New York Giants: 5 Players to Watch vs. Green Bay
That's Packers quarterback Scott Tolzien, who will be making his first career start in a must-win for his team, and rookie running back Eddie Lacy, the NFL's Offensive Player of the Month for October who's currently ranked eighth in rushing yards with 669 on 158 carries.
While winning the matchups against Tolzien and Lacy will be key for the Giants, there are other factors that could very well decide the ending of this weekend's clash between two of the NFL's oldest franchises.
Read on for this week’s list of five players whose contributions could influence the outcome of the game.
Defensive Tackle Cullen Jenkins
Although Cullen Jenkins doesn't have the stats to show it, he's been a productive force in the defensive line's interior, which has helped to hold some of the league's top rushers to fewer than 100 yards.
He'll have a chance to be even more productive this week if defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder) isn't able to play on Sunday.
Jenkins, who can play defensive end, could be asked to make a position switch to help thwart an anticipated run-heavy offensive attack by the Packers.
“He has that flexibility to go out there and play that, and he’s a tougher, stronger, thicker guy out there that can play the run for us, and he can convert and rush the passer out there,” said defensive coordinator Perry Fewell.
“So to me, he gives us a double edge in that sense because he [does] a good job in the run game for us at the end position.”
Jenkins, who was with the Packers from 2004 to 2010, and Justin Tuck will play defensive end, and Mike Patterson will team up with Linval Joseph in the interior to face the Packers' rushing offense.
On passing downs, Jenkins would be replaced by rookie Damontre Moore, who, according to Pro Football Focus, (subscription required) has played in just 32 defensive snaps this season.
A defensive front of Jenkins and Justin Tuck at the ends and Linval Joseph and Mike Patterson in the interior would give New York a combined 1,202 pounds of run-stopping power capable of swallowing up blockers, pushing the pocket and, most importantly, filling the inside gaps.
If they can succeed in taking away the cutback lanes, that would likely force Lacy to the outside, where middle linebacker Jon Beason will be waiting for him if he tries to turn the corner.
Fullback John Conner
If you're looking for a reason why the Giants' rushing game has improved over the last four games, look no further than John Conner, the Giants' bruising lead blocker, who was signed to the team after Week 3.
How effective has Conner been? Since moving into the starting fullback role in Week 6 against Chicago, the Giants have rushed for 408 yards in their last four games versus 282 yards in their first five games.
"I tell you what, he’s given us an explosiveness," said offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride of Conner, a four-year veteran.
"There’s a physicality that you have to have at the fullback position, and he has shown an ability to go after people, and move them out of the hole. So he’s been a big catalyst to the improvement of the running game," he added.
Last week against the Raiders, "The Terminator," who each week has been learning more and more of the Giants playbook, had his best game as a lead blocker this season, finishing with a 2.8 overall ranking from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Playing in 28 of his team's 65 offensive snaps, Conner helped contribute to the Giants' highest single-game rushing output, 133 yards.
That rushing yardage total was also the team's second 100-yard plus performance of the season, both coming with Conner as the lead blocker.
"He's playing good ball," said Andre Brown, who largely benefited from running behind Conner last week.
"It’s very easy following him on power runs because he has a good pop to him and gets a good surge. When he’s downhill, you're guaranteed to get at least two to three yards or more."
Receiver Hakeem Nicks
When it comes to facing the Packers, Nicks has historically been productive, recording 23 catches for 423 yards (105.8 per game) and six touchdown catches in four games, including the postseason.
The good news for the Giants is that the Packers' pass defense hasn't exactly been a strong point this season.
Green Bay has allowed opponents to score an average of 1.9 touchdowns per game, ranking it 25th in the NFL.
Getting Nicks more involved in the offense has always been a priority for the Giants. But because opposing defenses have succeeded in taking away the deep pass for most of this season, Nicks hasn't had as many opportunities as he might have had in the past.
Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Nicks has been targeted 68 times and has caught 38 of those balls (55.9 percent) for 570 yards. In 2011, his last full season, he caught 104 of the 168 balls thrown his way for 1,637 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Will this be the week that Nicks finally breaks the goose egg under the touchdown reception column in his stat line?
"There's a lot of football left," he told Newsday (subscription required). "I've had five touchdowns in three weeks before. There's time to get in there."
The problem for Nicks is that time is starting to run out. Still, he insisted that he would continue to be patient while things took their natural course.
"It's just a matter of timing," Nicks said. "It's going to come. In this offense, it's guaranteed. [You've] got to keep pushing, you know, and make more plays in the green zone."
Tight End Adrien Robinson
Before he suffered a sprained foot in the preseason finale, tight end Adrien Robinson was projected to have a small role in the Giants offense in the red zone, where the coaches had heavily experimented with using the 6'4" Robinson's height to their advantage.
Now that Robinson is finally healthy and has been able to fully practice, he could get his chance to help a Giants red-zone offense that, through nine games, has successfully converted 45 percent of its red-zone opportunities, ranking 25th in the NFL.
Robinson's 2013 debut could come at the expense of fellow tight end Bear Pascoe, who has been nursing an ankle injury. Pascoe didn't practice on Wednesday and was limited on Thursday.
Robinson, the Giants' fourth-round pick out of Cincinnati last year, was thought to be on his way back to the lineup last week against the Raiders, but that didn't work out.
As he told Dave Hutchinson of the Star-Ledger, “It’ll be up to the coaches. I've been practicing. I feel better. I’m ready to go. I’m real excited to be back.”
Kickoff Returner Michael Cox
Both head coach Tom Coughlin and special teams coordinator Tom Quinn have been coy about the team’s plans regarding the kickoff return spot this weekend.
The job currently belongs to receiver Jerrel Jernigan, but as Giants fans know, last week against the Raiders, Jernigan fumbled away the opening kickoff, the gaffe setting up an easy scoring drive for Oakland.
“The No. 1 job of special teams is ball security,” said Quinn. “When they kick it off to us or punt it to us, we’ve got to give it to our offense, and to have that happen it’s been a long time since I’ve seen that happen.
“And then it bounces off his leg into their hands and they start running it back, so it was disappointing. We’ve got to be better at ball security, obviously.”
So while Quinn and Coughlin won’t come right out and say it, it’s obvious that they’re looking to upgrade the kickoff position this weekend. There's a small candidate pool that would include running back Michael Cox and receiver/punt returner Rueben Randle.
Cox makes the most sense. He started the season as the kickoff returner, recording two returns for 39 yards (19.5 average) and a long of 26.
Cox has shown that he has both vision and acceleration as a kickoff returner, and his ball security has thus far been pristine.
While he hasn’t had a chance to break one open, with improved blocking, Cox could potentially give the Giants' kickoff return game the spark it’s been missing since David Wilson was removed from those duties.