With a new stadium and high expectations, the Giants and Jets showed during this past week that there is still work to be done in order to continue playing into February. As with all New York franchises, the fans hold these two to monumental standards and expect excellence every Sunday. Yet in order to make a Super Bowl run, both teams have some work to do this season before truly becoming contenders for a championship. There are some near certainties for each team regarding player performance, including the play of Giants defensive end Justin Tuck and Jets linebacker Bart Scott. Yet it is the question marks that will likely determine whether either team can make a real push for the Lombardi trophy. With that in mind, there are 3 question marks for each team that could factor into whether either team can have the success New York expects.
Although the New York Giants broke into the season with a win, it wasn't an imposing win on either side of the ball. The Giants' pass rush finally struck in the second half and there seemed to be some cohesiveness that lasted until the end of the game. However, Giants' fans should be worried if they don't answer the 3 following questions against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
1.) Can Jonathan Goff become the leader of the defense and eventually fill Antonio Pierce's cleats?
Goff is the starting middle linebacker for the Giants, but faced little threat for his starting job during the offseason in the form of an aging Keith Bulluck and fifth-rounder Phillip Dillard. Now he must prove that he can play all three downs and run the defensive plays. Goff was given the green sticker this year, which means that he will be calling the plays for the defense and he will need to step up in order for the Giants to pose a challenge all season.
Last season he proved he could be a solid special teamer and adequate backup, but he also proved that he needed significant improvement in pass coverage and was still somewhat raw. If Goff can become what the coaching staff expects of him, the Giants' chances for a Super Bowl improve markedly. However, if he finds himself out of position and lost on passing downs, the Giants could be looking back at this offseason and regretting their failure to pursue a middle linebacker.
2.) Will the Special Teams step up and keep the opposition from attaining good field position?
Special teams play is one of the most underrated parts of a football game. Keeping the opposing team behind their own 20 is something all special teams coaches aim for. In addition, a dynamic kick returner can change the entire momentum of the game for a team's offense. It is easy to forget that 2007 Super Bowl hero, David Tyree was a major reason as to why the Giants special teams was ranked in the top half of the league until 2008. Against the Panthers, the Giants failed on both sides of special teams and had obvious problems that need to be addressed sooner rather than later. With the loss of Chase Blackburn to injury against Carolina and the loss of Derek Hagan in the offseason, the Giants arguably lost their two best gunners and special teams tacklers.
Furthermore, the Giants lost their best returner in Domenik Hixon for the season with a torn ACL. With Ahmad Bradshaw taking over the starting runningback role, the Giants will need backups D.J. Ware or newly-acquired Darius Reynaud to take hold of the reigns and give the Giants return game some life.
Possibly even more vital, the Giants lost their longtime punter Jeff Feagles, one of the best directional punters in the league. In order for the Giants to improve on special teams they will need linebacker Phillip Dillard to fill in adequately for Blackburn and new punter Matt Dodge to begin to show why the Giants drafted him out of East Carolina.
3.) Will Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw return to SuperBowl form?
Two years ago the Giants running game looked like one of the best in football and they were ranked in the top 5 in multiple categories. Last year, with the loss of Derrick Ward, it looked like players forgot what made them successful and the Giants began to rely on their young wide receivers for offensive success. With even more talent at wideout, the Giants need to remember that they are primarily a running team and establish the run before utilizing their dynamic playmakers at wide receiver. However, in order to do so, Jacobs will need to go back to his physical "up-the-gut" running style and not repeat last year's disaster where he appeared to be trying out for Dancing with the Stars behind his offensive line.
Bradshaw, the new "feature back," will need to improve his receiving skills as a running back and prove he could handle the majority of carries in the offense for the first time in his Giants' career. He will need to to show that he could still outrun defenders in the 4th quarter after a significant amount of carries early in the game. Without a true receiving back on the roster after the release of Andre Brown, the Giants will also need Bradshaw to show soft hands on third-down with Eli's propensity to look for the check-down back when he feels the pass rush. If fullback Madison Hedgecock receives a salary raise at seasons' end, it is more than likely that Bradhsaw would have had an impressive breakout season.
The Jets, unlike the Giants, started off with a loss on the season against the Baltimore Ravens and looked uncomfortable on offense throughout the game. Yet the Jets defense kept them in the game and gave Jets fans something to look forward to as the season progresses. After all of the offseason talk about the Jets as a Super Bowl contender and the broadcast of Hard Knocks, coach Rex Ryan will need to fix many of the mental mistakes that his team made in Week 1. With that in mind here are the three questions that Jets' fans should be worried about as the Patriots come into town.
1.) Will Matt Slauson be able to be to replace Alan Faneca and keep the Jets rushing attack running smoothly?
With the release of Faneca at left guard, the Jets hoped that either Slauson or 2010 draft pick Vladimir Ducasse would be able to step in and keep the Jets trademark running game hitting on all cylinders. Faneca may have been below average as a pass-protector, but there is no question that he kept his mauling attitude in the run game. Slauson, a 6th round pick from a year ago, was known as one of the toughest players in college football during his time at Nebraska and the Jets need him to bring that attitude to the field this season.
After last week's pressure brought by Ravens All-Pro Haloti Ngata, Slauson will need to show significant improvement, especially with nose tackle Vince Wilfork next on the schedule. If Slauson can even come close to the mauler that Faneca was, then Shonn Greene and Ladainian Tomlinson should have much more success running between the tackles for the rest of the season.
2.) Will a defensive back step up and prove that the Jets secondary has something beyond All-Pro Darrelle Revis?
Despite Revis' holdout until the beginning of the season, he looked like the only consistent player in the Jets' secondary against the Ravens in Week 1. Because of that, the Jets have major question marks for a secondary they rebuilt during the offseason. Antonio Cromartie, the Jets other starting corner, looked outmatched, at times, against Baltimore and undoubtedly brought coach Ryan more headaches than smiles. Cromartie must show improvement against New England and give the coaching staff reason to trust the former Charger cornerback opposite Revis. If Cromartie can come close to showing the talent level that allowed him to garner 10 interceptions 3 years ago, then the Jets defense can easily become the best in football.
If Cromartie falters, however, Kyle Wilson will need to become a playmaker quicker than the Jets would have anticipated. Wilson, possibly the best cover corner drafted this year, has the talent to be an above average starting corner, but could put pressure on Cromartie sooner rather than later if the secondary continues to struggle. The Boise State product may have been beat a few times by Ravens' receivers, but he also flashed serious potential that could eventually lead to a starting job.
The Jets safeties are solid, but not spectacular. Brodney Pool, although extremely talented, has a history of injuries. Pool will need to flash the playmaking ability he showed in his career with Cleveland instead of spending most of his time on the trainer's table for the Jets safeties to make an impact beyond what is expected. If Pool can keep his concussions to a minimum and not remind Jets' fans of Wayne Chrebet, four or five interceptions is not out of the realm of possibility. Jim Leonhard, Eric Smith, and the rest of the Jets' defensive backs are not likely to provide any more playmaking ability than they did last year, but if one can do so, it would be a huge bonus to the Jets' pass defense.
3.) Can Mark Sanchez avoid the sophomore slump?
If Matt Ryan is any indication of what can happen in a player's second year as a starting quarterback, Sanchez has to hope that he can avoid a sophomore slump in his second season as the Jets' starting QB. Ryan's completion percentage and passer rating dropped, while his interceptions increased despite playing 2 less games. Sanchez, who had 20 interceptions in his rookie season will need to decrease that total in order for the Jets' offense to have any continuity. Even if Sanchez can limit his interception total to 12 and increase his touchdown total to 17, the Jets' rushing attack could carry them deep into the playoffs.
Without Santonio Holmes for the first 4 games, Sanchez will need to get the ball to his best playmaker, Dustin Keller, early and often. Sanchez's accuracy on deep plays has never been his calling card, but he will need to hit his receiver on those plays when his number is called. If Sanchez can improve his accuracy on crossing routes and plays between 10 and 15 yards, the Jets' offense will likely see its greatest improvement.
With above average velocity on most of his passes, Sanchez sometimes believes he could get the ball to his receiver even when they are covered. When receivers are running routes in the middle of the field, that thought process leads to an interception more often than not. If he can keep himself from locking into receivers and accept an incompletion rather than trying to fit the ball into tight spaces, the Jets' quarterback could make their opening game against the Ravens an afterthought.
With major question marks on both sides of the ball for both New York teams, there is still a considerable amount of work to be done before considering either team major contenders for a championship. Would I put my money on either team being in Dallas in February instead of finding themselves 10-6 at season's end. Probably not. But if the Giants can beat Dallas and if the Jets can top the Patriots at least once during the season, it could at least give them a shot, with no prohibitive favorite for the Lombardi trophy this NFL season.