Thursday, January 12, 2012

Giants: Packers preview I

This is going to be a tough game. Giants are clearly playing their best football of the year, with the defense emerging as a productive unit just in the nick of time. Offense has been good all year and shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, that unit also seems to be improving, with Manningham now returned to full health, with Bradshaw recovered from his foot problems, with Jacobs inexplicably finding a lost step and (therefore) with the running game returning to some form of productivity. Let's not forget the special teams - even though Tynes has missed a few very makeable FGs in the last few weeks (a touch of nostalgia there - have to go into Green bay with some worries about Tynes kicking FGs) the punter Weatherford has been absolutely lights out, putting a ribbon on what has been a great year punting. All of those things seem to be pointing up for the Giants and presumably give them a chance in this game. But let's not forget that Aaron Rodgers is the best player in the NFL and if he gets hot, the Packers will likely win, no matter what the Giants do.

The only way to stop a great QB who has great offensive skill position players around him is to get after him with a pass rush. If you can do it with just the DL so that you can still drop 6 or 7 into coverage, even better. The Giants defense picked up steam and started to play better the last few games of the season and everyone attributed it to the following significant changes:
  • The DL got healthy: Tuck recovered from some of his nagging injuries and Osi returned to the field.  
  • Boley returned to health and shored up the LB play
  • DC Fewell changed the play calls, went to less conservative zone coverage and mixed in a higher percentage of man-to-man underneath with cover 2 zone on top.
All of these were contributors to the defensive revival, but we're missing a few key points. On the DL, it's more than just Tuck and Osi that improved play there. We have to also consider the improved play of JPP. I know he has been strong all year, but he is coming on more and more strongly as the season moves along. Consider that he played very little organized football in his career, playing not at all in HS and starting only one year in college. If you consider Division I college the only serious learning ground that prepare a young man for playing in the NFL, JPP's experience is seriously lacking. He played college ball two years at two different community colleges, then played one year at University of South Florida, hardly a football mecca. He was at USF for one year in 2009 and started 7 games. That's it. 7 games of preparation for playing against the greatest athletes in the world, for learning technique, for learning situational football and for getting some decent coaching to help get him to the next level. My point is that each additional game that JPP plays at this level represents approximately 15% of his entire college career as a starter at the D-1 level. He is improving game by game and practically snap by snap. Fewell no doubt retarded his progress slightly by playing him at DT for several games when he lined up other players at DE. Since he has returned to RDE when Osi hurt his ankle, he has been absolutely dominant.

Second big improvement in the LB corps besides Boley is the improvement of the other LBs - Blackburn has been a net add to the group, but Kiwanuka and Jacquian Williams have both greatly improved their play. Perhaps the same reasoning can be applied to these two as we used for JPP. Kiwanuka is a natural DE, played that position his entire college career at BC. He was shifted to LB two years ago, then was shifted back to DE last year and now is playing at LB again. My hope is that he will be shifted back to DE next year, but for now, it is probably true that his learning curve is steep and he has to develop instincts for the position. Williams, another USF product like JPP, played LB at USF, but probably did not grow with the same level of quality coaching in college that exists at the major football factories like LSU, Alabama, Tennessee, USC, etc. Therefore, for him too, every game of experience is invaluable towards becoming a legitimate NFL LB. Williams has tremendous speed and has the potential to play the LB position at a high level for many years. He made a lot of bad mistakes and gave up big plays early in the year, when he was thrown onto the field and forced to play all 3 downs before he was ready. Now they have reduced his package somewhat and he plays primarily the nickel LB. He has excelled the last several weeks in pass coverage, often lining up against the opposing TE man-to-man. He held down 3 very good TEs - Keller, Witten and Gonzalez. He was matched up against Finley in the Green Bay game and Finley had a big night. Williams went for the INT on the first play of the winning FG drive at the end of that game and gave up a 25 yard completion. This will be a tough cover for Williams or Boley, but holding down Finley is important part of the defense for the Giants. Williams success in covering TEs allowed Fewell to go to a more aggressive man scheme dedicating DBs to covering WRs.

Back to the subject - Giants have to play great defense and hope to hold the Packers to around 28 points. It will be tough to score that many points, Giants have to play a very clean offensive game with no big turnovers and cash in on their chances with TDs, not FGs. This game is in the hands of the QB - Giants should sprinkle in some runs, but should not be afraid to throw the ball deep.

When the Giants were heading into the first Dallas game at 6-6, having lost 4 in a row, playing poor defensive football,  I truly thought there was no way the Giants would make the playoffs. I even entertained dark fears that the Giants would run the table (in a bad way) and finish at 6-10. Look where they are now: in the playoffs, wildcard win in the bank and a game this Sunday against the best team in football, # 1 seed in the NFC. This NFL season has been filled with more unexpected results than any other season I can ever remember.

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