By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) As sports fans, we’ve been programmed to conclude that the best regular season team will become the eventual champion.
In 2007, it was fait accompli the 16-0 New England Patriots were going to notch their fourth championship in six years, right? Wrong. In 2011, there was no need to even have the playoffs, just let the Lombardi trophy stay in Green Bay, right? Wrong. With two Super Bowls in five seasons, the New York Giants are debunking that notion, showing that it may be the hottest team heading into the playoffs that hoists the hardware at season’s end.
Tom Coughlin is an “old school” head coach, who believes in the tenets of defense and running the football. However, Coughlin was malleable enough to adapt the identity of his 2011 Giants, in order to maximize success. After realizing his offensive line and running backs weren’t up to par, the Giants became a pass-first team, putting the onus on Eli Manning, who met the challenge, and in the process, firmly entrenched himself as a top 5 NFL quarterback.
For years, Eli lived in the shadows of older brother Peyton, but with more hardware on hand, Eli’s legacy as a truly great quarterback has been established. He is 8-3 in the playoffs (with 5 NFC road victories), and is most importantly 2-0 in the Super Bowl against Tom Brady, a quarterback many regard as the best of his generation.
The growth that Eli has made from his first playoff start – a three interception disaster against the Carolina Panthers – to now is nothing short of astounding. Eli’s biggest growth area is his poise in the pocket and keeping his eyes down the field under duress, which allows him to flash his arm strength and drive the ball deep. Having a set of wide receivers as talented as Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz certainly helped ease the transition.
The emergence of Nicks comes as no surprise. He was a first-round draft pick who showed promise from the beginning of his career, averaging 16.8 yards per catch as a rookie. Nicks is a big, athletic receiver, possessing strong hands, deceptive speed, and a willingness to fight for the ball in traffic. Cruz, on the other hand, was a revelation.
Surely, nobody expected an undrafted free-agent from UMass to be a 1,500-yard receiver, yet that’s exactly what Cruz became. He wasn’t even a starter at the beginning of the 2011 season, yet he ended the season with 25 receptions of at least 20 yards, and averaged 18.7 yards per catch. Cruz is a gifted route runner, with the unique ability to remain at full speed heading into and coming out of his breaks, and like Nicks, he also possesses the willingness to fight for the ball at it’s highest point. Cruz and Nicks form one of the deadliest 1-2 receiving combinations in the NFL.
Super Bowl-hero Mario Manningham signed as a free-agent with San Francisco, so there is a competition for the third wide receiver position. The Giants got a steal in second-round pick Rueben Randle (LSU), who will compete with veteran Domenik Hixon and Jerrel Jernigan.
The Giants do have a few areas of concern on offense this year, one of which is the running back position. They added running back David Wilson (Virginia Tech) in the first-round of the draft. Compared to the departed Brandon Jacobs – also signed by San Francisco – Wilson is a much different style of runner. Wilson was a also a track star in high school, who will give the Giants an element of outside running ability they haven’t had for years.
Incumbent Ahmad Bradshaw is a gifted inside runner, and third-down back, but has been plagued by foot and ankle injuries throughout his career, and is currently dealing with a hand injury. Wilson will get several snaps against the Bears this weekend, so this will be quite a test for the rookie runner. Can he handle the load in the event Bradshaw finds himself sidelined for a sustained period of time this season?
Tight end is another area of concern for the Giants. Jake Ballard – I’m still tormented by images of him re-tearing his ACL on the sideline field test at the Super Bowl – was claimed by New England, Travis Beckum also tore his ACL in the Super Bowl, so there is a void at the position. The Giants brought in former Cowboy Martellus Bennett, who is more of an in-line blocker that doesn’t offer much in the receiving department.
Another question mark is at left tackle, as Will Beaty is still dealing with lingering back issues. Sean Locklear will man Eli’s blind side for now, as the Giants have elected to shift David Diehl – who finished last season as the left tackle – back to right tackle. Locklear has been primarily a right tackle in his career, so in a division featuring some premier pass rushers, the Giants hope he is up to the task.
With the offensive line not being as dominant as it once was, and the Giants showing they can move the ball through the air, it’s very possible that they will be forced to run more Posse (3 WR, 1 RB, 1 TE) personnel this season.
Defensively, the Giants have an embarrassment of riches along the defensive line. In terms of putting pressure on the quarterback without needing to blitz, the Giants are the envy of the NFL. By being able to generate consistent pressure with their front four alone, the Giants are able to drop seven defenders into coverage to cover five eligible receivers, or potentially less if a team chooses to keep in tight ends and running backs to max protect. Thus, they’re able to double cover multiple receivers.
Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has freakish ability, and possesses the potential to become the most dominant pass rusher in the game. Many thought the Pierre-Paul pick was a risk given that he only played one season of major college football, and others thought it foreshadowed the departure of Osi Umenyiora. Neither turned out to be true, and the move turned out to be yet another homerun for general manager Jerry Reese. The Giants now run a front with Pierre-Paul, Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, and Mathias Kiwanuka. It’s almost not fair.
The second level of the Giants defense is dealing with some injuries to projected starters Michael Boley (hamstring), and Jacquian Williams (hip), but Williams has returned to action this week. The Giants traded a fifth-round pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for former first-round pick Keith Rivers in the offseason. Rivers hasn’t lived up to being the ninth overall pick in the draft, but his versatility to play on the outside and the middle will benefit the Giants. Boley is exceptional in coverage, which is critical to the Giants nickel package, so the hope is he will be back by the season opener.
In a span of three games last year, the Giants secondary allowed over 1,000 passing yards and 12 touchdown passes. I’m not quite sure if I would say they “gelled” at the end of the season, I think they’re proof positive that a ferocious pass rush can cover for a mediocre secondary, not the other way around.
The Giants have talent in their defensive backfield, but are dealing with some turnover. Gone is cornerback Aaron Ross (Jacksonville) and safety Deon Grant. Giants fans may feel Ross’s departure is addition by subtraction, as it allows last year’s first round draft pick Prince Amukamara to take the spot opposite Corey Webster.
Cornerback Terrell Thomas can’t seem to stay healthy, which puts the Giants in somewhat of a bind at nickel back. Last year, with Grant still in the fold, the Giants would slide the versatile Antrel Rolle in at nickel back, and pair Grant with Kenny Phillips at safety. With Grant gone, and Thomas’s injury, the Giants hope a reliable option surfaces at nickel, which would allow them to keep Rolle at safety.
The Giants do have some pieces missing from last season, but Jerry Reese has done an excellent job in the draft, so there is talent in the pipeline. Another benefit is the continuity within their coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride has remained in his post since Eli arrived, and defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has a history with Coughlin dating back to Coughlin’s time in Jacksonville.
The Giants will once again be in the hunt for the NFC Championship this season, but will have to deal with complacency, and having a target on their back. Every team wants to give the champs their best shot, but I think the Giants will be up for the challenge.
When the Bears have the ball, keep an eye on J’Marcus Webb, Gabe Carimi, and Chris Williams. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice said this is the week that the left tackle position will be won or lost, so facing the ferocious Giants defensive line is a daunting task for Webb and Williams. The last time the Bears played in New York, Jay Cutler’s eggs were scrambled at halftime, suffering a staggering nine first half sacks, which just cannot happen again.
When the Giants have the ball, keep an eye on whoever is matched up against Victor Cruz. Chances are Hakeem Nicks will sit this game out, so will the Bears match Charles Tillman exclusively on Cruz? Or will they let he and Tim Jennings both take their chances against him? Either way, Cruz will be the best receiver the Bears have seen so far this preseason.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.