Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Saints Game Review II

The QB
Eli threw some great balls against the Saints, but his two INTs were inexcusable. On his first INT he threw the ball 3 yards behind Jernigan. I wonder if he expected Jernigan to pull up and sit down in that spot in the zone instead of continuing his cut to the outside, because there was a DB out on the sideline also. If so, we should charge that INT to Gilbride because he has an offense that requires the QB and WR to have ESP to know what the other is thinking before the throw, or at least to Jernigan for making the wrong read. However, the second INT, where Eli telegraphed where he was going, locked onto the receiver all the way, then hesitated and double clutched, giving the S lots of time to get over and make the play was the kind of play that Mark Sanchez would make. I am not worried about the QB, but that was a bad play. Eli also made a few throws that could have been intercepted but were dropped by Saints defenders. One throw to Cruz in the 2nd half on the goal line was underthrown and should have been a TD. Instead it could have been picked, though it would have requried a great play by the DB. The one that really bothered me was the ball to Hixon in the first half, where it looked like Hixon was behind his man on a seam route and a good throw might have been a TD. Ball was underthrown badly and was dropped by the Saints DB. I am not saying that Eli is not a great QB - he is. Maybe this is nitpicking, because he did throw for 4 TDs and >250 yards. Maybe it's just that we have come to expect excellence from him and when we don't see it, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Maybe it's the lack of burst from Nicks, who made the passing offense go last year and who everyone acknowledges, even tight-lipped Coughlin, is below full strength. Giants passing offense always had a very low margin for error, requiring perfect reads and throws by the QB. When it's a little off, it can look pedestrian. Whatever it is now, that's what the Giants are going to have to ride into the playoffs, because it's the passing offense and the DL that are the best units on the team and have the potential to reach the greatest heights and propel the team.


Jacquian Williams got back onto the field and looked pretty mobile. The LBs did a decent job against the pass, but the run defense overall was not very good. Saints got a good push against the DL and the LBs were not filling the holes. Surprisingly, the DTs have been pushed around lately. I thought that with Canty back in the lineup the run defense would improve, but they have been vulnerable last two weeks especially. I thought that the Redskins game was an aberration because of the unusual style of their attack, but the run defense was poor against Saints also. Giants defense rises and falls on the ability of their DL to stop the run and generate pass rush in passing situations. They have to step it up.

Don't know if you noticed but the Giants in the second half seemed to use Tuck in coverage on a few occasions. There have been many plays in the last few games where Tuck is standing up at the line before the snap, but that was more for confusing the OL and not letting them get a read on where he was coming from and who needed to block him. This week, there were several times when the Giants rushed only 3 and Tuck dropped back into (short) coverage. Giants did not get burned by this, made a few stops and in fact, this was the formation where they got their only sack of the day, so I can't kill its use. But if you want to play a 3-4, my instinct says you should use 4 real LBs.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Saints game review I

After the Packers game in week 12, in which the Giants had such a dominating performance, everyone was taking the approach that the Giants had arrived (again). They cast aside their recent two game losing streak against the Bengals and Steelers and were ready to go on their end-of-season run to make some noise in the playoffs. I was less convinced by that Packers win. While it is certainly true that they played much better than they had in the previous two losses and in the shaky win against the Cowboys, I was not ready to affirm that they were fixed. I asserted that the Packers were not as good as they have been in the past few years and specifically, their OL is broken, giving the Giants a chance to take advantage of that matchup and play better than they really were. They took a little step back, both on offense and defense against the Redskins the following week and now with their hold on first place over the victorious Redskins and Cowboys somewhat tenuous, they put up a 52-spot against the Saints and won by 25 points.

Again, the fans just looking at the scoreboard and the big plays are going to shout hallelujah, claiming that the Giants, with their backs against the wall again have shown their grit and are ready to go on that end-of-season and playoff run. Sorry, but I remain unconvinced. There are definitely some good things to take out of this game; maybe lots of good things. But there are also definitely some issues and we need to honestly look at the whole picture and not hide our eyes from the flaws.

The good things are obvious: at the top of the list is David Wilson. His return game was spectacular and even though the Giants did not capitalize on all his great returns with points, the field position it gave the team helped in the flow of the game. After the game, virtually the whole team was crowing about him, calling him the best athlete on the team, the fastest runner and almost surprised that it took so long into the season for him to take over a game on ST. Truthfully, I am more upbeat and more impressed about his performance in the running game from scrimmage than in the kick return game. With that speed, you know he had the ability to run around the edges, as he did when he scored his TD at the end of the game earlier this year against the Browns. But this game he showed a lot more. He ran very effectively between the tackles, knocked over some tacklers and used his powerful legs to churn in a TD at the goal line. I know it's only one game, but he looked like the full package Sunday against the Saints. His performance will absolutely force Coughlin and Gilbride to play him more, especially with the apparent injury to Bradshaw, but I think the offense may be more effective with him in the lineup over Bradshaw. His presence will force the DBs to play a little closer to the line of scrimmage and maybe open up the passing game a bit. He looked so impressive that it really makes you wonder why the coaches were holding him out so long and not giving him some snaps earlier in the season. Did that cost the Giants one of their five losses?

The second good thing to report on from this game is the performance of Antrel Rolle and especially Will Hill in the secondary. Hill is really coming on and frankly is a perfect player to add to the 3-S package that Fewell likes so much. He is fast enough to play S and is a really good hitter, big enough to hold his own in the running game. He had some huge hits yesterday, one of which helped force a fumble. Rolle played an outstanding game - covering the Saints all-world TE Graham and keeping him more or less under control. He also forced one fumble, recovered another and set up Stevie Brown's first INT on a tipped ball, when Graham was the intended target. Rolle went up high with the much taller Graham and tipped the ball away making it an easy INT for the always-in-the-right-spot Stevie Brown. Speaking of Stevie Brown - I liked the play he made on the first INT, but that was easy, picking low hanging fruit, after the tip by Rolle. Brown's second INT was a brilliant play and essentially closed the game for the Giants, when a completion there would have made the game very tense. He stayed home with his deep responsibility, read the route and the QB perfectly and jumped the route to make the pick.

Nicks showed a little bit more speed and mobility, but is clearly still not 100% Cruz had a big game, getting 100+ yards and not dropping any balls. The OL was decent for the pass, but not very good against the run until late in the game when the Saints started mailing it in on defense. I am worried about the OL with Diehl out there at RT when the Giants have to play against a real good DL.

That's the good news. Now the bad news: the biggest thing I am worried about is the defense. You could argue that the Giants offense gave away 14 points on turnovers, so the defense allowed only 13 points, which is not bad. I know Giants forced 4 turnovers and they were all on good plays by the defense, not gifts from the offense. But turnovers are not really repeatable, especially fumble recoveries and that was a big reason the Giants stopped the Saints offense. The Giants DL was way too soft against the running game, being gashed for runs right up the middle. In the first half, Giants gave up >100 yards rushing. The DL had some pressure on Brees at times, but this entire defensive philosophy is predicated on getting pressure on the QB and there was only one sack.

The thing that bothered me the most was the apparent inability of the defense to play, safe, conservative  defense when they got a big lead. Giants were up 14-13 after NO FG in the first half and scored 21 straight points to open up a 35-13 lead with 8 minutes left in the 3rd quarter. Teams can make comebacks from 3 TD deficits, especially with some play makers on offense, but the defense should make the offense work, not give up any big plays and make them take 5-6 minutes to score with a long drive. You do this by keeping the ball in front of you and have the S aware of his deep responsibility. After that TD that opened up the 3-TD lead, Saints scored on 2 plays. First Brees threw up a 62 yard ball to Morgan that was so poorly thrown, floating in the air so long that it looked like the Giants DBs could have called for a fair catch and picked it off. Giants did have 3 DBs back in the area, but they played it so poorly that Morgan caught the ball and ran a few yards before being tackled. It was one of the most poorly defended balls I have seen. Sproles scored on the next play. Giants gave up 350 passing yards, but a lot of them were in garbage time when Saints were way behind. They made some good plays on the ball in the DB-field, but that long pass to Morgan really bothered me and the Giants should not be making mental mistakes like that in week 14.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

WR and the offense

When an offense does not have speed and a legitimate deep threat on the outside, they become limtied and can be more easily defended. (I read that in the "Football for Idiots" book that I leave on my nightstand.) It's not just the deep balls themselves or even the threat of the deep ball that keeps defenses playing looser and gives up the shorter balls to help the offense move. It's also the space to catch the short ball and make a move before the defender is on you, giving the offense a chance for longer gains and even breaking one for a "cheap" score. The Giants greatly benefited from this last year and are getting badly hurt by the absence of this dimension this year. We all remember that last year, Cruz had a number of huge plays, catching a short ball, making someone miss and turning it into a big score. Relying on my memory and not looking up stats on the web, I can recall the Eagles game when Cruz made his big debut on the scene, that he caught a short sideline ball, made the DB miss, ran through an arm tackle by Asomugha and ran 70 yards up the sideline for a score. There was the Cowboys game in week 17 and of course the Jets game in week 16 when he turned the season around for both teams on the 99 yard score. I think Cruz had 5 or 6 scores of 70+ yards with big YAC components.  Looking up the stats on ESPN, last year Cruz was 5th in the league in YAC yards with 595. This year through 3/4 of the season, he has 252, which projects out to 336 for the season and is 32nd in the league.

Cruz has good speed, but Nicks is the real speed guy, the deep threat that occupied the attention of DBs on other parts of the field giving Cruz room to make a catch, make a move and make a big play. Last year Cruz averaged about 18 yards per catch and this year he is at 12. That's a huge difference and I believe it is brought about by several factors. First, defenses are paying more attention to Cruz. But second, they can pay more attention to Cruz because on the other side of the field, the deep threat isn't there. Nicks' numbers are decent this year, but not great. We saw examples of it in several games this year, where Nicks just doesn't have the explosion to scare DBs and Cruz is bottled up because he then draws the double teams. Against the Redskins last week, on the deep ball to Nicks, the DB tipped it because Eli slightly underthrew it. But rewinding the play back to the break off the line of scrimmage, you can see that Nicks got a great release, beat the DB cleanly off the line of scrimmage and should have been 5 yards behind his man. Instead he was only a stride or two in the clear and the ball got tipped away when Eli's throw was not perfect. This also affects Nicks and Eli's ability to hook up on the back shoulder throw which becomes effective when the CB has to turn his hips and run downfield to protect the deep throw. This was a staple of the offense last year and it just hasn't been there consistently this year. We saw the Redskins stop one Monday, when Nicks caught the ball out of bounds.

But this also affects Cruz' performance. He did catch the one deep 49 yard ball and a beautiful 30 yard throw on a post up the middle. But there were several balls that were attempted as underneath throws giving him a chance to make a play and there was nothing there. In the first quarter on the first drive of the game, Giants had a 3rd and 8, and Eli could not connect with Cruz who could not find a comfortable spot to sit down in the zone because of all the traffic. Defense was up tight because they didn't worry about balls getting behind them. In the 2nd quarter, Giants had a 3rd and 11, Eli hit Cruz with an underneath route hoping to get him to make a move and get the first down, but he was stopped for a 6 yard gain and no YAC yards.  Then in the 3rd quarter, Giants had a 3rd and 5 where Nicks caught a 3 yard pass and later they had a 3rd and 9 when Cruz pulled up because he was going to get whacked on a short throw, and he dropped the ball. All these plays ended drives and were plays that were prominent in the Giants repertoire last year - catching balls short of the line to gain, making a move and getting the yards. These are not happening this year and I beleive it is at least partly  due to the diminished abilities and speed of Nicks due to injury, leaving less open space on the field.

Nicks said before the game that he felt better than he has all year. But "better" is a relative term. He still is less than at full strength as evidenced by the fact that he is not practicing today. He may be better, but he's sure not perfect. Giants could use another big play threat, which is why Randle or Jernigan need to step up.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Other observations about the Giants and Redskins

Giants have the most vanilla, uncreative defensive packages in the league. The read and react nonsense that Fewell runs puts no pressure through confusion on the opposing offenses. Giants have no deception, no disguises, no switching in and out of defenses, no showing presnap reads to the QB and switching to something else. If the DL dominates, which they are capable of, the defense looks great. If not, Giants defense is vulnerable.

I like the speed at LB on the Giants defense, but the LBs played the worst game of the year against the Redskins. They made no tackles for losses in the running game. They bit on every play action fake leaving wide open WRs because they were invisible in their drops. Of course, Fewell plays only zone, so the DB coming from behind looks like he gets beat on every one of those easy pass completions. In fact, the outside LBs have been invisible lately, Blackburn is the only one in the LB corps making any plays. The 3-S look doesn't work against the Redksins power runing game. A 3-4 look might work better, though of course you can't change for 1 game in the middle of the season. Playing the LBs a little wider in the 4-3 scheme would also be better against all the stretch plays that the Redskins run. Fewell just had no answers, no creativity to stop the 'Skins. The rest of the Giants schedule is tough, but at least they are more conventional offenses which won't fool Fewell.

In any scheme, offense or defense, if you're predictable, you're dead. Giants are very predictable on defense and can only beat teams, good or bad, like the Packers that take the similar approach. Packers attitude is: we have a great QB and great set of WRs, why do we need to be deceptive? We'll just beat the stuffing out of you with our talent. When their talent wanes a little and their OL declines, Giants can beat them. But teams that are creative and can handle the Giants DL give them trouble.

Even on offense, I think Gilbride is a good coach, though Eli makes him look better than he really is. But he has been the Giants OC for a long time and the league has gotten use to the Giants tendencies on offense. They can move the ball between the 20's, but inside the 20 you need some deception, some innovation and/or a killer running game. The fact that the Giants have so much trouble closing drives and settle for many short FGs indicates a problem more in the coaching than the personnel.

It is clear that this is why the Giants lost and despite Coughlin's wails, it goes beyond penalties; they left points on the board on their drives. Giants outgained the Redskins, which is a little misleading because Giants had terrible field position all day and had more field to cover on their drives. But instead of counting yards gained, consider the following. Each team had one drive that moved the ball well and failed to produce points: Giants on their missed first half FG and Redskins on their fumble inside the 20 which Rivers recovered. On the other drives, Giants had 4 successful scoring drives and Redskins had only 3. But FGs are worth 3 and TDs are worth 7.

Coughlin said that the Giants need to win their last 4 games and I think he's right. The Redskins, the way they are playing, have a good chance at sweeping their last 4 games and finishing 10-6. They have a tough game this week at home against the Ravens. But after that they have 3 very winnable games: Browns, Eagles, Cowboys. If they get to 10-6, the Giants will have to finish ahead of them, because their division record will be 5-1, while the Giants will at best be 3-3.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Redskins review II

Speaking about penalties, Giants had a holding penalty on every single kickoff return. Two were charged to the same guy, Jim Cordle, who would undoubtedly be cut today if Giants hadn't lost Locklear for the season and were therefore short on OL depth. Loss of Locklear could be a killer - Giants can probably get by with Diehl, who was serviceable when he came in, but the OL is dangerously thin now. One more injury and they're in real trouble.

After all that, as much as the Giants were dominated by the Skins running game, Giants still could have won the game (I believe would have won the game) if not for the holding penalty against Beatty that took away the 3rd and 10 conversion in the 4th quarter. Can't jump all over Beatty, he has played well this year and established himself as a solid LT. But that penalty could have cost the Giants the game.

We can whine about Eli missing those two deep throws to Cruz and Nicks that should have been TDs in the first half and it's true - those plays really killed us. A top QB like Eli simply cannot miss those throws, and in a close game, missed opportunities kill you. But - look at the game from a bigger picture perspective. Griffen had wide open receivers to throw to all night and every one of Eli's throws had to go into tight windows. Even those two throws that he missed, Cruz and Nicks were not 3 or 5 yards open - they were a step beyond their man. On the ball to Nicks, the ball was underthrown by maybe a foot and the DB had time to reach up and knock it away - there was not a lot of separation. On the throw to Cruz, the ball was about a yard or two overthrown and it had to be perfect for a completion. Eli couldn't just throw it up high and let Cruz run under it because he was not way open. Some of the throws Eli made were outstanding, it's a pity that the two he missed stood out so much and cost the Giants. If the game had been more wide open and Eli had had more opportunities to throw, Giants would have had a better chance. by challenging the Redskins in the running game, the Giants were playing to the Redskins strength. Especially in the second half, the running game was soft and more footballs should have been in the air. Give Redskins defense credit for tightening things in the second half, but they did not take enough chances.

To nitpick even further, on 3rd and 20 after the Beatty holding penalty, I did not like the middle-screen to Bradshaw. It was a give up play and had no chance of success. They were probably guessing for a blitz and thought they could catch them, but the middle of the Redskins DL was very stout and it had little chance of success. I actually considered that two-down territory. I would have tried to complete something medium depth of maybe 10-12 yards to give the Giants a chance to go for it on 4th and manageable. If they don't get the first down, Redskins would have good field position, but a FG or even a TD by Redskins doesn't end the game. They have to stop the Redskins running game one way or another, and whether they do it on their own 40 or the Redskins. The enemy there was the clock, not field position.

Redskins game review I

Giants coaches will say that the players didn't execute on defense, committed too many penalties both on offense and special teams. This may be true, but the real truth is that the game plan was weak on both sides of the ball. Coughlin went into the game apparently feeling that the Redskins offense was so explosive that they had to try to keep RG III off the field. Giants went into the game with a plan to dominate time of possession and hold the ball on long time consuming drives, taking only a few shots down the field. I don't like that strategy as a general rule, but it certainly does not make sense against a team that is run centric. As dynamic a player as RG III is, as exciting and dangerous as he is, the Redskins ran for 240 yards against the Giants in the first game and the Giants strategy should have been to take them out of their running game and force them to pass. The best way to do that is to make the game a shootout and make it high scoring. In the first half, the Giants had more yards, nearly double the time of possession, their offense did not have to punt at all and still needed an amazing 35 second drive at the end of the half to come out leading by a FG. I understand the need for balance - you can't throw on every down, but with no pass rush against them and Eli throwing the ball well, Giants were too conservative on offense in that first half. Eli missed Cruz and Nicks when they were behind the defense and open for TDs on the drive that resulted in the first half missed FG. That drive killed the Giants - they should have had 7, could have had 3 and ended up with 0. But those were the only two deep shots Giants attempted in the first half and the Giants should have been more aggressive offensively in the first half. In the second half, when the Redskins played a little better on defense and the Giants made a few mistakes and penalties to kill drives, they managed only 3 points. If the game had been more up tempo, Giants would have gotten more possession in the whole game and might have scored more than 16 points. They had only 4 possession in each half, including that 35 second FG at the end of the half....not a good strategic plan. Giants defense could not stop the run in the second half and would have been much better off to play with a bigger lead that put pressure on the Redskins offense to throw.

Defensively is where I am really disappointed about the game plan. Fewell gave them absolutely nothing new to combat the Redskins running game. It was hard to see on TV how often the Giants played their 3-S combination, but that is more vulnerable to the running game, especially the power running game that the Redskins use. The Giants DL was fooled on nearly every play: on the run option, the Giants got beaten every time. The DEs either over-committed to the RB or under-committed and let him run up the middle. Didn't the coach work on that during the week? Didn't he teach them and show them how to play it? Redskins have not been doing this every week against every opponent.... Steelers stopped them a few weeks ago. On pass plays, every play action fake, every play that had some deception in it worked 100% of the time and Griffen did not have to squeeze any balls into tight places - WRs were wide open on every play. The entire defense was just looking at RG III and not watching their man and taking care of their coverage responsibility. Playing zones, which the Giants seemed to play a lot of last night, you can't just look at the QB - you have to (borrowing a line from Red Holzman) see the man and the ball. Giants were just looking at the ball in the hands of the QB.  If you have the game on DVR, look at the TD pass to Garcon that put the Redskins ahead 17-16. RG III is rolling to his right and Boley is looking into the backfield, has his eyes fixed on RG III, has no idea that Garcon is a few steps in front of him and only makes a move into the passing lane after the ball is safely in Garcon's hands.

Maybe I am overrating the talent on the Giants defense and they are not as good as I think they are, but the defensive coach did nothing to help the Giants. Redskins did absolutely nothing different on offense than they did the first time Giants played them, yet the Giants had no different defensive plan to stop them. Execution and talent is one part of winning the game. The second part is the coaching, scheming, play calling and deception that the coaches put into the game to help the team win. Every fake, every deception, every ruse that the Redskins used worked against the Giants. Conversely, the Giants had no deception that gave them an advantage against the Redskins - everything was based on pure execution.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Looking ahead to the Redskins II

It's getting closer.... kickoff about 4 hours away. It seems so trivial to say that this is a big game; they're all big games when there are only 16 in the season. Having said that, consider the fact that there are three division crowns already locked up (Patriots, Broncos, Falcons) and one other team (Texans) has a playoff spot clinched with 1/4 of the season to go . I find that stunning - what happened to parity in the NFL... One fourth of the season to go and realistically only one team in the AFC has a shot at making the playoffs and knocking out a team that is currently in "if the season ended today".  A few more are alive in the NFC - but still, there are many teams eliminated and many spots virtually locked up. Based on this, I guess you can say that some games are bigger than others - you can lock up the playoffs early and coast home. If the Giants win tonight, they get a good lead in the NFC East, knocking out the Redskins from practical considerations and maintaining a 2 game lead on Dallas with 4 to go. If they lose, then both the Redskins and Cowboys would be just 1 game behind with a difficult stretch of games coming up for the Giants. Furthermore, it would be the Giants 3rd loss in the division - not good when it comes to possible tiebreakers. One thing that worries me about tonight's game: it means everything to the Redskins, but it is "just" very important to the Giants, not necessarily life-or-playoff-death.

Redskins defense is not that good - they are ranked near the bottom in pass defense and with Nicks getting healthier, we can hope/expect that the Giants offense will put some pressure on the Skins. Giants have to be careful with the ball, because Redskins defense is very aware of Giants offense, audibles and line calls with the defection of Cofield to Washington a few seasons ago. Redskins offense has been humming lately, they got Garcon back as a legitimate deep threat, they have run the ball very well and Griffin III has been great. Giants may have to put up a lot of points tonight.

Giants defense can not be too cautious tonight. They blitzed very little against the Packers but still were able to generate a pass rush with their front 4, so they could play coverage and take away Rodgers passing game. If Giants can do the same tonight: stop the Redskins running game and get something of a pass rush without blitzing, they may be able to contain the Redskins offense somewhat. The Redskins OL has played much better than the Packers, so Giants may need to be a little less afraid of blitzing to get some pressure. I suspect that the Giants will take away the deep balls and try to make Griffin beat them on slow, long methodical drives. If they can hurry him into a few mistakes or hope he gets impatient by taking away big plays, they may have some success. That argues for Giants not to be risky with lots of blitz packages and instead to stay in their rush lanes and be conservative, different than what i suggested above. I think they will have to bring some pressure and bother RG III into some mistakes, because of the balance of the Redskins offense. As dangerous as RG III is, Giants have to make a big effort to stop Morris and the Redskins running game.

It will be interesting to see what the Giants do with their 3-S look if Phillips (as expected) will not play. I still like Kiwanuka on the DL, because having speed on the field is important - Kiwanuka is fast for a DL-man but not as fast compared to typical LBs. Even without the 3-S look, Giants should use Hill, Hosley or Hill as a S and let Rolle play nickel slot against Moss. This is a key matchup for the Giants; Moss did some real damage in the first game and the Giants know from using Cruz how important a deep threat in the slot is.