Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Giants: Playoffs in rear view mirror

Not that it makes a difference any more, but I am really ticked that the Giants did not beat the Panthers. The Bears beat the Vikings in the last MNF game of the year, which means that all the matchups this weekend between potential playoff teams are meaningful. Eagles-Cowboys and Packers-Cardinals all have serious seeding implications. Cardinals and Eagles are potentially playing for a first round bye and in the case of the Eagles, are at the very least playing for home field advantage in the first round and will therefore likely play hard. This would mean that neither the Packers nor the Cowboys have a layup in week 17, so the door would have been open for the Giants to sneak into the playoffs.

Furthermore, the teams at the top of the conference, Vikings and Saints are starting to show their feet of clay (that's an Ozymandias reference) and are not the superior, dominant teams that they appeared to be through the first 12 or 13 weeks of the season. Vikings lost to a really weak Bears team and the Saints lost to a Buccaneers team that had only 2 wins on the season coming into the game. If the Giants had any kind of defense and showed even a little heart, they could not only have made the playoffs, but might have actually won a game or two.

Of course this is all water under the bridge. The defense stinks.

I can still rant a little.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Giants: Panthers game post mortem

I have been whining in this blog all year about the coaches, particularly the DC, Sheridan. I think I am right in my complaints: Sheridan is not fit for the job. but there is no denying now that the problem goes much deeper than the coaching staff. In the game against the Panthers, the Giants were hammered at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and that goes much deeper than coaching. I've started talking about Sheridan, so let's stick to the defense now, and I'll write about the offense in another post later this week. Panthers were a 6-8 team coming into the game with nothing to play for. Their offense is primarily a running offense now, with Steve Smith a half-step slower than he was a few years ago, Muhsin Muhammad no longer a deep threat and a rookie qb making his 7th NFL start. Based on that, you would have to agree that the Panthers are fairly one dimensional. The Panthers came in to try to run the ball at the Giants and they tried to do so without their best runner, DeAngelo Williams. Even without any deception or the balance of a deep passing game and without the OTs that started the season for them (both Jordan Gross and Jeff Otah having been placed on IR) the Panthers OL absolutely punished, dominated and shredded the Giants front 7. Occasionally the Giants went to single high S coverage and dropped an additional S in the box to challenge the running game to little effect. Once in a while they stopped a running play because of a run blitz or because of a missed block by a Panther OL-man. But in general, virtually every running play worked. The Panthers OL got a great push on the Giants DL. They were very successful running to the edge. The Giants DEs were sealed by the OT and lead blocks by the FB and pulling interior OL-men worked like they were drawn up by a coach on a chalk board explaining to players how to run the play. When the Panthers ran inside, the OL had a surge, controlled the line of scrimmage pushing the DL back and if there was not a hole opened immediately, the RB would dance behind the line until a crease opened up and he would slice through for good yardage. I would like to blame this effort on coaching, but the best we can say is that the coaches did not get the players motivated to give their all. From an X-es and O-s point of view, there was nothing tricky that the Panthers did offensively. They knocked the Giants DL back and beat them up. It looked to me at times like it was a practice or a walk through, where the coach says to his players that the offense needs to sharpen up some of their running plays and asks the defense to run at only 3/4 speed. This will give the offense the opportunity to run through all parts of the play without disruption, to get the repetitions and the timing down pat. It was a horrible display.

The Panthers passed effectively enough, though they did so mostly to balance the running game. The Panthers knew exactly what type of zone defense the Giants were going to use and ran several plays that worked perfectly, exactly as they were drawn up on the practice field. I am thinking particularly of a WR screen that the Panthers ran, where the WR ran to the right, the OL-men and TE got out in front of the play; it looked like it was designed to get 10-12 yards on 3rd and about 10 and it got 15 yards. No Giants defender got close enough to even remotely disrupt the play. On another play in the first half, the Panthers had 3rd and long and ran a deep in-cut to Muhammad when the Giants were playing a cover 2 zone. Muhammad was being covered by Dockery man-to-man; Muhammad beat him by several steps to the inside, right where the cover 2 window is open for a WR to catch the ball, if he beats the CB and the S does not close quickly enough. The S saw the play developing but sat back and waited for Muhammad to come into his zone and for the ball to be caught before he moved up to make a play. There were no other WRs going deep on that side of the field, so the S did not have any deep responsibility on that play. Instead of playing smartly and aggressively, he sat back and waited for the ball to be caught for 15 yards and a first down before moving from his zone. A few weeks ago against Philadelphia, S Michael Johnson bit up on a short route and let DeSean Jackson get behind him. On this play, there was no deep route and a good S might have made a play on the ball. I can just hear the offensive coach saying "if we run the route this way, 15 yards deep, there should be a soft spot before the S in the deep zone moves up". It worked just like they drew it up. It seems to me that the Giants DBs are taught to watch the qb's eyes and do not pay enough attention to the WRs running the developing pass routes to make the right play on the ball. I used to think that the position coaches on the Giants were excellent, particularly Peter Giunta, the DB coach, but this display has shaken my resolve.

In summary, although I would like to continue to blame this all on the coaches, it is obvious that the Giants defense is in need of a major overhaul. The DTs were horrible this year. Robbins looks like he is ready to retire. Canty has been largely ineffective, though perhaps he gets a pass because he was injured. Cofield has been less effective than in the past and Rocky Bernard has been invisible the entire season and has to be connsidered a complete bust as a FA signing. The LBs were not good either, even before Pierce got hurt and the S position was a disaster especially after Phillips got hurt. In short, there probably needs to be an upgrade at 5 or 6 positions on defense: 2 LB's, 2 DT's, 1 S (or 2 if Phillips can not come back) and maybe a CB depending on Ross, Webster and Thomas health and inclination to play. I would not bring back the DC and would be very selective about which defensive coaches I would bring back, but to blame it all on the coaches and to not upgrade the defensive personnel would be a big mistake.

The Giants defense is in the top 5 (bottom 5?) in most points given up in the league. They are in the company of the 2 and 3 win teams in this league. The fact that they won 8 games is a credit to the offense and to the fact that they had games against some weak opponents. The Giants have had 6 games where they gave up more than 30 points, 4 of them where they gave up more than 40. Every defense, even a very good one, gets toasted once in a while, but not that often. The DC deserves blame because every time the opponent did something the slightest bit different, and broke their tendencies, the Giants seemed totally unprepared. But good defensive players would be able to overcome that to at least some degree and play better than they did.

The Giants in the past few years went for a defense that was built more on speed than brute force and power. It is possible that the Giants went too far in the speed direction and did not have enough power to stand up to the bigger OLs in the NFL. The weakness and less physical play of the DT's may have exposed Osi as a one dimensional player. Perhaps he is just a situational pass rusher and he was supported by great DT and LB play in stopping the run to camouflage his own weakness in that phase of the game. When the DT's weakened and the LBs slipped, we saw that the emperor had no clothes.

GM Reese has had a golden touch drafting and in signing FA's in past several years. I have to say that this year, while the draft still looks like it could be very good (Nicks, Sintim, Beatty) the FA's that he signed were a disaster. Bolley was mediocre, Canty had a good game here or there but was not an impact player and Bernard was a complete bust. To make matters worse, JR knew that he needed depth at S when James Butler left to Spags and the Rams in the off season and he signed C.C. Brown. I don't want to blame Brown too much, because throughout his career he was always more of a run-stopping, in-the-box S than he was a fleet pass defender. When Phillips went down with the injury, he was asked to fill a role he was not really equipped for and we saw the results. But where Reese failed is signing Brown in the first place as a S in a pass-happy league. He should have signed Darren Sharper, who was picked up by the Saints as a FA in the off-season. Giants signed C.C. Brown to a 1 year contract that had a salary cap number of $1.6M and the Saints signed Sharper to a 1 year contract with a cap number of $1.7M. What a difference Sharper would have made on this team.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Giants: Anatomy of a few plays

It's always interesting to break down a few plays in detail and understand some of the subtleties of the game.

On the Giants first possession they ran several interesting plays. They threw one screen pass to Bradshaw for 15 yards and a few plays later, were looking at 3rd and 3 from the Redskins 9 yard line. The first screen was a quick developing one, did not have the qb dropping back and lofting the ball over the heads of onrushing linemen. It was out in the left flat with Diehl and Seubert leading downfield. The 3rd and 3 play however, was a middle screen, which is much more difficult for the defense to diagnose. DL-men are taught to recognize a screen by seeing with their peripheral vision, the OL-men floating out to the flat to block for the RB. Instead of continuing their forward rush to the qb, the DL-men peel back to try to get the RB. In the middle screen, however, OL-men stay right where they are so the DL-men can not key on the OL movements to smell out the screen. The reason that the middle screen is not used all the time is that it is a little harder to execute. First, the middle of the field is more crowded and it is easier for defenders to give help and swarm to the ball. Second, the timing of the play is more difficult and has to be precise. If the C and the G move downfield too early, before the ball is thrown by the qb, the offense is penalized for ineligible receiver down field. But if they can get the timing right, it can be very effective, because it is more deceptive and harder for the defense to read. On looking at the play again, I am actually not entirely sure that C O'Hara did not leave too early, but he did not get the flag. Nevertheless, it was a very effective play and Bradshaw got down to the 2 yard line.

Giants then ran two running plays which went nowhere and had a 3rd and goal from the 3 yard line. The Giants brought in 3 WRs, Eli lined up in shotgun and the Giants ran a draw play to the right, between the RG and RT. The interesting part of this play was the action of the OL. On a draw play, you want to convince the defense that you are passing, get the DL-men to rush forward and the rest of the defense to drop back into coverage. But if the OL drives forward in run blocking mode, the defense can easily read that the play is a run rather than a pass. On this play, RT Beatty stood up and retreated as if pass blocking. The LDE he was facing took the bait and started to rush up field towards the qb leaving a space inside of him, to his right. The left side of the OL moved diagonally to their right. Seubert, from his LG position sealed the LB, O'Hara had a block on the DT and Snee had an easy block on the LB and the DB. Bradshaw scored comfortably on the play.

The third play that is interesting to look at was the 45 yard pass play from Manning to Nicks. The route was a deep in cut, with Nicks running down field about 15 or 20 yards. The S read the route and drove hard upfield, heading either for the ball or for a collision with Nicks when the ball arrived. Nicks sensed this and instead of cutting directly across the field, came back for the ball about a yard or two, allowing him to make a clean catch on the ball. The S still had a bead on Nicks but he arced back a little further towards the qb, let the S run past him then cut upfield and added about 20 yards on to the end of the catch. Nicks is going to be a star. He is fast, big, has quick feet and is a very smart, polished WR. It seems like every game he makes a big play and many of them are of his own making, with yards after the catch.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Giants: Playoff hopes

What follows is a lesson in conditional probability and when to discard theory in favor of practical reality. The Giants are one game behind the Packers and Cowboys for the last wildcard spot and own the tiebreaker against both of them. Therefore, they need to win one more game than one of these two teams in order to make the playoffs. Put another way, both the Cowboys and the Packers need to win both of their games in order to shut the Giants out. In the abstract, suppose each game were a coin flip with a 50% chance of each team winning. Then the probability of all four games going against the Giants, i.e.both Packers and Cowboys going 2-0, would be 1/2 raised to the 4th power, or 1/16, which equals 6.25%. Those are pretty good odds for the Giants to have a window open to the playoffs. However, these games are clearly not coin flips, with each team having an equal chance of winning. Packers will be heavy favorites in both games and Cowboys will be heavily favored in one of their games. For arguments sake, let's install the Packers and Cowboys as prohibitive favorites in all 4 games and give them a 75% chance of winning each of the 4 games. In that case, the overall probability of both teams winning both of their games, is only 31.6%. If we were to lower the probability a little bit and assign the favorites a 60% chance of winning each game, then the probability of both teams winning out goes way down to 12.9%. From a purely mathematical point of view, then, if the Giants win their last two games, they would have a good chance of getting in.

However, you have to look a little closer at the matchups in each of these games and decide what the chances are for the opponents to win one of those games. Here are the relevant games on the schedule:

Vikings Schedule
Vikings @ Bears Monday night
Giants @ Vikings

Cowboys Schedule
Cowboys @ Redskins Sunday night
Eagles @ Cowboys

Packers Schedule
Seahawks @ Packers
Packers @ Cardinals

Giants Schedule
Panthers @ Giants
Giants @ Vikings

Eagles Schedule
Broncos @ Eagles
Eagles @ Cowboys

Let's look at the Packers first. Their first game is against the awful Seahawks, who are 5-9, have absolutely nothing to play for and got crushed at home last week by the 1-12 Buccaneers. Even though I assigned a nominal probability of them to beat the Packers of 25%, it is realistically quite a bit lower than that. The Packers last game of the season is on the road against the Cardinals. If this game were in the middle of the season, I would give the Cardinals a good chance to win. But Arizona has 9 wins and, unless the Vikings lose to the Bears this week, they are locked into the 4th seed in the NFC. They will surely rest Warner, Fitzgerald and some of their other starters who may be a little nicked up. This is especially true, because if the Packers make the playoffs, it is extremely likely that the Cardinals and Packers will meet in the first round, which means that they would play each other two consecutive weeks. Why then, would the Cardinals play their starters against the Packers in the last week of the season and let the Packers players get a read on how to play them. The Cardinals will probably mail it in on that last week of the season against the Packers.

Next, let's look at the Cowboys remaining games. They play the Redskins on the road next Sunday night and considering how awful the Redskins looked against the Giants Monday night, it's hard to imagine that they will put up much of a fight, no matter what happened the first time these two teams met. Cowboys are playing much better now after beating the Saints last week. Even if you assert that the Saints level of play has declined somewhat the last few weeks, the Cowboys played well and confidently and have surely broken the doldrums of their December curse. That means the best chance for the Cowboys to lose and the best chance for the Giants to make the playoffs is for the Cowboys to lose the last week of the season to the Eagles in Dallas. The Eagles will have some motivation to win that game and will probably not lay down. If the Eagles were to lose to the Cowboys, it would mean that the Cowboys would win the division and the Eagles would be only a wildcard. Consequently, the Eagles would not host a home playoff game and would have to go on the road in the first round. In fact, a likely matchup for the Eagles would be the Cowboys, if both teams make the playoffs. This means that, as with the Packers-Cardinals, the teams would play each other two weeks in a row, in week 17 and in the first round of the playoffs. Eagles, then have a lot to play for: if they lose to the Cowboys, they would have to play the Cowboys again in Dallas. On the other hand, if they beat the Cowboys, they would get to play the Giants in Philadelphia, a team they have handled 4 times in a row. Their motivation would be high, since the playoff matchups would be much better for them if they win.

All of this is predicated on the fact that the Giants will win their last two games, far from a certainty. In the remote circumstance that the Bears beat the Vikings this Monday night, then (assuming the Cardinals beat the Rams in week 16) the Vikings and the Cardinals would be only 1 game apart going into the last week. If the Giants beat the Vikings, then the Cardinals would have great motivation to beat the Packers. In this scenario, the Cardinals and Vikings would then be tied at 11-5 and since the Cardinals own the head-to-head tiebreaker having beaten them in week 13, they would be elevated into the 2 seed, which would give them a bye in the first round and a home game in the second round. Root for the Bears agains the ikings this weekend.

Returning to the probability model above, let's assign the following probabilities to the Cowboys and Packers winning their last two games.

Cowboys vs. Redskins: Probablity of Cowboys winning = 75%
Cowboys vs. Eagles: Probability of Cowboys winning = 55%
Packers vs. Seahawks: Probability of Packers winning = 90%
Packers vs. Cardnials: Probability of Packers winning = 90%

If you accept the above probabilites for each individual game, then the cumulative probability of both Packers and Cowboys going 2-0 and closing the window on the Giants playoff hopes is 30.375%. In other words, if the Giants win both their games, they have a nearly 70% chance of making the playoffs.

My head hurts from all these mathematical calculations. Giants have to win out and hope something good happens for them. The weirdest possible result of this NFC playoff race would be if both wildcard games would be repeats of week 17 matchups: Cardinals-Packers and Eagles-Cowboys.

Giants: Redskins game review

What can you say. I thought this was going to be a tough game for the Giants, I really did. The Redskins have an excellent defense and have been playing very well the past several weeks. Specifically, the last 5 weeks, they went 2-3 with wins against the Broncos and Raiders and their three losses, by a total of 7 points, were against very good teams: the Cowboys, Eagles and Saints. Their defense is one of the best in the league and the way the Giants defense had been playing, I thought any offense would be elevated and be able to put up some points.

Everyone is saying simply that the Redskins did not show up and we should not read too much into the results of the game last night. I disagree. I saw the Redskins playing very hard. They hit very hard on defense, worked hard (though ineffectively) on offense. The Giants just beat them up with a superior game plan and a dominant physical presence. If the Redskins had mailed it in and had not been trying, they would not have played better in the 2nd half than they did in the first. I am not going to make too much out of the game and predict that the Giants are all the way back and are going to return to playing at a very high level. But I can say that the Giants beat the Skins last night because they severely outplayed them, not because the Redskins were not trying.

The OL continued its revival with another excellent game. Beatty is a keeper at T and will be a 10 year starter for this team at that position. He hadn't even practiced much at RT this year, he is a natural LT, but he was excellent last night. Beatty has to put on a little more muscle mass in the off-season and I would seriously consider moving him in at LT next year and moving Diehl to RG or RT next year. The run blocking was very good even after Seubert went out of the game. Boothe is a very good substitute at G (not as good at T). The Giants got back to the plays that were part of the power running game that they were built on the last few years. They had the interior OL-men pulling and leading the outside stretch play, with Hedgecock blocking right behind them. The pass blocking was even better and Eli had a very clean pocket to throw from. Giants have morphed into a passing team supported by the run, rather than the other way around, but teams still have to respect that running game. I like the balance of this team offensively more than the past few years. Redskins have an excellent defense and Giants OL handled them well.

Giants knew that the Redskins front plays very aggressively and comes upfield after the passer. They have a very good run support MLB in Fletcher, but he is not good in pass coverage The Redskins safeties, while fast and physically talented, are not well coached and are often caught out of position. Giants offensive game plan was to run a lot of screens to attack the pass coverage weakness of the LBs and to attack the S in the short middle, mostly in the first half. This tested the LBs and the S in pass coverage and it worked perfectly. It also neutralized the hard charge and pass rush of the Redskins front. In the 2nd half, the Giants threw the ball down field more and everything was opening up with Eli making great reads, finding every blown coverage by the Redskins and making them pay. It was a great overall offensive performance and it was done against a very strong Redskins defense.

On defense, we should probably be a little more conservative in our praise and consider the opposition. The defense played well, but it was mostly based on the weak Redskins OL and the Giants taking advantage of it with a big pass rush. The good news is that even though the Redskins OL was weakened by injury, at least the Giants took advantage of it. A few important changes that Sheridan put in for the game last night: (1) Giants finally used some line stunts and twists. If you've been following this blog, you know that I have been whining for weeks that all they ever did was straight ahead bull rushes. These stunts were very effective. (2) While many of the blitzes were bringing an extra man up the middle, they combined it with bringing extra guys off the edge and confusing the Redskins with slightly more exotic blitzes. (3) Giants knew that the Redskins throw a lot of short passes in their west coast style and the Giants therefore played a lot more man to man to take away the quick slants and screens. This was also very effective.

Terrell Thomas played very well and could be the starting CB for a long time. His tackling and run support, which has always been spotty, was better last night. He got his first INT/TD, which was an absolute gift from Jason Campbell. I guess they're exchanging presents this year. Too bad this was his first INT/TD and not his second. You recall that he made an INT in 4th qtr against the Chargers and was tackled on the 4 yard line. Giants were stopped and held to a FG. If he had gotten 4 extra yards and scored a TD, Giants would have won the game. Instead the Chargers scored a TD to win the game and it is that loss that is keeping the Giants out of the playoffs right now. Sigh. Having 3 CBs like Ross, Thomas and Webster and deciding which should play is a good problem to have. My friend Ray thinks that Ross could be a starting S in this league, especially if Phillips injury is slow to heal.

Goff is starting to play very well. He is very fast and a really fierce hitter. He is built in the mode of the new age LB, who has to have lots of speed to play in space against the passing game. Pierce may have played his last game as NY Giant.

Even last night with a dominant performance by the entire team, we still saw some missed plays by the S. Rouse missed several tackles, one on the first Redskins TD and he made a brutal holding penalty that led to the Redskins second TD.

Best play of the evening: surprise fake FG followed by the second surprise fake FG. I won't even bother analyzing it. I will only repeat one quote from Zorn , discussing the play after the game. He said: "They didn't know what we were going to do and I thought the play would work. If they didn't have a time out left, I think it would've worked". Great, Jim. Except they did have a time out left.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Giants: Eagles game review II (offense)

This was the best that the Giants offense has looked in a long time. Particularly the OL was more solid than it has been and was more active and accurate with their blocking. Giants power running package is largely based on the interior OL-men, who are very athletic and nasty, pulling from their G positions and leading the blocking on the stretch play, the outside run. The TE has to get a seal on the DE or the LB and the FB Hedgecock has to get out in front leading the play. Jacobs then can get rolling, running down hill and scare some people on the perimeter. For various reasons, the OL was not in synch the entire year. Perhaps Seubert was hurt and was not pulling and getting out in front of it with good balance. Hedgecock looked like his timing was off and the Giants have probably missed blocking TE Michael Matthews more than they anticipated. They traded Matthews to the Patriots for a draft choice in the preseason and the Patriots subsequently cut Matthews. With all the injuries that the Giants have had and guys going on IR, it might have been a decent move to pick Matthews up, since there was probably a roster spot for him. Do the Giants need to keep Sinorice Moss, who doesn't get any balls thrown his way and has not even dressed for games the last few weeks? Anyway.... sorry for the digression about Matthews. My point is that the OL has been out of synch and against the Eagles last week, they were definitely playing better. The running game was solid, if not dominating. Seubert was getting out in front of those stretch plays; the TE, usually Darcy Johnson, was doing a better job on the edge and Hedgecock was getting a good push. Jacobs looked like he was running with authority. The short yardage situations, which had been a problem for the offense recently, were not a problem this week, as the offense converted several of them. I didn't love the way Bradshaw looked and played; in fact, I don't love Bradshaw. He's always looking to make a big play and when he doesn't, he leaves some yards on the field. There were a few times where he had the angle on beating his man to the outside and could have made 3 or 4 yards. Instead, he pulled up, juked, danced tried to make the man that was chasing him miss so that he could reverse field and go for a big run. Instead, he ended up with no gain. It is exciting when he makes those long runs, but sometimes he leaves some yards on the field.

The OL blocked well in the passing game as well. Eli was sacked a few times and was under pressure occasionally, but overall had a clean, comfortable pocket to throw from. Eli had a spectacular game. His decision making was excellent, his accuracy was perfect, his deep balls were on the money, his timing with his receivers was sharp and some of the medium range touch passes he made were superb. He even got lucky on one ball that was tipped by an Eagle LB, nearly intercepted and ended up being a completion to Boss. His numbers were great in terms of both completion percentage and yardage. Furthermore, he had about 4 or 5 balls that were dropped by his WRs that would have made his numbers look even better and maybe given the Giants a better chance to win. He had an easy TD pass dropped by Nicks, which I still can not understand how he dropped. People are giving a break to Nicks on that one, because he made a great play a few plays later and scored a TD on the same possession. I look at it differently - if that great play was there for Nicks to make, who's to say he would not have made that play anyway on some other possession later in the game? Nicks dropped a sure TD pass and you can't ever get that back. It's different if you're in a special situation - say on the goal line - and you drop one ball and catch the next. But out in the middle of the field, when you have a chance to make a big play and you drop it, it costs you. Boss dropped a magnificent pass by Eli that got just over the LB. It was not an easy catch, but he could have made it. Same for Steve Smith who dropped a beautiful sideline throw by Eli on 3rd down in the first half. That too was not an easy catch, but Eli floated it out there softly over the defender and Smith could have made a play on it.

The TD pass to Hixon was a great play call, great read by Hixon + Eli and showed excellent adjustment by the OL and the RB to pick up the blitz. Hixon was probably designated as the hot receiver and when the Giants read blitz from his side of the field, he pulled up and cut off his route, sitting down in a short zone where Eli could find him. Nicks, on the outside continued his deep sideline pattern attracting the attention of the safety and leaving Hixon alone. Actually, it was a strange defensive call by the Eagles, because usually when you blitz, you play tight man-to-man on the short receivers, assuming that the ball will come out quickly. Eagles looked like they were in some kind of zone, and Hixon was open. The RB picked up one of the blitzers who had the shortest path to the qb (the right read) and the second blitzer came free. Eli waited until the last second and released the ball just as he was about to get hit. When Hixon made one guy miss after the catch and broke a tackle from the S Mikell, who had a brutal game for the Eagles, he was home free for a TD.

The Giants have adjusted their use of the WRs perfectly this year. They moved Hixon down from the starting slot and actually have elevated Nicks into the starting role over Manningham. Despite the few drops he made in this game, Nicks is going to be an absolute star in this league. He has deceptive speed, a great athletic body, size to break a tackle and great hands. He is also a very polished WR, especially considering he has played only 11 games in the NFL(remember he missed a few games earlier this year with an injury). The thing I love the most about Nicks is his ability to run after the catch and make big plays. Consider this about Nicks: in 11 games he has played (he played sparingly at first, since he was still getting his feet wet), he has caught 38 passes and 6 are for TDs... that is a ridiculous 16% of his catches. He is averaging 18 yards per catch which is highest on the team and among the best in the NFL. Using Hixon as the 4th WR allows him to use his smarts on those 4 WR sets, when the defense is trying to confuse you with blitzes, disguised zones, etc. (At least other defenses try to do that). This reduced load in the passing game allows Hixon to be used as the KR and PR, for which he is the best suited player on the Giants.

With all the good things the offense did on Sunday night, we can still point out a few questionable calls by Kevin Killdrive and the coaching staff. After the Eagles went ahead 14-0, the Giants moved down smartly to the Eagles end, aided by the fortuitous bounce of a pass off of MLB Trotter's hands and into those of TE Boss, giving them first and goal from the 9. First down was a run to Bradshaw for 1 yard. Then came two passes, one to Smith where they challenged the Eagles best CB, Assante Samuel. This was somewhat questionable, but he was in single coverage on Steve Smith. The patten, however, was poor and Samuel read it perfectly. The route was a double move, similar to the Plaxico TD pass that won the Super Bowl in 2007. However, that play was from the 20 and the Patriots were in an all out blitz. This throw was from the 8 and there was just not enough room to make it work. In retrospect, a slant to Smith would have been better and would have worked, based on the way Samuel defended it. To be honest, that is a bit of a second-guess, but that's what we do on these blogs. Then on 3rd down the Giants called a fade to Manninham, who got behind his defender but did not stay in bounds. Mario did the same thing in the 4th qtr, but my complaint is the formation on the other side of the field. The Giants had a bunch formation to the right and as DarrenW pointed out to me in a previous conversation, this is not a good formation for the goal line. The 3 WR bunch counts on one of the defenders getting lost or bumped and losing his man. But it only works if the DBs are worried about someone going deep and running away from them. At the goal line where there is less time and less room, one or two defenders can stay right in the middle of the bunch and defend two guys that are in his area. The qb has to make a quick decision and the bunch takes a second or two longer to develop. I may be nitpicking there, because it did give Manningham man-to-man coverage on the other side, but the OC should have also noticed by now that Mario does not do a great job of keeping his feet in bounds on those fade routes. Nitpicking, maybe, but Giants had to settle for a FG when they were down 14-0 and needed a TD to get back in the game.

That, however, is a mere minor complaint compared to the very-difficult-to-understand play call later in the game. Giants were down 37-31 after stopping the Eagles on a 3 and out and getting the ball back with 1 minute to go in the 3rd quarter. Well, to be truthful, they did not really stop the Eagles with a brilliant defensive stand. Actually, McNabb had DeSean Jackson wide open, again, 3 yards past S Aaron Rouse 30 yards down the field and overthrew him by a few feet. Anyway - Giants moved the ball from their own 25, the 3rd qtr ended and the Giants were on the Eagles 43 with a 3rd and 5 with 2 minutes gone by in the 4th qtr. Crucial play call coming up and here are the things you have to consider as a HC/OC/playcaller and game strategist when making this call on 3rd and 5. (1) Eagles had absolutely torched the Giants secondary all game long and had done so every which way imaginable. They hit short passes, medium passes to TEs and WRs, deep sideline passes, go routes down the sidelines, deep crosses, etc. You name it, they hit it. In the second half, the Eagles gave up one INT, but had one ridiculously easy TD to DeSean Jackson and would have had another TD but missed him by 2 feet on another long ball. (2) Giants offense was clicking, particularly the passing game. Eli was sharp, he was making all the right reads and decisions; his receivers were generally getting open and the OL was doing a good job countering the Eagles blitzing. Furthermore, on 3rd and manageable, the blitz was less of a factor.

With all that in mind, it should have been obvious that from a game strategy perspective, the only way for the Giants to win the game was for the offense to outscore the Eagles. This was not the 1986 Giants defense or even the 2007 defense that the HC could rely on for a key stop. You needed to put the ball in the offense's hands to win the game. You needed a "we're in a shootout" mentality to win the game. Frthermore, having watched the first 47 minutes of the game, you also should have figured out that if you were going to ask the offense to win the game, you would put the ball in the hands of Eli, who had played a spectacular game and was throwing as well as he had all year.

Having said all of that, I turned to my buddy sitting next to me at the game and said: this is obviously a 2-down call. I would ask Eli to throw it and then go for it on 4th down, if he doesn't pick it up on 3rd down. But, since it is 2-down territory, I would not be surprised if they run a draw play on 3rd down to at least get close and if they have a 4th and short, they can go for it with a run, since the short yardage offense had been better that night.

Instead, they ran the draw play on 3rd down which disappointed me, but to my complete shock, they punted it away on 4th down. I am not saying that was the play or the sequence that cost the Giants the game, but it was terrible game management, poor strategy and poor play calling. To make matters worse, with Bradshaw in the game, the Giants were more likely to run a draw play or screen. If they were committed to a pass, they might have had Jacobs in the game to pick up the blitz, since he is a better pass blocker. This made the read easier for the Eagles defense and the play went nowhere. I am not putting all the responsibility for that sequence on Gilbride - Coughlin has to take a piece of the blame. The HC makes the clock management and game management decisions. My take on it was that it was almost irrelevant where the Eagles got the ball, since the Giants defense made the Eagles offense look unstoppable on this evening. The Eagles could score from deep in their own territory or from their 40. The extra 30 yards or so of field position, usually so crucial, were meaningless in this game. Therefore the Giants should have gone for it on 4th down, no matter what the results of the 3rd down play were.That judgement proved to be accurate, since the Eagles moved the ball 91 yards for a TD that was so easy that they did not even have to convert a 3rd down on the 12 play drive that lasted 7:41. That TD iced the game for the Eagles. You have to coach the game based on what is happening, not what you imagine might happen, should happen or hope to happen.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Giants: Eagles game review

There can be no longer any dispute that the problem with this team achieving anything at all this year is on the defensive side of the ball. The Giants have given up the 4th most points in the league and are listed up there (down there?) with the worst teams in the league. The fact that the Giants are 7-6 is a testament to the soft schedule early in the season and the excellent performance of their offense in many games this year. The weakness of the defense is brought out particularly by well coached, good offensive teams like the Eagles. There are different aspects to coaching: one is coming up with a game plan and strategy that will work against opponents' weaknesses and tendencies. The second part of coaching is making in-game adjustments and reacting to game situations or surprises that the opposing team does. Reid of the Eagles is an excellent coach in devising strategies and drawing up game plans, particularly on offense. He is not as adept at in-game adjustments, but against this poorly coached Giants defense, there are never any surprises or in game adjustments required. They are so completely predictable that the opposing offense can out-scheme it every time. Just line up in a particular way that is the slightest bit different from your team's normal formation and you get the exact match up you want and elicit confusion on the defense. I'll give an example of what I mean a bit later, but the problems with this defense are deep. Aside form predictability, which gives the opposing offenses an easy time setting formations and plays, the defensive schemes and plans themselves are flawed. Whenever the opposing offense tries even the slightest bit of deception, it works, fooling the Giants defense virtually all the time. Giants DBs bite on nearly every play action fake and are often caught biting up on short routes when they should be defending deep ones.

In the first Eagles game, the Giants defense was beaten by a few big plays and a few turnovers. The base defense was not as bad, though it was far from dominating. Nevertheless, we came into this Eagles game with the thought that if the Giants defense could stop the big plays, they would have a Chance to stay in the game. Instead, the Giants defense was far worse than in the first game. They gave up several big plays, medium plays and a few long drives mixed in for good measure. They were actually not awful at stopping the run, but they made up for it by being completely abysmal defending the passing game.

We all had a moment of hope after the defense held the Cowboys to 17 non-garbage time points last week and not allowing any long plays against them. Perhaps the defense was about to have a revival and return to playing up to its capability. We analyzed that some 125 of the Cowboys' nearly 400 passing yards were in garbage time and that the defense was actually pretty good. In retrospect, however, I think we can say that the defense was about the same against the Cowboys as it was against the Eagles. The difference in performance was that the Eagles have more dangerous skill position players and they have a coach that was willing to throw the ball down the field. Perhaps if Wade Phillips would have called some down field throws, Romo would have completed them.

I'd like to give a few examples of what I was talking about above. In the Cowboys game, on Roy Williams second TD that gave the Cowboys a temporary 17-14 lead early in the second half, the Giants defense was completely fooled. Romo faked a handoff to the RB, then faked a pitch to another RB and threw to Roy Williams who was open by 7 yards. It sure seems like it's hard to get open by 7 yards when you are on the 5 yard line, but he was. Three players bit on the fakes - LB Clark, CB Webster and S Rouse. Every deception works against the Giants defense. They are not coached to read their keys in the positioning and movement of the OL; rather, they look into the backfield at the QB and fall for every ball fake.

In the Eagles game on their TD on the opening drive of the game, Vick came in at QB and completed a 30 yard pass to DeSean Jackson. On that play, Vick was lined up in shotgun, but the Giants, reading the tendencies chart from the Eagles probably thought that a running play was coming, since Vick often runs when he is in the game. Vick took the snap and instead of running, made a play action fake to the RB on his left. It was the lamest ball fake I've ever seen. He made a perfunctory wave of the ball towards the RB, all the while, his head was up and he was looking down field. It seemed completely obvious that he was throwing as his heart was definitely was not into the fake. On the defense, 3 players bit on the fake, committed to the run and took several hard steps forward to get the potential ball carrier. To give the Giants defensive players a little break, the Eagle OL did carry out the fake well, because they did not drop back in a typical pass blocking stance. The RT and RG pulled to the left as if the play was a power run to the left side of the offense, giving more for the defense to bite on. But the WRs and the TE did no engage anyone to block, they were streaking down field and the safeties should have read this. Not only was De Sean Jackson open, all 3 receivers down field were open, as there were only two Giants back defending. It was a complete breakdown of the defense.

There are a few other damning plays we can call up in the Eagles game, but I will stick for now with the 40 yard TD pass to DeSean Jackson that gave the lead back to the Eagles 15 seconds after Eli took the offense down to put the Giants ahead 31-30. Giants were in a predictable 2 deep zone and DeSean Jackson lined up in the slot, instead of as a WR on the end of the line. This meant that he came into LB Boley's zone first who was covering him when he first broke off the line of scrimmage. When he ran out of this short zone, Boley passed him off to be covered by S Michael Johnson, but Johnson inexplicably bit up on a short route being run by a little used TE and was out of position to cover Jackson. Aaron Ross tried to come over from his position on the other side of the field to try to make a play on the ball, but he could not get there in time and it went for a TD. There are several things that are fundamentally wrong with this defensive play. First, neither of the players assigned to guarding Jackson on this play, Boley or Johnson are even remotely able to cover him, even in the best of circumstances. When one mistake in coverage was made by the Giants, it became a ridiculously easy TD instead of a slightly harder one, which might have required a good, accurate pass by McNabb instead of the easy pass that it was to the wide open WR. Second, Jackson is the most dangerous player on the Eagles and he should be accorded more coverage and special attention by the defensive schemes instead of less. On this play and virtually every other, Jackson was treated as if he were a run-of-the-mill average player rather than one of the best in the NFL. You have to game plan for him a little bit and give him some extra attention, not ignore him. Third, many people noticed the lack of the pass rush and accused it as being the main culprit in allowing big pass plays. This is not the case - while it is certainly true that no WR can be covered for 4 or 5 seconds, the WRs were running clear from the moment they went down field and left the line of scrimmage. They did not have to wait for a sophisticated pass play and 5 seconds of protection by the OL.

The Giants blitz packages and different zone coverages are simple, undisguised and easy to attack. One of their packages involves rushing only 3 DL-men, dropping one of them into coverage in the short middle zone normally occupied by the LB. Then, they drop the LB into a deeper zone to play S. That puts 2 extra players in coverage, for a total of 8, but 2 of them are easy to be attacked, the DE in LB zone and the LB is S zone, so the offense can take advantage of them. When they blitz, 90% of the time they send an extra blitzer right up the middle and it is too easy to pick up by the OL. Opposing OL's seem to keep an extra RB or TE in to block until they read whether the Giants are blitzing. If the Giants are not blitzing, the offensive players release and get into the pass pattern. With the poor S play Giants have gotten, extra pass blocking gives the QB time and one of the WRs is going to come free even if there is one less receiver running pass patterns.

To add to the Giants woes, several of the players seem unmotivated and are making mistakes and breakdowns on way too high a percentage of the plays. That seems to say to me that the coach is not getting through to the players. The bottom line on the DC is this: even if we concede that the players are not as good as we thought, that the Giants defense has had some injuries and maybe some players have taken a step back in performance, there is no excuse for the way the defense is playing. You can't go from being one of the best defenses in the league to allowing absolutely everyone to score on you in one year, with mostly the same players, unless the coach is messing things up royally. The coach has to put the players in optimum position to play well and he is not doing that. Even if we overestimate the quality of the defense, we can be sure that there are some very good players on that side of the ball and the defense is definitley playing below its capability. That's on the DC.

Still, with all of that, I contend that if any one of the following plays had gone in the Giant's favor, they might have won the game. If Bolley doesn't drop that easy INT/fumble recovery, he scores a TD. If Sintim or any other defensive player picks up the ball, Giants have another possession and a better chance. Eagles scored a few plays later, so the lack of a turnover on that fumble was a huge play. If Eli doesn't fumble the ball right after the Goff interception, maybe the Giants have another score. If Nicks holds on to that easy TD, maybe Giants get an extra score and make the game closer. Of course the fumble recovery and punt return that both went for TD's were killers. You never win a game when you give away two scores like that.

Will post something on the offense later in the week.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Giants: Midweek musing

Just some random thoughts about some of the players on the Giants.

Aaron Rouse was a life saver. To be sure, he is not a great player, but he has been solid in the passing game and above average in the running game. His reputation has been as an in-the-box safety, very good in run support and weak in pass defense. His run support has been very good; he moves forward quickly and is a good tackler. But his pass defense has been decent also. He has not been getting beat deep and he seems to be around the ball on long throws. Of course his most important benefit is that he has allowed the Giants to send C.C. Brown to the bench. Dave Merrit and Peter Giunta are excellent DB coaches and I am hoping they can make him a decent player.

The other change at S was moving Aaron Ross from CB and he has done very well. You can tell he is a little inexperienced on what path he needs to take to intersect the ball and the potential receiver. On the long sideline pass that Romo completed to Whitten, when Whitten just jumped over diminutive CB Bruce Johnson to take the ball away, Ross could have made a play on the ball. Ross was right there - his speed is good enough to go from the middle of the field to the sideline. But he actually mistimed making a play on the ball and ran right past Whitten and out of bounds. With a little more experience he makes that play and maybe even gets an INT. On the assumption that the Kenny Phillips injury might be more than one year, the experience that Ross is getting at S can only help. Ross made a great tackle on Barber that stopped the Cowboys on 4th down.

I like the fact that Giants have two S named Aaron Rouse and Aaron Ross. I also like the fact that they have a WR named Ramses, which was the name of the Pharoah of Egypt enslaving the Jewish people. Get it??? Aaron was Moses brother who beseeched Ramses to let the Hebrews go and Giants have Ramses going up against Aaron in practice.

I want to see more of Sintim in the games, but realistically, he may not get as much playing time this Sunday night. Iggles likes to throw a lot to their TEs and RBs and the LBs have be able to play pass coverage. Sintim is not quite there yet. He would generally play more in running downs, or be a designated pass rusher in passing downs. I would love to see him on the field blitzing a bit. He si fast enough to track down McNabb.

Danny Ware is cleared to practice this week, which is good. Maybe Giants use Ware in the passing game a little bit.

Giants: Cowboys game II

Before we take a look at the offense, I have a few more comments on the defense as a prologue to the previous post. Despite the fact that this was not a dominating defensive performance and that the Giants yielded 392 yards passing and nearly 80% completion rate to Romo, there were some big defensive plays that helped the Giants win. In order of occurrence in the game:

Sintim sack of Romo: it was 3rd down the first time the Cowboys drove down the field in the 1st half. This sack held the Cowboys to a FG instead of letting them get into the end zone. Looking back at the first half, this play by Sintim was the difference in the score at half time. Each team had one TD off of a turnover and short field. Each team had one long drive down field. Giants got a TD on their drive and Sintim's sack held the Cowboys to a FG on their long drive.

Goff stops: Goff made a great tackle in the second half forcing a punt and also was very alert on the wildcat formation on the goal line. He stuck with Tashard Choice, stopped him and stripped the ball forcing a fumble. The fact that the fumble was reversed on review is not the point - he is quick, hits hard, is very smart and knows the defense well. A few good plays in one game does not make a season or a career but I am encouraged. Look for the Eagles to test him this week with passes in the middle to Celek and to their RBs over the middle. McNabb hit a FB on a seam route over the middle for a big gain last week.

Digression: Goff at MLB, Sintim at OLB.... next year's starters? I think so and I think Clark will not be re-signed and Pierce will be cut. The truth is - Sintim is a perfect 3-4 LB / DE. If Kehl shows ability and the Giants get another LB in the off season, it may not be the craziest thing to switch to a 3-4 defense.

Stopping Cowboys on downs in 4th quarter: There were two huge plays to stop the Cowboys. On 3rd and 1, Romo hit Austin in the flat and DE Tollefson read the play, sprinted out towards the sideline and stopped him short of the first down. Tollefson is really fast, has a great motor and had great recognition on that play. Then on 4th and 2, Romo hit Barber on a little check down and making the first down looked easy, but Aaron Ross showed his great instinct, his great closing speed and his perfect tackling form to stop Barber for no gain.

Is it too optimistic or naive of us to hope that the Giants defense, if not completely fixed is at least patched up by the personnel changes the coaches have made: moving Kiwanuka, Canty, Goff and Ross into the starting lineups? Maybe so. We can't assume that the defense is "fixed" but we can be hopeful that it is improved. This Sunday against the Eagles is a great test.

On to the offense:

The OL is still struggling a little bit. The running game was a little better despite what the statistics may indicate, but I thought that Eli was under pressure too often and did not have the time he needed in the pocket. If he had more time, he would have been able to set and hit some of the passes down field that looked open. Then again, the Giants always seem to have trouble blocking the Cowboys front. A quick 3-4 is not a good match up for the Giants OL, that relies on its speed and not on size and power. Giants did not have a consistent attack, but the Cowboys play a very aggressive, pursuing defense. They gamble and sometimes make you look bad, but sometimes give up some big plays. The long pass to Jacobs, the long runs by Bradshaw were both examples of this.

I think Eli's foot is still bothering him. If he can set up in the pocket, he can keep the weight on his toes and still rock back and get a good weight shift. But if he is running out of the pocket, he can not control as well how he lands on his foot and how he sets up. The heel gets in the way and he throws inaccurately. One of the things Eli really improved in the last few years is throwing on the run. This past Sunday against the Cowboys he threw a few really bad balls when he was on the run, bouncing the ball 4 yards in front of Steve Smith on one play and I am sure this is the result of his heel pain. Look for the Eagles to get Eli on the move and blitz a lot, especially up the middle, which will force him to run laterally. Eagles blitz a lot anyway, but because Snee is injured and may not play, they will be blitzing all the time. Boothe is a capable back up at G (I don't love him at T) but he's no Snee, who is the Giant's best OL-man. Giants should run that play to Jacobs that went for 74 yards and some screens to offset the Egales blitzes.

On Bradshaw's long run, Nicks did a great job blocking down field, not disengaging from his man. He is such a good player, I see stardom in his future. He has great hands, a strong, sturdy body, runs great pass routes and is faster than he appears. Steve Smith has really become one of the best WR's in the league, which is remarkable considering his moderate size and good-but-not-great speed. He has such quick feet, runs great routes and catches everything. Well... almost everything - I don't know how he dropped that sure TD pass from Eli.

Looking back at the statistics of the game and its flow, I have to say the Giants outcoached the Cowboys. Cowboys came away from the run too easily and did not attempt any passes down field. On the run by Bradshaw, the Cowboys overpursued and did not keep contain on the back side which allowed Bradshaw to find lots of open space when he cut back to the opposite side of the field. On Hixon's punt return the were also tactical mistakes that could be assigned to coaching. The Cowboys gunners got down to cover the punt in good shape and were there to make the tackle. Because the punter outkicked his coverage a little bit - it was a 59 yard punt - Hixon had some room to start running and made a move to elude the first tacklers. The tacklers used very poor form - they didn't lower their shoulders and stay squared up towards the runner, instead they were standing sideways and reached in with their hands. The other mistake that the punt coverage team did was not keeping lane discipline. They had 8 or 9 players sliding towards the ball unbalanced on one side of the field. When Hixon eluded those first two feeble attempts at a tackle and reversed to the opposite side of the field, Giants blockers were able to set up a wall and get Hixon free. There were outstanding blocks by Terrell Thomas and Derek Hagan on the punt return. It's plays like that by Hagan that keep Sinorice Moss on the bench and inactive. Hagan is an excellent ST player.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Giants: A look back at Dallas week 13

There is certainly lots of stuff to look at from this game. Some of it is bad, some of it is good, but certainly it is better than it has been for the past few weeks and a win against the Cowboys is always sweet. In fact, a sweep of the Cowboys is very sweet.

A win is a win, especially at this time of the year, so I don't want to be too nitpicking about the negative stuff that we saw. Let's neither be too optimistic nor pessimistic - I prefer analysis and realism. We have all seen the defense really decline during this last stretch of games when the Giants lost 5 of 6. It is of course particularly painful to a team that prides itself on a history of defense and, all things considered, won that 2007 Superbowl on the back of its defense by beating the stuffing out of Brady. We all loved the progress of the offense to win that Superbowl: the growth of Eli; the emergence of Steve Smith and Bradshaw; the power running of Jacobs; the productive passing game and even the catch by Tyree. Eli was amazing: 2TD's and 150 yards passing in the 4th quarter of a Superbowl has been done only once, by the legendary Joe Montana. But with all those offensive achievements, let's be clear about this: the Giants defense won that Superbowl for the team. The 2007 Patriots set the record for being the highest scoring team in the history of the NFL. Brady set the single season record for most TD passes by any QB in history. Brady scoffed when Plaxico Burress predicted a Giants win of 21-17 and smirked with that spit-eating grin of his saying: yeah right - like we're only going to score 17 points. Giants defense held that record breaking offense to 14 points. With both the long history of defensive force and the recent reliance on dominating defense for this incarnation of the Giants, it's hard to see the defense give up 40+ points to Eagles and Saints; to give up 31 points to the Falcons and to be dominated by the mediocre Broncos. With those recent performances, you have to be ecstatic about the progress of the defense against the Cowboys. I know Romo threw for 392 yards and completed nearly 80% of his passes. But the Giants for the first time in 6 weeks completely shut down the running game of the opponents. The Cowboys ran on the Giants to the tune of 250 yards the first time they played, back in week 2 in Dallas. On Thanksgiving, the Broncos also ran all over the front 7. But this week, with Osi replaced by a better run stopper in Kiwanuka, with Canty starting at DT over Robbins and with Goff who can actually run, replacing Blackburn, the Giants held the Cowboys to 2 yards per carry. That is very encouraging.

Goff was flying around the field and is the model of the new age LB. More about that in a post later this week, but I was very encouraged by his performance. Even when he got beat in pass coverage, he was right in position and made a tackle right away, giving up no YAC yards. Kiwanuka is a far better player than Osi right now. I don't know if Osi is done, if he's still not at full strength from his knee injury or if he's loafing or pouting and not trying because he wants a new contract and/or doesn't get along with DC Sheridan. Whatever it is, he has really taken a step back this year. He was never a great run stopper, but he was just quick enough to avoid blockers and make enough plays in the running game to be decent. Then his speed skills as an edge pass rusher could be used. But this year, opposing offenses were flat running all over him and he wasn't compensating by getting lots of pressure in the passing game. Maybe his weak run defense was exacerbated because the DTs were not doing as well this year, but the changes had to be made and Kiwanuka played an excellent game. The front 7 shut down the run. Kiwanuka actually made one of the best defensive plays of the season for the Giants. Giants had just scored near the end of the first half to make the score 10-7 and Cowboys were trying to mount a 2 minute drill at the end of the half. They threw a screen pass to Marion Barber and it was well set up. Barber was alone in the right flat with huge Leonard Davis in front of him ready to grade the road in front of him. He could have flattened a LB and moved forward one more level and taken out a DB. From where I was sitting in the stands, the angle I had made it look like Barber was going to run for 20 yards. Then Kiwnauka flashed out into the flat about 5 yards in front of Davis and turned up field to run towards Barber. Davis had him right in his sights and was gathering up to flatten him. Kiwanuka did what the players call "made himself small". He bent at the waist and dipped his shoulder down low and ducked under the attempted block of Davis. When he eluded Davis and got past him, he raised himself up again and reached his arm out to tackle Barber. His timing on the hit was so perfect and his movement surprised Barber, so not only did he stop him, he stripped the ball and forced a fumble, which Osi picked up and returned to give the offense a short field which they converted for a TD. It was the biggest play of the game. Kiwanuka is very athletic and while he is not huge, he has bulked up a bit since last year and is a better run stopper than Osi.

The concern has to be the passing yardage that the Giants defense allowed. The pass rush was not fierce and there were lots of times when Romo seemed to have lots of time to sit back and find a receiver. At least that's what it seemed like when I was watching the game live at the stadium. But, on looking at the game a second time on DVR, the pass rush was a little better than it seemed. Giants hit Romo a bit, and got a sufficient pass rush to force him to get rid of the ball early, at times, especially in the second half. The DL did very little stunting and wide blitzing and were probably trying to keep Romo in the pocket. Their pass defense plan was to keep the Cowboy WRs in front of them and not give up any long plays. In some respects that worked, notwithstanding the 392 passing yards that the Giants gave up. But here's the positive spin on all those yards:

There were virtually no YAC yards, every receiver was hit immediately after he caught the ball.
More importantly, while I firmly believe that football is all about field position and yards gained and given up are really important, there is another way to look at the defense, and for this, I will refer back to a baseball analogy. They talk about pitchers in baseball "pitching to the scoreboard". If your team is leading by 6 runs, there's little problem with the pitcher easing up and giving up 2 or 3 runs in the 8th inning in the interest of saving stress on the mind, body and arm. When the score is close, that's when you have to bear down. I think there is a parallel to the way the Giants played defense in the second half and the yards that the Cowboys compiled. Instead of looking just at yards, look at the possessions and the results that the Cowboys had in that second half. When the score was close through the first 28 minutes of the half, the Cowboys had 6 possessions and the results looked like this:
Possession 1. 4 plays, 19 yards, punt
Possession 2: 8 plays, 56 yards, TD
Possession 3: 4 plays, 18 yards, punt
Possession 4: 8 plays, 38 yards, missed FG
Possession 5: 3 plays, 2 yards, punt
Possession 6: 7 plays, 27 yards, turnover on downs

That comes to 160 yards of total offense and 2 productive possessions out of 6, covering all but the last 2:25 of the half. That is fairly good defense. When the Giants went up by two TDs and the Cowboys got the ball back with only 2:25 left, they played very soft, prevent defense and Romo put up 77 yards and a TD. He also put up 25 yards in the last 30 seconds of the first half when the Giants were giving up everything underneath. So the last 1:20 of the game and the last :20 of the first half when Giants defense was playing prevent, yielded 102 of Romo's yards, more than 25% of the Cowboys total offense. I am not saying it was a dominating defensive performance, I am just saying that it was not as bad as the statistics sheets indicate.

Looking at it another way, the most important statistic for a passer is probably yards-per-attempt. That is an indication of how effective the passing game is. Romo's ypa was a fairly pedestrian 6.6 yards, while Eli averaged 9.3 yards per attempted pass.

more analysis - of the offense - in the next post in a few days

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Giants: I'm baaaack

Sorry for being absent for a few weeks, I had some personal matters that had me preoccupied. I admit that I didn't have the discipline to set priorities in my life properly and understand that it's the football that's really important. Anyway, with that disclaimer - back to football.

Ugh - what a terrible couple of weeks. The Chargers game was an absolute misery, with the Giants defense breaking down and giving the game away in the last two minutes. The defense was so weak in that last drive that the Chargers didn't even have a 3rd down on their game winning TD. The Denver game was even worse, of course, where the Giants got absolutely smashed by a team that was on a four game losing streak, with a QB so mediocre that it took the Giants terrible defense to make him look like a good player. Even the game that the Giants won in this three week span, squeaking out a win in OT against the Falcons after giving away a 2 TD lead the 4th qtr certainly does not signal that that Giants have a strong run in them over the last 5 games of the season. Rather than pick apart every one of these games and analyze every play, I'll take the big picture approach here and talk about what I think is wrong and what happened in the macro view.

First and most obviously, it is the defense. Everybody recognizes that. The defense could not get a stop when it mattered in that Chargers game or in the Falcons game. In the Broncos game, they were completely beaten off the ball at the line of scrimmage. But to say that "it is the defense" is too simplistic a statement; it requires more analysis than that. What, exactly about the defense, is failing.

Giants for the last several years were a defense that was built largely on speed. The outside DE's Tuck, Osi and Kiwanuka; even going back to Strahan in 2007, were mostly speed rushers with just enough power to stand up to the run. The bulk of the run stopping however was done by outstanding DTs and quick, athletic LBs. At DT, Robbins and Cofield were outstanding the last few years. Robbins particularly, had great quickness for a man his size. He could stand up to a power run up the middle and had enough lateral quickness to slice diagonally, get penetration and occupy blockers against outside runs, so that the DE's and LB's could have a free lane to pursue and stop the speed runs. Paired with Robbins was Cofield, who was also big and quick, though not quite as nimble as Robbins. The two made a great pair and with Alford and Tuck moving inside occasionally on passign downs, the DL was formidable against the run. The LBs were also a very good match to this DL. We forget how strong the LBs were in the Super Bowl season of 2007. Pierce was fast and strong and Kawika Mitchell, while certainly not a great player, was strong and fast and made a lot of big plays for the Giants all through that season. He scored a few TDs - two that I can remember: one against the Eagles early in the year on a fumble recovery and one on an INT in the Buffalo game that clinched the playoffs for the Giants in week 16. He also made a huge stop on the goal line stand against the Redksins in week 3 that turned the season around. Giants haven't seen forceful play like that from their LBs since. What has happened to the Giants front 7 since then is a combination of injuries, players slowing down and poor coaching. We saw it at the end of last year when Robbins and Cofield were both injured and Tuck and Kiwanuka became less effective because of overuse. This year, Osi has not regained his pre-injury form; Tuck has not been as effective since his shoulder injuy; Pierce has definitely lost a step; Alford was lost to injury; Canty has not been a big factor; Bernard has been invisible and while Boley has shown some talent, he has been out injured for all but a few games. Say this for Jerry Reese - he recognized that the weakness of this defense was at DT and at LB. He signed Canty, Bernard and Boley as FAs, they just haven't worked out as well as he would have liked. But it is obvious in retrospective analysis that this was the weakness of this team.

Rumors abound that Osi will not be starting and will become a 3rd down pass rushing specialist; and this is not a bad idea at all. It is also rumored that Jonathan Goff is replacing Blackburn, who had replaced Pierce at MLB. Both of these moves make sense and they both speak to the recognition that the Giants defensive front is just not as physical as it needs to be. They are trying to inject some power and athleticism into the front 7 to counteract the fact that teams have been running against this defense all season, especially over Osi's side.

The other problem with the defense is painfully obvious - the safety position. Kenny Phillips was a huge injury - go back to the posts on this blog when his injury was announced and see my predictions. We were still pumped up about the Giants winning 3,4,5 in a row and were wearing our rose colored glasses. I predicted that the Phillips injury would come back to hurt the Giants badly against teams that had a good passing offense and it did, for two reasons. First, because Phillips was so good and second because his replacements were so awful.

The final problem, with the defense is the coaching and this is a thread that runs through the offensive side of the ball as well. The Giants defense is so completely predictable that the opposing teams know exactly what to do to get the matchups they want to beat the defense. It's not that the Giants don't blitz, it's that when they do blitz, it is completely obvious who is coming and where they are coming from. The Giants never overload one side of the offense and blitz two DBs from the same side of the field. The Giants never run a delayed blitz, where a DB or LB stays in his position for a second giving the OL the impression that there is no blitz and then charge hard. Everyone remembers the blitz in the Superbowl by Kawika Mitchell, when he lined up on the nose of the C, then at the snap of the ball turned away from the line of scrimmage and took a step downfield as if he was dropping into coverage, only to turn and rush the passer getting a big hit on Brady. Giants don't use any of that deception. When they blitz, they line up the LB or DB right in the middle of the line and he rarely gets home. Furthermore, DC Sheridan said in the off season that he's going to do much less of the zone blitzing, where a DL-man drops back in coverage and a DB or LB blitzes from another side. Fine idea. The problem is, he didn't stick with this marvelous plan and the Giants use more zone blitzes now than they did under DC Spags. It is usually obvious when the Giants are playing zone and when they are in man coverage, giving the offense plenty of latitude to find a play and a matchup that works. The only thing that has kept the Giants from giving up 30 or 40 points every game is that they actually do have some good players in the DB-field. Webster is playing very well and Terrell Thomas is a very good cover CB, even though he still does not tackle very well. Another indication of poor coaching is how much worse the Giants seem to do in the second half of the game. Other teams make adjustments; Giants do not.

Giants have moved Goff in at MLB in place of Blackburn. They are giving Sintim more snaps at OLB instead of Clark and Boley seems healthy. Osi is on the bench. Ross is playing safety. All of this is surely trying to give the Giants a more physical presence on defense, which they will certainly need against the rugged, run-oriented Cowboys. I have not given up on this team yet. They still have some good players on defense and maybe they can turn it around and play competent defense.

Giants actually have similar problems on offense. The OL is not as physical as it was the last few years. The Giants had athletic, smart OTs and very athletic interior OL-men who could pull on stretch plays and traps. Now, the OTs are not quite as physical. While Diehl is having a good year, MacKenzie is not getting as much of a push in the running game. Most of all, however, it looks like O'ara and especially Seubert have both really lost a step. When you rely on your interior OL-men to lead and they are not able to get outside, it hurts your running game. They are not getting a big push in the middle either and have had real difficulty in short yardage situations. This is really surprising when you consider that they have a 265 lb RB. Giants have given up 19 sacks on the year and had given up 13 through the same number of games last year. Thar's a big difference. They are also providing less open space for the running game, which is producing a 4.3 yard average per carry, compared to 5.1 last year. Part of this is the decline in the OL, but part of it is the OC. The Giants on offense, as they are in defense, are way too predictable. Defenses know exactly what is coming way too often. Giants do not use enough deception and rarely have a play where the defense is completely fooled and they get an easy big play. Furthermore, when the defense does something a little bit different, the Giants offense is completely befuddled. Consider what happened in the Broncos game when the Denver defense occasionally dropped 8 into coverage and the Giants had no answer.

Finally, I think the HC is also not doing a great job. When you have a defense that can't stop anybody, you have to be more aggressive on offense. You can't put the game in the hands of your defense, you have to attack and put up lots of points. Parcells used to be very conservative on offense because he had LT and a great defense watching his back. When the defense is not stopping people, you have to try to outscore the other team and take some more chances . Coughlin has not done this and the first example that comes to mind is the ending to the Chargers game, when the defense intercepted and handed the ball over to the defense inside the 10. Giants settled for a FG never attempting a pass into the end zone.

I have not given up on this team, because I think there are some good players there. But there is certainly not a great deal of room for optimism for a playoff run.