The New York Giants have won twice and lost twice, with both losses coming against teams .500 or better and both wins coming against teams that are now 1-3. So I suppose it's a good sign that the G-men take on the 0-4 Cleveland Browns Sunday.
It also doesn't hurt that it's been 12 weeks since Big Blue has lost back-to-back games.
Still, a game plan might be required for the Giants to beat the Browns in Week 5. Allow me to make some suggestions...
Load the Box on Defense
New York's starting secondary during the team's Super Bowl run last year: Corey Webster, Aaron Ross, Kenny Phillips and Antrel Rolle. On Thursday, zero of those players were practicing. Ross is gone, Phillips is out and Webster and Rolle are dealing with less serious injuries.
Regardless, when you consider how poorly this secondary played last season while fairly healthy, it's easy to see these injuries costing the defense dearly in 2012.
Fortunately, that's not likely to happen against the Browns, who have the NFL's lowest-rated passing attack at the quarter pole. Brandon Weeden's averaging only 6.0 yards per attempt and has a passer rating of just 60.4, and yet his pass protection has been solid.
What that means is the Giants can let Weeden make his own mistakes by applying as much pressure as possible with the front four. No need to blitz Weeden in order to save the secondary. Instead, New York has to focus squarely on Trent Richardson.
The Giants have surrendered 4.5 yards per carry this season, which is better than only seven NFL defenses. DeMarco Murray, Doug Martin, DeAngelo Williams and LeSean McCoy have all experienced success against that front seven, so there's no reason to believe Richardson won't have a chance to bust out some big runs Sunday.
That'll be Cleveland's plan. If it can move the chains with its talented rookie in the backfield, it'll shorten the game and keep the ball out of Eli Manning's hands.
That's why I'm going to suggest that New York forces Weeden and his shabby group of receivers to make plays by crowding the box.The Eagles did this in Week 1, and it's worked for everyone since except the Bengals, who were a tad shorthanded up front for that game.
The Browns have adjusted by attempting to get Richardson the ball on screens and dump-offs. He had a season-high 57 receiving yards in Week 4 and had six catches the week prior against Buffalo.
The Giants struggled a bit with this in the Carolina game, with DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert combining for six catches and 70 yards.
In order for the Giants to defend against Richardson as both a runner and a receiver, they'll want to get their most athletic linebackers on the field as often as possible. That means we should see more from Keith Rivers and Jacquian Williams against the Browns. Rivers is finally healthy after being nagged in September by a hamstring injury and Williams might be the rangiest defender they have.
If the Giants send out Williams, Rivers, Mathias Kiwanuka and Michael Boley all at once, along with the standard four-man front, Richardson would have nowhere to go. Sure, Weeden would have Greg Little or Mohamed Massaquoi (if he even plays) in single coverage without safety help, but does anyone really believe those guys will be able to make the Giants pay?
Take away what the Browns do best.
Run it More than Usual, and Right up the Gut
Normally, this would be a great opportunity for the Giants to exploit a secondary that is without top cornerback Joe Haden, but Hakeem Nicks is out again with a knee injury and Ramses Barden's status is up in the air due to a concussion.
That means the G-men will likely be forced to use struggling rookie Rueben Randle against Cleveland's most beatable corner, Buster Skrine.
With injuries hitting the Giants more than the Browns in this area, the Giants don't really have any easy matchups to take advantage of through the air. Dimitri Patterson is a quality slot corner who should be capable of keeping Victor Cruz from going crazy.
That's not to say that Eli Manning won't be able to hook up with Cruz often, but that can't be New York's only means of offense Sunday and it could be tougher than expected elsewhere in the passing game—even with Haden out of the lineup.
I know it's obvious to suggest that the Giants run more than usual, but sometimes this stuff isn't rocket science. The key for New York will be to avoid getting fancy in a game that won't require creativity. It has to hammer away at Cleveland's weak defensive tackles—Billy Winn and Ahtyba Rubin have both struggled against the run this year—by trusting Chris Snee, David Baas and Kevin Boothe to clear space in the same way they did against Carolina's subpar interior defensive line.
Football Outsiders ranks the Browns' defensive line 27th in football when it comes to stopping runs up the middle and behind the guards this season, and the Giants' offensive line is ranked eighth in the league when running to that spot, so there's the real exploitation spot if you're Big Blue.
I don't know if that necessarily means giving more work back to Andre Brown, who had so much success running between the tackles in Carolina, but the Giants have to recognize who has the hotter hand early and stick with that back the rest of the way.