The 2008 NFL regular season begins Thursday night in New York, with the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants hosting the Washington Redskins. These two teams know each other well, and this game is likely to be no different than any other NFC East showdown—hard hitting and close at the end.
The Giants will be presenting their Super Bowl rings prior to game time, which will add to the electricity sure to be felt.
For both teams, the 2008 season has brought about some change. Both teams lost faces of their organizations to retirement: Michael Strahan for the G-Men and Joe Gibbs for the Redskins.
It would seem obvious that Gibbs is the bigger loss, if for no other reason than that his retirement meant a new coaching staff for the Redskins, which created more change. And more questions.
The Giants seemed to be well prepared for Strahan’s retirement, with fourth-year player Justin Tuck coming off of a career year in which he contributed 10 sacks and 65 tackles. Tuck played mostly as a “pass-rush” tackle and had spot duty at defensive end while taking over the starting role.
With sixth-year veteran Osi Umenyiora coming off a very strong season on the other side, there were no worries for the Giants’ pass rush. However, that was not to be. Umenyiora has been placed on injured reserve, ending his season and leaving a gaping hole in the Giants' feared pass rush.
Mathias Kiwanuka steps back into his more familiar role at defensive end after a less-than-stellar season at linebacker. Kiwanuka did seem to be on track to finding comfort at linebacker last season before suffering a season-ending leg injury.
Now he’s back to doing what he was built to do: rush the passer.
The Giants’ pass rush could still require more help. While tackles Fred Robbins, Barry Cofield, and Jay Alford have had moments, none has been consistently dominant and may be cause for concern. Robins has been a beast at times, but Cofield and Alford will need to play well.
Former Redskin Renaldo Wynn, third-year defensive end Dave Tollefson, and former Philadelphia Eagle Jerome McDougle provide depth, but their quality is questionable.
If this rotation cannot produce a push in the middle or handle the run well, the defensive line could turn out to be a weakness rather than the strength it was last season. That would mean more blitzing, which would put more pressure on the Giants’ secondary and linebackers.
With Gibril Wilson gone and rookie safety Kenny Phillips in the mix in a backup role to start the season, it will be second-year player Aaron Ross who will be one of the keys to the Giants’ secondary.
Ross has been elevated to starter, while Phillips is listed as the backup behind second-year player Michael Johnson.
With Corey Webster slated to start opposite Ross, the secondary could become a strength. Webster seemed to shake off the lack of confidence he showed early in his career and played very well down the stretch last season, playing a major role in the defense’s postseason play.
Ross and Webster need to continue their development, and Phillips needs to earn the trust of Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo for this defense to raise itself above average.
The Giants have been looking for quality linebackers for years, and that search continues. Veteran Antonio Pierce holds down the fort well, but will his supporting cast be able to do the same?
Veteran free agent pick-up Danny Clark and third-year man Gerris Wilkinson are both question marks. Clark had two very productive seasons with the Raiders in 2004 and 2005, but he hasn’t shown that form since. Wilkinson has accumulated all of 41 tackles in two season of limited action, and that will have to change.
With so much youth behind the starters, the linebacker position maintains its status as the weakest point for the Giants’ defense.
Offensively, the Giants return most of their starters from last season. The big exception is standout tight end Jeremy Shockey.
Shockey was shipped off to New Orleans during the offseason and second-year player Kevin Boss will now take over as the starter. Boss performed very well for the Giants after taking over, following Shockey’s season-ending injury last season.
Depth at tight end may be the only question mark here, as Boss looks to be on his way to becoming one of the game's better tight ends.
The Giants return their starting offensive line from last season, and it's reasonable to expect them to play well again this season. Health is always a key in the NFL, and the Giants have had good luck along the offensive line. If that luck continues, the line will remain solid.
The running game should be in good hands, with a solid rotation between Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Derrick Ward. With Reuben Droughns and Danny Ware also in the mix, the running game should be a strength.
Plaxico Burress leads a strong New York receiving corps. Ageless veteran Amani Toomer will line up opposite Burress and is sure to be his old, reliable self.
With second-year wideout Steve Smith, third-year man Domenik Hixon, third-year disappointment Sinorice Moss (Redskins’ Santana Moss’s younger brother), and potential steal of the 2008 draft Mario Manningham rounding out the pass catchers, there shouldn’t be any real concerns here.
Then there is Eli Manning.
The Super Bowl MVP will hope to continue the maturity and general progress he showed in the playoffs last season. For this team to continue moving forward, Eli must stay on pace in his growth. If he reverts, it will add even more pressure to the defense, and this team could be in trouble.
Against the Redskins on Thursday night, the Giants’ offense will need to play with the power and precision they displayed during their improbable run through the playoffs last season.
The Redskins will hope to disrupt that offense with an improved pass rush, provided from a revamped defensive line.
Standout veteran defensive end Jason Taylor has entered the picture, via a trade with the Miami Dolphins. Taylor should at least serve as a distraction to opposing offensive lines, enabling defensive end Andre Carter to improve on his 10.5 sack performance of last season.
With the loss of standout, run-stopping defensive end Phillip Daniels, the Redskins lose a key part of their stellar run defense. This loss could easily add up to a flip-flop of this defense’s weakness, with the ability to stop the run becoming a concern.
Add Erasmus James, youngster Chris Wilson, and rookie Rob Jackson to the rotation at defensive end, and the Redskins hope that Taylor's injury will not play much of a role, no matter his status come game time.
Another major question mark for the Redskins’ defense is whether or not linebacker Rocky McIntosh and cornerback Carlos Rogers can quickly return to form following season-ending knee injuries last year.
Depth at linebacker is a concern for the Redskins, making the health of the starters a paramount concern. Preseason standout Alfred Fincher, veteran Khary Campbell, and third-year player H.B. Blades are the primary backups, and each will likely be called upon to perform at some point on defense and on special teams.
At cornerback, the Redskins return veterans Shawn Springs, Fred Smoot, and Carlos Rogers, who showed a near-miraculous recovery from a devastating knee injury last season.
Third-year player Leigh Torrence, who is coming off of an impressive rise through the depth chart last season, will be the fourth corner off the bench, and hopes to continue his steady play.
The Giants may attempt to spread out the Redskins' defense, with three and four wideouts, so the play at corner could be critical for Washington in this game.
Second-year safety LaRon Landry is looking to continue his progress at free safety after coming off of an outstanding rookie campaign.
Landry is a big hitter with a mean streak and has shown remarkable range, roaming the deep middle. Look for the Giants to test his healing hamstring early in the game with a deep shot or two.
Third-year player Reed Doughty improved his play at strong safety as last season progressed, and he has shown some improvement in his coverage skills in the preseason.
However, don’t look for the Redskins to test that improvement often. Doughty may be a liability in coverage and is much more suited to playing close to the line of scrimmage. He will play a major role in stopping the Giants' running game.
The linebackers are led by veteran tackling-machine London Fletcher in the middle. Fletcher continues to defy the odds and has shown no signs of slowing down.
Fellow veteran Marcus Washington is reportedly entering this season truly healthy for the first time since 2005, when he made the Pro Bowl.
Despite missing two games last season, third-year player Rocky McIntosh finished the season second on the team in tackles. His recovery from injury will be watched closely, but if he can return to form, the Redskins' linebacking corps could be one of the best in the league.
The Redskins' offense is itself a question mark. With Head Coach Jim Zorn comes another new offense for quarterback Jason Campbell to learn.
Zorn is likely to lean on the running game of star back Clinton Portis and standout backup Ladell Betts, with a dose or two of 280-pound fullback Mike Sellars thrown in for good measure.
The Redskins' offensive line was riddled with injuries last season and still performed well. With this group aging, second-year tackle Stephon Heyer takes over for veteran right tackle Jon Jansen, and rookie Chad Rinehart is chomping at the bit to get his shot as well.
The offensive line should be a strength, but if injuries mount again, there could be trouble. They may be tested by the Giants' pass rush, but if they can hold up and cause the Giants to use more blitzing, it would go a long way to this offense's success.
The Redskins will likely enter the game against the Giants with only four active wideouts. This shouldn’t be a concern, but it certainly creates questions.
The Redskins will still field plenty of talent. Veteran playmaker Santana Moss seems to be healthy, and if he can stay that way, he could be looking at another career year.
Veteran Antwaan Randle El could also be on his way to a career year, but both wideouts' play could depend heavily on the progress of rookies Devin Thomas and Malcolm Kelly.
Kelly is already a scratch from the lineup this week, leaving veteran James Thrash as the only experienced wideout behind the starters. This could make it difficult for Campbell to throw downfield, forcing him to look underneath more.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, with Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley and Clinton Portis coming out of the backfield. Throw rookie tight end Fred Davis in the mix, and the Redskins have the weapons with which to attack the Giants’ linebackers.
The Redskins will likely test the Giants’ defensive front seven early, with a heavy dose of the running game. This will be one of the keys to victory for both teams: run the ball and attempt to control the game early.
While the Giants have not performed well at home, they will be riding high on emotion from pregame ceremonies related to their Super Bowl victory. The Redskins may simply need to weather the storm early, keeping the game close.
If the Redskins can match the Giants’ intensity, they stand a very good chance of returning to Washington with a season-opening win for their rookie head coach.
Control the tempo of the game.
Zorn likes a fast-paced offense. If successful, the Giants’ depth on defense will be sorely tested, providing opportunities late in the game to "salt it away."
Run the ball well.
Portis needs 20 to 25 carries, with a healthy sprinkling of Betts.
Protect Jason Campbell.
Washington needs to nullify the Giants’ pass rush, whether from a blitz, or the front four.
Stop the run.
It sounds cliché, but for the Redskins, it will be critical to maintain their strong play against the run with all of the changes on the defensive line.
Provide a pass rush with the front four.
Always critical, it becomes more important for the Redskins this season with the possibility that they have sacrificed some of the ability to stop the run
Giants' Keys (ultimately identical to the Redskins)
Protect Eli Manning.
For Eli to continue his progress from last season, he will need help up front. It may take a couple of series for Eli to get into a rhythm, and the Giants’ offensive line needs to protect him will enough to enable him to do that without pressure.
Run the ball early.
Jacobs and Bradshaw can provide a dynamic one-two punch; utilizing this could go a long way toward slowing down whatever pass rush the 'Skins can provide.
Stop the Redskins' running game.
With no history from play caller Zorn, the Giants need to be prepared for anything, but if the Redskins can run the ball well, it could be a long evening for the G-Men. If the Giants can stop the run early, thereby putting pressure on Campbell to make plays, they could force mistakes and make life easier for their offense with good field position.
Create pressure on Campbell without the need to blitz.
The Giants' defensive backfield could be susceptible if the Giants need to blitz to get pressure. Kiwanuka and Tuck need to come up big.
Prevent big plays.
The Redskins are likely to “bide their time,” looking for the right opportunity for Zorn to call for Campbell to go downfield. When that happens, the Giants' defensive backs will need to show that they can hold up.
Maintain their composure.
The Giants are likely to be amped up to start the game. They will need to control that emotion and not allow it to cause mistakes and let the Redskins get too far ahead early.
This matchup is likely to come down to the last possession of the game. Over the last five games, these teams are only separated by two points. The Giants have the edge in that span, with three wins.
Eli has not played well against the Redskins overall, but the Giants' defense has been able to keep the Redskins' offense in check, keeping each game within reach.
Yet another NFC East showdown should open the 2008 regular season with a bang. Look for a hard-hitting game, with perhaps a lucky bounce here or there playing a key role for the winner.