Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Giants: Lessons learned from the playoffs

What follows are some random observations from the playoffs and from the Giants performance of the past year.

In the modern era of passing dominated football, you still need to have balance in your offense. You need to have a solid OL that gives the qb time to throw. You need a sound running game, to keep the defense off balance and not to allow them to defend a one-dimensional offense. In the passing game itself, you need variety in your stable of weapons. By that I mean that not only do you need good WRs, you need WR of different types - speed guys that can go deep as well as players that can catch the ball in traffic and make a play after they catch the ball. But it's more than that - you don't just need a TE, you need one that is a threat to make a play down the field and you need RB's that are threats with speed out of the backfield, to make a big play in the running game and to augment the passing game. Look at some of the teams that are successful in this year's playoffs - Vikings have a good set of WRs led by Rice as the deep threat and a play maker in Harvin but they also have Shiancoe at TE who has blossomed as a real good threat and of course have Adrian Peterson at RB who is a threat to go all the way every time he touches the ball. Saints have Colston/Shockey/Bush. Colts have a variety of weapons at WR complimented by Clark at TE and Addai at RB who are dynamic weapons. Chargers have great WRs with Gates and Sproles who are dynamic threats. The Cowboys WRs are not great, but their offense started to hum when Austin stepped up and made some plays, becasue they have a playmaker Whitten at TE and Felix Jones is a speed burner at RB. By contrast, the Eagles are a one dimensional offense, relying only on the big play from their WRs. Of course this was enough to toast the Giants pathetic defense this year, but not good enough to do anything against a strong defense like the Cowboys. Even the Jets, who do not have a big time offense started to do better when Braylon Edwards actually caught the ball, when TE Dustin Keller made some plays and Shon Greene broke some runs from the RB position. I am not analyzing every team that made the playoffs, some had a slightly different makeup. But it's clear that the Giants need to get more dynamic and varied weapons on offense. You have to be very happy with the collection of young WRs that the Giants have and the qb that is getting them the ball. But this past year, that was the only component that the Giants had of the variety that is needed to have a powerful offense. Specifically, the OL took a step backwards and was mediocre this year, not opening up big holes in the running game and offering only moderate protection for the passing game. The running game was average, with Jacobs being subpar as the power-grind-it-out RB and Bradshaw mediocre as the speed back. Furthermore, neither was a threat in the passing game. Boss is a solid player, but is not a dangerous threat in the passing game. In retrospect, with so many components missing from the offense, it's a tremendous credit to Eli and the WRs that with such limited weapons on offense, they were able be as effective as they were and win as many games as they did. (Thanks to my buddy Ray who sent me an email that motivated me to analyze the offense this way.)

With this background, it's easy to see what needs to be fixed on the offense: a great OL-man, a real play maker at RB with great speed and an an upgrade at TE. On the OL, I am assuming that Beatty will move into a starting role this year, but I would like to see one more position upgraded. With Diehl able to move around to G or T, there is a fair amount of flexibility and it almost does not matter what position on the OL gets upgraded.

Defense is interesting also. I have posted before about how important team speed is on defense and how lacking it was for the Giants in the DB-field; how the Giants need to upgrade the LBs; and how they need to get tougher in the DL. But that is somewhat simplistic - football 101 - you need speed and size on defense. What I want to stress is that it is more important than ever to have speed and athleticism in the back 7 than it used to be. With the emphasis on the passing game and with the successful offenses putting pressure on the LBs and safeties with their TEs and RBs (see paragraph 1 of this post), this is a critical need.

There is one other observation I would like to make and it came from watching the Jets defense in the playoffs and from watching a DVD of the Giants-Steelers regular season game from 2008 (when Spagnuolo was still DC), which I did over the weekend. I was whining all season long about how creative the Jets defense was compared to the Giants, how their blitz package was so unusual and how they used their players so effectively. The Jets used DBs as blitzers very often. They would load up with 6 (or sometimes 7) DBs on the field in passing situation, and use them as blitzers, often having two overload one side and come from the edge. They would also occasionally have a LB coming between the T and G on the same side of the field as these edge DB blitzers or straight up the middle. This scheme relies on speed of DBs to get to the qb and with 6 or 7 DBs on the field, you still have some DBs back, able to cover. This was much more effective that the zone blitzes the Giants relied on as a staple, because the Giants would have a DE trying to run in coverage to guard the hot receiver instead of a DB. Th Jets scheme was effective, but I have to say that it is somewhat gimmicky. They had to do this because they did not have an effective pass rush from the DL. You saw what Peyton Manning did to this blitz package in the playoff game - if you block it, you can burn them. Of course, that is the best qb in football burning that defensive scheme, so it may not be as easy it seems. A baseball metaphor would be like analyzing how to get a certain hitter out... advance scout or pitching coach advises the pitcher: Mariano Rivera got him out with cutters. Notwithstanding how effective and creative this scheme may have been, in truth, the Giants were probably not equipped to use these kinds of blitzes this year for several reasons. They did not have the personnel to do it - they did not have enough fast DBs who could get to the qb in time. Mostly though, this scheme, with blitzing DBs puts an enormous amount of pressure on the S to cover man-to-man and the Giants safeties this year were thoroughly incapable of doing so. It exposes the safeties to cover and the Giants safeties were barely able to run up and down the field, much less cover a dangerous WR man to man. This brings me to the Steelers game I watched from 2008, which lends further substance to my assertion. Perhaps you remember the game - Giants were stopped at the Steelers goal line several times in the first half and were leading 9-7 at half time. In the second half, Big Ben hit one long pass play when James Butler looked absolutely stupid trying to cover a WR and Giants were down 14-9 going into the 4th qtr. Eli moved them down for a FG making the score 14-12, and the Giants defense stopped the Steelers, getting a sack to force them to punt from their own 15. The snap was bad, over the punters head, and Giants got a safety to tie the game. After that, Eli took the Giants in for a TD to win 21-14. The point is that the Giants used lots of creative CB blitzes in that game and completely confused the Steelers. They had CBs coming from the edge and LBs occasionally coming up the middle. Several times this forced S Phillips into 1-on-1 coverage and each time he handled the situation perfectly, either making the tackle in the open field, breaking up the pass play, forcing a bad throw that led to an INT and one time making an INT himself. Pierce was still able to run then and Kehl was playing LB, so the Giants even had some speed and athleticism on the field from the LBs. Perhaps the predictability this year on defense was not all Sheridan's fault. The Giants DB-field had terrible S play and did not have enough quality, fast players at CB to do anything much more creative than they did. Furthermore, with Pierce slowing down and Boley out and injured much of the year, the LBs were simply not able to help in these schemes.

I am not saying that Sheridan should have been retained, I am just saying that his hands may have been tied by the personnel limitations on the team. The Giants were thin in the DB-field to start the year. When Phillips and Ross went out and when Dockery's play slipped, it was difficult to dial up creative blitzes and defense. Add to that the decline of the LBs and the injuries in the DL and it's not hard to understand why the defense slipped as badly as it did.

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