New York Giants at Philadelphia Eagles: 5 Players to Watch
Under head coach Tom Coughlin, no New York Giants team has ever finished worse than 5-3 in the first half of the season.
Until this year, that is, as the best the Giants can hope for at the midway mark is a 2-6 record, assuming they beat the Philadelphia Eagles, on Sunday, on the road.
It certainly hasn't been an easy road for the Giants, who have been victimized by injuries and inconsistent play. However, they’re hoping that their first win of the 2013 season, that came on Monday night against the Minnesota Vikings, is the springboard for better days ahead.
“We’re excited for what we have coming up on Sunday against the Eagles,” said receiver Victor Cruz. “We want to be able to go out there, with all of our ammunition ready to go.”
The once mighty road warrior Giants will not only be looking for their second win of the season, but also their first win on the road in eight games, or to be even precise, in exactly one year. New York last won on the road on Oct. 28, 2012, a 29-24 thriller at Dallas.
“We have to go out there and take care of business on the road,” Cruz noted.
“Coach Coughlin always preaches road warriors, so we have to go out there and perform on the road. That’s the only way you’re going to have some success in this league.”
So let’s take a look at this week’s five figures whose respective performances could mean the difference between 1-7 and 2-6 for Coughlin's crew.
Running Back Peyton Hillis
With Brandon Jacobs (hamstring) unlikely to play this weekend, expect Peyton Hillis to get another significant amount of the carries in the running game.
The question, though, is can Hillis, who ran the ball 18 of the 48 game snaps he was given, hold up physically?
During an interview with the NFL AM crew on Friday (shown above), Hillis said he stopped working out after his release from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 3 because he thought his NFL career might be over.
Since returning to the NFL as member of the Giants, Hillis has been on a fast track to get back into playing shape, but when asked in the postgame locker room on Monday night how he felt, he said, “My legs felt a lot like Jell-O.”
So will he be in better shape this week?
“Most definitely,” he told the NFL AM crew.
“I think it always takes a couple of weeks to get back into shape when you’re on the couch for five weeks, so I’m thinking that no matter what they ask me to do, my body will be in a lot better shape than it was last week, for sure.”
Head coach Tom Coughlin is hoping Hillis is correct because with Jacobs listed as doubtful for Sunday, the coaches might not have a choice but to give Hillis another heavy workload.
“We may not have that luxury,” Coughlin said of possibly having to limit Hillis' game reps.
It probably doesn't need to be said that the Giants’ coverage units have been anything but special this season.
What’s particularly frustrating for the coaches and the players is that it’s not one specific thing that keeps dragging this unit down, which makes it even harder for the coaches to correct.
“The unfortunate thing is that it almost goes week to week,” said head coach Tom Coughlin. “In our situation (Monday), they did a good job of holding the side that the return was at. Our coverage wasn't good.
“We didn't have anybody coming over from the big field into the sideline to defend against a punt that I thought was a very good punt. It was outside the numbers. It was in position where we should have been, so you’re back to the drawing board.”
Part of the problem could be the constant turnover of personnel on special teams, a result of the need to pull players from specials to play on offense and defense.
“You’re shuffling guys in and out and trying to find solutions that way,” said special teams coordinator Tom Quinn. “There are not that many guys to do that with.”
Quinn, who is usually reserved in his dealings with the media, made little attempt to hide his anger and frustration.
“It pisses you off, and I hope it pisses everyone off in this building,” Quinn said.
Because of the breakdowns on the punt coverage team in particular, the Giants’ 34.8 net average has them ranked 31st.
They've also given up three returns for a touchdown, the latest of which was on Monday night to Marcus Sherels of the Vikings.
Even worse, all three of their punt returns given up for scores have been at least 80 yards.
“It’s not what our expectations are,” said Quinn. “It’s not what the organization, the team, mine, (special tams assistant coach) Larry’s (Izzo)—anyone’s.”
The question is how do they fix it moving forward? The coach and the players say they have to execute better, but with so many issues contributing to the breakdowns, the fix for the special teams problems might not be in the locker room this year.
Receiver Hakeem Nicks
Wide receiver Hakeem Nicks insists there’s nothing wrong with his game.
“I don’t feel like my game is too much different from what it’s been in the past,” he said.
“People are just putting more significance on it due to what kind of year it is for me; they just put a little more emphasis on that. I think I’m still playing the game the way I've been playing it.”
Ah, but some of the numbers seem to tell a much different story.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Nicks has dropped six passes this season, the same total he had in 2010. Nicks needs just two more to match his career high for a single season of eight.
While six drops doesn’t sound like a lot, Nicks has dropped one pass per 8.6 pass targets, his worst start in his career.
Besides the dropped basses, a bigger issue has been his inability to separate from defenders the way he used to. He also has yet to record a touchdown, the first time in his career that he's gone seven games to start a season without a score.
Some believe that he’s too focused on his next contract, but the problem with that theory is that if he’s counting on his collective body of work in a “what have you done for me lately?” league, he’s taking a huge gamble.
Another popular theory is that Nicks, who earlier in the year had a problem with a dislocated finger, still isn't fully healthy.
Nicks, however, denied that’s the case.
“Physically I feel good; I feel real good—no issues,” he said. “I just want to make sure I stay feeling like this coming up on Week 8 now. The halfway mark is there.”
Another possible reason for his sluggish start is that he missed the entire spring, choosing to stay away to give himself as much time as needed to get his body right for the season after struggling through the 2012 season with injuries that saw him finish with career lows in receptions (53), receiving yards (692) and touchdowns (3).
Whatever the reason for Nicks’ current season struggles, head coach Tom Coughlin wants to see improvement.
“He’s got to improve. He’s got to get better. He’s got to get to a point where the reliability factor is there as strongly as it always has been,” Coughlin said.
“Has it been there up to this point? No, but we’re saying let’s work. Let’s get back to work and get this done. We count on this guy.”
Center Jim Cordle
With starter David Baas on injured reserve, it’s the next man up for the Giants at center.
That man is third-year pro Jim Cordle, who will make his fourth start at the position on Sunday, and who will likely be the starter at center for the rest of the season.
“This offensive line has been the next man up and I feel good about it because I've been playing,” Cordle said. “I feel bad for Dave (Baas), but he was in the meetings with us and he’ll help us throughout the season.”
Cordle, who is refreshingly honest, revealed that veterans David Diehl and Kevin Boothe, who flank him at right and left guard, respectively, will make the line calls for the time being.
With one less thing to worry abut, Cordle can now focus on the various tactics opposing defensive coordinators will try against him and his line mates, such as the double A-gap blitzes that the Vikings ran on Monday night created fits for him and his teammates.
He also struggled with his run blocking, particularly with sustaining contact long enough for the play to develop.
As a result of these deficiencies, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave Cordle a negative 1.6 grade in run blocking.
Despite Cordle's struggles, head coach Tom Coughlin is optimistic that the young center will hold up to the pressure he’s likely to face starting this week.
“He’s done an outstanding job. He’s very smart. He keeps up with everything. He’s prepared to go,” Coughlin said.
“He has a nice demeanor about him, in terms of going into the game at whatever point. We would hope that would continue.”
Eagles Quarterback Michael Vick
Normally, this list is reserved to five Giants players, but this week, you’ll notice that the title of this presentation has been altered to read “Five Players to Watch” instead of “Five Players to Watch for New York.”
This was done because of the anticipated return of Eagles quarterback Michael Vick and the potential impact he can have on the Giants' defensive strategy.
Why is this important to mention? Because hamstring injuries are tricky. An athlete can rest a hamstring for weeks to where he finally starts to feel good. However, if he pushes himself too much too soon, he can re-aggravate the injury, running the risk of having to be shut down even longer.
For what it’s worth, Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is proceeding as though Vick never suffered the hamstring injury, which happened on Oct. 6, the first game these two teams met this season.
“I have to assume he’s 100 percent,” Fewell said on Thursday. “He’s that run threat.”
So assuming Fewell is correct, then how do they stop Vick from hurting them with his legs?
Last time, they deployed linebacker Spencer Paysinger as a spy. This time around, though, Fewell has a different option: middle linebacker Jon Beason.
“We think so; we hope so,” Fewell said when asked if Beason could help in keeping Vick from breaking the pocket. “That’s one of the reasons he’s here, so we’re banking on that. Sure.”
What will be interesting to see, though, is whether Fewell assigns and keeps a spy to contain Vick throughout the entire game.
The first time these two teams met, Fewell did not adjust his game plan, even after Vick exited the contest after first suffering his injury.
If Vick shows that he can’t run as much this week given his hamstring and the fact that his backup will be inactive, will Fewell adjust the game plan?
The answer could very well help contribute to the game’s outcome, as was the case in the first matchup.