New York Giants: 5 Players to Watch vs. Carolina Panthers
Despite the Panthers’ won-loss record, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin pointed out this week that this week’s opponent is far from being a pushover.
“They’re a well-balanced, well-structured team,” he said. “They’re battling and scrambling just like we are, but I certainly do recognize the fact that they’re a good team.”
Just how good can a winless team actually be? The Panthers have been outscored 36-30 so far, and have the sixth-best rushing offense, led by DeAngelo Williams, who has 171 yards on 39 carries and a 4.4 yards-per-carry average.
The Panthers are also fourth in the league on third-down conversions, thanks to the contributions of receiver Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen.
Perhaps the biggest test for the Giants when they meet the Panthers on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium is, that in Newton, they’ll face the first of several scrambling, option quarterbacks that are coming up on their schedule.
Coughlin said that the coaching staff spent a great deal of time studying how to best defend quarterbacks capable of running the option, and that he feels confident with where the team is at in terms of making progress in that area.
“We’ve studied in the offseason and studied a lot of these option-type quarterbacks and we have a plan,” he said. “We haven’t really been tested in that area, but we have worked in training camp on responsibilities. I’m confident we’ll have a guy in the right place, hopefully at the right time.”
The key to succeeding against Newton, according to Giants safety Antrel Rolle, is to remain alert.
“You have to stay active more importantly than anything and stay and play within the defense,” he said. “Don’t try and do too much. If the opportunity presents itself, make the play that’s given to you. Other than that, just play within the defense, play smart, and play sound technically.”
Besides wanting to avoid an 0-3 start for the first time since 1996, the Giants players want to make sure they put a smile on the face of their head coach, who this week lost his younger brother John.
Despite the tragic circumstances of John Coughlin’s passing from a freak accident, as reported by the New York Daily News, his older brother has somehow managed to stay focused in preparing his team for the challenges posed by the Panthers. Coach Coughlin will see the game through to the end before getting away for a day to attend his brother’s funeral.
His players have taken note of how their head coach has gone about his business this week, and they’re determined to put a smile on his face with a winning effort.
“Anytime you have to heal somebody in your circle going through a hardship, you always want to do your part to pick them up,” said defensive end Justin Tuck, who last year went through his own personal strife in losing his grandfather and uncle within a matter of weeks.
“If that’s winning a football game or that’s saying a kind word, whatever it may be, you always have to try your best to pick their spirits up. That’s what they did for me, and obviously, I was better for it. Any way I can return the favor or we as a football team can return the favor, we need to jump on doing that,” Tuck added.
The spotlight is on the entire Giants team, but here’s a look at five players whose performances could be key in determining the outcome of Sunday’s game.
Note: All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.
Linebacker Mark Herzlich
Linebacker Mark Herzlich’s NFL career probably hasn’t exactly gone the way he’s hoped it would.
In his third season, Herzlich, who signed with the Giants in 2011 as an undrafted free agent, has had opportunities in his first two seasons to grab onto and hold the Giants' starting middle linebacker job.
Both times, however, he was unable to do so, the first a result of a broken ankle suffered in his rookie season. Last year, a healthy Herzlich failed to beat out veteran Chase Blackburn.
Things weren’t looking so good for Herzlich this year either, as Dan Connor, who signed with New York as a free agent, won the starting middle linebacker job in training camp, overtaking Herzlich’s strong spring showing.
However, Connor was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a neck injury, and Herzlich, the next man up at the position, now has a golden opportunity to show once and for all that he belongs in the NFL as a starter.
"I think I can grab hold of it," Herzlich told Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger. "Regardless of whether I’m fighting for a starting spot or securing it or whatever, it’s every play that’s going to have to be right. Assignment sound and make plays. That’s one of the big things that you do, you take the next step and make the play when it’s there."
It won’t be an easy task, however, as Herzlich and the rest of the Giants linebackers are facing another strong running back in Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams and an equally strong tight end in Greg Olsen.
If Herzlich should stumble this week, the Giants have Allen Bradford, whom they claimed off waivers last week, waiting in the wings. Head coach Tom Coughlin has praised the former Seattle Seahawks linebacker for how quickly he's been picking up the Giants’ defensive system.
“He’s caught our attention a few times,” Coughlin said. “He’s willing and we’ve tried to get him involved as best we can, and he’s made some progress.
Quarterback Eli Manning
Although quarterback Eli Manning is currently the NFL's 25th-rated passer, somehow his offense is still ranked fifth overall in the NFL, averaging a league-best 390.5 passing yards per game.
Still, the seven interceptions he’s thrown to start the 2013 season is a bit of a concern both for the quarterback and his offensive coordinator.
“Do I worry? I worry about, as I’ve said many times, everything,” said OC Kevin Gilbride. “Obviously I worry about it, but if ever there’s a guy that has his feet firmly on the ground and seems to be able to handle the vicissitudes of the game and life, it’s that guy.”
Manning has long been known for not pressing the panic button when things start to go wrong, and, in fact, he’s become a bit of a broken record when talking about how he has to make better throws, better reads and better decisions—things he usually says even if he’s throwing the ball well.
Still, Gilbride admitted that Manning isn’t immune to what’s happened to him so far, and the coach also acknowledged that there's a danger of the quarterback’s confidence taking a hit should the trend continue.
“Does it bother him? It’s killing him,” Gilbride said. “If you get too many (interceptions), does it get to a point where it affects and detracts from your confidence? There’s no question—I don’t care who you are, it does.”
However, the good news, as Gilbride pointed out, is that Manning has a lot of patience when it comes to the passing game, which should bode well for the ten-year veteran’s confidence moving forward.
“If there’s ever a guy that you’re not going to worry about or will take a long time before (a loss of confidence) happens, it’s him.”
Defensive End Jason Pierre-Paul
When defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul was given a 12-week recovery timetable after he had his back surgery in June, there really wasn’t much doubt that the he was going to be out there by opening day, barring any setbacks.
However, being out there and being “ready” to play have been two different things for Pierre-Paul, who has hardly looked anything like the player who in 2011 finished fourth in the NFL with 16.5 sacks.
The most obvious reason for his slow start is the long layoff following his surgery, which has kept Pierre-Paul from getting back his football legs.
“My body is right,” Pierre-Paul told reporters on Wednesday. “My head is thinking but my body isn’t responding. My back is getting better each day. The first game, I thought I played like crap, the second game I played okay. I’m getting better and better every day and that’s all that counts.”
A completely healthy and able Pierre-Paul will no doubt go a long way toward boosting a sagging Giants' pass rush, which through two games has mustered only two sacks and eight quarterback hits.
Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell noted that opposing teams have done a good job of getting rid of the ball more quickly, which negates the pressure up front. However, he noted that the pass rush has also had its chances to dictate the tempo of a play, only to come up short.
“We’re working to try to fix that aspect of our defense right now,” Fewell told reporters on Thursday. “We feel like if we can fix that aspect, then we can definitely get off the field now and not be on the field as much.”
Running Back David Wilson
However, the second-year running back still doesn’t appear to be fully comfortable with the change in his ball-carrying mechanics.
Against the Denver Broncos last week, Wilson had seven carries for 17 yards behind suspect run-blocking. However, I reviewed each of Wilson’s seven carries. On carries in which he used just one hand, he recorded 19 yards, versus minus-two yards when he put two hands on the ball.
When asked about his confidence, Wilson, who has had a positive attitude throughout his and his team's rough start, said, “It’s great. I’m really looking forward to going to North Carolina and going down there and getting this win with my team.”
There’s no guarantee that Wilson will continue to be the main man in the running game, as offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride said he has bigger things with which to be concerned.
“The only thing I care about is, are we moving the ball." he said. "If (Wilson) is running and making yardage, then he’ll get it. If he’s not, then somebody else will get a chance to carry it or we’ll be throwing it.”
Cornerback Aaron Ross
With starter Corey Webster unlikely to play in Week 3 due to a hip injury, cornerback Aaron Ross, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2007, is the next man up.
Ross, who didn’t see any snaps on defense last week against Denver, hasn’t started a game for the Giants since February 2012—the Super Bowl to be exact.
Not that it matters to Ross, because he’s made sure to keep himself ready in case his number is called.
“I go in preparing like I’m a starter,” he told reporters on Friday. “You never know what’s going to happen, like the first week when Prince went down and I had to step in and know the plays, know what was going on, know the formations, (and) know what (Dallas quarterback Tony) Romo likes to do. So I prepare like I’m a starter every week, no matter if I play or not.”
Ross returned to the Giants this year after a season with the Jacksonville Jaguars. According to ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required), Ross allowed 40 of 59 pass attempts thrown his way to be completed, for 480 yards and three touchdowns. This week the veteran CB noted that he and the other Giants' defensive backs have been doing some extra film study outside of the facility.
“We meet up at my house at around 8 o’clock on Wednesday or Thursday nights. We meet extra after work in the film room in there, and I think it helps us a lot,” he said. “It’s just one of those things with the league becoming a passing league, so there’s so many routes and concepts that you have to learn in three days. You need a lot more studying than the CBA allows you to do.”
The Giants will be counting on Ross’ experience and preparation this week against a very dangerous quarterback, Carolina’s Cam Newton, who in addition to his arm can also make plays with his legs.
Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said that thus far this season, he’s noticed a gradual improvement in Newton, who has completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 354 yards, three touchdowns and only one interception.
“I think he just gets better as the weeks go on,” said Fewell. “It seems like he’s somewhat of a slow starter. I know we watched him the last four games last year and he was on fire. I’m saying, ‘Wow, that’s a good offense. Man, that quarterback is really growing and it just seems like as the week’s progress throughout the season he gets better and better and better.’”