Thursday, February 16, 2012

Giants: More Super Bowl discussion

FG or TD ?

In my last post and in many Super Bowl postmortems, people have been analyzing over and over again whether Bradshaw should have sat down at the 1 foot line instead of scoring the winning TD. This would have forced the Patriots to spend their last timeout. Giants could then have taken a knee on 3rd down, let the full 40 seconds run off the play clock before 4th down and call a timeout with 18 seconds left in the game. Then, they could have kicked a FG, which would have consumed another few seconds, leaving the Patriots less than 15 seconds to field the kickoff, run a play to get them to the Giants 35 yard line, and line up to kick a FG, all of which is nearly impossible. Of course, scoring the TD was not that bad a choice either, because of the need for Patriots to score a TD and their inability to do so because of the near complete absence of a vertical component to their passing game. Let me expand on this last point. I read a really interesting article on one of the football-statistics web sites which do a really good job looking beyond the simple statistics that we all absorb. The statistics confirmed what I had asserted in some of my earlier posts, that Brady simply does not throw the ball down the field anymore and scoring a TD with 57 seconds left was really difficult for a Brady led offense. Of course, he did manage to get one heave into the end zone, so they did have at least a chance, but the statistics about Brady are revealing. In 20006, 2007 and 2009, Brady attempted more than 60 passes each year that traveled more than 20 yards in the air. However, in 2010 and and 2011 when the Patriots went even more to the spread offense feeding the ball to Welker and the TEs on dinks and dunks, Brady attempted only 36 and 45 of these 20+ yard passes. This year he was 13/45 on these 20+ yard throws, for a completion percentage of 28%. By contrast, Eli attempted 96 passes longer than 20 yards in the air and competed them at a 37% rate. So - forcing Brady into a deep passing game by scoring the TD and forcing the Patriots to do so was not the worst situation to be in either.


Some of my buddies who are Jets fans insist that the Giants were lucky to have won the Super Bowl. Their premise: first - Giants fumbled 3 times and did not lose any of them; second - Welker dropped a pass he catches virtually all the time -as Collinsworth said on the broadcast, "Welker catches that ball 100 out of 100 times"  and catching that ball would have put the Patriots in position to win the game.

First a discussion of the fumbles: while it is true that the bounce of the ball is random after a fumble, therefore making its recovery also a random event, it is certainly no worse than 50% for each team. The Giants showed great hustle following the plays, which is what you are coached to do, just in case a ball does come out. The recovery of the fumbles was less luck than the fumbles themselves. Two players fumbled, Bradshaw and Nicks, that had not fumbled at all the entire year. So while one may consider the recovery a chance event, it is a 50% recovery chance, while causing the fumble for these two players who handled the ball 247 times during the season without fumbling is a much less likely event. The fumbles were the lucky plays, not the Giants recoveries. The first of the fumbles should not even be considered, because the Patriots had 12 men on the field which gave them the opportunity to send an extra defender at Cruz and strip the ball from him. The penalty nullified the fumble, so it did not count.

As far as the Welker drop, this is even a more interesting analysis. As mentioned above, Brady rarely attempts passes that travel longer than 20 yards in the air, which this pass to Welker was. Since 2007, Welker has caught 554 passes in the regular season and only 11 of them were on passes thrown 20+ yards in the air. That is less than 2% of the passes thrown to him, and one of those passes was in 2008 from Matt Cassel when Brady was out for the season. It gets more interesting for the playoffs - in 7 playoff games together with Brady, Welker does not have a single reception > 19 yards. Perhaps, when the defenses get better, as you would expect them to in the playoffs, Brady and Welker pull in the oars even more, get more conservative and don't have the accuracy / range to complete those longer throws. Welker is short and quick. He is nearly impossible to defend on those short 5-8 yard throws and because he is so quick, he can elude defenders and with YAC turn those plays into longer gains. However, he is short and cannot extend his body, stretch and reach to catch a deeper ball that is other than perfectly thrown. A big receiver with long reach can make a bigger adjustment on the ball and pull in a ball that is further away from him, which a short receiver, like Welker cannot. It's absurd that Collinsworth said that Welker makes the catch 100 out of 100 times, when he has caught only 10 such passes in the last four years and none in the playoffs. It was not luck for the Giants - it was an extremely low percentage play for the Patriots.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Giants: Coaches decisions in last few minutes

Much has been talked about and analyzed regarding the tactics used by the coaches in the last minute or so of the game. With a little over one minute left and the Giants with a second down inside the 10, Bradshaw carried the ball and the Patriots let him get into the end zone. That left them with 57 seconds left on the clock and 1 timeout still in the bank to move the ball down field for a winning TD. Bradshaw should have given himself up at the 1 foot line, because that would have given the Giants the best chance to win. It would have forced the Patriots to use their last timeout to stop the clock. Giants then could have taken a knee one time and let the full 40 second clock run before 4th down, leaving about 15 seconds left in the game. Then they would call a timeout and kick a FG from 18 yards away giving the Patriots nothing left on the clock to move the ball. It's true that the Pats would have needed only a FG, not a TD, but with no timeouts left, it is virtually impossible to move the ball 40 or 50 yards down the field, rush up to spike the ball and get a FG attempt in the air.

Coughlin said after the game that he didn't think of it and therefore didn't advise his players to lay down at the 1. However, he's happy that it worked out the way it did, because he would want the Giants to score a TD, instead of just a FG try, because anything can happen and you want to take the score when you get a chance for it. Coughlin even said that the Baltimore kicker missed a chip shot FG last week against the very same Patriots team, so who's to say it won't happen again. Well, of course there's no guarantee in football, but the job of the coach is to maximize the chances for winning with each call he makes. And it is certainly more likely to make a <20 yard FG than it is to give Brady another chance with 57 seconds and one timeout left. Saying that "anything can happen" is not an argument that resonates with me - the only question that the coach needs to answer is whether this decision (whatever it is) improves or limits the team's chance for winning. "Anything can happen" is a rationalization by the coach who did not prepare well enough.

So it looks like Coughlin was outfoxed by Bellichick - but a better questions remains. Why did Bellichick wait until 2nd down to let Brashaw scored. He should have done this on 1st down and guaranteed more time on the clock.

Interesting few articles I read about the Giants during the last few weeks. Coughlin had the players themselves evaluate film of previous weeks on Monday mornings. It would not be a coach breaking down film, yelling and chastising players for messing up. Instead the players themselves evaluate their own performance without the coaches in the room, Fantastic idea for team building and developing accountability and responsibility for the team members.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Giants: Super Bowl withdrawal

You can always tell when the Super Bowl and the NFL season are over. There are some unmistakable signs and here are the clearest: fewer and fewer NFL articles appear in the local rags; hungry NY Knicks fans no longer have the Giants to take up their attention and with waaaay too much time on their hands to think, have decided that they want to trade Carmelo Anthony because he might interfere with the development of the newest star player on the team, who has played a grand total of 5 good games in his NBA career; two of the top 10 plays on ESPN Sports Center today were goals in a soccer game; instead of NFL game stories, the papers are filled with stories of coaches playing musical chairs and winning players explaining that they have outplayed their contracts and need more money; finally - blog posts are every other day rather than two per day. 

OMG - so much more time on my hands now that the season is over, I just don't know what to do with myself. A good thing to do is to review various interesting statistics and results from the playoffs and from the season.

If you look up statistics on the NFL web site, you will find that Eli Manning is the leading passer, in terms of yards for the playoffs. Actually, that is not so surprising when you think about it, because the Giants are the only team to have played 4 games in the playoffs, so he had one more game to compile passing yardage. However, it is interesting to note that Eli threw for a little more than 1,200 yards. Do the math - that's a bit more than 300 yards per game. Not too shabby. Eli completed 65% of his passes with 9 TDs and 1 INT. I will say it again - the Giants won the Super Bowl because they have better players than the Patriots. And - in this QB driven NFL, it is also true that the Giants have the better QB.

Steve Weatherford had a great year for the Giants and was particularly good in the playoffs. His net yardage was 39.5, which is good, but that's really not the story. He punted 22 times through the 4 playoff games and landed 6 of the 20 inside the 20 yard line. The biggest plays he made were a wonderful catch and hold on a bad snap for that winning FG in the SF game and the first punt in the Super Bowl. He nailed a perfect punt which was downed on the 6 yard line. The Patriots first play from scrimmage was the intentional grounding penalty from the end zone. If Weatherford had not pinned them down on the 6, Giants don't get those 2 points.

As great as Eli is at QB and as great a year as Cruuuuuz had, Nicks is still the most dangerous player on the Giants offense and the one that makes it go. He was great in the playoffs and was probably the best WR in the league for the entire playoffs. Nicks led the league in playoff receiving yards, but he had the advantage of playing 4 games as opposed to other WRs, who played fewer games. However, he averaged 111 yards per game and had 4 TDs, both at or near the top of the league for playoff results.

Giants running game improved during the playoffs, but the pass blocking was weak, particularly Kareem MacKenzie, who was beaten often and gave up several sacks and pressures in the passing game.

What the heck was Mario Manningham doing wearing shades at the Grammys?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Giants: Season surprises

Way back in August when the Giants let Steve Smith and Kevin Boss flee via free agency to the Eagles and Raiders respectively, Giants fans were catatonic and borderline suicidal about their team's chances. These were two of the more productive and popular players on the team, there were no apparent adequate replacements on the roster and we thought that the front office was giving away its chances for a successful season. Jerry Reese, they said, was like Nero, fiddling while the Giants burned. Giants even lost out to the Jets on Plaxico Burress, when they had him in for a visit, but the Jets snatched him up with a better offer. Reese stayed the course, refused to overpay for players he thought were overpriced and did not want to cripple the Giants salary cap structure which was somewhat strained. Reese's big FA signings were C David Baas and signing Giants own FA Kevin Boothe, both definitely unsnazzy signings. It sure looks like Reese hit the nail on the head with these decisions: Steve Smith caught 11 passes for 124 yards on the season while Kevin Boss caught 28 passes for 368 yards out in Oakland. Their replacements were Victor Cruz who was third in the league in receiving yardage and didn't even start the first two games of the season. Jake Ballard, Boss' replacement caught 38 passes for more than 600 yards. Boothe was an integral player, substituting at G and C at various times during the season and while he did not overwhelm his opponents, he played solidly at both positions.

This leads me to the following analysis - from the depths of Giants fans despair during training camp, what were the most surprising, unexpected and important developments and additions to the team that made this Super Bowl run possible.

Two were mentioned above in my introductory paragraph - Victor Cruz had an incredible season and it looks like the Giants have found a budding star to pair with Hakeem Nicks for the future, creating a dynamic, explosive pair of targets for Eli.

Ballard had a very good season and had a direct hand in several Giants wins - he caught the winning TD in the Patriots game and caught several huge passes in the Giants win against the Cowboys in Dallas. When the Giants were down 12 with about 5 minutes to go, Ballard caught the first TD that brought the Giants back to within 5. He also caught the pass that set the Giants up on the 1 for Jacobs winning TD run. His contributions were really important, since he balanced the field, catching lots of underneath routes allowing Nicks, Cruz and Manningham to go deep.

Those are the obvious surprises, but I want to highlight some other less noticeable ones. FB Hynoski really improved as the season progressed. His blocking at the beginning of the year was weak - he missed blocks entirely and did not get down field enough aggressively, allowing defenders to penetrate in the backfield. By the end of the year, he was much more feisty, finishing his blocks well, successfully blocking LBs, helping to double DL-men and sometimes take them on as single blocking assignments as well. He improved his pass catching and made some nice runs after the catch, including one in the Super Bowl. Giants have found their FB of the future - a very good replacement for Madison Hedgecock who had a great couple of years with the Giants before retiring because of injury.

Deon Grant and Aaron Ross had very poor beginnings to the season in pass coverage but improved dramatically towards the end of the season. Grant still has lost some speed, but his guile, leadership and smarts made him a valuable asset in the DB-field. If he is willing to come back at a reduced price, Grant may be someone the Giants bring back next year. Ross is a great run support guy at CB and his coverage skills were better at the end of the year. Tough decision for the Giants in the DB-field, but that discussion is for another day.

Let's not forget JPP. He started to show last year that he was a great athlete, but this year he blossomed into a star. He is still learning the nuances of the game and I think he will be the best defensive player in the league over the next 5 years. It is scary for this defense that Osi Umenyiora is one of the top 5 or 10 DEs in football and he is 3rd best on the Giants behind Tuck and JPP.

Jacquian Williams had a difficult beginning to the year, but his athletic skill is scary. He is strong and extremely fast. At the end of the game, when Giants were trying to defend Brady's deep balls, and on the last Hail Mary attempt, it was Williams who was back playing safety because of that incredible speed. When the Giants used him in a package of defenses he could manage, instead of throwing him in the whole system, he had a big impact, mostly covering TEs and rushing the passer.

You have to include Antrel Rolle in the surprise contributors, because he was playing out of postion from the middle of the season on. Giants hoped that Amukamara would contribute, but when it becamse obvious that he wasn't ready, they shifted Rolle out of his normal S position and had him play nickel CB against slot receivers and TEs. He did a very good job and it was a big part of the Giants defensive turnaround.

Eli - I know he's been around for a while and he won a Super Bowl before. But his improvement in performance was so noticeable that we have to include it in this listl.

Giants: More SuperBowl miscellania

Check out the article by Bill Simmons, aka The Sports Guy, who is an insane Boston sports fan. Read it here: SimmonsArticle.

If you don't think that the current era of football is dominated by great QBs, consider the following. The last 11 Super Bowls have been won by: Brady (3), Eli (2), Roethlisberger (2), Peyton (1), Brees (1), Rodgers (1), with one exception to the rule, Brad Johnson who won with Tampa Bay after the 2002 season. That's 10 of the 11 Super Bowls going to those QBs that are unarguably the top 5 or 6 in the game.

Steve Weatherford had a great season punting and holding for the Giants. His first punt which backed the Patriots up inside their own 10 gave the Giants the field position that led to the safety. He nailed another one at the 4, but Brady responded by taking the patriots 96 yards right at the end of the half for the score that put them up 10-9. Who will forget his hold on the low snap of the FG that won the 49ers conference championship game.

The final score and even the statistics don't really bear it out, but it just seemed to me that the Giants controlled the game and are a better team than the Patriots. From a visceral analysis, more of the Giants plays worked, more of their possessions were successful and they were more physical than the Patriots. On the pure statistical side, Giants time of possession for the game was 37 minutes but they gained only 50 more yards of offense than the Patriots. They had 4 offensive scoring drives compared to 3 by the Patriots, no turnovers to one for the Patriots. None of these statistical measures are overwhelming in favor of the Giants. I guess it keeps coming back to two plays, one by each QB with a chance to close out the game in their favor. Brady missed on his pass to Welker and Eli hit on his big pass play to Manningham.

One of the under the radar sequences of the game came right after the Blackburn INT. When Blackburn came down with the ball, Giants fans were cheering wildly, but this was not the game changing turnover that Giants fans thought/hoped it would be. It did prevent a Patriots score and stopped a drive, but it was not a field position shifter. The line of scrimmage was the Patriots 43 when Brady threw it and Blackburn was downed at the Giants 8. In terms of field position, it was equivalent to a 49 yard punt by the Patriots with no return. If the Giants went 3 and out there, they would have punted the ball and the Patriots would have had roughly the same field position and a chance to move right back in for a score. That's why the Giants possession starting from the 8, moving out to the New England 43 was a critical possession in the game. Even though the Giants did not score on that drive, when they punted, New England had the ball backed up on their own 8 instead of out near midfield. In fact the Patriots moved the ball on that drive before punting. But if they had started out near midfield instead of their own 8, they might have scored. I always preach that football is a field position game and this was one clear example of its importance.

Giants: Super Bowl miscellania

Each team got a few big breaks in the game. The Giants fumbled twice and managed to recover both, where a recovery by New England on either one would have cost the game. The flip side, of course, is that the fumbles were by two players, Bradshaw and Nicks that have not fumbled at all this year, so the fact that they fumbled may be deemed a break for the Patriots.

Giants got a break on the dropped pass by Welker, but the ball was poorly thrown by Brady. It was a tough catch for a small receiver, who had to twist his shoulders around, reverse his body and reach up for the ball. The ball hit him in the hands and it surely was a catchable ball, but it was not an easy play.

Patriots caught a huge break on two refs calls, one in the first half and one in the second. In the first half, Giants were up 9-3 and had just punted the ball into the Patriots end zone giving them the ball at the 20. Patriots went 3-and-out and punted the ball back to the Giants at their 23. At this point in the game, the Giants were really controlling things. On their 3 possessions they had scored one TD and on each of the other two possessions, had moved the ball into New England territory, to about their 40 before each drive stalled. By contrast, the Patriots on their three possessions, had a FG on one of them and the other two drives resulted in a safety on the first play and a 3-and-out. If the Giants could score on this possession, they could really take control of the game on the scoreboard as well as on the stat sheet. Giants started moving the ball well, getting two first downs and advancing it into New England territory where they had a 3rd and 1 at the 46. Giants called a running play for Jacobs up the middle which was perfectly blocked and Jacobs ran for 10 yards giving them a 1st and 10 at the New England 36. However, the umpire called holding on Boothe and the play was wiped out. Looking at the video board at the game and checking it out on replay when I got home, you could see that it was a terrible call and this wiped out a scoring drive. However, this is not just my opinion that the call was poor, it was confirmed by the players themselves. Permit me to explain. The NFL Network has a wonderful feature where they wire many of the players for sound, take many of the interesting sound bites and broadcast it in a show called SoundFX. In the Super Bowl, the referees and Vince Wilfork were wired for sound. After the umpire threw the flag for holding, the head referee went over to him and questioned his call. The referee said, "It looked to me like it was not a hold, it looked to me like Wilfork just twisted around and fell down". The ump who threw the flag said he saw it differently and he thought it was a penalty. They had Coughlin yelling at the refs on the sideline complaining about the call and telling the refs to ask the players. A few plays later, the ref went over to Wilfork and asked him if they had gotten the call right. Wilfork answered honestly and said - no, it was a bad call, no holding. I was annoyed at the game and was even more annoyed when I heard this exchange. Poor call and poor refereeing process - you don't make a call unless you're sure it is right. That play fundamentally affected the game. It gave the Giants 3rd and 11 and  Eli tried a deep ball to Manningham which went incomplete, forced a punt giving the Patriots the ball back at their own 4. Brady drove them down the field 96 yards for the TD that gave them a 10-9 half time lead. If the refs had not blown the call, Giants could have scored to increase their lead and there would not have been time on the clock for Brady to move the Pats down for a score. It was a real game changer.

In the fourth quarter, Manningham was clearly interfered with on a 3rd and 10 which would have given the Giants first down on the Patriots 30, but no call was made. This was a bad call but not as egregious as the bogus holding call on Boothe, which was a combination of bad judgment by the official who called it and bad process by the head referee who let the call stand even though he saw the play differently.

How about this for a little trivia: In the two seasons that the Giants and Patriots met in the Super Bowl, 2007 and 2011, the Patriots cumulative record was 33-5. Of those 5 losses in those two season, 3 came against the Giants. Another way to look at it: The Patriots record against the rest of the league in those two seasons was a cumulative 32-2. Their record against the Giants was 1-3.

In the two Super Bowls against the Giants, Brady's completion percentage on passes that traveled more than 20 yards in the air was 0-13 (as distinct from a catch and run that resulted in a greater than 20 yard gain).

The Giants OL did a good job blocking for the run against the Patriots 3-4 scheme. Patriots used a Bear formation against the Ravens, where 3 DTs lined up head-to-head against the three interior OL-men to take away the running game. Patriots did not use this formation against the Giants and lined up more conventionally with their 3-4. The pass blocking was a little spotty, especially from MacKenzie who got beat clean a couple of times by LB Nimkovich.

When David Tyree made his helmet catch in the 2008 Super Bowl, it turned out to be the last pass he caught as a NY Giants player. (It also was the last pass he caught in the league, since he was out on IR the following year and retired after a short stint with another team.) I wonder if Manningham, this year's Super Bowl remarkable catch maker, has also caught his last pass with the Giants. After that incredible 38 yard play, he did catch two more passes on the winning TD drive, but as a FA, he may be leaving to another team. He is a very valuable player, but he is the third WR on a team that has some talent behind him and in front of him on the roster. Giants may have in mind a salary number they will be willing to pay to keep him, but if some other team is seduced by that catch to give him big money, he will probably walk. I don't want to do an analysis of team needs, who's staying and who's going - that will come later. Manningham's status is mentioned just because of the Super Bowl hero thing.

It was incredibly brave but very hard to watch Ballard hurt and then test his bad knee on the sideline. Initially they diagnosed it as a sprain, so he tested on the sideline whether it could remain stable and bear weight if he planted on it and cut. He tried and crumbled to the ground grabbing his knee and screaming in pain. It was later discovered that he had a torn ACL which explains the lack of stability. Since this happened on the last possible day of the season, Ballard will not be ready for the start of next season, nor will Beckum who sustained the same injury. They gave their all and the result is really sad. It tells you how tenuous the career of a football player is. Ballard showed enough during the season to earn a spot on the roster next year and maybe solidify his role as a starter. However, now that he has a torn ACL and will be unable to play until probably around November, Giants will have to acquire some TE talent. With Ballard's recovery uncertain, they will not just get some fodder as a roster-spot-placeholder until Ballard gets back, but will try to get someone who can play. If they are successful at finding one, Ballard's place on the team and even his career might be in jeopardy. It's because of situations like these that I always side with the players when they hold out for the extra few dollars during contract negotiations. One false step and their career could be over.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Giants: Super Bowl defensive coaching strategies

This was an exciting, tense, well played and well coached game filled with interesting midgame adjustments and tactics.

The Patriots defensive strategy was sound and, even though they lost the game, was successful and did a very good job at limiting the Giants offense. Bellichick correctly assessed the Giants as a big play offense, with dynamic WRs and a strong armed QB who could get the ball down field. The Giants running game was decent, but the OL was spotty against the run and he wanted to take away the Giants obvious strength. In some ways, this was similar to the strategy that Bellichick and Parcells used in their Super Bowl win after the 1990 season against the Bills. In that game, Bellichick said Giants will win if Thurman Thomas runs for 100+ yards, because that means that the Bills will be diverted from their passing game. In that game, the Giants flooded the passing lanes with 8 or sometimes 9 pass defenders and ignored the pass rush. Giants smacked around the Bills WRs and successfully held down the powerful Bills offense. In this game, Bellichick's strategy was the same - hold down the Giants passing offense - but the tactics were different. The Patriots played a lot of man underneath with cover 2 on top and kept their safeties very deep, making sure that there would never be a deep ball going over their head. This makes decent but-not-great safeties (which the Patriots have) play very effectively. All they do is see who is running deep on their half of the field and run to the man. Patriots also doubled the outside WRs, Nicks and Cruz often, limiting greatly their deep play capability. It meant that when Giants had Manningham in the game in their 3-WR sets, Patriots added another DB or two to cover him, but he was in single coverage. Eli took advantage of that a few times - hitting Manningham deep 3 times - once when he dropped a perfect ball he should have caught on the post that hit him right in the hands; once on a sideline pattern where he caught the ball but could not keep his feet in bounds; and once in the 4th quarter on the winning TD drive for 38 yards which Manningham actually caught When Manningham was not in the game and the outside WRs were double covered, it meant that the TEs and the FB were covered by a LB and Eli took advantage of that several times with easy throws to wide open TE/FBs. (Note for next year's team: imagine how much more productive the Giants offense would be next year with an athletic, play making TE.) This strategy by Bellichick also required them to switch to a 3-4 for the entire game, and made it a little easier for the Giants to run block. The OL had a very good game run blocking, as did FB Hynoski who is becoming a very good player, but more about player performance in a later post - this one is about coaching. This strategy worked well for the Patriots, because even though the Giants passed for nearly 300 yards, Eli's yards per pass attempt was lower than it usually is and the Giants scored only 21 points. They moved the ball well with underneath throws but could not get into the end zone and twice had to settle for FGs.

The Giants defensive strategy was similar to the Patriots - Fewell did not want to allow big plays to the Patriots explosive offense. Giants played man underneath but because the safeties played conservatively, they did not cover tightly and therefore allowed a free release to the slot receiver and the TE. I thought this strategy was misplaced by Fewell - Patriots have a very productive offense, but it is based on short throws between the numbers to the ultra-quick Welker and to the very capable Patriots TEs. They rarely throw deep or to the outside and Fewell should have defended them like he played against the Packers, trying to disrupt the short throws, not so much worrying about deep balls. When the Patriots lined up with Welker, two TEs and a back coming out of the backfield, the Giants were forced to put a LB on one of these sure handed short range receivers and Brady was easily able to get the ball out of his hands quickly and pick out the one match up that he liked against the slower LB. When the Patriots offense stared clicking, they moved it for a TD at the end of the half and another TD on the first drive of the second half. After that, Fewell made the very obvious adjustment, which I was screaming for from the stands. (You get a very clear view of what the pass defense is doing from up in the stands and this was really easy to see.) The adjustment was simple - line up someone right on top of the slot receiver  to play a little tighter man to man. This could not be done with the LBs on the field, they also got a little more speed in at the LB position in Jacquian Williams to get a better match up against those quick receivers. This worked great, because the Patriots did nothing on offense after that second TD. Brady was forced to hold the ball longer and the Giants pass rush forced him out of the pocket. Brady was able to make some very quick moves to elude the pass rush several times but the defensive adjustment worked. It forced Brady to throw down field more and he did not complete any of them, going 0-5 on deep throws. One of the throws was the INT by Blackburn and that throw demonstrated clearly that the adjustment was correct and that the Giants should have challenged Brady to throw deep all game, because he could simply not get the ball down field to his TE. Gronkowski drifted down field being covered by Blackburn who at one point took his eye off his man and let the TE get 5 yards behind him. A good throw by Brady is a sure TD, but Brady could not get the ball down field far enough. The ball was underthrown so badly that it looked like Blackburn was calling a fair catch on the INT.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Giants: Champs!!!! - Eli ??

Traveled back from Indianapolis Monday - so this is the first chance I got to post my thoughts from this game, and there will be lots more to come this week. I was at the game and it was simply the best football game I have ever attended and one of the best I have ever seen (Super Bowl LXII wasn't too shabby either).

One simple thought - Eli IMO is now the best QB in football. Not among the best.... the best. The question should not be does Eli deserve to be mentioned among the top QBs in the game - Brady, Brees, Rodgers, maybe Roethlisberger - the question is whether they deserve to be mentioned in the same company with him. For those of you football purists who consider it sacrilege to question the holy Tom Brady, with his 3 Super Bowl wins, his Hollywood looks and his trophy wife on his arm, consider the following. Eli has now faced Brady down in two of the big games and has flat outplayed him both times. If it happened once, you might attribute it to blind dumb luck - if Brady and Pats are better and they had, say  a 90% chance of winning, there is still a 10% chance that one time the underdogs could win. However, when it happens again, you have to say that the underdog may not really be the underdog.

I am not saying that Eli's career is better than Brady's. I am certainly not saying that the body of work and the full resume Eli has is equal to Brady's. Brady has three rings and Eli has only two. Brady has better regular season statistics and winning percentage. They do both have two Super Bowl MVPs, but I am not asserting that at this point in their careers, their accomplishments are equal. But it is certainly true that the arc of Eli's career is still ascending and it is undeniably true that Brady's is descending. Brady may have a fuller career resume, but right now Eli is a better QB.

Let me boil it down to two moments, two plays in the same game against similar defenses to illustrate my point. Patriots winning 17-15, 4th quarter about 4 minutes left in the game. Patriots driving down the field and if they score a TD right there, they go up two scores with about 3 minutes to go and lock up the game. 2nd and 11, Giants blow the coverage and leave Welker wide open for what would be a 20-30 yard gain and put Pats in perfect position to run the clock down further, set them up for a score and put the game away. Instead, Brady throws a poor pass to the wrong side of Welker which required Welker to turn completely around, twist his shoulders and try to catch the ball on the other side of his body . Some will say that Welker could have or even should have caught the ball, but Welker is not a big WR, he is small and quick, is not tall, does not have a big wingspan and a long reach, so this was a very hard catch for Welker. Even if it was a catch he should have made, it was a bad throw by Brady, when a good throw probably would have won the game for the Pats. Brady actually followed that poor throw with some other bad throws the rest of the game and the Pats had to give the ball back to the Giants. Then, on the Giants first play after getting the ball back - same game, same 4th quarter, same score, that other QB, our own Eli Manning has the opportunity to make a throw to get the Giants in position to win the game and he makes a perfect throw to a receiver that was not really open, was double covered and Eli has about a 3 inch window to drop the ball into and he makes the throw. Just reviewing: Brady with a chance to win the game, with no pass rush and a wide open WR makes a poor throw. Two minutes later, Eli with a chance to win the game, under a bit of a pass rush with a WR that was not open makes a perfect throw and makes several other great reads and throws after that to close the deal and win the game.

I'll take it one step further - there is no QB in the league that would have made that throw to Manningham and won the game for the Giants. Brady's arm is not strong enough anymore - nearly 100% of his throws are now short and between the numbers. In the Super Bowl, on passes of greater than 20 yards, Brady was 0-5. Brees does not have the arm strength either and while Rodgers has the arm strength and accuracy, he does not have the touch. Rivers doesn't have the accuracy, and Roethlisberger... please. Ben would have been running around for 10 seconds, looking for an open man, would have broken three tackles running through DL-men and would have forged forward for an 8 yard run with the announcers ooooh-ing and aaaah-ing about how great he is because he extends plays. One QB could have made that throw and won that game, the one who wears number 10 for the Giants. Even if you argue that someone else COULD have made the throw, there are none that could do it in that moment, 4th qtr of the Super Bowl with your team down 2. Case closed.

Brady has better career accomplishments but right now Eli is better.

Even looking at the career numbers - coming into this game, Brady had a 16-5 career record in the post season and Eli was 7-3. Now, after the Giants win, Brady is 16-6 and Eli is 8-3. Brady has twice as many career playoff wins and twice as many losses.  Do the math, boys and girls - that means they each have the same career playoff winning percentage of .727. Come back to me in 7 or 8 years and let's take a look at what the career numbers look like then.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Giants: Super Bowl preview

When Patriots have the ball

The Patriots in 2007 were a down the field passing team. They had great speed on the outside with Randy Moss and Donte Stallworth with Jabar Gaffney as the third deep threat. In their underneath passing attack, they had Wes Welker in the slot and Kevin Faulk coming out of the backfield. Their TEs were solid but secondary targets, Kyle Brady and Ben Watson. With that array of talent focused on speed and deep balls, many of Brady's throws were deep and outside the numbers. The passing attack has shifted since then; Welker is the primary WR target and the two talented TEs get many balls thrown their way. The Patriots don't have speed on the outside that scares anyone. No doubt, this is why Bellichick brought in Ochocinco in the off-season, to get some of that needed speed, but it appears not to have worked out for Chad. This means that the Patriots passing attack is not really balanced to take advantage of the entire field. Most of their throws are short balls between the numbers, rather than deep balls on the outside. I don't know if Brady is losing some arm strength or if his receivers can't get deep, but most of the passing game activity is in the middle of the field. On the one hand, this would seem to make defending it easier, since you might be able to shade your zones to the middle and have lots of bodies flooding the middle of the field. On the other hand, while the Giants DB-field has played better of late, the strength of the defense is still the DL and its pass rush. Throwing lots of quick release throws would dampen the effect of the pass rush and is something that is right in the Patriots playbook. Anticipating that the Patriots will try to run short, quick passes to get away from the pass rush, the Giants will have to combat that by playing tight coverage by the DBs and trying to be physical with the Patriot receivers to disrupt the timing of their short patterns. This is hard to do with Welker and with Gronkowski, Welker because he is so quick and usually runs out of the slot, not right at the line of scrimmage and Gronkowski because he is just so big. Gronkowski having a bad ankle, may recover so that he will have decent straight line speed, but it is unlikely he will have as much lateral quickness as he usually does. Consequently, he will have more trouble getting away from attempts to bump him at the line of scrimmage and this aggressive tight, physical coverage might be effective. Giants used this tactic against the Packers, who have more and quicker targets. It seemed to work against the Packers, so I think the Giants will try it Sunday.

Patriots will probably try to run the ball and will use lots of screen passes; two effective ways to slow down a big pass rush. They could also try to rely on some max protect schemes to neutralize the pass rush and hope that their WRs will eventually get open, if Brady has enough time.

It will be an interesting match up - will Patriots OL be able to block the Giants DL long enough for their short passing game to work. Or, will the Giants DB-field take away Brady's first quick read, make him look for a second target, forcing him to sit in the pocket a second longer, giving the Giants pass rush a chance to get home.

Giants match ups in the secondary, when they are not playing zones, may be Ross on Welker, because Webster is a little bigger and likes to handle the more physical WRs. Webster may spend some time on the TEs, since he has the physical attributes to handle them. Jacquian Williams will need to have a big day, helping in pass defense.

When Giants have the ball

The Patriots defense has been playing a little better lately, but they have played weak offense in the Broncos and Ravens. Giants defense has been playing better too, but they have played some high powered offenses in this defensive revival, in Packers, Cowboys and Falcons. If the Giants OL blocks the Patriots DL giving Eli some time, he will make some plays down the field. Patriots may play a very conservative defense, not letting anyone get behind them, using a lot of nickel forcing the Giants to throw short and run the ball. It will be interesting to see how the Giants handle this. Giants WRs have made plays after the catch, so Giants need to be patient and wait for their play makers to take over the game. If Patriots play this conservative shell coverage with nickel in the DB-field, Giants may have to go to a power running game against the smaller Patriots defenders and Brandon Jacobs could be an important player in this game. If the Patriots are successful at taking the Giants out of their passing game and turning the game into a match of short passing games, it may be to the Patriots advantage, because that is their offense and the game will be played on their turf, in the style that they are comfortable with.

Patriots DL is anchored by the one real good player on it - Wilfork. He is more a run stopper than a pass rusher, so the idea that Eli needs good protection may not be threatened by Wilfork. In fact, one of the Giants poor offensive games this year came in games where they had trouble blocking the other team's pass rush. I think the Patriots will go to a conservative defensive game plan, but if they decide to pressure and blitz a lot, Giants will have to pick it up and make them pay. I still believe that if the OL blocks 'em, Eli will move the ball through the air.

Giants: Super Bowl information overload

There's been so much coverage, so many articles, it's hard to come up with something new, so let's talk about the coverage itself. We can call it meta-coverage, some examples follow. It is interesting how Bellichick is coming out of his shell and is much more open with information and friendly to the media. I can't figure out why, but I can speculate. (Explaining why someone acts the way they act when they are being covered, qualifies as meta-coverage). Perhaps he's getting some humility and doesn't feel that he's above the game anymore. In 2007, his team won 18 in a row and did not just win the games but seemed to take pleasure in absolutely demolishing their opponents. Bill Simmons, "The Sports Guy" on ESPN on-line, used to call it the "f-u" touchdowns at the end of the game where he really wanted to rub the league's nose in his superiority. Perhaps, in the wake of the illegal videotaping scandal, some people wondered publicly if this gave Bellichick an unfair advantage over his opponents and this was the reason he was so successful. Bellichick wanted to remove all such doubt about this speculation and so wanted to dominate his opponents, not "just" win. As a result, the final statement to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that "I'm better than you and taping has nothing to do with it" is to win the Super Bowl and even more, to do so after an undefeated season. That loss must have been crushing to him. The Patriots had not won a playoff game since that Super Bowl loss until this year and he surely heard the whispers grow to small murmurs that Bellichick had feet of clay and needed the advantage of the videotaping to win. To compound the agony, one of the playoff losses in those intervening years was to the bitterly hated in-division rival NY Jets. Perhaps these agonizing two years gave Bellichick a little dose of humility and he realizes just how hard it truly is to get to these Super Bowl games. His golden boy QB is aging and while he is still among the best, the window is surely closing just a wee bit on his career. He realizes that there may not be too many more opportunities like this, so he is truly enjoying it. He wants to come out of his shell a little bit and not maintain the persona of an arrogant, condescending, unapproachable jerk. Perhaps he also sees how Tom Coughlin has resurrected his personality from that of a hated army drill sergeant to that of your favorite uncle. Bellichick wants some of that too.

Sometimes the coverage at the Super Bowl is really bizarre. There are tons of media guys doing interviews of players and coaches. Fine, I get that. Of course, when they all do interviews of the same players and ask the same questions to each player over and over again, it gets a little tired and lame. How many times are we going to hear that Gronkowski has a high ankle sprain, that he hasn't practiced, that it might get better and it might not. How many times are we going to hear that the Giants have a good DL and the pass rush is important in football. How many times and in how many different ways can the question be phrased  to Tom Coughlin asking how and why his personality changed. How many times are we going to hear that Osi and Light don't like each other very much and got into fights the last few times they played. Enough already. But what I find interesting - this is the meta-coverage part - is that there are only so many players and coaches to go around that allow themselves to be interviewed on all these sports talk shows. So, when they run out of players to interview, the media guys interview each other. It's hilarious when you think about it. For example, on a local sports talk radio show, the host interviewed a writer from the Boston Globe, another sports talk radio personality from satellite radio, the play by play announcer from one of the networks and maybe he squeezed in a player or two also. It's not the media covering the players. It's the media covering the media. Meta-coverage.

Perhaps the best example is ESPN, which takes meta-coverage to the extreme. In fact, they may have invented meta-coverage. When the football analysts interview other ESPN analysts from other sports and they present this as meaningful insights into the game, i want to scream. As if it is important to get a fresh view of the Super Bowl from someone who analyzes the NBA for  living. Stephen A. Smith was interviewed on some ESPN segment and his opinions were given great respect. Smith is rarely correct about his predictions, but he says them with great conviction. Can we start this game already?