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

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