New York vs. San Francisco: Aaron Ross and the Four Giant Factors
The New York Giants have been as hard a team as any to figure out this season, but it appears they have found a successful formula over the past four games en route to their second NFC Championship game in five years.
For most of the season, the Giants would look like a completely different team week-to-week, especially in the last month playing well against the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys (twice), New York Jets and losing a baffling game to the Washington Redskins at home.
When it came time to perform, however, Big Blue showed they have the talent to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Indianapolis this February. All aspects of the team—aside from the horrendous rushing attack—have improved.
Now they have to face arguably their toughest opponents yet in the playoffs before heading to the Super Bowl.
In order to get there, they have to perform in the following four factors to win.
Eli Manning garnered a lot of heat for saying he is among the elite quarterbacks in the NFL before the season started. Since then, he has only moved closer to that sentiment by playing one of the finest seasons of his career.
Since the playoffs began last weekend, Manning has only gotten better—throwing for just over 600 yards and six touchdowns in his first two games. Compared to his first two games of the Giants' last NFC Championship run, New York's quarterback has 150 more passing yards and two more touchdowns, which are very important as the Giants' rushing game has struggled all season.
Even in the matchup against Green Bay this past weekend, the Giants struggled greatly. They need more consistency this week, which is a lot to ask against the 49ers, who were the top run defense during the regular season—allowing just over 77 yards a game (15 yards less than the second-ranked Baltimore Ravens).
I fully believe the reason Manning has improved greatly this season is because of confidence. This is a direct result of him calling his own plays at the line rather than taking the plays given to him from the worst offensive coordinator in the league, Kevin Gilbride.
In past seasons, Eli always played his best in the two-minute drill, which was because he was allowed to call plays on the run rather than getting them from the sideline. Now, he is changing plays throughout most of the game, and that has reflected in his performance this season.
Since he rarely is forced to throw screens on 3rd-and-long or in the red zone and is given more options than the obvious hand-off to Jacobs at the goal line, Big Blue's quarterback has been able to show off his talent that was stunted by the play calling of Kevin Gilbride in years past.
Regardless of how much help Eli gets from Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs, the Giants' quarterback will have to keep up his strong performance against a potent San Francisco defense.
As important as Manning's performance is Sunday, the front five's job is even more determining.
Against the Packers, the offensive line did a great job of protecting Manning—giving him a lot of time to read the field and come up with big plays, especially on third down. The line only gave up one sack for five yards the entire game.
Where the line struggled was in the running game. The Giants struggled to get anything going on the ground, hindering them all season long—a foreign problem to the Giants of recent years.
The only notable run caused by the blocking up front this past Sunday was Ahmad Bradshaw's 23-yard dash to set up the last-second touchdown at the end of the first half.
On both Bradshaw's and Jacobs' later long runs, both backs had to cut back across the entire field in order to gain any significant yardage—a touchdown in Jacobs' case.
You could chalk it up to an over-pursuing Green Bay defense, but the Giants' committee of backs struggled to get any significant yardage on running plays in all four quarters, gaining only three first downs on the ground as opposed to 15 first downs through the air.
I believe the biggest difference between the line's struggles this season compared to the last few seasons is the absence of Shaun O'Hara and Rich Seubert. I understand both of them were battling injuries, but their absence has had a huge affect on the team.
The team believed Will Beatty would be able to step up, which hasn't worked out. Letting those two linemen go in the offseason has greatly affected their ability.
And David Diehl is possibly the worst starting offensive lineman in the entire league. He is constantly failing to get any push in the running game, and struggles with blocking one-on-one on almost every passing play.
The Giants will have their hands full this week against a front seven that boasts the likes of Justin and Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis to name a few.
The Defensive Front Seven
Yes, New York's front seven has shut down opposing offenses in its first two games—given that the Packers' two touchdowns came after two botched calls by the officials.
The pressure applied by the shuffling front four and the redefined linebacking corps has been nothing short of intimidating. But this week they will face their hardest test yet—stopping the 49ers' rushing attack led by Frank Gore.
In the two teams' regular season matchup, Gore didn't do much damage as he was recovering from an ankle injury. Now, the University of Miami product is healthy, and the Giants have to step up and continue with their potent rush defense that has given up an average of 71 yards to opposing running backs in the playoffs.
The Giants can't forget about Alex Smith, who has had a solid year himself. Last time around the Giants only reached Smith in the backfield twice and gave up 27 yards on six carries to the Niners' quarterback.
The Giants' D-line has to hassle Smith in the backfield from the very first drive, much like they have all postseason. They can't afford to let him develop a rapport with his favorite target Vernon Davis—who burned them late in the last matchup with a fourth-quarter touchdown grab.
Good thing for the Giants, their defensive line looks like the best in the league—much different from the one that played in San Francisco back in mid-November.
Jason Pierre-Paul had a huge year for the Giants with constant backfield pressure that lead to 16.5 sacks, and Osi Umenyiora has come on as of late, registering five sacks in the last three games and a huge forced fumble against the Packers.
Their play will be especially vital to the performance of New York's last determining factor...
As impressive as the Giants' performance was against the Packers, it's hard to think New York made any errors.
Unfortunately, that's not the case.
This past Sunday, Aaron Ross played one of the worst games by a cornerback I've seen in a long time. Good thing for him, the rest of the defense played well enough that many of his mistakes weren't as noticeable.
I can't tell you how many times I watched Ross fall down from a simple cut move by whichever receiver he was covering. Only a few of these plays led to a completion, but he could have been burned a lot more if it weren't for the other 10 players on the field.
The most noticeable play came on Osi Umenyiora's strip sack where replays show how open Greg Jennings was down the field for what would have been a gimme touchdown. Ross was fooled by Aaron Rodgers' initial pump fake, causing him to jump forward, anticipating a pass. Luckily for the cornerback, his teammate was there to swat the ball out of Rodgers' hand just before he could pass it.
Earlier in the game on the John Kuhn fumble, Ross did what he had been doing all game, which was waiting for the running back to come to him. Ross was lined up against Greg Jennings and slowly jogged backward down the field—hardly engaging Jennings—and let his teammates do the rest.
And on the costly Ryan Grant fumble in the fourth quarter, Ross made the worst excuse for a tackle I've ever seen, cementing a terrible outing. Once again, he didn't attack the runner, but rather waited for Grant to come to him. And once he did, Ross just threw his shoulder into Grant and stuck with him for a few yards—never using his arms—until Kenny Phillips came in to strip the ball.
Regardless of how the defensive line plays this Sunday at the 49ers, the Giants will need Ross to play a far better game, or bench him. They cannot afford to have Ross on the field playing like he did last week.
The Giants have a great opportunity to reach another Super Bowl under much-scrutinized head coach Tom Coughlin, and again it is in large part due to their defense.
Perry Fewell and New York's defense have a chance to echo the efforts of the 2007 Giants under Steve Spagnuolo. His unit will be far more determining in the outcome of the NFC Championship game than its offensive counterpart.
The offense is playing as well as any other team in the playoffs right now and can perform even better if it gets help from its running backs.
The most important thing for the Giants will be the amount of pressure they will be able to apply on defense. If they continue to play as well as they have been, New York will be heading to the franchise's fifth Super Bowl and face either a rematch of Super Bowl XXXV or XLII.