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.

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