Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cowboys review I

Sorry for being incommunicado last few days since the Cowboys game - the storm knocked out my power and I was locked up in my house, so couldn't even update the blog from elsewhere. This is my first day out of the house with access to a computer, so here goes.

Watching the game, first feeling the excitement of embarrassing the Cowboys in the first qtr, taking that 23-0 lead was positively euphoric. Then watching the Cowboys creep back into the game 23-10 at halftime and seeing their offense take apart the Giants defense with two TDs and take the 24-23 lead in the 3rd quarter was dismal, or whatever the opposite of euphoric is. When the Giants ended up winning and barely holding onto the game with the call reversal of the Bryant TD, I think all Giants fans were left somewhat puzzled and perplexed, not knowing how to feel. On the simple, superficial level, all we want is a win, especially against America's Team. But on the other side of the coin, we want to see the Giants play well, and want to see harbingers of success for the rest of the season and into the playoffs. When Giants secondary was trashed for 437 yards passing and misplayed the ball to Bryant on the pass into the end zone with 10 seconds left in the game, we are all feeling lucky that the Giants won. Lucky is not what we want - we want to feel that the Giants are good. The initial reaction is that you can't feel confident that Giants will have an overly successful season if they don't fix some things. They need to play better pass defense; need to be more efficient scoring TDs instead of settling for FGs from the red zone and need to be a little sharper in the passing game. (Those last two items are surely related.) We want harbingers of success, not omens for failure, regardless of the results of one particular game.  I am less worried about the passing offense than the defense; the passing offense is more proven and the defense has some unknowns. When watching the game live and feeling the dread of Giants blowing the lead, things seemed much worse than they really were. When I watched the game again the next day (before my power went out) things did not look as bad as they seemed when I was watching it live and getting caught up in the moment.

Some comments:
I hate to complain about officating and make it the focus of the post game analysis, but in this game it was such a central factor, that I just have to raise it to the top of the list. When you want to nail or blame the refs, generally you complain about a call here or there and highlight one or two calls as game changers. For example, go back a few years to the Vinny Testaverde call where he was granted a TD on a scramble and clearly did not cross the goal line - the call that inspired the rebirth of video replay. Or consider the call earlier this year that ended the Packers-Seahawks game with the TD on what the refs ruled was shared possession that ended the game. It might be fair to single out those plays, but you could argue that there may have been other calls in those games that went the opposite way for the other team that equaled things out, even though those were scoring plays that apparently decided the game. In this Cowboys game, I am not talking about an individual call here and there, I am talking about fundamentally how the game was played and how the refs called it. The Cowboys strategy was to play very physical man-to-man underneath coverage on the Giants WRs and dare them to go deep in the passing game where two S were sitting back in a cover-2 zone. Not a bad strategy, since it worked well in the first game. It particularly worked well in the first game because replacement refs let the Cowboy CBs get away with lots of holding making it even more effective. Well, in this game, the Cowboys CBs were holding and illegally contacting the Giants WRs all game long and did not get called for a single foul for illegal contact, holding or PI. By contrast, the Giants DBs played a lot of zone and every time they laid a finger on a Cowboys DB, they got called for a penalty. Therefore, it is not just a particular call that went against the Giants, but the entire way the refs called the game was inequitable, leading to fundamental ineffectiveness and lack of productivity in the Giants passing game and leading to many more chances and open field for the Cowboys passing game. One particular example was on the Cowboys penultimate drive, the one ending with the second Stevie Brown INT. On that drive, J Tuck got in for a great sack against Romo, but the refs called holding by Hosley against Austin nullifying the sack and giving the Cowboys a new set of downs. Instead of 3rd and 19 it was 1st and 10. The call was outrageously bad, even by the double standard the refs set for this game. Football is all about field position and having chances to make plays. The Cowboys moved the ball closer to the Giants goal, and had several more tries to score, even though the Giants stopped that particular drive. Conversely, Cruz (twice), Bennet, Nicks and Hixon were clearly held on some key third down plays, causing them to miss the ball and in Hixon's case, fall short of the first down marker after the catch. It's one thing to miss a call here or there but it is another thing to fundamentally call the game differently for one team versus the other directly influencing the flow of the game.

Even with that, the Giants WRs had some uncharacteristic drops. Cruz dropped one on the sideline that was not as easy a catch as it looked, because his vision may have been blocked by the defender in front of him, who Eli had to clear to get it to him. It was an amazing throw by Eli. The worst drop was the one by Bennet at the goal line. Eli hit him for an underneath route on 3rd down that would have been a first down at the 1 yard line. Bennet caught it, but then rolled over trying to protect the ball and dropped it. Giants then kicked a FG to make the score 16-0.

The DL is starting to gain some rhythm. They had 4 sacks and one more taken away by the poor penalty call against Hosley referenced above. But more than that, they had good pressure all day on Romo forcing some of those bad throws and turnovers. It may have looked like there were some times where Romo was standing back there with lots of time. But that is somewhat misleading, since he did throw 62 passes, so of course there will be some times where his OL does a good job. The other thing to remember about all the passing yardage that Romo compiled against the Giants defense was this same statistic that he threw 62 times. The most important single statistic for measuring a passing game is yards-per-attempt. Even though Romo threw for all those yards, his yards-per-attempt was a very average 7.04 yards. This is not a bad number, but it is far from spectacular, right around the league average. Add in his 4 INTs, and Giants pass defense was not as bad as the yardage indicated. That said, I would still like to see the pass defense get better. There were several times where there was a blown coverage in the secondary and poor execution in the zone. Ben Roethlisberger's eyes are lighting up to hit his TE Heath Miller based on the way the Giants couldn't stop Witten. But I think the talent is there to get better if Fewell can figure it out.

More on the Cowboys game later this week.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cowboys look ahead II

Cowboys played a lot of man-underneath, cover-2 zone-on-top and it was very effective in game 1. The Cowboys CBs were very aggressive with the Giants WRs, knowing that they had deep help if they got beat. Perhaps they got a little advantage with this plan, because it was replacements refs calling the game and they let the DBs get away with more holding than the regular refs did. But the Cowboys CBs did a good job, especially considering that their DL beat the Giants OL and put pressure on Eli. They also did a good job stopping the run, resulting in lean output from the Giants offense. Several things have changed since then - the Giants OL has really improved, providing better run blocking and pass protection. Cowboys front 7 has lost some important players, particularly Sean Lee, their leading tackler and fastest LB. If Cowboys stick with their man-underneath cover-2, Giants will have to run the ball against it. But they will have to move through the air also and Martellus Bennet becomes an important target, because he will be matched up against a LB, where the Cowboys are slower because of absence of Lee. Giants should also go to a lot of 3 and 4 WR packages to challenge the Cowboys safeties that are not as strong as their CBs. If the Giants are going to resort to their running game because of Cowboys scheme, they should get Wilson on the field some. Running with the threat of a long run is much more effective than 3 yards and a cloud of field turf.

Offense is where I am worried about the Cowboys. We have the image of the Giants defense, especially the DL being a swarming, powerful, dominant group, but they have not played that way through the first 7 games of the season. I don't know if he's hurt or just showing his age, but Justin Tuck, though playing pretty well, is not the dominant force he was a few years ago. I was bored last night and popped in a DVD I made of one of the Giants games from 2009. That was far from a great season for the Giants, but Tuck was all over the field - he was nearly unblockable. I am not worried about sacks and statistics, but he just doesn't seem to be the formidable presence he was a few years ago. He certainly regained his form last year in the last 2 games of the year and the playoff run, so maybe he still has it in him. But he just doesn't look as strong right now - that allows the opposing OL to double JPP and slide the protection to that side without worrying about having to provide help on Tuck's side also. It may not be a coincidence that the Giants DL best game of the year was against the 49ers when Kiwanuka took more snaps in the DL instead of at LB and Tuck sat a little bit more. If the Giants DL does not put pressure on Cowboys, Romo has the ability and the skill position players available to him to play a big game and put up some points. He was excellent in the first game. Of course, the Giants DL has gotten a bit better since then, Corey Webster has been playing better and with both Prince A as well as Hosley on the field now, two of the CBs that played in that Dallas game, Tryon and Coe, that got picked on by Romo for the big plays all night long, are no longer in the regular DB rotation. Still - now would be a good week to see if there's any life left in this defense, if they can be dominant and not just pretty good, because they are not playing up to their resume and their expectations so far. Cowboys OL has been doing pretty well despite some injuries and question marks. They completely controlled the Ravens game two weeks ago running for 227 yards. They lost at the end because of some poor clock management and coaching in the closing minute but should have won the game. Last week they ran for only 85 yards against the Bucs, but Giants had trouble running against the Bucs also - they play good run defense. For the Cowboys, their best runner, DaMarco Murray is out and Felix Jones is nicked up but will probably play. Giants need a good game out of their DL and it has been up and down lately.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Look ahead to the Cowboys I

It's always a big exciting game when Giants and Cowboys tangle, whether it's up in the Northeast or down in Big D. It is definitely interesting how things have changed over the last few years in the relative standing of the two teams. In the early years of Eli's career, from 2004 through 2007, it was the Cowboys that were the dominant team in the NFL. Romo was the up and coming young stud, they had a huge, powerful OL with bruising Marion Barber and speedy Julius Jones at RB, a younger, faster Witten at TE. Most of all, they had dangerous WRs in TO, Terry Glenn and Miles Austin. TO has made himself a cartoon character nowadays, so we may tend to forget how dominant he was when he was at his prime. He was a tremendous athlete who, though he did drop a few balls, could run past every DB and overpower them with his size as well. He was the focus of every defense that played them and therefore opened things up for other players on the offense. In 2007, Giants lost twice during the regular season to the Cowboys and they put up 86 points in those two games, shredding a strong Giants defense. Cowboys were 13-3 that season, the #1 seed in the NFC and Giants were upstarts, hadn't yet won a playoff game and were trying to establish their QB as a legitimate player and one who they hoped one day could be a championship QB. When the Giants beat the Cowboys in the playoffs that year and went on to win the Super Bowl, things seemed to change. Parcells was no longer there to guide the drafting and player selection and while the Cowboys still have a lot of good players, and Romo is still a very good QB, it is the Giants that are widely considered to be the stronger team with two rings in the last 5 years and legitimate championship aspirations. Eli has the pedigree with his superlative play and great offensive weapons, while Romo is now in the position of defending himself to prove he is ring-worthy. It is interesting how the tables have turned a bit.

Having said that, this will be far from an easy game for the Giants as we saw the first week of the season where the Cowboys really controlled the game on both sides of the line of scrimmage. However, since that first week, the fortunes of both teams have turned a little bit. Giants are 5-1 since that opener, including a few easy wins against the weaker teams in the NFL, a strong statement win against the 49ers, one of the NFC's elite teams and a gritty win last week against a dangerous Redskins team. Cowboys, on the other hand, have been 2-3 since the opener with their two wins coming against below .500 teams Carolina and Tampa Bay. When they played the > .500 teams in the league, they are 0-3, losing big to the Bears and Seahawks, and fighting the Ravens hard before losing 31-29. None of that means that the Giants will win, but it does reveal something about the relative strengths of the teams.

NFL games are often all about matchups and there are some tough matchups for the Giants to deal with in this game. Specifically, the Cowboys front 7 is strong and really controlled the Giants OL in the season opener. Sean Lee is out now and the Giants OL has stabilized somewhat with the addition of Beatty to the starting lineup, but Ware, Spenser and Ratliff are tough to handle and can disrupt the Giants offense. If Giants OL can control the Cowboys DL, they will have a chance to be successful offensively. Cowboys in first game played a lot of conservative man-under, cover-2 defense, which blunts the threat of the deep pass and challenges the opposing offense to run the ball. Giants OL could not run the ball, so the offense was not very effective. Additionally, the Giants OL did not pass block well leaving a lot of pressure on Eli making it even harder to be productive offensively. Giants OL has improved since then, but handling the Dallas front is a big challenge.

More on game strategy later this week.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Manning to Cruuuuuz

One more note on the TD pass that won the game for the Giants. The play was perfectly conceived and was read the same way by the QB and the WR. Giants had 3 WRs on the field, 1 TE and 1 RB. They used their "trips formation" with 2 WRs and the TE lined up on the right side of the offense. Hixon was out wide, Bennett was lined up as TE and Cruz in the slot between them. Nicks was alone on the left side of the offense. The Redskins played man-to-man underneath with two safeties back in a cover 2 zone, one on the right side of the field and one on the left.  Bennett was matched up with a LB and CBs were on Cruz and Hixon. The repsonibility of the S is to see which WR is running deep and to give help for that DB. The CB covering Cruz was slightly inside him and the S was in between Hixon and Cruz, giving outside help on Cruz and inside help on Hixon. Cruz had a great break off the line of scrimmage and beat his man almost immediately. It looked like he was already behind him about 5-6 yards off the line of scrimmage. But the S didn't give immediate help on Cruz for two reasons: (1) Cruz has such great feet that he still may have been planning to cut off his route and break to the sidelines. (2) Hixon was running a deep in cut, so for the first 15 yards or so, he was streaking down the sideline and it looked like he may have been the one that was going deep. Therefore the S had to wait a second to judge which WR was going long and therefore which one needed help. Of course, he who hesitates is lost. Hixon finally broke to the inside and Cruz continued deep. By the time the S figured it out, Cruz was past him by a few yards and on the way for the 77 yard TD. The S was probably playing a little too tight to the line of scrimmage which didn't give him time to react and change his coverage. But the play was beautifully designed and executed. The interesting thing about the Giants offense is that Cruz and Manning both had to read the defense the same way - this was not necessarily the play called in the huddle, but was simply one of the options available to them to run. Both QB and WR saw the opportunity to split the double coverage; one of them had the talent to beat the coverage while the other had the talent to make the throw.

I love Hakeem Nicks, think he will be a star in this league for several years, but in some ways, Cruz might be a more valuable player to the team. When teams look for slot receivers, they look for guys that are quick, nimble, can stop on a dime to catch the ball in traffic and have great hands to possess the ball and convert those third down plays. The outside WRs are the big play guys with speed, size and strength. When you have a guy like Cruz that has both the ability to be a possession type receiver as well as the speed, strength and quick feet to be a big play threat, he provides a weapon at a position that most teams don't have. If Nicks were not on the team, Giants might be able to find another big play deep threat on the outside; there seem to be lots of them floating around the league and many coming out of college every year. But there are no players who play the slot and are dangerous big play guys like Cruz. Furthermore, the Giants offense under Gilbride is very complex, has lots of options and reads and requires soemone with a high football IQ and who makes the same reads as the QB to be successful. It is obvious that Cruz has this figured out and is always on the same page with Eli. Giants should make sure to sign him to a long term deal so we can see that salsa dance for many years.

Random Wednesday thoughts

Of the style of QBs that we consider running and athletic, the three that pop into your head first are RGIII, Cam Newton and Michael Vick. Josh Freeman of Tampa Bay can run also, but he seems to be more of a pocket passer who only runs when he has to. Of those first three, RGIII is by far the best even ignoring the fact that he is just a rookie. The difference between them is obvious: Newton and Vick are world class athletes, with big arms and great speed who happen to be playing the QB position. Conversely, RGIII is a QB who happens to be a great athlete and the fastest guy on the field. To their credit, the coaching staff consisting of Shanahan Sr and Jr have devised an offense that plays to his strength rather than forcing Griffin into an offense that they already had. The league will figure out how to play the read-option that they use and its effectiveness will probably come down a bit, but he nevertheless surely looks like a star player. RGIII makes good decisions, has good accuracy and arm strength, and is certainly able to evade the rush. He also seems like a down to earth, humble young man who doesn't, for example, do the "I'm Superman" routine that Cam Newton does whenever he scores. I saw an interview with Griffin and he also seems very articulate, soft spoken and bright; the kind of player a fan likes to root for.

You have to credit Reese for not only compiling a good team but also a deep one. Among his drafting principles is never (or rarely) to waste draft picks by trading up to get a higher pick in an earlier round. As a result, he has those lower round picks available to him and makes use of them. Other teams will trade a 3rd or 4th rounder to move up in 1st round. They may get the man they want early but because they gave up the later draft pick, they have to fill the back end of the roster with undrafted free agents and guys that were cut from other teams. Giants on the other hand have several very good players drafted in the last few years in later rounds. Specifically: Markus Kuhn 2012-7th; Tyler Sash and Jacquian Williams 2011-6th; Adrian Tracy 2010-6th; Ramses Barden and Travis Beckum 2009-3rd; Andre Brown 2009-4th; and even going back down memory lane, Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham was a 3rd round draft choice. These are not all great players, in fact many of them are backups. But they have all shown that they are NFL caliber players with starter or near-starter talent and fill out the back half of the roster providing some insurance from injury.

Stevie Brown has played pretty well replacing Phillips, getting a few INTs that were really game changers at the time. I think Phillips is faster and a better player, but Brown has done well enough so that Phillips does not need to come back until he's really ready. Will Hill will also be a good addition when he comes off his 4 game suspension and the Giants have some roster decisions to make when he is ready.

Giants defense and even coaches were heaping praise on RGIII after the game. They can't go down to Washington feeling scared when they play them later this season. They have to come up with  a different plan and be confident and aggressive against him. I saw the Giants sitting back and being scared on Sunday, worried that they were going to get faked out and expecting bad things to happen. When you expect it, the bad things actually do usually happen.

A look ahead at the Cowboys on Thursday and Friday.


At the top of everyone's power ranking are the Atlanta Falcons. I am not as impressed with them as everyone else seems to be. Let me explain. Their 6-0 record is gaudy but not as powerful as it seems. It's not only that they barely squeezed by in a few games to mediocre opponents with unlikely late game-saving scores; it's also the quality of their opponents. It sure seems like the NFC is the much stronger conference than the AFC this year. Texans and the Ravens were the toast of the conference in the early going, but the Ravens got pasted by the Texans yesterday, who in turn got absolutely torched by the Packers the week before. While that may be an indicator of relative conference strength, you certainly can't lay everything on one game; after all the Packers lost to the lowly Colts 3 weeks ago. But here's the real measure - what is the interconference record? The NFC record against the AFC is 20-8, and this is not because of one particular division dominating while the others are even. Every single NFC division has a winning record against the AFC: NFC East is 4-2, NFC North is 5-3, NFC South is 6-1 and NFC West is 5-2. With that preamble, proving NFC dominance, we can take a peak at the Falcons schedule and notice that they have already played all 4 of their AFC games. The fact that 4 of their 6 wins have come against the weaker conference may take some of the bloom off the rose of their perfect record.

Other general NFL thoughts: Patriots look like they are no better than a mediocre team right now. The Jets have been beaten up by the upper echelon teams of the NFL and have their 3 wins against the lower class. Patriots wee also 3-3 but you could make the argument that they were a little better than they showed because they lost 3 very close games that could have gone either way. But here they were: at home, with first place in the division on the line, playing a hated divisional rival, who themselves have fairly pedestrian talent and they barely squeak out an overtime win. Their pass defense looks awful, giving up big yardage and high completion percentage to a QB and receiver group that was playing poorly. They continued the practice of giving away a big 4th quarter lead and just don't look dominant. One preseason forecast actually had the Patriots going undefeated this year. Not.

Everyone talks about the QB - coach combination being the heart of the franchise. If you have a good pair, you're going to be a great team. I wonder if this means that Brady and Bellichick are starting to decline. Brady's accuracy on deep balls is slipping. He still puts up pretty good numbers because of the spread offense, and because Welker and his two TEs are always open, but he is missing throws that you expect him to make. As for the coach, Bellichick has made some very slick trades over the last few years amassing tons of draft choices, but it seems like he's not finding any stars among all those draft choices. His DB-field is awful and that is his upbringing - he started as DB coach on Giants under Parcells before he was promoted to DC there. Why is his defense so poor - can't blame injuries. He has drafted poorly and he has not coached them well. There's still plenty of time for Patriots to right the ship and make some noise in the playoffs - especially in the weak AFC. But the window of excellence may be starting to close for this group.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Second view of Redskins game

After reviewing the game again and looking at the statistics, I have a slightly different impression of the Giants defense on Sunday. RGIII and the 'Skins did most of their damage and looked unstoppable in the first half - 3 possessions, 3 scores, about 140 yards rushing. In the second half, the Giants did a better job, giving up only 1 TD on one possession. The other 3 points came after their INT on Giants 20 and the defense actually did a creditable job holding the Redskins to a FG. Giants forced several turnovers in the 2nd half, got a few sacks, which means they were doing better and stopping some plays. I still believe that when the Giants review the game on film and figure out what the Redskins were doing with their option and play fake of the option pass, they will be able to come up with a plan to at least somewhat contain them. Right now their WR weapons are good but not that dangerous and their loss of TE Davis is also a blow, so Giants should be able to come up with something.

I said also in my first post that Eli did not have a great day throwing the ball, but the truth is that applies to only about 4 or 5 bad balls he threw. most of the 40 passes he threw were very accurate and some were placed into very tight windows. When Nicks comes back to full strength, the passing game will get sharper.

On the deep pass to Moss over Hosley that gave the Redksins the temporary (19 seconds) lead,  it was curious that Rolle was standing in the middle of the field, not ranging back and trying to give Hosley deep help. I speculated in my earlier post that Rolle was affected by his 2 INTs against the 9ers and was trying to stay shallow to jump a route and make a hero play. However looking at the play again last night on DVR, I came to a different conclusion. Giants defense called a big blitz on the play with LB crashing the line. The DBs were all in man to man coverage with no help, or only one person back there in Rolle. All the routes that Redskins ran were either to the outside or deep, so if Rolle wanted to jump a short toute, he would slid to the sideline. I think Rolle's job was not to give deep help but to spy the QB in case he broke through the row of LBs that were blitzing. Since Giants were in man coverage, if RGIII had gotten past the line, all the DBs would have had their backs turned and Griffin would have run a long way. Further, there would have been no LBs there to try and stop him, since they were blitzing. Rolle was a spy. Hosley was beaten by a step, not by a lot, and it took a really good throw by Griffin to make the play, but you can still question the call by Fewell of taking a risk like that on 1st down.

Monday, October 22, 2012

First impressions of Redskins game

Giants defense got bounced all over the Meadowlands yesterday, or should I say MetLife Stadium, giving up 248 yards rushing and letting RGIII complete 71% of his passes. Overall, there were very few plays that the Redskins ran that the Giants actually stopped; a very high percentage of their plays were successful, some extremely successful for big gains. If you look at the game from that perspective: how many plays "worked" and how many didn't, the Giants won the game solely because they made just enough big plays on defense forcing turnovers at critical moments and not because they figured out a way, a formula, an approach to stop RGIII. They better figure out how to stop that college style option offense because it will be tough to beat the Redskins down in Washington.

I still think there is talent on this defense, I don't think they had a good plan for stopping RGIII. I think they were spooked by his speed and didn't play smart. On the first TD that Moss scored, Giants defenders were standing around and did not make a move on the ball. It is as if they still had the 'don't be too aggressive mind set' because you have to think contain with RGIII on the field. In the second half they were more aggressive, that's when they got some hits and forced the trunovers. But they also got beat deep on the long ball to Moss over the top of the defense. That's twice in the last two weeks that Giants got beat deep - both times over Antrel Rolle's head. I wonder if the two INTs he got against 49ers are playing with his head. He wants to make the big play and is taking chances looking to jump underneath routes instead of doing what the primary job of the S is - protect the deep ball.

This was Eli's worst day passing the ball this year. I guess we shouldn't complain to much when he completes 56% of his passes and throws for 337 yards. But the 2 INTs - one a bad throw and the second a bad read were somewhat bothersome. Moreover, there were a couple of incompletions that we're used to seeing as sure completions and easy throws that he missed. He missed Cruz in the first half down on the goal line, where Cruz was wide open for a sure TD. He overthrew Bradshaw badly right before the winning score; he underthrew Hixon once and he missed on a back shoulder fade to Nicks on a throw they complete nearly all the time. Having said all that and picked out his bad throws, he still came up big and threw a perfect ball to Cruz for the TD, right before getting leveled by a pass rusher and won the game for the Giants.

The second INT that Eli threw when the LB dropped back into the passing lane on the short hitch route/slant was the exact same play as on one of his 3 INTs in the Tampa game. That time it was  DB that stepped into the passing lane, this time it was LB. Giants must be telegraphing when they are going to run that play. The common thread is that Cofield on the Redskins used to play for the Giants and knows the reads and the keys. On Tampa, their new OC Sullivan was Giants QB coach last year and was on the staff for many years, so he also is able to give some insight to his new team into the Giants offense. I am betting that Eli will learn from those two mistakes and not make that same play again.

Everyone is saying Giants should have run the ball down there, when they were up a TD and had just taken the ball away from the Redskins on one of the fumble recoveries. I didn't have a problem with Giants throwing. I trust this QB and Giants were not really running consistently yesterday. It didn't work out because of the INT, but I didn't think it was a bad strategy.

I am dying to know what Bradshaw was so upset about all day long. He smacked Cruz in the helmet once and got into a heated exchange with the coaches and different players on the sidelines.

Nicks is not right yet; he just doesn't have the explosion and the quick moves that make him a star. I would like to see him rest or at least take fewer snaps until he's 100%. Hixon did fine when he stepped in as starter as did Barden and Randle; Giants should not push him to play if he's not healthy.

Andre Brown did a real nice job on the screen play that got a first down - earlier in the year, he just missed the first down on 3rd and long, but this time he made it. I was disappointed that Wilson did not get into the game on offense this week. Bradshaw and Brown are both playing well, but I don't like keeping a weapon on the bench. Giants passed more than they ran yesterday, and they may still be nervous about Wilson's blocking and blitz pickup. But still.... let him play. Cowboys tend to blitz a lot out of unusual formations, so Giants may be nervous about him mastering his assignments and may not use him much next week either.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Saturday night before Redskins game I

Canty was activated and is ready for the game. As I guessed on Friday - Da'Rel Scott was put on IR to make room for Canty on the 53 man roster. It makes sense because he had knee surgery this week and would probably miss around 4 weeks anyway, which means the earliest he could return would be week 11 or 12, not giving him much time to help the team this year.

It could be a high scoring game tomorrow, with both teams having very productive scoring offenses.

Giants have to be disciplined in their pass rush and keep RG III in the pocket, making him a conventional QB. They will probably play more zone than usual, because in man-to-man schemes, the DBs turn their back on the QB and don't see when he breaks out of the pocket to run. They also need to keep their fastest players on the field, so Osi may get more snaps than usual instead of Tuck. Kiwanuka may get some snaps at DT, because he is faster that typical DTs. Rivers may get more snaps than he has lately, partly because he finally appears to be recovered from his hamstring injury and partly because he is the fastest LB on the team.

Redskins have a poor pass defense, so Eli should come out throwing. I know the Giants always like to have balance and not completely abandon the running game. But this might be a week to get ahead early with the passing game and use the running game to close it out. When you look at last week's game against the 49ers, that's essentially what the Giants did. They did try to establish the run in the first half, but ran ineffectively. They grabbed control of the game when Eli started throwing the ball in the 2nd quarter and they scored 10 quick points. They scored a TD on their first possession of second half going up 2 TDs and then ran the ball to control the game. My mantra: throw early, run late. Use the passing game to get ahead and if you establish a good lead, use the running game to close them out. This might be the recipe for Redskins tomorrow.

Friday, October 19, 2012

injury update

Jacquian Williams is out with a knee injury.

Rocky Bernard is still out - I wonder if Canty will make an appearance. He has practiced this week, but obviously is a little rusty.

Kenny Phillips apparently making progress, but not ready yet.

Da'Rel Scott had a knee injury and had surgery this week. It was a meniscus tear, which is not as serious as a ligament tear, but he still will miss some time. In my last blog post, I hypothesized who might be cut when Canty comes back. I suggested it might be Ojomo, since he has not dressed for a game yet. But since we are already in week 7 and Scott will miss at least a few weeks, there is not a lot of runway left for him to come back and play. Brown has looked good at RB, so I wonder if  the Giants might take a chance on keeping 3 RBs and make Scott the sacrificial lamb to get put on IR when Canty is ready.

looking ahead to Redskins

Just looking at the statistics, you can guess that the game this Sunday might be fairly high scoring and could be a challenging one for the Giants. Giants and Redskins are tied with 178 points scored, the 3rd best in the NFL averaging 29.7 points per game. Giants are averaging 414.7 yards per game also 3rd in the league and the Redskins are right behind them, averaging 394 yards per game, 5th in the league. The thing that always jumps out at you, the most important statistic for the passing game is yards per attempt. RGIII is averaging a very impressive 8.3 yards per attempt and Eli is averaging 7.9, also not too shabby.

The Giants have an advantage statistically on the other side of the ball, with the Redskins defense giving up 417 yards per game and their pass defense at the very bottom of the league, # 32. Giants defense is not in the upper half, but they have played better lately and everyone agrees that they have the tools to be a strong defense. Redskins have some key injuries to two key players in their young, active front 7, with Orakpo and Carriker both out for the season. They have some injuries in the DB-field also, weakening a defense that was strong last year.

Giants have to find a way to neutralize RGIII who looks like he is the next rising star in the league. Everyone has compared RGIII to Micahel Vick because of their great speed. Vick is a dangerous, player down in Philly, but his strength comes entirely from his incredible speed. Agreed that he also has a strong arm, but he is not quick or accurate with his reads of defenses and is turning the ball over a lot, perhaps in part because of increased complexity of defenses around the league. RGIII on the other hand, possesses similar athletic explosion but is apparently a very intelligent student of the game as evidenced by his 70% completion percentage, low turnover rate and his leading the league in QB rating. He is a threat. I think the Giants best approach is to make him throw the ball, keep him pinned in the pocket and force him to be a conventional QB. This means that the pass rush has to be good, but also has to be disciplined. The DEs can't give up their outside responsibility and let RGIII beat them around the corner. The DTs have to get a push up the middle and can't leave gaps there for him to slip through. Sometimes trying to be disciplined blunts the effectiveness of a pass rush, but there is one other advantage Giants may use. The Redskins WRs are good but not great. Giants may be able to blitz occasionally and leave the DB-field a little thin in their coverage responsibility.

Giants also need to get a lot of speed on the field on defense - as much and as often as they can. Towards this goal, look for Kiwanuka to get more snaps on the DL like he did against the 49ers even at DT. Taking his spot at LB was Adrian Tracey last week to combat the power running game that SF uses. However, Tracey would not be as good a choice this week because of his lack of speed. Jacquian Williams would be the best choice; unfortunately he has a knee injury and is out this week. Keith Rivers who might be the fastest LB on the team, though he missed some time due to injury, should see more playing time. One other possible change could be at MLB - I keep hoping that Herzlich will get into the game but Blackburn has been playing so well, even in the passing game, that he just can't replace him on the field. I am not saying Blackburn should be benched, but it might not be a bad idea to get Herzlich on the field some this week to utilize his superior speed.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Injuries, roster, etc.

Canty was taken off PUP and has been practicing. No word on whether he will play this week, but if he is activated someone will have to be cut. Best guess is Ojomo, since he is on the DL and has not been active for any game this year. Giants have a deep roster at DE after the 3 man starting rotation, with Kiwanuka and Tracy nominally LBs but natural DEs. Jacquian Williams injured his knee, but Rivers and Boley are back, so there should be enough reinforcements at LB even if Kiwanuka moves to DL.

Bradshaw has a foot injury and is not practicing today. Maybe Giants should have played Wilson some more in last two games instead of letting a guy who has a history of foot problems carry the ball like 100 times in the last two weeks, especially in garbage time at the end of the game. Andre Brown is cleared from his concussion and practiced fully, so Giants should be OK at RB even if Bradshaw is a scratch.

It will be curious to see what roster move the Giants make when Will Hill comes back from his suspension in a few weeks. He has looked very impressive in the DB-field spending time as nickel CB and a little at S. He is also an excellent ST player; he caused the fumble on the kick return against the Browns that turned that game around. He is very athletic and talented - was not drafted because of serious off-field issues in college. But if he has matured (big if, of course, but money is a great motivator) the Giants may want to keep him for the long haul. So if Hill comes back, who goes? The candidates who would be considered from the DB-field are probably: Stevie Brown, Michael Coe, Justin Tryon or Tyler Sash. Putting on our coach's hat, Brown has played well as S in place of Phillips; Sash is well thought of, though I don't think he's really athletic or fast enough to play S. So it comes down to a choice between Coe and Tryon. Coe has played a little better, so it may be Tryon that goes. The argument for cutting Sash, however, is that Hill is a natural S and it's harder to find a CB than a S. Kenny Phillips is coming back soon, so that also argues for letting Sash go instead of a CB, but Sash was drafted, Tryon was not and Giants always seem to give preference to a Reese draft choice. We'll see.

Looking at NFC East rivals, it sure looks like the coaching ride has been a bit bumpy in Dallas and Philly this year. Reid is a good coach, but I am not sure the players are listening to his voice anymore. He is known as a strict disciplinarian yet the Eagles have been getting tons of penalties and making lots of turnovers. In Dallas, the Cowboys outplayed and outgained the Ravens last week badly. They had 165 more yards from scrimmage, had 40 minutes time of possession, had 30 first downs to the Ravens 19 and generally dominated the game. They had 227 yards rushing and you don't dominate that way just with deception - you have to have the talent to produce those numbers. They did have one INT, but they also recovered an on-side kick which gives them an extra possession and is the same as a turnover. But they lost the game in part by giving up a kick return for a TD, which admittedly skews the time of possession and yardage statistics, since there are 100 hidden yards. Also in part, they lost the game by terrible clock management especially at the end of the game. I have said it before - ST play is 90% coaching. Every team has a sufficient number of athletes to play good ST coverage. There might be an exceptional return man or cover guy on one team or another, but absent that, they should all be about the same, and it is all about coaching. ST may be 90% coaching, but clock management is 100% coaching, so bad marks for Jason Garrett in Big D. I think he is a creative offensive coordinator, but that does not make him a great HC. We'll see how he does - if Cowboys fail to make the playoffs, Jones patience may run out.

random Thursday thoughts

Giants OL

Looking at it closely and carefully, Locklear did not have a great game Sunday at RT. He let his man in a few times and gave up some pressures on Eli. The QB was able to step up and get rid of the ball, but under other circumstances it could have led to a hit or a sack. Beatty was near perfect on the other side. If Diehl forces his way back into the lineup it should be at RT. I hope the coaches see that.

Tuck and DL

Everyone had been wringing their hands about the apparent lack of pass rush from the Giants so far this year. Unfortunately, once sacks became a statistic that everyone tracks, it has been the only way we measure a DL. The truth is that frequent pressure, forcing QB to release early and not hold the ball forever is more improtant than an occasional sack. Tuck had no sacks on Sunday, in fact did not even have a tackle in the entire game, but I counted about 4 times when he was in Smith's face and I thought it might have been his best game of the year. Other people picked up the sacks, so people will still worry about Tuck's numbers, but he looked good to me against the 9ers. Kiwanuka on the other hand, did both. He played a huge game, getting pressures, making plays in the running game and getting a huge sack also. JPP played great as always. The DTs, especially Linval Joseph were excellent as well. Joseph flies under the radar on this high profile defense, especially the DL. But he is an excellent player, playing at a very high level. he is purportedly the strongest man on the team and he is very quick for a man his size. Getting pressure up the middle and not just from the outside makes the pass rush much more effective.

Passing game

Eli threw for about 175 yards in the first half and then was content to sit on the lead and let the running game take over in the second half. But let's not whitewash it - the passing game was definitely out of sync in the second half. It's terrible that they did not score a TD on either of the short fields provided to them by the defense on Rolle's two INTs. Nicks is still sore and not at full strength, so maybe that contributed to the lack of production at the goal line. But the Giants have to be sharp in their passing game for the very tough games coming up in this part of the schedule. The next two weeks - Redskins @ home and Cowboys @ Dallas are critical games for a successful season. In the Washington game, the Redskins defense is not that good, especially with Orakpo gone, but the offense is dangerous with a  dynamic player in RGIII. Giants offense will not be able to waste opportunities.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

About Power Rankings

It seems like a very popular exercise in today's media driven sports world is creating a Power Ranking as the season progresses to see which team seems to be leading the pack at various junctures during the season. Presumably, this gives the studied fan and the experts a chance to forecast which teams are most likely bound for playoff glory and Super Bowl contention. In reality, it is just another conversation starter, another attention grabber, a gimmick to get clicks and eyeballs on the web sites without real meaning. Having said that, it is a fun conversation item, good water cooler chatter and it is interesting to see which teams are considered the favorites in the league. How do you evaluate which team is the best in the league right now? If you simply look at record, everyone would agree that the Falcons at 6-0 are best in the NFC and Texans/Ravens with only 1 loss each are best in the AFC. In fact virtually all the power rankings I have seen have these teams in the top 4 or 5 of the league. (Someone will no doubt come out with a web tool that searches all the power rankings on the web, and averages them all together for a pooled power ranking. Kind of like: Gallup Polls meets the NFL Power Ranking game.) The problem with considering the current record of each team above all else is that it neglects to take into account what kind of schedule each team has played and how good they looked in those games. I know the old Parcells-ism "you are what your records says you are", but that's not entirely true, certainly not in the middle of the season before the entire schedule is played out. Looking at the Giants, for example, until week 6 and you could certainly question the Giants 3-2 record. They beat 3 poor teams in the Bucs, Browns and Panthers without looking very strong in two of those games. And they lost to their division rivals Eagles and Cowboys in the only games they played against talented teams. Of course the SF win in week 6 may have validated them as a serious team, but my point is - schedule is relevant.

Looking at the Falcons 6-0, for another example, they barely squeaked by 3 weak teams to achieve that 6-0 record. You can only play the teams on your schedule, so you can't knock them for winning. But my question is this: Do you think the "best team" is one that is very consistent, finds a way to win even when it doesn't play particularly well. Is it a team that never stumbles or stubs its toe by losing to a team that it should beat and always plays to its level? Or is it a team that occasionally plays poorly when it shouldn't, but can also rise up, play at the highest level and can beat the best teams in the league. For my money - it is the latter that has greatness within them.

Consider two students that both have an average of 80 on their exams. You might call them equal as students and equally intelligent. But if one student got his 80 average by getting a score of 80 on every exam and another did it by getting 60 on half his exams and 100 on his other exams, you might evaluate them differently. The one that got half 100s has brilliance within him but doesn't always perform at his best. The one that gets 80 on every exam - that's his ceiling. You know which kid the Giants were last year.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

On the Eagles

Andy Reid fired his DC Juan Castillo in what has to be considered a panic move by him. Reid has pressure to win this year and he is apparently willing to sacrifice loyalty of a long time, well regarded (OL) coach now coaching the defense, rather than going down with the ship. It's a little curious that he did this. It is definitely questionable that Castillo deserved to be fired and that he is the cause for the Eagles mediocre 3-3 record. Consider: Eagles defense is in the top half of the league (nearly in the top third actually) in both key team defensive statistics. They are 12th in the league in yards allowed per game and are 13th in the league in points allowed per game. That's not bad statistically and if you throw in the fact that the Eagles are second worst in the league in turnover differential, meaning that the defense has had many more possessions to defend than the average team, you could argue that the defense has actually been much better than their statistics indicate. Furthermore, I could argue that if there is a disparity between yardage and points, that goes to the coaching staff. What I mean is - if the team is only average in yardage statistics (on offense or defense) but their points allowed rank is much better than the yardage, it might indicate that the coaches know how to squeeze every ounce out of the native ability that his unit has. Conversely, if points are a much lower rank than yards it might indicated that the players have the ability to make plays and get yards, but the coach can't push the right buttons to convert it into points. That might indicate that Castillo is doing a reasonable job - because the defensive rank in yards and points is roughly the same.

Now consider Reid's offense. They are ranked 11th in the league in yardage gained per game, but are ranked 31st in the league in points per game. You could certainly infer that because of all the turnovers, penalties, questionable play calling in the red zone and strategic flaws in the offensive plan that it is the offensive coaches that show an inability to convert yardage into points. It sure looks like it is the offense that needs to be tweaked, not the defense. But that is Reid's offense and he can't fire himself. I wonder if the next shoe to drop is  change at the QB position. It would be a huge gamble by Reid to replace Vick, it will probably splinter the locker room and I doubt he will do it. But when teams and coaches are panicking - who knows?

more 49ers game

I reviewed the game last night and I came away even more impressed by the OL play. First half Giants did not run very well, but you can often write that off to the home team being particularly pumped up by the home crowd and extra emotional in their play. Coughlin often talks about having to stand up to that initial surge from the home team, handle it and kind of get the game under control in a normal flow. Giants did that, withstood the surge and then the normal quality of play from each team took over. But even withstanding that initial emotional SF defensive surge, Giants OL pass-blocked extremely well. Then when they got their sea legs and got some momentum and emotion going on their side, in part sparked by the 2nd half kickoff return from Wilson, they absolutely dominated. Beatty is playing at such a good level. Their RDE is very strong and he absolutely neutralized him.

A nostalgic review that represents this idea of withstanding the initial burst of the home team - think back to the opening game of the 2007 playoff run. Giants opened against Tampa and the Bucs came out smoking. Giants were behind 7-0 at the end of the first quarter and had not gained a yard on offense. Then Eli hit a little pass play to Toomer, withstood the initial charge of the Bucs and completely controlled the game, scoring 24 straight points to put it away.

That TD that Giants scored on first drive of 2nd half against 9ers that pushed the score to 17-3 was important for more than just the fact that it pushed the margin to two scores. It was also the way the Giants scored - pounding the ball into the end zone on the ground against what had been thought to be an impregnable 49er red zone running defense. Giants had first and goal at the 7 and Bradhsaw ran it three times for the score. Notice also that all three runs were behind the left side of the OL, Beatty and Boothe making a crease and getting good push. Aside from the two TD lead, Giants attacked the manhood of the 49ers team and won.

If Locklear continues to play well at RT, Diehl becomes a really valuable substitute. He is athletic enough to be an extra TE in short yardage situations and he can be a substitute at several OL positions. I would like to see Giants develop Brewer and Petrus to see if they can grow into NFL players, but it's hard to do it in real games.

I have said several times that I don't love Bradshaw. he's a very good player, very rugged, tough, has become very good at picking up blitzes - rarely misses an assignment or a block - so I am not knocking him for that part of his game. I still think that there are too many times when he leaves his lead, turns away from the intended hole and tries to bounce things outside looking to hit a home run on every play. (How's that working out for the Yankees in the playoffs?) Sometimes, you have to take the 2 or 3 yards that are there and look to the next play instead of trying for 50 and turning it into a loss. My son noticed that this happened on Sunday on one play when it was 3rd and short; I checked it out and he was right. Bradshaw took a draw play, could have made the first down, but took one false step outside hesitating for just a moment to look for the big play. Then when he turned back to the intended hole, the crease had closed. I am surely nit picking a little bit, because he has played well, and he does finish every run getting the most out of it. I am just saying - he's not perfect.

Apparently there was an old Giants locker room reunion in SF with Jacobs and Manningham meeting up with their old teammates. (Rich Seubert was there too, since he lives in CA now in his retirment.) Manningham is more comfortable in the SF offense - not surprisingly because the SF offense is simpler, has fewer reads and sight adjustments, which was not Manningham's strengths. Harbaugh simplifies things a bit for his QB and his team and it works out for Manningham. Jacobs has not seen the field yet and has started to squawk about not playing. I wonder if the ex-Giants have a slight pang of buyer's remorse.... not that they had a choice; Giants didn't really want to re-sign them.

Cowboys are 2-3 but they are from being done for the season. They dominated the Ravens on Sunday on the field, outgaining them by around 200 yards. They could have won the game but for some poor clock management, coaching mistakes and a missed FG.  Statistics are for losers - I get that. But it does indicate that they have talent and they can be a real threat. Same for Eagles - their offense is very productive and are being undone by mistakes and turnovers. This is the second year in a row that is happening, so maybe it is the nature of this team, but still..... it does indicate that they have some talent. Or course when they played the Giants, they played a near perfect game and still only won by 2 points - so I am not saying they are better than the Giants - I am just saying they are formidable.

Monday, October 15, 2012

49ers review

Lots of unpublished drafts sitting in my blog from previous few weeks, but no posts. Here goes....

Some random thoughts from yesterday's 9ers game

1. Kiwanuka is playing LB, but might actually be the most complete DE on the team. Fewell moved him into several plays on the DL and used Tracy in his slot at LB, no doubt to keep the bulk on the field to deal with the 9ers power runners. JPP is a freak athlete and keeps making plays, so I'm not knocking him ( btw he might actually be better defending the running game than rushing the passer). But Kiwanuka is more polished, more professional, makes plays and doesn't freelance, therefore rarely out of position. Osi should start checking out life in other NFL cities, because Kiwanuka is taking his spot next year. Giants coaches always liked Tracy - you can tell when the coaches like someone when he hangs around on the practice squad for 2-3 years. Same with Andre Brown who they grabbed as soon as he became available again.
2. When one team whomps another, do you say the winning team is great or the loser is weak. I think Giants are a strong team, but the 49ers are just not that good. They have a really good OL and front 7 on defense, so if they can run it down their opponents throat, stop the run and get after them with their front 7 on defense, they can look dominant. But their skill position players on offense and defense are below average (I'm calling DBs and pass coverage by LBs skill position on defense in this context.) Therefore if your team can stand up to their OL/DL, you expose them. If it had not been a rainy day out there last year in the playoffs, making it difficult to close drives, Giants would have won by 2 TDs
3. Amukamara is a stud, and another another big plus for the defense was the presence of Hosley. All of a sudden, the QB's first read is not there, he has to hesitate for just a second more and the pass rush can get home. This is particulalry true with someone like Smith who is just an average QB. The great step up he made last year was because Harbaugh told him he didn't want to do too much. He has two reads on every play: (1) the primary target and (2) the checkdown to the undeneath guy. If the primary isn't there, he goes safe and if that's not there he throws it away. Works great when you're running game is getting 180 per game and you have 5 seconds to sit in the pocket. But when you're playing an upper echelon defense..... doesn't work out as well. Don't forget one other thing - 9ers were 13-3 last year and had 6 eeeeasy games in their division. This year NFC West has improved; let's see how he does. My current view of QBs is that there are a few who are "elite" who can raise the level of their game and of their team and there are a few that really stink. Then there are a whole bunch in the middle that have some ability and will do well if the team around them is great. Is there really such a great difference between Mark Sanchez and Alex Smith.... I don't think so.
4. OL is playing reaaalllly well. I said coming into the season that the only thing that could kill Giants season was weak OL play and injuries / poor play in the db-field. I was hoping for decent OL play, but it looks like this OL is giving the team much more than that. I am not saying this is best OL in football - but right now they're playing very, very well. Beatty is playing at a near all pro level. Boothe is playing much better than last year and Baas has improved. As far as the db-field - Prince was the question mark and he's answering the call. And...... I said before - Hosley has a real high upside also. Giants haven't missed Phillips at S yet, but they haven't played any decent QBs since he went down. RGIII scares me this week
5.  Wilson looks scary good and Giants have to expand his role. He reminds (not in style or ability, but just in demeanor) of Gale Sayers. I remembering watching Sayers and feeling he was going to score every time he touched the ball and remembered exhaling and being relieved when he didn't. Wilson will make plays before the season is over as he's starting to already.
6. 49ers laid down and quit in 2nd half. The risk of having a high volume coach, who constantly gets his team amped up and makes himself the center of attention is that when he lets down, the whole team lets down. When they stumble and realize that they might not have a first class ticket to the Super Bowl; when they see his bluster is not substantial, they turn off and let down. Coughlin is more middle of the road. Keeps them pumped up without college style nonsense; Harbaugh is a college coach. And - what was that nonsense about playing the substitute QB for long stretches in 2nd half? Was he trying to mess with Alex Smith's fragile psyche? Is he trying to see what he's got in Kaepernick and work towards replacing Smith later in the season?
7. What will Giants defense look like when Bernard and Canty come back at DT? Have to look at the game again, but not sure how Austin is doing. Kuhn was OK.
8. Speaking of defense - I got to give Fewell credit for several things: they had a great game plan to take away TE Davis. It was simple, but it worked - he was always hammered at the line and rerouted, then picked up by different players - sometimes DB, sometimes S or LB. Giants played great mix of zone and man and confused Smith, especially when he fell behind and had to throw more. I was very pleased that Amukamara got his INT in a zone, when he fooled the QB and made the pick. Rolle, obviously was great.
9. I love the comment Aikman made - 49ers defense was dominant last two weeks but Bills QB and Jets QB are not exactly the same as playing Eli.
10. It would be nice if the Giants could play as well at home as they do on the road. With Giants carrying 0-2 record in the division next two games against the Redskins (home) and Cowboys (road) are critical. There are 3 teams in the NFC West with 4 wins, 2 in the NFC North with 4 wins and a rising Green Bay team with 3 wins. My point is that it will be difficult to win the wild card, so winning the division is safest way into the playoffs. That's what makes these next two divisional games really important.