Monday, October 25, 2010

Game Plan Monday: Defense Vs. The Giants

Last week, Sports Illustrated released the results of a poll to find the most over-rated players in the NFL according to the players. Predictably, Terrell Owens, Tony Romo, and Mark Sanchez found spots on the list for various reasons that have been pounded into the ground. And then, the polarizing figure of Eli Manning emerged.

It is impossible to imagine what we would think of the Giants QB if his name was "Steve Johnson". Eli Manning has been "Peyton's little brother" for more than a decade in the football world when people would point at Peyton and then tell you that "his little brother is going to be even better". Immediately, his bar was raised so high, that despite being one of the very few starting QBs in this league that can say they have won a Super Bowl (6), many people still automatically think that he is not as great as some claim he is.

But, Cowboys fans have learned the hard way how good he can be in certain situations. He hasn't always played great against the Cowboys, but perhaps two of his greatest performances have been in Dallas. In January of 2008, he helped take down the 13-3 #1 seed Cowboys in the playoffs with a 132 passer rating and no interceptions in a game that still makes Cowboys fans shake their heads in disgust. A few weeks later, he had his Super Bowl ring. His other amazing Dallas performance was in the new Cowboys stadium in Arlington in its very first night of operation. Once again, the Cowboys thought they could force him and pressure him into mistakes, and once again he made none with a 110 passer rating and no interceptions in a 330 yard slicing and dicing of the Cowboys secondary in a 33-31 victory that ended with Eli signing the visiting locker-room wall and spoiling Jerry's big night.

As hard as it is for some to believe, in some of the bigger head to head match-ups of their careers, Manning has out-dueled Tony Romo down in Dallas. Romo has returned the favor in New York a few times, but with the 1-0 advantage in the playoffs, and a 1-0 advantage in Super Bowl victories, Eli has some pretty big resume points that win most arguments.

QBs often lose their favorite receiver. This is a normal evolution of a career where you have to prove you can do it without your favorite target. But, seldom do they lose him to gun charges. But, Eli Manning lost Plaxico Burress to the court system, and we can only wonder if Plaxico is allowed TV privileges from his cell for a late game on Monday Night.

But, to the Giants credit, they have done a wonderful job of rebuilding their receiver group for Eli on the fly. Steve Smith and Mario Manningham both had 10 catches in their game in Arlington last season. For Manningham, it still is far and away the biggest night of his career. For Smith, it was a launching point as he is now clearly on everyone's radar as being able to have 100 yard performances. Then, in the 2009 NFL Draft, they grabbed the 5th WR in the draft, Hakeem Nicks. Nicks has quickly busted out in his 2nd year as a potential true "X" receiver. He is both strong and fast. He has been an absolute match-up issue and Kareem Jackson in Houston is still waking up with Nicks nightmares after he was targeted 17 times and actually could have had more than the 130 yards and 2 Touchdowns that he finished with. Add this receiver group to the breakaway speed that 7th rounder Ahmad Bradshaw has shown, and make no mistake, the Giants now have playmakers on their offense.


1) - Win on 1st Down - The whole defensive game plan is based on presenting Eli Manning with difficult situations. Whether you are looking at statistics or just watching the game, it is quite clear that Eli Manning (as most QBs) is far more dangerous when he controls the down and distance. 3rd and long while facing a blitz? The happy feet are there, the quick decisions are there, and a career passer rating in the mid 70s is there, too. So, it all starts on winning 1st Down. And the NFL is not winning 1st Downs against the Giants very often, where the Giants average 6.42 yards per 1st down. 2nd and 3? Well, any QB can look comfortable and in control when it is 2nd and 3. It is key to get that Marcus Spears-led run defense to set up better spots later in the sequence that we will touch on in point 4.

2) - Turn the Ball Over -Part of me hates to dwell on this every week. The other part of me realizes that this must be mentioned every week because if it is not a real point of emphasis on the team (which it must be) then at least we can make it a point of emphasis here. In the Offensive game plan, I reveal a stat that bears repeating here. Osi Umenyiora has 7 sacks and 6 forced fumbles in the last 3 weeks. DeMarcus Ware, the only Cowboy who can be depended upon to get to the QB has 0 forced fumbles on 7 sacks for the year. Traditionally, Ware forces fumbles, so this would seem to be a statistical anomaly. Nevertheless, it is not something that help this defense change this trend. There is too many good numbers from this defense that are rendered somewhat meaningless because this team lacks the big play.

Cowboys TurnoversOpponents Turnovers
GameFumbles LostINTSGiveawaysFumbles RecINTSTakeaways+/-
L @ Wash101000-1
L vs Chi1230 00-3
W @ Hou0001 23+3
L vs Ten033000-3
L @ Min022101-1

Table Tutorial

2007-Present Fewest Team Takeaways - Wade Phillips Era
30.Miami 78

HTML Tables

By the way, Washington had 6 takeaways on Sunday at Chicago. They now have 17 for the season - amongst the league leaders. So, unless the Cowboys get the ball tonight, next week, it looks like the Redskins may pass the Cowboys and the Cowboys will be dead last in the entire NFL for takeaways since 2007. It needs to change if the Cowboys are going to dig out of this hole.

3) - Stop the Explosives - While you might not have been paying attention, the defensive coaches around the league know the truth: The New York Giants have a big play offense. 32 explosives, 2nd only to San Diego (40) in the entire NFL. What makes it different than most teams in the NFL is the way they get their explosives; it is run heavy - 11 runs/ 21 passes. No one else has more than 9 running plays of 20 yards or more, and somehow the Giants have 11. Ahmad Bradshaw owns 9 of the 11 runs, and has at least one 20 yard carry in 5 of the 6 games. By the way, the Cowboys have 2 runs of 20 yards or more to compare. But, whether it is on the ground or in the air, the Giants are making a living on big plays. I know it doesn't meet with their reputation, but the numbers don't lie. And the Cowboys need to make them drive the ball down the field methodically, not with the big play. If they can limit the explosives, they will have a wonderful chance to win this mandatory game.

4) - Pressure, Pressure, Pressure - Eli Manning was sacked 8 times in December of 2008, when the Cowboys defensive line embarrassed the Giants OL and score a dominant victory. The Sacks are still not where I need them to be for this team, and the long awaited bust-out of Anthony Spencer is still a tease. He has 2 sacks, which puts him on about a 6 sack pace, and I still feel that he has 12 sack potential, but sooner or later, he is either going to have to prove it or I am going to have to lower my expectation level. But, the forefathers of football have a phrase that is shouted on the sidelines: "Pressure/picks, coverage/sacks". If you get pressure, you get picks. If you have coverage, you get sacks. That is how it is supposed to work. So, the Cowboys need to honor that idea and get to Eli Manning with numbers in pressure spots and in not so obvious spots like a nice 1st and 10 blitz from the safeties. Not to turn all pessimist here on the safety position, but if they are not going to do average to above-average work in coverage, perhaps it is time to turn the aggressiveness knob on defense, too, and get after the QB more. I know Wade Phillips will seldom blitz a DB in his scheme, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Finally, I want to encourage you to read TC Fleming's look at the Giants Zone-Running scheme . I think it is very informative.

Summary: Another big spot for this defense. They did a very nice job in Minnesota, but were not rewarded for their efforts. But, they just have to keep doing their part. Make things difficult on a confident Giants offense. Keep Hakeem Nicks (who may not be fully healthy) and Steve Smith from dominating their secondary. Get in Eli Manning's face. And for heaven's sake, turn the ball over and don't be afraid to take the ball away and score. Every weekend in this league we see teams return takeaways all the way to the house. But not this Cowboys' defense. The Cowboys last interception for a TD? Terrence Newman picked off a Jake Delhomme pass late in the 4th Quarter for a dagger defensive TD the last time the Cowboys played on Monday Night Football. Perhaps they can make it 2 in a row on Monday Night.

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