Roughly one month ago, the Giants were in crisis mode. Following a 29-10 meltdown at home against the Tennessee Titans, the Giants were 4-10 in their last fourteen games, with an average margin of defeat of 18.9 points per loss.
Even worse, it appeared that the Giants were starting to tune out their long-time head coach. Tom Coughlin reportedly implored that his players keep their cool against Jeff Fisher’s Titans, citing their history of agitating opposing players to draw unnecessary roughness penalties.
Six personal fouls later, Coughlin would stand at his post game press conference with a dumbfounded look on his face, trying to explain to the media his version of how the Giants thoroughly outplayed the Titans, but lost by 19 points.
Four weeks later, the Giants now look like the best team in a bumbling NFC. Antrel Rolle, who last month chastised Coughlin and the rest of the coaching staff for their early arrival at Lucas Oil Stadium, is brimming with confidence, calling the Giants the best team in the NFC—and maybe even the NFL.
“I don’t think, I know it, we are the best team in the NFC,” Rolle boasted. “Hey, we are the best team in the NFL, and that’s hands down.”
That type of swagger has been absent with the Giants since the New York Jets took the New York scene by storm with Hard Knocks. And Rolle very well could be right. While the NFC is a much weaker conference than the AFC, the Giants appear to be as balanced as any team in the league. But how did they go from a team that was 1-2 and all but written off to an NFC favorite? Here are some reasons. Bare with me folks, there is a lot to cover.
1. The Offensive Line
Throughout the first three weeks, both the pass blocking and run blocking reflected a unit that seemed to be progressively deteriorating by the game. And given the fact they played just as poorly in 2009, there was little reason for optimism of a rebirth.
However, they have proved many wrong with a resurgence that few expected. After Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis teamed up to torture Eli Manning, why would anyone expect it? How could a unit that was aging resurrect itself into the same group of guys paved the way for two 1,000 yard rushers in 2008, and allowed Eli Manning to be comfortable in the pocket?
It didn’t happen overnight, but they are back to being one of the more effective groups in the league. After missing a few weeks, center Shaun O’Hara has fought through a lingering foot injury to anchor the unit. Additionally, Shawn Andrews is rounding into shape as a physical extra blocker that the Giants bring in for running situations. He even replaces Rich Seubert as the right guard in goal line situations, thus moving Seubert into the extra blocker role.
Slowly but surely, the Giants have established themselves as a productive running team. One of the reasons Jacobs struggled immensely last year as well as the beginning of this year was that the offensive line wasn’t generating any push. Over the past three games, the Giants offensive line has done just that. As fate would have it, these past three games have brought back memories of the Jacobs of 2007 and 2008. Something tells me that the offensive line’s vast improvement and Jacobs’s revival is linked.
Any running back benefits immensely from having a good line blocking for them. Through September, Ahmad Bradshaw was doing a fantastic job of making plays out of nothing. Now that the line is actually carving holes for the feisty Bradshaw, he is proving to be one of the more dangerous running backs in the league. I am still not sold on him being a number one back, but I’ll bring that subject up later.
Last season, many said the Giants didn’t have an identity. They wanted to be a running team, but could not, forcing Manning into situations very few quarterbacks could get out of. Now that the line is generating some push, the Giants do have an identity. And it could be as the most balanced offense in the NFC.
2. Hakeem Nicks
Sans a few drops that turned into interceptions, Nicks has been an absolute beast this season. And it brings me back to a comment from analyst Roman Oben, when he predicted early last season that the tandem of Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks could develop into a Jimmy Smith-Keenan McCardell type duo.
If the Giants can be the beneficiaries of that type of consistency from their two highly rated receivers, than this could be one explosive offense. We all knew the talent was there from Nicks, given how dynamic he was his rookie season despite being hampered by injuries all year long. It was just a matter of integrating him into a complex offense with a veteran quarterback.
But Nicks has stepped up. He makes the tough catch look easy, and has an amazing ability to retrieve the ball when he is isolated one on one. During the 2009 pre-season, he made a spectacular adjustment to the ball against the Patriots and perfectly timed his jump over a defensive back for a catch, than sprinted to the end zone. It turns out this play would foreshadow the type of career Nicks may very well be on pace to have.
The truth is, he is better at going up and catching the ball at this point of his career than Plaxico Burress ever was. And this is not hyperbole. As great as Burress was overall, he was best used in the red zone when he drew double and triple coverage and opened up the underneath pass for a crossing Amani Toomer or Jeremy Shockey. Sure, Burress made tremendous catches in fade situations, but it’s almost as if Nicks is automatic with just a single guy covering him. Plaxico was far from a given.
I also believe Nicks helped jumpstart this offense for good. After an abysmal first half against the Bears, the Giants offense was in desperate need of a spark. Facing a 2nd and 17 in their own territory and holding on to a narrow 3-0 lead, Nicks ran a great route to get off coverage and caught a huge first down pass from Manning to spark a touchdown drive.
Later on, now holding a 10-3 lead, Manning lobbed a pass Nicks’s way that Eli conceded after the game was underthrown. However, Nicks undercut the cornerback and plucked the ball as it seemed like it was just about to fall to the turf. Instead, it was a completion, and a first and goal at the one to seal a much needed win.
One week later, the Texans had no answer for the phenom, as Nicks could easily have had four touchdowns in the first half. Instead, he settled for two touchdowns, as well as 12 catches for 130 yards. Nicks now has three multi touchdown games this season.
One of the more understated plays of Monday night’s showdown as Nicks’s grab of Manning’s third and five pass. The Giants were trailing 10-0 when the sideline official ruled that Nicks did not have both feet in bounds as well as possession of the ball. With the punt team running out, Coughlin decided to throw his challenge flag in hopes that Nicks did keep both feet in.
Somehow, he did. Despite an initial bobble, Nicks retrieved possession, and tapped his second foot in bounds to complete the Giants third third down conversion of the drive, and extend a series that would ultimately end up with him catching a touchdown in one-on-one coverage.
Nicks is a special talent. At times, he has put this erratic team on his back. If he stays healthy, he and Smith could become the league’s best duo. And don’t forget about that Mario Manningham fellow either.
3. Perry Fewell
Can a defensive coordinator be a coach of the year candidate? Seriously, Fewell’s role in the revival of the once feared Giants defense cannot be understated. Last year’s performance was akin to the 2007 collapse for the New York Mets. That type of season can cast a cloud over a locker room that may never vanish.
Sure enough, after being spanked by the Colts in week two, the memories of 2009 were as clear as ever. And while the players insisted otherwise, it is human nature to be skeptical of your new defensive coordinator devising a game plan that produced the same results as your last one.
But he preached patience to his veterans, and the results have been overwhelming. Not until January was Steve Spagnuola’s defense as dominating as the group has been the last month. And while Fewell’s schemes do appear to be well-thought out, the players executing it are hardly a product of the system. Thanks to Jerry Reese, who deserves a ton of praise for how he managed this past off-season, the Giants went from arguably the worst safety unit to the best.
Antrel Rolle, who I haven’t seen miss a tackle yet, is a rock. Aside from overplaying Calvin Johnson’s touchdown, Rolle has been everywhere this season. Phillips patrols the secondary very well too. He isn’t making dynamic plays, but neither is the opposing team. Michael Johnson couldn’t say that last year.
Lastly, there is Deon Grant. I can’t say enough about this guy. A sure tackler, a savvy veteran, a leader, versatile, instinctive, the list goes on and on. Every superlative a defensive coordinator can lend to a player that was signed for a one-year deal worth $855,000 is applicable for Grant. Fewell should send Reese a thank you card for bringing Rolle in Grant in. And then Reese should send one right back to Fewell for choosing to work for the Giants instead of long-time cohort Love Smith in Chicago.
Goff has been a rock at middle linebacker as well. If there is a weakness in his game, it has not been exposed yet. And it seems that he will burst into the backfield to stop the running back for a negative gain at least once a game.
Speaking of stopping the running back, the Giants’ defensive resurrection may be attributed to just that. You set the tone when you stop the run early and often. And on top of that, you allow the strength of your defense, the pass rushers, the opportunity to make plays. This has been the formula for success this year.
The defensive tackles deserve a ton of credit too. They generated absolutely no push all year last year, and may have been just as bad as the safeties were. Now, they are leading a dominating interior attack. Free agent “bust” Chris Canty has been a rock. And Barry Cofield, who was nearly traded to the New Orleans Saints for a second round pick this past off-season, has been good too. And I have to use this as an opportunity to mention that Cofield stripped Jason Witten downfield right before halftime, eight yards down the field. Any defensive tackle that does that deserves to be mentioned. Kudos Barry.
By the way, if it sounds like I’m gushing, I am. There is very little not to like about this defense.
The Giants go into the bye week in an ideal situation. No dominant team in the NFC has emerged. While the Giants are not yet dominant themselves, they may be the most balanced. They come out of the bye with the opportunity to make a statement on the road against the potentially 5-2 Seahawks. Then after the Cowboys come to visit, they travel to Philadelphia for a Sunday night affair.
Going back to Bradshaw, that fumble yesterday was atrocious. And ultimately, his fumbles are unavoidable if the Giants put the ball in his hands 20 plus times a game. The guy runs so hard that fatigue is bound to take its toll on him. How else can you explain losing the ball after merely bumping into your own offensive lineman? I would keep his touches around 15 and up Brandon Jacobs’s load. I know he fumbled too, but he is much more sure handed than Bradshaw.
Despite the four game winning streak, the bye comes at a very good time for the Giants. If there wasn’t a bye, then they would be on a short week. And they are banged up. Osi Umenyiora has been playing through injuries all year, making his performance that much more impressive. Mathias Kiwanuka could be back at some point, but his status is up in the air. Nicks has a hamstring issue that doesn’t seem to be much of a problem, and Justin Tuck is always banged up.
Matt Dodge is coming off his best game as a pro, and we are saying that for the second straight week. I still don’t trust him when the weather gets cold, but we are finally seeing the power of his leg that has kept him around through all of his issues. The fact the Giants get nothing out of their kick and punt return game is discouraging, as well is their coverage of punts and kickoffs. Something to keep an eye on.
Overall, it’s tough for the Giants to ask for more heading into the bye. But under Coughlin, they are typically very good in the first half of the year. It’s the second half that usually bites them. But this is a more talented team than any of his other ones, including the 2007 squad. But as the Cowboys have shown week in and week out, how far does talent get you?
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