When it comes to overused sports clichés, “We’re playing for pride,” has to rank right up there with the best of them.
I’ve always thought those words are about as empty as my wallet the day after Cyber Monday.
After all, shouldn’t a team be playing for pride from the very moment its season begins right through to its last game?
Anyway, with the New York Giants out of the postseason hunt, one thing they won’t be playing for, at least not intentionally, is the future.
Head coach Tom Coughlin, author of Earn the Right to Win will be sticking with those players have earned the right to play in the final three games, starting this weekend against the Seattle Seahawks.
“We’re going to try to play the best we can and win with the roster that we have,” Coughlin said.
“Our number one objective is we have a three-game schedule,” he continued. “Over the course of these x-amount of weeks, people have established themselves in their positions. I’m not commenting on the degree of where we are in regard to that; I’m just saying those people who are playing have earned their right to play.”
That’s not good news if you’ve been waiting to see guys like tight end Adrien Robinson, offensive lineman Brandon Mosley, and/or quarterback Ryan Nassib in a game this season.
OK, then coach. If you’re not planning to evaluate the young players, you’re at least going to get a head start on evaluating the guys you have, right?
“I don’t use it that way,” he said. “I continue to talk about being the best you can be. Obviously, you’re under heavy scrutiny right now in terms of preparation and how well we play on Sunday, which is no different than any other time of the year.”
It will be interesting to see how the players respond to what Coughlin is preaching, especially after they didn't always deliver their best when the games actually counted for something.
|Seahawks at Giants: The Competitive Edge|
|Coaching / Intangibles||x|
The Giants and Seahawks will meet for the 16th time in the regular season. New York leads the series, 9-6. The Seahawks won the last matchup between the two teams, a 36-25 decision played on Oct. 9, 2011 at MetLife Stadium.
|Giants - Seahawks Injury Report (Wed., Dec. 11, 2013)|
|CB Prince Amukmara||illness||LB K.J. Wright||feet|
|DT Cullen Jenkins||shin/quad||WR Doug Baldwin||neck|
|DE Jason Pierre-Paul||shoulder||CB Brandon Browner||groin|
|CB Terrell Thomas||knee||DE Chris Clemons||non-injury related|
|CB Corey Webster||ankle||WR Percy Harvin||hip|
|S Cooper Taylor||hamstring||RB Marshawn Lynch||shoulder|
|TE Zach Miller||ribs|
|LB Michael Morgan||knee|
|CB Richard Sherman||feet|
|C Max Unger||pectoral|
|Source: NY Giants|
Not much is expected to change this week regarding the status of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Despite his head coach’s optimism that the fourth-year veteran will play again this season, time is starting to run out as Pierre-Paul appears no closer to doing so than he was two weeks ago.
The downside to Pierre-Paul’s absence is that it’s forced defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to increase the workloads of Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka.
According to data from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Tuck, whose highest playing percentage in a single game this season was in Week 11 against Green Bay (78 percent of the snaps), has taken 92 percent of the snaps over the last three games.
In his last three games, he is averaging 94 percent of the snaps, with the Week 13 game at Washington seeing him take 100 percent of the snaps on defense.
With Tuck and Kiwanuka getting up there in age, might that mean more snaps for defensive end Damontre Moore?
However, the wild card this week is Cullen Jenkins. Jenkins, remember, can play both defensive tackle and defensive end. If he can’t go on Sunday, then Fewell might not have any choice but to increase Moore’s workload.
Lastly, corners Trumaine McBride and Jayron Hosley are no longer listed on the injury report. That’s not good news for Webster, whom Coughlin said, “is still in the process of trying to get himself ready to go.”
The Game Plan
Giants' Offense vs. Seahawks' Defense
If a strong defense wins championships, then the Seattle Seahawks, with their stellar defense that’s ranked at or near the top in just about every major category, might as well make their Super Bowl reservations now.
How good have the Hawks been? They’re ranked first in opponent yards per game (287.1) and opponent yards per play (4.6, tied with Cleveland) and opponent passing yards per game (175.6), according to Team Rankings.
They’re also averaging 2.8 sacks per game, ninth-best in the NFL, also per Team Rankings.
“They don’t make many mistakes, they play fast—they just do everything pretty well,” noted Giants quarterback Eli Manning. “They do a good job getting a pass rush, a lot of times just by bringing four guys.”
And what about those cornerbacks, Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell, the latter of whom is filling in for the injured Brandon Browner?
“They play a lot of man-to-man on the outside with their corners, and they’re physical,” Manning noted.
Press coverage, an example of which is shown in this frame, is the one thing a receiver does not like to deal with. When a cornerback gets his hands on a receiver, the intent is to disrupt any timing routes that might be in the works.
The more a cornerback can delay the receiver in getting out into his routes, the better the opportunity for the defensive pass rush to get a sack or to force a throw.
So how does a team counter press coverage?
The answer is to create space. This can be done by putting a receiver in motion or by lining him off the line of scrimmage. By creating space, the potential to juke a cornerback on an out or an in route increases.
Let’s look at an example the San Francisco 49ers accomplished last week on a nine-yard pass completion to receiver Anquan Boldin.
Boldin, working against Maxwell (at the top of the frame), is lined up about two yards off the line of scrimmage. When the ball is snapped, he starts up field.
As quarterback Colin Kaepernick releases the pass, Boldin suddenly breaks toward the sideline to snatch the ball while Maxwell, who has been in his back pedal, now needs to adjust and move forward, slipping in the process (see the cutaway).
Boldin, meanwhile, has successfully created space against the corner which has helped him make the nine-yard reception.
Now let's look at the pit. Logic would dictate that if you have five offensive linemen trying to block four pass-rushers, the odds should be in your favor.
What you don’t want to have happen is a situation such as what occurred to the 49ers on one play, where three offensive linemen tried to block two Seahawks rushers while their left guard (circled in blue), was beaten in a one-on-one matchup against defensive tackle Tony McDaniel.
This might be, if you’ll pardon the pun, a “giant” cause for concern. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), right guard David Diehl has not yet earned a positive pass-block grade in his nine starts this season, while James Brewer, who last week allowed nine quarterback pressures over the last two weeks, holds the title for second-most by any guard in the league.
If the pass-blocking is struggling, who then gets the benefit of double-team blocking? And what happens if it's more than one guy struggling simultaneously?
Speaking of the blocking up front, as I noted in my film breakdown of the Giants’ passing game, Manning hasn’t had a clean pocket to work with very often this season. The result of this is that he is unable to step into his throws, the ball oftentimes being underthrown.
Against this Seahawks defense, underthrowing the ball is a bad, bad thing, as Kaepernick found out last week on a pass intended for receiver Michael Crabtree that was picked off.
Note how Crabtree has managed to get outside of the bracket coverage by the corner and safety.
A good throw to Crabtree’s back shoulder likely means seven points for the 49ers; however, Kaepernick did not step up in the pocket.
The ball fell short of the receiver, landing where the red "X" is marked. Thus, a very promising scoring drive fizzled out faster than day-old soda.
So yes, this Seahawks defense does many things well, but Giants receiver Victor Cruz thinks that New York will be more than up for the task.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us, but obviously it’s something that we can rise up to and be able to combat," he said.
Giants' Defense vs. Seahawks' Offense
Members of the Giants defense weren’t just being polite when they described the Seahawks as “the best team in the NFL.”
They really did mean what they said, and with good reason.
What's so special about the Seahawks offense? Giants head coach Tom Coughlin explains:
"Their offense is 12th in the NFL, third in rushing. They do an outstanding job with the rushing game. They’re averaging 27.5 points per game. They’re ninth in the league on third down, they’re sixth in the green zone. They only have 16 turnovers, which is the fifth-fewest in the league."
However, as Coughlin also noted, the Seahawks have a solid offensive line that has helped produce the league’s third-best rushing attack in yards per carry (4.4), average yards per game (141.5) and total rushing yards (1,840).
“I’m more impressed with Marshawn just for the fact that he’s a running back that gives more of a pounding than taking it,” said Tuck.
“That scheme really fits him well. It’s a constant that you see him falling forward, breaking tackles. You really don’t see him getting hit for negative yardage so that’s going to keep the sticks in their favor. Plus, he’s one of those backs that when he does break it, he can take it to the house.”
What about Wilson?
“He is a dual threat, and he’s going to be tough to corral,” Tuck said. “Obviously we've got to play our best game against him because he doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He’s playing like a wily vet. It’s hard to believe he’s only in his second year in the league.”
A quick look at Pro Football Focus’ breakdown of Wilson’s passes by direction shows he’s had his best passer rating throwing to the right side of the field:
|Russell Wilson's Passer Rating by Direction|
|Pro Football Focus|
One of Wilson’s biggest strengths is how quickly he makes his reads and reacts to what the defense is giving him. That’s why when safety Antrel Rolle and linebacker Jon Beason stress the importance of the Giants defense executing their assignments, they’re not kidding.
What are the key things to avoid when playing against Wilson and the Seattle offense?
First, do not let a tight end or receiver get behind the linebackers in coverage.
The Giants, remember, have split the run- and pass-defense duties at weak-side linebacker between Spencer Paysinger (run) and Jacquian Williams (pass).
With the running threat that Wilson and Lynch pose, it would not be surprising if this week, Paysinger’s snaps outnumber Williams'.
Regardless of who is at linebacker, he must avoid being caught napping, as 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman (No. 53) was on a pass play out of the shotgun.
Bowman correctly waited to see if the play was a draw. Once Lynch was past the line of scrimmage and the running lanes were closed off, Bowman should have glanced to his right where he would have seen tight end Luke Wilson trying to sneak behind him across the middle.
Failing to do so, the tight end easily slipped behind Bowman and gained 29 yards on the play.
Now let’s look at a quarterback scramble in which the linebacker (also Bowman) gave up backside contain, thereby opening a huge running lane for the quarterback to exploit.
Working form the shotgun, Wilson fakes a handoff to Lynch.
Bowman bites on the fake and moves to his left (yellow line), anticipating Lynch (blue X) has the ball.
Because the Seahawks offensive line has the 49ers defenders blocked, a huge gap of space opens up for Wilson, who is escorted by his center in the role of the lead blocker, to exploit for the first down.
What They're Saying
"When you go out there each and every Sunday, you’re not going out there...to play for a Super Bowl. You’re going out there to play for that particular Sunday."
—Giants safety Antrel Rolle
"We’re just trying to get there and get focused on this game and take care of business. That really shouldn’t be in our business at all right now."
—Seattle head coach Pete Carroll on the possibility of playing in the upcoming Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium
"For us, it turns to going out there and being accountable for what we need to do, and that’s to try to win these three and go into the offseason with some kind of respectability and a good feeling hopefully heading into next year."
—Giants defensive end Justin Tuck on what's left to play for
"I think obviously playing in Seattle is a very, very special place. It’s one of a kind, and our fans are so energetic. But like I always tell our team, 100 yards is 100 yards. It doesn't matter where we play or when we play; we’ll always be ready to go."
—Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson on playing on the road
"You get into this game because you love playing football. You love competing. You love going out there and trying to win a football game. In that aspect, nothing has changed. We want to go win a game and play well. We’re going to work hard and game-plan and prepare, and then hopefully we can go out there Sunday and play a good game."
—Giants quarterback Eli Manning, on the team's motivation.
Giants: Five Stats and Facts
Tight end Brandon Myers needs one more reception to reach 150 in his career. (New York Giants Weekly Game Release)
Defensive end Justin Tuck needs one more forced fumble to reach 20 in his career. (New York Giants Weekly Game Release)
Prediction: Seattle 28, Giants 14
Despite their insistence that they’re playing for pride, the Giants are worn down, banged up and frustrated.
The Seahawks, on the other hand, seem as energized as a team can be, and with good reason. They’re playing to lock up a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
They’re also coming off a tough loss to the 49ers and will be looking to avoid their first back-to-back losses since October 18 and 28, 2012, when they lost consecutive road games to the 49ers and the Detroit Lions.