards of offense to the potent Cardinals attack. The 24 points that the defense gave up was not a great number, but they didn't allow much in the way of long drives. The Cardinals scored two TDs with a short field, one provided by lack of movement by the Giants offense and poor punting by Feagles which set them up with good field position at around midfield. The other was provided by the INT on the tipped ball which gave the Cardinals the ball at around the Giants 20. The Giants defense did get some pressure on Warner and did get off the field a few times when they had to. These are all the good signs. The worrying things to me are perhaps more about coaching than the players. For one thing, the Giants defense continued their poor performance inside the 20. The Giants are the worst team in the league at defending inside the 20. They have given up the highest percentages of TDs of any team in the league and the Cardinals scored 3 out of 4 trips inside the 20. Do Giants players get claustrophobic in cramped space when they have the goal line up at their backs?
The other worrying thing about the defense was the number of blown assignments and the holes and weaknesses that they have, despite the fact that they have some very good players at some positions. Giants have a weakness in speed at the LB position, especially OLB, which exposes them to the short zones in the passing game. They have a weakness at S in C.C. Brown in defending the middle depth zone in the middle of the field. They have weakness in the nickel and dime packages with Dockery who has played unevenly this year and with Bruce Johnson, who despite the second-week INT against Dallas has made some rookie mistakes in coverage. Offenses the last two weeks seem to be able to find these particular weaknesses and take advantage of them. Saints did it in week 6 and Cardinals did it a little bit in week 7. How do these stop?
This week, against the Cardinals, while the defense was a little better despite the exposures noted above, the offense was very uneven and unproductive. Four turnovers, including three INTs by Eli can undercut any production. But from the big picture, the Giants offense only manufactured 3 points. They scored one TD after a fumble recovery, when they were set up on the Cardinals 30 yard line. They scored another on the lucky tipped ball with a 60 yard catch and run by Nicks, so they manufactured legitimately, on their own, all of one FG. Here too, the one FG was a short one, where the Giants were stopped on 3rd down inside the 5 yard line and settled for 3 points. The Giants offense is among the worst in the league at scoring TDs inside the 20; they are 27th in the league in percentage of TDs. The discouraging thing about the offense was the lack of ability to move the ball coming out in the 2nd half. They failed to pick up a first down on their first three possessions of the 2nd half, with the third ending up with the INT that set up a Cardinals score. Lack of production inside the 20 and coming out in the second half, when they needed to take control of the game shows a lack of the offense to get it done when it matters. There are certain times when the game is critical and the outcome turns on a few possessions. That's not to say that a TD in the first quarter is worth fewer points than a TD in the 4th quarter. And if you need to go 80 yards for a score, 5 yards gained on your own 20 don't advance you to the goal line any less than 5 yards on the other team's 20. But lots of teams give up (or gain, if you're talking offense) yardage between the 20s. It's inside the 20 that the yards are tough, the defense stiffens, the play needs to be sharper in order to turn those yards into points. The old expression about yards inside the 20 is: "between the 20's is for show, inside the 20 is for dough". It definitely has some truth to it. If the Giants offense failed to produce in just this one game, we could let it go, but it has been a season-long problem. In fact, Giants were not too good at it last year either, so there is definitely an issue here.
There are two problems with the lack of offensive production inside the 20. One is personnel related and one is coaching related. On the personnel side, you have to be able to run the ball inside the 20 and it is much more difficult to do so because the DB-field is closer to the line of scrimmage and doesn't have to worry about being beaten deep by a speedy WR. They don't give a cushion to the WR and it's harder to throw in close for the same reason. The running style, therefore may have to be more pure power running. Despite the fact that the Giants have the biggest RB in the NFL in 265 lb. Brandon Jacobs, their OL is not a big, powerful road-grading group. Certainly they are not tiny, but they are more quick, athletic, smart and balanced than they are powerful straight ahead bruising blockers. Furthermore, last year the Giants had Michael Matthews, a strong blocking TE to help and this year have kept Darcy Johnson and Travis Beckum instead. To make matters worse, Hedgecock does not seem to be having as good a year as he had last year leading for Jacobs and I am not sure why. This may explain why the Giants are less than automatic on 3rd and short and why they don't run the ball effectively inside the 20. Giants are best when they spread the offense a little bit and use the athleticism and speed of the OL to make holes for the running game. It may also explain why Bradshaw seems just as effective as Jacobs in short yardage, maybe moreso. Giants run different plays out of different alignments for Bradshaw that better match the style of the OL with the style of the RB. Last week against the Cardinals, I thought Will Beatty played well and showed real promise on his future and why he deserved to be taken in the first round. But right now he is smaller than McKenzie and this may have hurt the short yardage a little bit. (A project for the future is to bulk Beatty up a lite bit.)
The other side of the offensive flaws against the Cardinals comes back to coaching. I am planning another post for tomorrow that analyzes some of the coaching weaknesses that I think the Giants are showing, but for now, in the context of red zone productivity, one big factor is play calling. If your offense can move the ball between the 20's and has all of the tools it needs to be a productive offense, your teams should be productive inside the 20 as well. Perhaps there is a style difference as noted above with the power running game and it is a little harder to score than it is to move the ball in the middle of the field. That means, your offense may not be at the top of the charts in percentage of TD's scored. But if you are among the worst, there is clearly a problem with the play calling and the schemes used. The Giants use little deception in the running game or the passing game at the goal line. They line up tight with two TEs way too often and the defense knows exactly what is coming. The Giants WRs are smallish so fade patterns are not attractive, but Boss could be used more and Nicks is a physical WR also that can catch in a crowd. When Jacobs was stopped on 3rd and 3 at the 2 yard line in the 4 quarter of the Cardinals game, I was 90% sure when they lined up that they would run that draw play. Speaking to my son after the game, he said the exact same thing. If we can figure it out, I think the Cardinals can also. If you were running on that down, it should have been two down territory and they should have gone for it on 4th down, but that is another discussion. (BTW - it was a bad spot from the ref; Jacobs may have made the first down or was at least much closer than 1 full yard away which is where the ball was spotted... could have influenced Coughlin's decision to go on 4th down.)
Executive summary: offensive and defensive problems are both a combination of personnel flaws and coaching weakness. I'll take a more detailed look at the coaching in another post, scheduled for tomorrow. Stay tuned.