New York Giants: 20 Keys To Maintaining Control of Competitive NFC East

Stephen W.Contributor IOctober 31, 2011

New York Giants: 20 Keys To Maintaining Control of Competitive NFC East

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    The New York Giants heading into Week 9 stand in sole possession of the NFC East lead. With the other three teams in the division under them having sizable problems (the Dallas Cowboys with Tony Romo, the Redskins with injuries and Mike Shanahan’s coaching, and the Eagles with egos and closing out games), they control their own destiny.

    Sound familiar? The Giants have been in this position before: last year, after having an impressive 6-2 start to the season. However, the Giants lost games they should have won, made costly errors and also happened to tangle with a Green Bay Packers team that could not be denied. Last Sunday, the Giants won a close game 20-17 against the Miami Dolphins at MetLife Stadium, giving them a 5-2 start that closely parallels last year's.

    With the future of the season in their own hands once again, the New York Giants need to take steps to ensure that last year’s mirror image does not perfectly resemble the outcome of the current season. Let’s look at 20 keys that can make sure the Giants don’t repeat last year’s disappointment.

Keep Preventing Second-Half Points

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    When reflecting on a football team’s strengths and weaknesses, an obvious first step is to look at statistics that skew in your favor for all of your victories and against you for your losses. One that stands out for the New York Giants is the amount of points given up in the second half.

    For their two losses, they gave up 14 second-half points against the Washington Redskins and 22 against the Seattle Seahawks, an average of 18 points per game. In their four victories, they give away an average of only 10 points, and without the Arizona Cardinals victory, they average seven-and-a-half. This has been one of the major strengths of the team, and will serve them well in upcoming games.

Keep the Big Passing Play Alive

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    Going for big passing plays more often and succeeding is one of the brightest and best changes for this year’s New York Giants offense, and a major turnaround from last year’s. The Giants’ lack of a big-play offense was what let teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers push them around down the stretch, as a lead against the Giants was very easy to maintain without fear of a big-play attempt to put up a quick seven or move the ball to the red zone.

    The New York Giants have the league’s third-highest net yards per pass attempt, with nine yards per play. This big-play offense kept them close in games while generating wins against the Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins.

Keep the Turnover Ratio Positive

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    Speaking of thorns in sides, this was without question the biggest hurdle the G-men needed to overcome going into 2011. In the 2010 season, their defense finished first in takeaways with 39, and the offense finished last with 42. Behavior like that is entirely unprecedented for a team that prides itself on keeping a disciplined staff of coaches and players alike, and was the largest factor in missing the playoffs last season.

    Much of the blame lied on Eli Manning’s shoulders, and he has shaped up significantly this season as have the Giants as a whole, keeping a plus-five overall takeaway ratio and a plus-three ratio on interceptions. If the Giants keep it positive, that can only lead to victories.

Keep Exploiting the Free Touchbacks

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    Not much to say here; Steve Weatherford and the New York Giants are one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new NFL rule that moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line. The Giants need to continue taking advantage of the free touchbacks, and give their defense a chance to make plays.

Stay Disciplined: No Dumb Penalties and Unearned Points

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    You’re playing the Seattle Seahawks. You knock out Tarvaris Jackson, bring in an inexperienced second-string Charlie Whitehurst, the game is tied and you get the ball back. What do you do? Give up a safety, giving the other team a lead, the ball back and a completely undeserved momentum shift.

    Later, the Giants get a critical false-start penalty when they have a chance to win, setting up the pick-six that would later cost them the game. The Giants are 5-1 when they have fewer penalties than an opponent this season, and are ranked among the top 10 in fewest penalties. They need to continue that discipline if they want to win against better teams.

Third-Down Conversions

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    The Giants rank 25th among the NFL in third-down percentage, and although they are in company with the Baltimore Ravens, the Cincinnati Bengals and the 49ers, only one of those teams has proven to be a real contender.

    We have seen the Ravens and the Bengals lose to teams like the Jaguars and 49ers, respectively, on days when they could not get their offenses together. From what we have observed, the Giants defense has not been playing well enough for the offense to have a night off.

Eli Needs To Keep Being Elite

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    The numbers don’t lie. Eli Manning is playing elite football right now. Fourth overall in passer rating, third in average yards per pass, fewer interceptions than most quarterbacks in the league (including Brady, Brees, Vick and Roethlisberger) and in the top 10 in many other relevant categories, Eli may not be sexy, but he can throw the ball and he can lead a football team to victory.

    With every other NFC East team struggling with their quarterback in some way (Romo with consistency, Vick with injuries and Grossman/Beck with everything), Eli’s only major snafu came off the hands of Victor Cruz as he tripped on a fairly simple route, then bobbled the ball for an interception. Don’t expect many more if Eli keeps up the solid play.

Brandon Jacobs Needs To Find His Niche

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    Of the high-profile players on the New York Giants, most are playing well, and as injuries fade other stars will have a chance to shine. However, running back Brandon Jacobs is the player on the Giants who most needs a wake-up call.

    Underused? Perhaps, but Jacobs’ impact on the game is beginning to fade, and noticeably. He’s had a big play here and there, most notably a 40-yard reception against the Philadelphia Eagles, but he seems less than enthused in his role, as this video from the New York Giants official site shows him saying that he will “do what I was doing before...three, four, five carries...” Let’s hope that he makes them count.

The Rushing Defense Is Pathetic

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    The Giants have been putting up a lot of points offensively, and their passing defense came through late against the Miami Dolphins, but the rushing defense has been operating at a wholly unacceptable level.

    The lowly Miami Dolphins almost embarrassed the Giants with Reggie Bush running for over 100 yards, and Steve Slaton and Matt Moore punching in two touchdowns on their feet. They are currently ranked 23rd in rushing defense, 20th in yards per attempt, 25th in touchdowns and 27th in yards per game. The Giants must pick up the pace if they want to beat teams with a better rushing attack.

The Rushing Offense Also Needs To Improve

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    If the Giants rushing game was playing close to as well as the passing game, there would be another 6-0 team beside the Green Bay Packers. I know that’s easier said than done, but the Giants rush offense has been anemic at best. Although they rank fourth in touchdowns, many of those are one- and two-yard punch-ins.

    The power running game, the “ground-and-pound," has been missing all season, as the Giants rank among the bottom three in yards and yards per attempt. Results like this will not allow the Giants to come up with victories down the stretch, and will lead to a quick exit should the Giants make the playoffs. Manning can’t put the team on his back every week.

Perry Fewell Has To Step It Up

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    If the Giants don’t make the playoffs this year, my first man to blame would be Perry Fewell, the Giants defensive coordinator.

    When the Giants give up more than 20 points, they are 2-2. In the games in which they have given up 20 or more points, the scoring has been lumped together, with the Arizona Cardinals scoring 21 points in the second half, the Miami Dolphins scoring 14 in the first half and the Seattle Seahawks scoring 20 points in the fourth quarter.

    If the Seahawks can put up 20 points in a quarter, imagine what the Patriots and Packers could sport unless Fewell can call in some big stops.

Learn To Defend the No-Huddle

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    One of Perry Fewell’s major shortcomings this season has been his inability to protect against the no-huddle offense and other quick schemes. The St. Louis Rams and Seattle Seahawks used it to great effect in the game’s early going, putting the Giants in a hole to overcome instead of allowing the Giants to dictate the tempo. The Seahawks scored 14 points in the first quarter, and the Rams would have also made a strong impression had they not made some costly turnovers.

    Perhaps these early games can be attributed to injuries on defense to players like Terrell Thomas, Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora, but the Giants will be playing against some of the best quarterbacks in the league (and Tony Romo) in an upcoming six-game stretch. A hurry-up style can’t sink the boat if you want to beat these teams.

Don't Lose Trap Games

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    The Giants have already done it against the Seattle Seahawks. They almost did it against the Miami Dolphins. They did it once last season against a banged-up Dallas Cowboys team they already beat, and couldn’t finish against a Philadelphia Eagles team that should have at least been a coin-flip game in overtime. This season, they can’t afford to do it again.

    After defeating the Miami Dolphins, they have two more trap games coming up—one against a directionless Washington Redskins team, and I am going to go out on a bit of a limb here and say that the New York Jets are going to be out of it by Week 16 as well, being in such a competitive division and playing the way they have been. The Giants need to win these games to pad their lead.

Go 3-2 or Better in the Rough Patch

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    Although the Giants were given one of the weaker schedules this season, some of the teams that threw off the “strength of schedule” numbers have been playing better, in particular the San Francisco 49ers and the Cowboys.

    I am expecting a win against the Eagles, who they defeated already in Lincoln Financial Field. Against the Pats, 49ers, Saints and Packers, they need to split those games to maximize their chances of winning the NFC East.

Let the Redskins, Eagles and Cowboys Continue Beating Themselves

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    The Philadelphia Eagles and the Dallas Cowboys have already dug themselves into a hole, as they both possess records that betray the skill of their players and staff. The Redskins are showing their true colors, and although they started strong, are headed toward the bottom of the division and staying there.

    While the Giants can stand back and take solace in the fact that upcoming division games against each other will likely put either the Cowboys or Eagles out of contention, they cannot sleep on the victor who rises from the ashes, which will more than likely be the Philadelphia Eagles.

Stick a Fork in the Philadelphia Eagles

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    That is not to say that the Giants shouldn’t aid the process of knocking off one of their division rivals. The Giants already learned in their season-boosting 29-16 victory in Week 3 over the Eagles that they make for a strong matchup against this team.

    Their strong passing attack counters an undisciplined Eagles defense, and there is no question that Michael Vick and a shaky offensive line can succumb to pressure—and fast. With the Giants’ big hitters like Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora on the ready, they can go a long way in knocking the wind out of the Eagles’ sails. It would be sweet justice if the Eagles finish 10-6 and were looking up at the team they overcame last season.

Don't Go 0-2 to the Dallas Cowboys or Washington Redskins

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    Beating the Redskins should be simple, but that was also said about the Seahawks and Dolphins. On the other hand, we have yet to see how Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys match up against the New York Giants.

    Now, I know that Tom Coughlin can out-coach Jason Garrett any day of the week, but divisional matches are what football is all about and each of these teams could beat the other on any given day. The Giants need to step up their defense and take advantage of a weak and undisciplined Dallas offensive line to ride to victory.

Take Advantage of Recovering Players

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    The Giants had a breakthrough earlier last week as every player was healthy enough to practice for the first time all season. We have seen the impact players such as Osi Umenyiora had against the Arizona Cardinals when he provided a critical sack that helped kill any chance for a late comeback, as well as Justin Tuck, who has six tackles, an assist and a sack within three games.

    Getting some much-needed reserve action from recovering players can provide a tremendous boost for a team, and with Prince Amukamara making strides toward a debut game, the Giants need to utilize this wealth of talent against strong teams.

End the Season Strong

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    Although the Giants have to go through a rough patch against six top teams, they can take some solace in knowing that their final four games will be against some of their less difficult opponents and are mostly home games. Although they are technically “away” against the Jets, they can benefit from playing on a field they are accustomed to.

    They must win this last four series of games out, and finish strong going into the playoffs. If they can’t take solace in that, they can at least know that if they underestimate these opponents, they’ll miss the playoffs. No pressure or anything.

Keep Doing What They're Doing

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    The New York Giants combined poor decisions, costly mistakes and some good old-fashioned bad luck last year in 2010 to finish just outside of the NFC playoffs. This year they have had to overcome injuries, distance themselves from fierce competitors, beat some good teams to come up with a 5-2 start and have become one of the surprises of the 2011 NFL season.

    With a rough schedule ahead, the New York Giants, if they make the proper adjustments, can win most of their games, finish what they’ve started and make the playoffs. The way they’ve been playing, I think that we’ll see them there.