October 2008


Gui Buck:

While I appreciate your original take and empathize with your Thursday morning boredom, I disagree with your argument.

First of all, even though the incident where Plax’s wife called the cops was first reported when Plax was suspended, it actually occurred over the summer.  So it doesn’t seem like domestic problems were the cause of the missed meeting or treatment, though who the hell really knows?  And while I agree that employees – athletes included – should be cut a little slack in extreme cases of domestic problems, why do you assume his antics this year are as a result of this?  To me, these incidents are a continuation of the chronic disrespect for authority that has resulted in 40-50 fines during his Giants career.

I also disagree that Tom’s taking too hard a line.  You seem to be suggesting that the Giants escalated things when they sat him on Sunday.  I think Plax escalated the situation by missing the treatment.  Coming off the suspension, that was basically a big “Fuck You” to Coughlin and his rules – Plax basically forced Tom’s hand on this one.

But I hear your overall point: Because Plax is, in the end, a solid enough teammate and because this seems like a manageable enough situation, it’s incumbent on Coughlin to play it tactfully.  If they can, they should go out of their way not to embarrass Plax, lest the Proud Man react the wrong way.  But if Plax is gonna keep asking for it, Tom has no choice.  As he wrote in his book, A Team to Believe In, “I don’t fine players.  Players fine themselves.”

Also, this is football.  If you hate regimentation and rules so much, you’re free to make your living elsewhere.  We just gave the guy a new contract – all we ask is that he doesn’t completely blow off the rules.

**

According to Mike Garafolo’s article, Wade Phillips said his team will double-team Plax this Sunday, just like they did for at least those last two games last year (after Plax torched them in the season opener.)  You have to think that announcing the coverage schemes is nothing but a bit of gamesmanship by Phillips – what possible advantage it might confer, however, I don’t know.

According to Mike Garafolo’s article, Plax has been being double-teamed all season, which explains his sub-par numbers – he’s averaging 35.5 yards per game over the last four games.

So while Plax is struggling to get untracked, it doesn’t necessarily mean he hasn’t been a crucial part of our attack this year.  Quibble with Plax’s numbers all you want, but there should be no issues with our overall passing attack.

In the comments section on Monday’s post, Jake, a ‘Skins fan, posed the question of which NFC East team should scare us the most.  Dan’s replied that while the ‘Skins deserve credit for what they’ve accomplished thus far, the Cowboys – once they get Romo and their guys back – scare him more.

In order to have this conversation, I think we need to define what “scares us” means.  Are we talking about the team most likely to overtaking us for the Division lead?  Or the team we’d least like to face in a late-season of playoff game?  Those two different questions have two different answers.

**

In terms of overtaking us, the ‘Skins 6-2 record – and their second half schedule which includes three bad teams (Seahawks, Bengals, Niners, albeit on the road) and home dates against the NFC East – makes them the biggest threat.

I think Dan was a little dismissive about the ‘Skins when he said they’ve been “overachieving.”  They have been a little, but not by all that much, and it’s possible the difference will be offset by having the NFC East at home during the second half.

To be clear, their 6-2 record is not a mirage: their 20.5% DVOA ranks fifth in the league.  Defensively, their defense has actually been worse than last year (-3.3% to -7.2% — remember, a negative DVOA is good on defense).  Offensively is where they’re probably overachieving: their 19.9% is much higher than their 1% last year, which speaks to Dan’s point about water seeking its level.

On the other hand, it’s possible that Campbell has truly arrived.  His 27.7% DVOA ranks seventh in the league, just ahead of Eli’s 27.5%.  Last year, Campbell’s DVOA was 4.4%, ranking him 22nd in the league.  Eli’s?  -13.5%, though that only includes the regular season.

So is it really fair to assume that the ‘Skins O is a fluke and ours isn’t?

**

In terms of the most scary team in what Mike Francessa would call a Big Spot, I agree with Dan that it’s still the ‘Boys.

Think about it: the ‘Boys beat us twice in the regular season last year and then outplayed us in that playoff game.  If Patrick Crayton doesn’t break off his route on that final drive, or if Crayton doesn’t drop two key first down passes, or if Romo doesn’t grievously overthrow T.O. on that third quarter crossing pattern deep in our territory, the Cowboys probably win that game.  Taking nothing away from what we accomplished and how much the Cowboys choked, we were lucky to win that game.  Any time you win a game in which you were outgained 336 to 230, you’ve gotten lucky.

This year, the ‘Boys, at 5-3, haven’t played well, even considering the injuries they’ve had.  Their DVOA of -5.2% places them 20th in the NFL, and owes largely to their shoddy defense (10.2%), far worse than their -5.8% last year.

But two of those losses – a 2-point loss to Washington and an overtime loss to Arizona – could have gone either way.  And if last week’s game against Tampa Bay is any indication, their defense is coming around.

It’s a long season, and their best football is ahead of them.  And do you think there’s anything the Cowboys would relish more than coming into the Meadowlands in January and avenging last year?  That prospect is not unlikely, and has to scare you.

What is unlikely is the Cowboys overtaking us, especially because they will be very hard-pressed if they don’t win on Sunday.  It’s possible, and the 11-point line is a little steep, but I don’t think Brad Johnson is beating us.

**

Lastly, just as Dan said, don’t forget about the Eagles.  No, don’t forget about the Eagles at all.

You guys might be a little tired of DVOA by now, but let me point out that it’s actually the Eagles, not the Giants, who rank first in the NFL in the arcane but all-important stat.  (The Eagles are at 38.6%, while the G-Men are at 37.2%.)

They’re in a bit of a hole at 4-3, but in one of those losses, they severely outplayed the Bears (these types of early-season losses seem to always happen to the Eagles).   More importantly, they just got Westbrook back.  4-3 notwithstanding, this team is really good.

**

So in conclusion, in terms of the teams that are the biggest threat to overtake us for the division, I would go 1) ‘Skins; 2) Eagles (they’re gonna beat the Seahawks this week); and 3) Cowboys.

But in terms of teams who I fear most in a big game down the stretch, I would go 1) Cowboys; 2) Eagles; and 3) ‘Skins.

We knew that the NFC East was good going into the year, and aside from the Cowboys’ injuries and drama, it has been better than expected.  And the Cowboys, we must assume, will get their shit together.  Scary.

First, I’d like to thank all the people who have been commenting on this blog.  There are around a million-and-a-half things to address after any football game, and I have no illusions about being able to cover everything.  It’s up to you guys to pick up the slack, and you guys are doing a great job – your on-point observations are sincerely appreciated.

For my part, I plan on responding more to your comments.  I also encourage you guys to respond to each other.  That’s the great thing about the democratic nature of blogs: they’re not just about the quality of the posts, but also the quality of discussion between the readers.  Keep up the good work, fellas.

**

This is very encouraging news: It appears that Osi is well ahead of schedule with his rehab and his knee should be “stronger than ever,” in his words, when he returns to practice next spring.

According to this Ralph Vacchiano blog post, Osi thinks he initially tore the knee last year, but he played through it while the Giants called it an “irritation.”  If his knee really was torn it would explain his sub-par (by his standards) year: Yes, the 13 sacks were impressive, but remember that 6 of them came in that one Eagles game against the slow, overmatched Winston Justice.

Osi actually thinks he might have been able to come back for the postseason, but I’m sure most Giants fans aren’t too disappointed that’s not an option because he’s stashed on IR.  He would have been a shell of his real self anyway, and this way, we’ll have something to look forward to next year as we try to three-peat.

**

Kevin Dockery will miss at least two weeks with a back injury, probably more.  This leaves the nickel corner job between Madison, Terrell Thomas, and R-Dubs.  Thomas stepped in for Dockery Sunday and did a good job, but that was because Madison and Dubs didn’t dress.  (Thomas dressed because he has become a valued special-teamer, which speaks well for him.)

I’d love to see Thomas take this job and run with it for the next four years, but you’d have to think it’s more likely that Madison gets the nod because of his experience.  For as many steps as he has lost, Madison still has a knack for making picks, which fits will with our reborn pass-rush. 

If anything, replacing Dockery for Madison is probably a good thing.  Remember, it was Dockery who was largely responsible for Mewelde Moore’s first touchdown run.  He utterly whiffed on the tackle coming off the corner, and Moore had the entire side of the field to outrun Johnson.

**

Brian Kehl has a toe injury, and Fred Robbins is “nicked up,” according to the latest reports.  We don’t know any more about these injuries as of now, but hopefully these guys won’t miss the Cowboys game.  We especially need the encouraging Kehl, because Gerris Wilkinson will miss yet another week.  What a disappointing, injury-marred career for that guy – you get the feeling his Giants career might be over before it has even begun.  And you also get the feeling that he’ll catch on with the team like the Redskins and become a valued contributor down the line.

**

Here’s something I didn’t talk about in my game recap: Matthias Kiwanuka, who was having a mildly disappointing year to this point as he recovered from that week 1 leg injury, responded in a big way by posting three sacks.

This is obviously encouraging, as ‘Nuke has the potential to be a pass-rushing weapon.  I read something interesting in Mike Garafolo’s game recap about a conversation he had with a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer, who said that Max Starks, the Steelers’ right tackle last week, has slow feet.  With his pure speed, ‘Nuke can be a force against slower tackles.

One thing that concerns me about ‘Nuke, however, is that he plays so high.  This really saps his power and, I fear, might make him rather one-dimensional.  I don’t know, just something to look out for…

**

There seems to be a disconnect between what the fans think of James Butler and what people associated with the team think.  To us, he’s slow and always seems to be late getting over to help on deep receivers.  Yet the Giants tendered his contract during the offseason have given him close to 100% of the snaps at one safety spot, while Phillips and Johnson split the snaps at the other spot 50/50.

But for Sunday, give Butler credit where credit is due.  Yes, he got burnt by Nate Washington and then peeled ran away from him like he was trying to let the other guy score in Madden.  But overall, Butler had an awesome game.

His interception showed athleticism I didn’t know he had, and he caused another interception by tipping a pass to Kehl with another heretofore unseen athletic maneuver.  He also made 6 tackles, 3 of them solo.

I’ll say this about Butler: It does seem that he’s good at stepping up, taking angles at ball-carriers, and making tackles.  That’s something that goes unnoticed but is very important just the same, and therefore might help explain the disconnect.  There have been two long touchdown runs broken on us this year: the Chris Perry run and the Moore run.  On the Perry run, Kenny Phillips was playing safety on that side, with Johnson at linebacker in the dime package.  On the Moore run, Johnson was the deep safety on that side.

**

Allow me to address the Plax situation again, as I fear it is threatening to escalate into a threat to team morale.  What if we had lost this game?  Wouldn’t the fact that Plax wasn’t in the game on the unsuccessful goal line series – when we definitely would have thrown a fade to him – been blown up into a huge deal, as it probably should have been regardless?

After the suspension in the Seahawks game, I cautioned against people coming down too hard on him because for all his bullshit, the situation was always manageable.  But he’s pushing this too far.  I don’t know if it has turned into a battle of wills with Coughlin or if there’s something wrong in his personal life, but this has reached a critical point.  I said it Monday and I’ll say it again: Plax, cut the shit.

Fortunately, the good example set by the rest of the veterans allows us to overcome Plax’s bad example.  Check out this quote from Amani, who although he’s not about to take a shot at Plax, clearly takes Tom side.

“It’s just a bad situation all around.  We want him out there, but we do have team rules.  Everything that’s happened was how it had to happen.  It’s not a good situation for the whole team.”

Ralph Vacchiano, in his interview with the New York Times Fifth Down Blog about his book on Eli, puts it very well about Plax.  (He’s far less forgiving of Shockey.  It’s a great interview, you should check it out.)

“Burress is a strange guy.  He doesn’t respect authority and doesn’t seem to care about rules or punishment or anything like that, but he’s a hard worker and he definitely respects his teammates.  Eli seems to like him because he gives a huge effort on the field, is extremely smart, and they seem to have a chemistry.”

From this, it’s clear that the image of Plax the typical selfish diva of a receiver is off the mark.  I think it’s true that Plax respects his teammates, and that’s a big distinction.  But if he wants to show them respect and he’s that smart, he’ll start respecting authority just a little bit more so he can stop getting suspended.  That’s all we ask, Plax – you don’t have to turn into Darryl Strawberry on the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant Company Softball Team.  Just don’t be an outright dick.  It shouldn’t be too hard.

What an awesome win, and what an example of the resiliency of that has become the hallmark of our New York Football G-Men.  I can’t think of an attribute I’d rather my team have – since we turned the corner late last year, the Giants have developed an ability to overcome shit, to get up and fight back from things that would fall lesser teams and lesser men.

The big thing we had to overcome yesterday was the officiating.  Normally, I refrain from bitching about the refs, but yesterday was unique: I can’t remember a game in which so many key calls were blown, so egregiously, against us.

–We’ll start with the fourth down goal line play on which Jacobs was stuffed.  1) That was a touchdown – he clearly pierced the plane; and 2) The challenge that preceded that play, while validly overruling the initial touchdown call, led to the refs spotting the ball about a foot further back from the goal line than they should have.  It was a shockingly careless spot, and it cost us.

That ridiculous personal foul called on Kenny Phillips.  Aikman – who is amazing, by the way – was all over this one.  On that play, Mewelde Moore was bobbling the ball and Phillips led with his shoulder.  There was absolutely nothing dirty or unnecessary about what Phillips did.

The NFL has gotten so protective of players’ health that refs break out the flag at the mere sight of a big hit, as if automatically means that the rules were broken.  But as my brother said at the time, “I’m sorry that Big Ben exposed [Moore], but that’s not our fault.”

There were two extremely visible holds by Steelers d-backs that weren’t called.  On of them was in the third quarter, when Smith, who would have been wide open on a flag pattern, was slowed up when a Steeler tugged his jersey.  This led to an incompletion on a key third down pass Smith probably should have caught anyway (not a great game for my man yesterday…). 

But the refs miss those calls occasionally, so you don’t get too bent out shape over one of them.  Until later in the game, when they missed an even more obvious hold on Plax on a fade play that probably cost us a touchdown.

**

Ok, let’s get to the players.

I haven’t reviewed the tape yet, but the obvious game ball goes to the swarming pass rush, which sacked Big Ben five times and knocked him down 16 times.  Remember after the Browns game when our pass rush was a huge question mark?  That seems like a long time ago now.

Again I haven’t looked at the tape so it’s hard to tell, but my sense is that we didn’t blitz very often and much of the pressure was generated by the front four.  Certainly the sacks themselves – three by ‘Nuke, one by Tuck, and one by Tollefson – went to our D-linemen, so good job, boys.

It was also nice to see us get those four picks, although two of them were on fourth down in bat-down situations.  But along with our pass rush, our seeming inability to create turnovers had threatened to become a disturbing trend.  Hopefully there’s nothing to worry about in both respects, Charlie.

Offensively, the game-ball goes to the O-line.  Although the run-blocking was uncharacteristically poor, the pass protection more than made up for it.  The Steelers have a nasty pass rush and Eli wasn’t sacked once.  Awesome job, fatties.

Eli also deserves credit.  No, it wasn’t his best game, but it was a winning performance that should make us even more confident going forward.  19 for 32 for 199 yards doesn’t sound great, but don’t forget those two drops each by Hedgecock (on short passes) and Smith (on the flag pattern described above and a deep post on which, although he got crushed, he probably should have secured the catch).

Eli also saved his best pass for the most important moment, that fourth and 6 to Amani that set up the field goal that pulled us to 14-12.  Speaking of Amani, a special game-ball goes to him: Once you saw that the open man downfield was Amani, did you not 75% more confident at that moment?  What a fine receiver and a great all-time Giant.

**

On the downside, yesterday’s game was a clear example of the coaching staff’s forcing the issue with Jacobs, particularly in short-yardage situations.  Just because a guy is big doesn’t mean he’s the best man for the job.  In fact, I would argue that Jacobs’ size prevents him from getting the leverage necessary to generate power in cramped quarters.  And his lack of short-area quickness precludes improvisation: if the hole is blocked and Jacobs has the ball, we’re fucked.

In terms of the running backs, the obvious question after yesterday is, as NYGMen commentator Cody put it last week, “Whither Ahmad Bradshaw?”

On Saturday, I gained some insight into this from a source I met while covering a story for my day job, who told me Ahmad has been “getting into trouble with the coach.”  So there you have it, folks: Ahmad is in the doghouse.  For what, we do not know.  Maybe it’s related to his historical legal troubles, and maybe it’s not.  Either way, this is very disappointing to hear.

Speaking of the doghouse, this shit with Plax has gone too far.  I’ve tried to defend him all year, but his most recent episode of insubordination has, I fear, made a fool out of me.  Plax: Stop being a dick.  We just gave you a new contract, and all we ask is that you do what’s asked of you at your job.  It shouldn’t be so fucking hard.

**

This game reminded me of the Green Bay playoff game last year.  It was a tough road game at dusk against a storied opponent wearing yellow helmets.  And while that opponent was favored, it became evident over the course of the game that we were the better team.

As with the Green Bay game, our dominance wasn’t reflected on the scoreboard.  Yesterday, we had to overcome poor red-zone efficiency when our first four trips yielded four field goals.

Also like the Green Bay game, our inferior opponent stayed in the game with a couple of big plays: Against the Packers, it was that bomb to Driver.  Against the Steelers, it was the long run by Moore and then the bomb to Washington (obvious point here, but what in the world was Butler thinking on that one?).

And like the Green Bay game, this one appeared to be slipping away in the third quarter, when our opponent finally got their shit together and started playing well.  But in both games, we came back and won the fourth quarter decisively.

I’m proud of this team.

The astute analysis that follows was penned by Cory Kempema, my college buddy and former blogging partner who somehow became a die-hard Steelers fan while growing up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

First of all, I would just like to say thank you for beating the Patriots. The last 9 months would have been absolutely unbearable if New England would have completed a perfect season. The entire NFL owes the New York Football Giants a huge debt of gratitude.

I would also like to compliment the Giants on defending their title quite admirably so far this season – it has been much better than the Steelers’ pitiful Super Bowl hangover in 2006. The Giants were obviously underrated before the season started, and I’m sure the lack of respect they’ve seen from the media has helped fire up the locker room. With a 5-1 record and sitting atop the NFC East, the Giants are in excellent position to defend their title. But, after looking at your schedule, I have to say I was a little surprised that your only quality win came against the Redskins in Week One. Now, I understand that there aren’t any easy wins in the NFL, but there is only so much you can know about a team that has been beating teams like St. Louis, Cincinnati, Seattle and San Francisco. Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that the Steelers have had a soft schedule as well. They had one good win at Jacksonville, but have amassed their 5-1 record by beating pansies like Houston, Cleveland, Baltimore and Cincinnati, not to mention the embarrassing loss to the Eagles.

Nonetheless, the consensus of the various power rankings is that the Steelers and Giants are two of the top three teams in the NFL. With a 4:15 nationally televised game between two 5-1 teams with storied histories, recent Super Bowl championships and two star quarterbacks, this game will be the highlight of the NFL schedule in Week Eight. I think both teams still have something to prove, and Sunday is the perfect time for the world to see how good the Steelers and Giants really are.

The Eli vs. Big Ben rivalry will inevitably be the focal point for the media’s pre-game hype. It’s hard to deny the obvious comparisons: both QBs were taken high in the 2004 draft and both have led their teams to Super Bowl championships during their young careers. However, I don’t think this game will be won or lost by either Eli Manning or Ben Roethlisberger. Both quarterbacks are certainly talented enough to pick apart an opposing defense if given enough time. But, both QBs have also shown a tendency to make bad decisions and bad throws when faced with too much pressure. And, when you have two teams that love to rush the passer as much as the Steelers and Giants, the key to victory will be which team is able to buy their QB enough time operate efficiently.

Both teams are among the best in the NFL at getting to the QB: the Steelers come into Week Eight leading the NFL with 25 sacks; the Giants are not far behind with 21 sacks. Neither the Giants nor Steelers have a great secondary, especially with the Steelers losing CB Bryant McFadden to injury, so the pressure up front is essential to their defensive philosophy. It is interesting to note, however, that the methods these two teams use to generate their pass rush could not be more different. The Giants depend mostly on their front four – 18 of their 21 sacks come from defensive linemen. In contrast, the Steelers’ top pass rushers are their outside linebackers, with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley accounting for 8 sacks a piece, and only 2 sacks come from their 3-man defensive line. Woodley is the guy to keep your eye on if you are a Giants fan. In his second year out of Michigan, the converted college DE has turned into a premier edge rusher in a 3-4 scheme, and if the Giants plan on using a TE or RB to stop him, he will make it a very long day for Eli Manning.

The Giants have faced two teams that run the 3-4 defense this season: the Browns and the 49ers. The Giants had no problem with the 49ers defense, and only gave up one sack to Cleveland. Eli did throw 3 interceptions against the Browns, but that may have been primarily due to an off day by Manning rather than pressure by the Cleveland defense. In any case, few teams run the 3-4 defense as effectively as the Steelers, and the zone blitz scheme invented by Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau is well known to create chaos at the line of scrimmage. The Steelers disguise their blitzes very well, so it is difficult for the offensive linemen to know who to pick up. In addition to Woodley and Harrison, James Farrior, Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, Troy Polamalu and Deshea Townsend are all very capable of sacking the opposing QB, and DE Brett Keisel is athletic enough to be able to drop back and cover like a linebacker.  The Steelers defense has been surprisingly vanilla so far this season, but don’t be surprised if Dick LeBeau finally unleashes some exotic blitz packages against a first-rate offensive line like the Giants.

Speaking of offensive lines, the Steelers’ pass protection sucks. Roethlisberger has been sacked 18 times so far in 2008, which is tied for third most in the NFL. Most famously, the Steelers’ offensive line had a complete meltdown against the Eagles, which resulted in 8 sacks. Is a scenario like that possible against the Giants on Sunday? Yes. However, there are a few reasons for optimism for the Steelers. Darnell Stapleton has taken over duties at RG for Kendall Simmons, who is a pussy, with the result being only three sacks given up by Pittsburgh over the past two and a half games. The interior of the Steelers offensive line has now been completely replaced since this time last year, with Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig and Stapleton taking over for Alan Faneca, Sean Mahan and Simmons. It’s still early, but it appears as though the current lineup provides at least marginally better protection than last year’s version, which was one of the worst units in the NFL. The Steelers will also utilize two TE sets frequently as a way to complement their pass and run blocking. I can’t overstate the importance of this game in terms of developing a sense of confidence for the Steelers offensive line. If the Steelers are able to protect Big Ben against the vaunted Giants pass rush, the debacle against the Eagles will be largely dismissed as a fluke. Another game like the one in Philly, however, could be devastating for the Steelers’ hopes this season.

Both teams will also seek to take the pressure off their QB by establishing the running game early. Again, the Steelers and Giants both are among the best ground games in the NFL. Mewelde Moore, the former Viking, has been a very pleasant surprise for the Steelers the last two weeks, rushing for 219 yards and 3 TDs as well as providing a credible receiving threat, against the Jags and Bengals. Moore is a more patient runner than Willie Parker, who has a few big runs each game but also has a tendency to run straight into the backs of his blockers, resulting in negative or zero-yard plays far too often (ask Greg about his unimpressive DVOA). From what I’ve seen of Moore, he seems to have better vision, finding the hole and gliding through it with his superb speed. Dare I say he is even a little Tikiesque in that respect? Moore doesn’t have the same homerun hitting ability as Parker, who turns the corner as well as anyone in the NFL, but he usually nets positive yardage on almost every carry, which is crucial to establishing a ground game. On the injury front, Willie Parker has been nursing a strained MCL, but is scheduled to return against the Giants. However, you should still expect to see plenty of Mewelde Moore on Sunday.

The Giants currently lead the NFL in rushing with 169.7 yards per game thanks to the three-headed monster of Jacobs/Ward/Bradshaw. The Giants have not, however, faced a run defense like the Pittsburgh Steelers’ yet this year. Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith are two of the main reasons why the Steelers rarely allow a 100 yard rusher. Hampton is simply a gigantic space-eater in the middle of the D-line, and the Giants will have to block him with two men. Aaron Smith, who is perhaps the most underrated member of the Steelers, has an uncanny ability to shed blockers and move laterally to plug any holes the RB may be trying to squeeze through. Most teams abandon the run against the Steelers, which is a mistake, I think, because throwing every play allows the defense to tee off on the QB, which results in sacks and turnovers.

I predict a low-scoring, hard-hitting game on Sunday. The fact that the game is at Heinz Field would seem to bode well for the Steelers, except for the Giants amazing record on the road. Although inter-conference games are the least important games of the season, this game is pivotal at least to the extent it will affect the psychology of the two teams. If the Steelers’ offense unravels under the pressure of the Giants pass rush, it will be a serious blow to the confidence of the offensive line and Big Ben. And the Giants cannot really afford to lose many games in the ultra-competitive NFC East. Now, the unexpected can always dramatically change the course of the game. Special teams, turnovers, and fluke big plays can easily be the deciding factor in an otherwise even match-up – for example, the Plaxico Burress/Ike Taylor match-up will be intriguing to watch. With that being said, this game will most likely be won or lost in the trenches. In order for the Steelers to win, they must protect Roethlisberger. For the Giants to win, they must get their running game established to take the pressure off Manning. To paraphrase Vito Corleone, good luck to the G-Men, as best as your interests don’t conflict with our interests.

The credit for the inspiration behind this entry belongs to Dales, a commenter on FootballOutsiders.com, who looked up the catch-rates of the Giants receivers (the percentage of balls a receiver catches when he is the intended target).  Dales, wherever and whoever you are, thank you.  You’re the man.

Smith: 84% (31 passes)

Hixon: 80% (15 passes)

Moss: 71% (7 passes)

Plax: 56% (45 passes)

Toomer: 53% (38 passes)

Now, these figures shouldn’t be read as a ranking of the best receivers on the team.  Smith’s percentage is bound to be high because he’s targeted mostly on short, over-the-middle routes. Plax and Toomer, on the other hand are targeted more downfield, which will naturally yield a lower percentage.  And because they work more toward the sideline, they are naturally farther away from the quarterback, which will lead to a lower percentage.  And in Hixon’s case, 15 passes in his direction is too small a sample to really conclude anything, although it is promising.  But the conclusion here is obvious: Steve Smith catches everything thrown his way.

In FootballOutsiders’ individual DVOA statistic, which takes catch-rate into account and adjusts traditional stats based on situation – like whether the catch gets a first down – Smith ranks 21st in the entire NFL.  (Plax, at 27th, is no slouch either.)

Giants fans know that Smith is good, but we may not realize exactly how good.  I think some of us tend to think of Smith as the proverbial (and backhanded) “nice player.”  But what he really is is one of the best possession receivers in the game.  The fans should realize this, but more importantly, so should the coaching staff so they can find ways to get this guy more involved.

The amazing thing about Smith is that he was only active for four regular season games last year before exploding onto the scene in the playoffs.  Even including those playoff games, he’s played in only 14 NFL games.  Yet his best attribute is his savviness, his understanding of how to find creases in zones and get open.  And of course, his hands, which are borne out by the 84% statistic.

But don’t sell Smith’s athleticism short.  No, he’s not a speed-burner, but he’s a perfect underneath receiver because he’s able to reach top-speed quickly.  Also, his body-control is elite: think of the catch he made in the Super Bowl that preceded the Plax TD, when he tiptoed along the sideline while picking up the first down right in front of Brandon Meriweather’s face.  He also has good ups: think of the 22-yard catch he made to get us going on the final drive of the first half of the Dallas playoff game, without which there is no miraculous playoff run.

So we have a gem in Steve Smith.  This means I was dead wrong in my initial disappointment that Carolina took Dwayne Jarrett a few picks before we selected.  It also means that the Giants should make a point of getting this guy the ball.

**

Dales also compiled the catch-rates of the running backs:

Ward: 81% (16 catches)

Hedgecock: 60% (5 passes)

Jacobs: 44% (9 passes)

(Bradshaw didn’t show up on the stats, meaning that he hasn’t been targeted the minimum 5 times.)

This tells us what we already knew: Ward is a very good receiver, and Jacobs can’t catch.

But I don’t want to end on that note, because Jacobs has been absolutely amazing this year, causing me to temper my long-held skepticism about him.  That topic is for another entry, though.

First, I apologize for the late post.  I actually went to the game on Sunday and then went out that night, and because I had a ton of stuff to do yesterday for my day job, I didn’t get a chance to watch the tape until last night.

Second, I find it hard to believe that people are complaining about Sunday’s win.  If a 12-point win that would have been a 22-point win if not for the fluke of having a field-goal blocked and returned for a touchdown isn’t enough, then the sense of entitlement in this town is completely out of control.

Sure, the 49ers handed us the game.  But we took it, and didn’t give them a chance to take it back.  Was there really ever a doubt about the outcome?  Of course not.  The G-Men won going away.  As fans, we should be happy our team is capable of this even when they don’t play their best.

**

As long as I’m accentuating the positive, I’ll start with the defense.  Going into the game, the big concern was our pass rush, which had been nonexistent against the Browns.  Also, the fact that we hadn’t forced many turnovers this year was threatening to become a gathering concern.

Both trends reversed against the Niners: We racked up six sacks, “forced” two interceptions (granted, that might be a stretch) and four O’Sullivan fumbles, one of which we recovered and one of which led to the safety that put the game away.  (Nothing more fun than dong the safety dance – the contradictory motion of powerfully bringing your hands above your head like He-Man while gyrating your hips like a teenaged girl.)

For much of the first half, O’Sullivan actually did a good job evading our blitzes and finding guys.  But that changed very abruptly, as he went on to play a brutal game.  But still, credit our defense for completely shutting the Niners down in the second half, during which they gained just 67 yards and managed a mere four first downs.

There are many game balls to go around on D:

Justin Tuck was thoroughly disruptive and made a sweeeeeeet play when he forced that fumble that led to the safety by coming around the edge and deftly separating the ball from O’Sullivan’s hand.

Robbins and Cofield consistently got great penetration into the backfield on a day where we made 12(!) tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Michael Johnson, an overlooked member of the 2007 draft class considering he has probably had the biggest role the past couple years, made the first two picks of his career.  The first one was easy, but the second one was impressive: he did a good job recognizing the post route and turning his hips, and then took a good angle on the coverage of the receiver.  The guy is a pretty good player.

Chase Blackburn started in place of Pierce and frankly looked faster and more physical than him.  Blackburn notched twelve tackles, two of them for losses, and forced a fumble of O’Sullivan.  I know Pierce is the leader of the defense and everything, but I’m sure most Giants fans will join me in telling him to take his time getting back.

And Spags.  Maybe the magic isn’t gone.  As ineffective as the blitz packages were against the Browns, they were that good against the Niners.  Like all sports, football is a game of adjustments and counter-adjustments.  The league adjusted to Spags, and if Sunday’s game is any indication, he countered.

On the downside, much has been made of Aaron Ross’ recent struggles – he even sat on the bench on a couple series’ in the second half while Dockery filled in.  But I don’t think it’s anything to worry about.  On the touchdown he allowed, he actually did a pretty good job in single coverage until the ball was in the air, at which point he suffered a very uncharacteristic breakdown in ball-skills.  Against the Browns, he had a rough game; against the Niners, he had a rough moment.  He’s good, he’ll bounce back, so let’s move on.

**

On offense, not so great, but serviceable enough.

Eli wasn’t at his best, going 16 for 31 for 161 yards.  He averaged 5.2 yards per attempt, well below the standard he has set for himself this season of 7.3, and even his career mark of 6.4. 

And no, he didn’t throw a pick, but there were two balls that probably could have been picks (one on an out to Smith that the defender undercut and could have taken to the house had the ball not been thrown high).  He also had four passes tipped, a distressing reemergence of an early-career trend that we are probably lucky didn’t lead to a pick.

But while it wasn’t a good game, it was an adequate game.  And sometimes, good and even great quarterbacks play merely adequate games.  Will that type of effort cut it against Pittsburgh?  Probably not.  But who among us isn’t confident Eli won’t play better next week?

At receiver, the game ball goes to Steve Smith.  If all Chris Carter did is catch touchdowns, all this guy does is catch first downs.  What a nice player.  Such great field sense and such good body control.  This guy is gonna be good for a long time.

Although we only averaged 3.5 yards per carry, I was actually pleased with the running game.  Not counting Eli’s rushing line (3 carries for -4 yards), we averaged 4 yards per carry, which isn’t bad considering we were sitting a lead for most of the second half.

Jacobs, who I’ve been harsh on in the past, was very good, as he has been all year.  On his first touchdown run, he made a nice little hesitation before squirting through a small hole, a sign of his improved feel for the holes this year.  On his second touchdown run, he kept his legs driving after the initial contact and plowed into the endzone decisively.  He’s been excellent, and it’s time for me to admit I was too harsh on him.  (Although the first-series fumble was worrisome.)

Ward, as usual, was terrific.  Announcers don’t seem to have caught on to how powerful this guy’s lower body is.  On that third down pass play in the first quarter – before Ahmad’s fourth down conversion – Ward pushed the pile a solid three to four yards, getting us close enough to compel Tom to go for it.  It should also be noted that Ward is a really smooth receiver.

And Bradshaw, despite the fumble, was impressive as well.  Sure, he only managed 28 yards on 8 carries, but he was facing 8 and 9-man fronts during clock-killing time.  For as sparingly as that guy is used, he always manages to do at least one thing that shows how good he is.

It seems like Coughlin and Gilbride are loosening up their rigid running back hierarchy, something long called for here at NYGMen.  Using Bradshaw on that fourth down toss-sweep was an inspired stroke.  It also seemed like they worked in the backs at different points of a series, rather than just being like, “Ok Brandon, it’s your series.  You take every carry.”

And Tom deserves credit for going for it on that fourth down play.  When you’re dominating the line of scrimmage like we were early in the game, you have to make hay.

The papers have tried to create a to-do about Plax, who seemed to be in a terrible mood all game.  There was the sequence with the personal foul followed by cursing at Coughlin, though that seems like a much bigger deal to everyone else than to the Giants.  Coughlin actually defended Plax, saying something along the lines of, “He’s a competitor.  Shit happens.”

And let me ask you, was it me, or was Plax’s gesture of firing the ball into the stands after his fourth quarter touchdown a kind of “fuck-you” to the fans, who booed him after the personal foul?  But whatever.  As a fan, I’ve made the same calculation as Coughlin: the guy can tell me to go fuck myself every once in a while when he’s PMSing, and I’m not gonna get bent out of shape.  He’ll get over it and generally be a great receiver for me.  Plax is a moody, mercurial athlete, but he’s worth it: my guess is he has a huge game against the Steelers next week and gets people off his back.

Did you know that when Eli Manning has faced blitzes this year, his passer rating is 76.6, while when he’s not blitzed, it’s 101.0?  Neither did I, before I read this piece by Mike Garafolo in the Star-Ledger.  (Garafolo’s the best Giants beat reporter out there, in my opinion – I recommend making his daily coverage your go-to.)

I’m not exactly sure what to make of this statistic because teams blitz more in obvious passing situations, when a guy’s rating is more likely to be lower anyway.  The article didn’t put these numbers in any kind of context in terms of where Eli stands vis a vis the rest of the league.

But according to Pro Football Prospectus 2008: “Eli Manning was hurried on a below-average percentage of pass plays, but when he was hurried – during the regular season, at least – he had the worst DVOA of any quarterback with at least 30 passes.”  So there you go…

On Eli’s first pick Monday, the Browns brought 5 (which means they blitzed one) and he was hit as he threw.  He had pressure in his face on the third pick too, though the Browns didn’t blitz.

His tendency to throw off his back foot in the face of pressure is well-documented.  A frequent shit-talking line of opposing teams is that they feel Eli can be rattled if they get pressure on him.  This isn’t to say that Eli’s turns into a total jellyfish in the face of pressure; rather, it just means that protecting the quarterback may be a little more important for us than for other teams.

Speaking of guys hitting Eli, the Browns’ Shaun Rodgers was not fined for intentionally driving his 578-pound upper body onto Eli a full step after he threw, which led to Eli’s chest injury.

I think he should have been: It’s not as if Rodgers’ momentum carried him into Eli, and he knew Eli had released the ball when he delivered the initial hit.  Now, I suppose he’s entitled to that initial hit, but driving the force of his upper body as they went down was just unnecessarily rough, given that he knew Eli had thrown the ball.  And that’s what that was: unnecessary roughness.

Eli has downplayed the injury, but he always does.  But last year, the shoulder injury sustained in the opener against Dallas was much worse than anyone let on – I got this from Ralph Vacchiano’s Eli Manning: The Making of a Quarterback.  So on this one, it’s kind of anybody’s guess if he’ll be limited or not.

Last but not least, no discussion about Eli under pressure would be complete without mentioning this play. 

Here’s an amazing quote in Vacchano’s book from head Mike Carey, the Super Bowl’s head referee:

“It was like a scene out of National Geographic, where it’s a lion jumping on the back of a wild horse.  You could see him just desperately trying to pull out and some how he did.  Usually, a quarterback goes straight ahead when that happens and just tries to get yardage.  For some reason he turned around and ran back deeper into the pocket.  Lucky for him that he did.  He had a little safe haven.”

I just got through watching every single passing play from the Browns game, and I regret to report that there was exactly one time where our pass-rush or pass-rush strategy could have been considered successful.

Yes folks, out of 30 plays, our pass-rush made a positive impact once.  It was on the Browns second series, when Jay Alford made a nice move to free himself before leaping and tipping Derek Anderson’s pass for an incompletion.  (Alforld later made an awful play on Cleveland’s 117-yard third quarter drive [literally] when he forced Jason Wright forward while tackling him, thereby giving Cleveland a key first down on a 3rd down play.)

Other than that single Alford play, they won the battle of the pass-rush every time.  Anderson was not sacked, and there was only one time – when Reynaldo Wynn battled an obvious hold to get somewhat in his face – that he was even remotely hurried.

When we rushed only four, we never got close, except for that Alford play.  When we blitzed, either it was picked up with disturbing ease or Anderson was able to exploit it with a quick hitter, sometimes for big yardage and sometimes for enough of a gain to keep the offense in manageable situations (the MNF announcers were so big on this concept).

We actually seemed to get into the most trouble when we blitzed, which we did on around a third of their passing plays.  Of the nine passing plays I counted when we rushed more than four, seven of them became bad plays for us.  That’s an astonishingly high rate of failure, which is very worrisome going forward.  Are we tipping our blitzes?  Have teams learned which audibles to call and which hot-routes to look for when they know our blitzes are coming?  I don’t know.

The following are those blitzes that didn’t work out well, interspersed with some discussion of how Cleveland was able to take advantage.

–On the 49-yard Braylon Edwards catch on the third play of the game, we rushed seven, including the safety (Johnson) on Aaron Ross’ side of the field.  Anderson took a three-step drop, hit Edwards on a quick slant, and when Ross missed the tackle, Braylon was pretty much off to the races until James Butler (the safety on the other side of the field) caught him.

This is an example of how aggressiveness leaves no room for error.  Usually, Ross is a sure tackler, but if you blitz as much as we do – and last year, we blitzed more than a handful of teams, according to FootballOutsiders’ stats – you occasionally pay the price.

–On 2nd and 15 on the Browns’ second series (on their 47 yard-line), we blitzed two linebackers.  But Anderson hit a short pass to his slot-receiver, Stallworth, who was sitting in the spot vacated by the linebackers.  After catching it, he had room to run for about 9 yards, picking up 13 on the play.  Cleveland picked up the first down on the next play.

This happened a lot on our blitzes: Anderson would hit his man for a short pass, but because the blitz had taken so many of our defenders behind the line of scrimmage and effectively out of the play, the receiver would have a lot of room to maneuver.  It sometimes looked like poor tackling on our part, but often there simply weren’t enough defenders to close in on the man with the ball before he made his way upfield.

–On 3rd and 5 from the Cleveland 28 on the Browns’ fourth series (second quarter), we brought seven guys, but Anderson took a three-step drop and hit a quick slant to Edwards in front of Webster for a 10-yard gain.

This was similar to the 49-yard play earlier, except Webster played it a little more cautiously than Ross and was able to prevent a big gain.  Credit this one to good execution by the Browns, and also good use of personnel: They have ideal personnel for those three-step drop quick-hitters they used to counteract our blitzes.  Anderson is tall and has a rifle arm, while Edwards is a big target who can box out corners.  That’s essentially what happened on this play.

–On that same series, on 3rd and 7 from our 42, we brought six guys on what seemed like an utterly telegraphed blitz.  As Keith Hernandez would say, that shit was Western Union.  Tuck was able to get through eventually, but Anderson, who seemed to know what the blitz was and whom it would leave open as a result, calmly waited until the last possible instant to hit Syndric Steptoe (tremendous name) for 20 yards.  (On the next play, we only rushed four, and Anderson had all day to wait for Darnell Dinkins to get down the seam before hitting him for the touchdown.)

Doesn’t it seem like our blitzes are less deceptive than they were last year?  As if there are guys who have committed to blitzing a full three seconds before the ball is snapped, and the whole world knows they’re committed to blitzing?  Who let Tim Lewis back onto the sideline?

–Now we’re onto the 117-yard drive.  On a 2nd and 15 from the Cleveland 35, we rushed six guys, getting a little pressure but not nearly enough.  Anderson had time to scan the field and hit Steve Heiden, who was being single-covered by James Butler.  Heiden picked up 11.

Two things here: 1) It was frightening how well they picked up our blitz.  What’s going on there?; and 2) This was another instance in which our d-backs had a hard time covering so much ground after it was vacated by our blitzers.  To be fair, this problem was exacerbated by the fact that Anderson was on point, hitting his guys in stride every time.

–This brought up 3rd and 4 from the Cleveland 46.  We rushed 5, but nobody got there, and Anderson hit Heiden again, who rumbled for 17 yards.

–That same series, on a 1st and 20 from our 37, we sent Corey Webster on a corner blitz.  Anderson quickly pivoted and hit Braylon Edwards, whom Webster had been matched up against.  Braylon made 14 yards before Kenny Phillips closed on him from his safety spot.

This seemed poorly executed on our part.  Given that Webster was blitzing, Phillips should have been in much better position to make that stop.  Instead, he allowed way too much space.  It was a rookie mistake, but when you’re running complex defensive schemes with rookies on the field, stuff like that is gonna happen.  (This is an odd time to mention this, but Corey Webster has been absolutely tremendous this year.)

–And lastly, on 1st and 15 on that same series, we rushed two off the right side and dropped left end Reynaldo Wynn into coverage.  But the 300 lb. Wynn couldn’t keep up with running back Jerome Harrison, who leaked into the flat, and was hit by Anderson for an 8-yard gain.  Once again, the Browns overcame a penalty and got back on schedule.

So there you have it.  The Browns almost always picked up our blitzes, and were able to counteract them with three-step drops and quick hitters.  They also looked for their hot-read options, who were able to gain a lot of yards after the catch because our defensive backs were scrambling to cover the ground vacated by the blitzers. 

Also, they did things specifically to exploit our aggressiveness.  They ran a couple of misdirection bootlegs – including the 70-yard pass to Braylon – and even threw in a reverse.  And most everything they did worked.

So much for the nationally-televised coronation….  I’m sure most of us had forgotten how much losing sucks.  It’s been a long time since we’ve felt this way, which I guess underscores how lucky we’ve been this calendar year.  And hey, at least we’re not the Cowboys.

I started to worry – I always worry, but seriously worry – during the drawn-out pregame hype on ESPN.  All throughout the week, I had no problem indulging in the media love-fest surrounding the Giants, but as it crescendoed an hour before the game, it began to take on an ominous edge in my mind.  The “humanizing” segment on Coughlin featuring the Snees (Chris and Tom’s daughter) was an especially surefire sign that things had become too good to be true.  At that point, I knew a letdown of some kind, at some time, was imminent.

I just hoped it wouldn’t be last night.  But as I keep telling myself, we weren’t gonna go 16-0.  Even great teams will occasionally turn in terrible performances.  And last night, the 2008 Giants – who have become a great team over the last eight games by discovering an ability to play consistently well on both sides of the ball – laid their first egg.  It was a terrible performance, to be sure, but one that is now in the past while we are still in first place at present.

Or so I keep telling myself.  Because last night’s loss was not only brutal, it was worrisome, particularly because of our pass rush.

Neither or front four or are many blitzers could get close to Anderson all night.  Play after play, he was able to sit back, calmly scan the field, and find the open man.  Pretty quickly, he got into a rhythm where he was making his reads and firing strikes.

This makes it two out of three games where our pass rush has let us down (the Bengals game, the 6 sacks notwithstanding, was the other).  After that game, the Star-Ledger’s Mike Garafolo took stock of our pass rush over our first few games.  His conclusion was that while the sacks were there, the quarterback hurries were actually way down from last year.  Last night, neither the hurries nor sacks were there.

This points to two things that should really concern Giants fans: 1) We miss Osi and Strahan a lot more than we wanted to think at the beginning of the year.  Sure, Tuck’s great, but Kiwanuka and McDougle might not even be good.  At the position, it’s possible that we’ve gone from historically good to merely above-average.

And 2) Our blitzes were completely, utterly, scarily ineffective last night, which makes you wonder if we’re tipping them in some way.  There was talk after the Bengals game that we were tipping them, but that quieted after the Seattle blowout.  Maybe its time to start thinking about that again, as well as the uncomfortable possibility that the league may have caught up with Spags.

Could it be that our pass rush is a shell of what it was last year?  After last night, it seems possible.

While the pass rush was worrisome, there were some things last night that were merely bad.  There’s a distinction there: the bad stuff you expect will turn around.  The worrisome stuff you’re not so sure.

The play of the secondary, for instance, was bad.  But with all the time Anderson was given and with the confidence in his protection he accumulated, those guys faced a real uphill battle.

Obviously, Aaron Ross – a universally popular Giant, it seems – had a truly horrific game.  The first big play to Braylon – you rarely see Ross miss a tackle like that – the second big play to Braylon, and the fourth quarter touchdown to Braylon were all back-breaking plays and were all Ross’ fault (though it’s hard to kill a guy for suddenly getting a cramp).  On the touchdown to Darnell Dinkins, Ross was playing the deep safety position, and seemed a little slow coming over the top to help Pierce.  The good news is that he appears to be okay.  Good player, awful game.

The tackling was pretty bad last night too.  Repeatedly, the Browns were able to slip out of the initial tackle to pick up a couple extra yards to put them in “manageable” situations (the announcers were so big on that concept last night).  Against the Bengals, the tackling was poor too.  In both instances, this was probably a function of being on the field for so long but it’s still something to watch going forward.

In terms of the merely bad stuff offensively, there was obviously Eli.  It was a bad performance, but one that can be shrugged off – all quarterbacks, even great ones, have them.  And aside from the interceptions, Eli was actually pretty decent last night.  (I know, I know…  If my aunt had balls, she’d be my uncle, but still.)  His throws were generally pretty sharp, and he completed 18 for 28, or 64% of his passes, which is actually a hair better than his 2008 completion percentage and significantly better than his career mark.

The rest of the offense was fine.  We ran the ball very well and put up 373 yards of total offense, only 57 of which were full-fledged garbage-time yards gained during that bizarrely time-consuming drive at the end of the game.  (What the hell was that, anyway?  No, we weren’t going to win the game, but it was still mathematically possible.  You don’t give up, Tom!)

So in the end, you can shrug off some things about this game.  Eli and the secondary played poorly, but that’s in the past.  The pass rush, however, and to some degree the tackling, are things to worry about going forward.

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