Finally, we get the first huge game of the 2009 season. On Sunday night, the Eagles have a chance to really help themselves and bury the New York Giants at the same time. This is really a big opportunity.
The win would make the Eagles 9-4 and keep us atop the NFC East. We'd be five games above .500 for the first time since the Super Bowl season of 2004. Our conference record would improve to 8-2 and our division record to 4-1. Those could prove to be tiebreakers depending on how things shake out.
The loss for the Giants would drop them to 7-6 and keep them behind us, Dallas and Green Bay. The loss would make their conference record just 5-4, which could be a big problem in tiebreaker situations. The Giants close at Washington, against Carolina and at Minnesota. The Redskins and Panthers aren't great teams, but can be tough to play. We have no idea what will happen on the final Sunday. Minnesota could be resting starters or fighting for a playoff seed.
Let's talk about the Giants for a minute. They beat Dallas last week. That was a crucial game for New York. They needed to keep pace with the Cowboys and us. There has been a lot of talk this week about whether that win will turn around the Giants season. Did they right the ship, so to speak? I don't think so. I saw plenty of problems on both offense and defense. That game told me more about Dallas than our rivals from Gotham. I still don't see the Giants team that can win the battle up front and pound you all game long on both sides of the ball.
The Giants scored 31 points, but it wasn't due to a good offense. Eli Manning was only 11-of-25 passing. The Giants could not sustain drives. They only ran 49 plays in the whole game. That is 15-to-20 below normal. As for the scoring, look at the touchdowns:
- 4 plays, 74 yards
- 4 plays, 28 yards (short drive after a fumble recovery)
- 1 play, 74 yards (screen pass turned into a big play)
- 79-yard punt return
As you can see, only one of the scores came on a long drive, but even that was only four plays. Why is that a big deal? That isn't Giants football. They still believe in running the ball, controlling the clock and getting big plays out of the passing game. Giants running backs only had 20 carries in the game. The Giants cannot count on getting those kinds of big plays in other games. You want to have success in the NFL in a certain style so that you can duplicate it the next week. And then you can do it again the following week. The Giants really struggled on offense in the previous game at Denver. They didn't have big plays bail them out that week and they lost.
The Giants defense has had issues since about mid-October. Coordinator Bill Sheridan decided to make some changes last week. He put Osi Umenyiora on the bench and made Matthias Kiwanuka the starter at right defensive end. Chris Canty took over as a starting defensive tackle. C.C. Brown was benched at safety. Jonathan Goff was made the starting middle linebacker. The changes worked, to a certain extent. The defense played better, but still gave up more than 400 yards and 24 points. The defense is just not strong in the middle of the field. Losing Kenny Phillips at safety really hurt the Giants.
Sheridan also made some schematic adjustments. The Giants used a lot of "stemming." That is when they have defensive players moving around prior to the snap in order to confuse blockers. The Giants took that a step farther by having most guys standing up right so that blockers wouldn't know who was rushing and who was dropping into coverage. Sheridan saw some other teams using this effectively against Dallas and decided to "borrow" the idea. The players liked it so I'm sure we'll see some of it. The good news is that we can study the tape to see tendencies and try to get a feel for it. Plus, we've faced that kind of stemming before. We just haven't seen it from the Giants.
The other thing Sheridan did was to try and keep his safeties back as much as possible. He played a lot of Cover 2. That opened up the middle of the field. Cowboys tight end Jason Witten had 14 catches in the game. I'm sure we'll target Brent Celek a little more than usual if the Giants are going to be vulnerable in that area. Some of those throws could also go to Jason Avant. He is the master of working the middle. The Giants' goal is to keep everything in front of them so that the safeties can then come up and make the tackle. That's great in theory, but you need guys that run really well so they can close on the ball. The Giants' plan worked well enough last week. Dallas had to earn touchdowns. Their longest play was just 32 yards.
We have DeSean Jackson returning this week. That is important. He can push the safeties deep with his speed and then open up big voids underneath. Celek would have room to work. Crossing routes to Jeremy Maclin and Avant can be very effective. Passes to the running backs can turn into big plays. The key to all of this is Donovan McNabb having enough time to throw.
The Giants blitz attack didn't get a bunch of sacks last week, but it did keep Tony Romo under pressure. He had to dodge bodies left and right. He got hit quite a few times. Since the 12-sack debacle of 2007, the Eagles made protection a focal point of game plans against the Giants. It's worked as they only have two sacks in the last four meetings combined. I expect this week to be no different. I think we'll be OK if Jason Peters can stay healthy and we have stability on the offensive line. I am a bit nervous about their blitzes. We need LeSean McCoy and Leonard Weaver to block well and keep McNabb clean. We also need McNabb to be careful about holding the ball too long.
One of the benefits of Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg being nervous about the Giants' pass rush is that it causes them to run the ball more than usual. We had some big plays in the first game. Both Weaver and McCoy had long touchdown runs. You can bet that the Giants will want to shut them down. We don't need a repeat of the long scoring runs, but it would be nice if we could have some success on the ground. Our run blocking has been good in the last month or so. We've had success in the past at spreading the Giants out and running on them. I hope we mix in some three-receiver sets and feed the ball to McCoy. He's very good in that look.
We have now beaten the Giants three straight games, including the Divisional Round of last year's playoffs. We're the better team going into this game, something you may not have comfortably said in the previous meetings. As long as we stay focused and avoid huge mistakes, I like our chances. The Giants have too much talent and character to go down quietly in a game like this. We might be better, but they're at home and they're desperate. That makes them dangerous.