The Giants come to town on Sunday for a big NFC East showdown with the Eagles. The Cowboys, Eagles and Giants all have two losses so far. The loser of this game will drop back and then Dallas comes to town next week for another big game.
While New York and Philadelphia have good records, neither team is playing well right now. The teams are a combined 1-3 in the last two weeks. The lone win was the Eagles' victory on Monday night, hardly a shining example of good football.
The team that snaps out of their funk the fastest will get a leg up on winning the division. Obviously, we all want this to be the Eagles. The team started off great on Monday before bogging down. That gives me some confidence. The coaches and players can look at the first quarter and see what worked. The offense was crisp and explosive.
Things would be a lot easier if we knew that Brian Westbrook would play. He suffered a nasty concussion last week and is going to be a gametime decision. That means the offense can't count on him. They've got to build a gameplan for the other players.
The Eagles won two of the three meetings with New York last season. The wins were interesting. In the regular season, the Eagles really fed the ball to Westbrook and the tight ends. The game was played on a cold, windy afternoon so that made perfect sense. Wide receivers only caught a handful of passes. DeSean Jackson didn't have a catch. The rematch in the playoffs was different. The Giants limited Westbrook's effectiveness and Donovan McNabb completed 12 passes to his wideouts.
Both games featured a short, safe passing attack. McNabb executed the attack very well. He was calm in the pocket and accurate with his throws. He came up big on third downs, helping us to convert 19-of-32 attempts. The skill players also had a huge hand in this. One of the keys to moving the ball effectively when you play ""small ball"" is getting yards after the catch. Running backs, tight ends and wide receivers all came through in this department.
The pass protection was also outstanding. McNabb threw 70 passes in those games, but wasn't sacked once. I remembered the line doing a good job, but was surprised to read that stat. I double-checked to make sure it was accurate. Not only did the line block well, but the coaches had a smart gameplan. They mixed in extra blockers. They focused on shorter pass routes. McNabb helped himself by getting the ball out quickly.
I'm interested to see what each coaching staff does this time around. The Eagles would be wise to have a similar plan, but the Giants will know that. The Giants need to get pressure on McNabb. If the defensive line can't do that, they'll have to blitz aggressively. The Giants also must tackle well to limit yards after the catch.
There are two main keys for the Eagles. The offensive line must control the line of scrimmage and McNabb must play well. That may seem like I'm oversimplifying things, but really those are the factors that decide games like this.
The line must create some running lanes so that the ground game is at least effective. That eases the pressure on McNabb and opens up some passing lanes. Misdirection plays and outside runs weren't very successful last year because of the Giants attacking style of defense. Look for more straight-ahead power running. Hit a seam and you might come up with a good gain.
Pass protection will be crucial. Left tackle Jason Peters will have his hands full with Osi Umenyiora. Peters is a high-quality blocker, but pure speed rushers are not his strength. I'm sure the coaches will have tight ends and backs chip on Umenyiora to slow him down. Right tackle Winston Justice has the very tough assignment of handling Justin Tuck. Umenyiora has the bigger reputation, but Tuck is the better player. He can beat you with quickness, power, and skill. He can line up on either side or at defensive tackle. Justice will face him most of the time. Justice has greatly exceeded my expectations this year. Sunday will be his biggest test. Control Tuck and we've got a chance to win.
McNabb must be on time and on target with his throws. He's got to be calm and confident in the pocket. He has the weapons to move the ball and win this game, even if Westbrook isn't able to go. Jackson is emerging as a great receiver. Jeremy Maclin seems to get better each week. I didn't see him replacing Kevin Curtis this smoothly or quickly. Brent Celek leads the team in catches and should be a key weapon in this game. Slot receiver Jason Avant is due for a big game. He matches up well with the Giants defensive backs. McNabb doesn't have to win the game by himself. He needs to get the ball to his playmakers.
LeSean McCoy could very well start at running back. We need him to be ready. The biggest test will be how he handles pass protection. McCoy gave up a sack on Monday night with a sloppy block. The Giants are good blitzers. McCoy must know who to block and he must make the block. I'm not too worried about his running. I know some fans have concerns. McCoy only averages 3.7 yards per rush. He only has one touchdown and his long run is just 15 yards. These numbers will improve. Right now he's thinking too much and not being instinctive. McCoy is very gifted. The more experience he gets, the more natural he will start to play. That's when you'll see his natural ability really start to shine. Better line play will also help matters.
The Eagles defense gave up 36 points to the Giants in the first meeting last year. In the two subsequent games the Giants scored a total of 25 points, with seven coming on the return of a blocked field goal. Another seven came against a prevent defense late in the game. That sounds great, but we have to look inside the numbers.
I mentioned earlier that the weather in those games was cold and windy. That really affected Eli Manning. He only completed 28 passes in those two games combined. Manning has a solid arm, but isn't strong enough to drive the ball through heavy wind on a regular basis. He also was hurt by drops in each of the games. Sunday isn't projected to be a bitter, windy day. That means that Manning will likely be more effective as a passer. The Eagles can't count on the Giants offense struggling the way it did last year in the two losses.
The Eagle defense certainly did have something to do with those problems. The defensive line played well against the run. The pass rush was OK, but inconsistent. Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley was the leading tackler in each game and really keyed the defense. We will miss him. Will Witherspoon was great on Monday night. He'll need to come up big. Witherspoon must fight to get off blocks and to the ball. Akeem Jordan's primary task will be to take on fullback Madison Hedgecock and limit his effectiveness as the lead blocker. Running back Brandon Jacobs isn't nearly as effective when the guy in front of him gets stuffed by a linebacker. Chris Gocong has to help by setting the edge and forcing plays to stay inside or bounce way outside. Tackling is also critical. Stopping Jacobs takes multiple defenders. We must swarm to the ball.
Joining Jacobs in the backfield this year is Ahmad Bradshaw. He was the No. 3 runner last year. He's now got the backup job and is having a good season. He is quick and elusive, but also runs hard. Bradshaw isn't strong in pass protection. You can bet the Eagles will test him with a variety of looks and blitzers.
The key member of the secondary is Quintin Mikell. He has to help in coverage, but must fly up in run support when he sees run action. This gets tricky when the Giants use play-action passes. Mikell must read his keys and make sure he's coming up on run plays. The Giants have really improved their downfield passing attack. Manning is throwing the ball well right now and receivers Steve Smith and Hakeem Nicks are both having good seasons.
Both teams have solid kicking games and good returners. Domenik Hixon has given a major boost to the Giants return game since he took the job back from Sinorice Moss. The Eagles must contain Hixon.
Initially, I was very nervous about this game. They have lost two games in a row and that makes them a desperate team. One rule in the NFL is that you never want to play desperate teams. The more I think about this game, the more excited I am to see what happens.
Keys To The Game
Score Touchdowns –This game could be decided by a field goal, but you want to make sure and score touchdowns when you get the chance. Points should be at a premium and it will be critical to get into the end zone instead of just kicking field goals.
Protect – McNabb needs his blockers to give him time to throw the ball. That doesn't mean McNabb expects several seconds each time he drops back. There will be plays where he just needs a blocker to buy him half a second of time so that he can get the ball to an outlet receiver.
Balance – The coaches must stick with the running game, no matter what. In the playoffs last year, Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter had 23 carries for 43 yards. Those are lousy numbers, but it was important for the coaches to continue trying to run it so that the Giants couldn't constantly come after McNabb.
Third Downs – I mentioned earlier how successful the Eagles were on third downs in last year's wins. You need to sustain drives for a couple of reasons. The obvious one is so that you can march down and score points. You also want to keep the Giants offense on the sideline as spectators. That can cause them to get away from their running attack.
Pressure –We must get to Manning, whether blitzing or just bringing the front four. Manning hates to be sacked and will take chances with his throws. Asante Samuel picked off a pass in the playoff meeting and ran it back deep into Giants territory. That came on a bad throw where Manning had some pressure on him. I'll take interceptions over sacks any day of the week.
The Eagles put Omar Gaither on injured reserve this week and signed running back P.J. Hill from the Saints practice squad. This is an interesting move. Hill is about 220 pounds, making him our biggest running back. He's mainly a north-south power runner. He does have good lateral agility and is more nimble than you might expect. I was pleasantly surprised by this addition.
Hill is the kind of running back this team could use. Don't expect him to get a lot of work any time soon, but think about how Kyle Eckel helped the team last year when he was added to the roster. There is a spot on the team for a player with Hill's skill set. Now it is up to him to learn enough of the playbook so that the coaches are comfortable and it is up to the coaches to find ways to use hm. I would love to see Hill play some in the fourth quarter of a game where the Eagles are leading. Hill is the kind of tough, power runner that should thrive late in the game when the other team is worn down.