By Dan Durkin
(CBS) Since arriving in New York in 2004, head coach Tom Coughlin has developed a winner. A model of consistency, with five playoff appearances, and two Super Bowl championships.
His 2013 Giants are in uncharted territory.
In 18 years as a head coach, Coughlin has never started a season 0-5. Once quarterback Eli Manning took over as the full-time starter in 2005, the Giants have never had a losing season.
They’re only two seasons removed from a Super Bowl championship with the same coordinators and largely the same collection of talent in place, yet they’re winless.
So what’s the reason for their historically bad start?
From a personnel perspective, the offensive line – which already had questionable talent – has been affected by injuries, so continuity is an issue. They’ve been unable to open holes in the running game, and have allowed the third most sacks (15) in the league.
Ball security is also a major issue. The Giants have become only the second team in NFL history to turn the ball over at least three times in each of their first five games. They lead the league in both interceptions (13) and fumbles lost (4).
If it’s even possible, Manning is trying too hard. He’s compounding already negative plays by forcing passes and taking unnecessary penalties. Historically, Manning has been known to take questionable risks when pressured, but his play this season is bordering on reckless.
Through five games, Manning has thrown a league-high 12 interceptions, and ranks 32nd in both passer efficiency rating (65.3) and completion percentage (53.7). Other than when their teams play each other, Manning should never be this close to Blaine Gabbert or Josh Freeman.
Schematically, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride prefers to run a balanced offense out of regular or “21” (2 running backs, 1 tight end) personnel, with elements of the spread, run-and-shoot passing principles, and a power running game.
The Giants running game is stalled, averaging a league-low 56 rushing yards per game. David Wilson (out – neck) has not emerged in a featured role, and Andre Brown (broken leg) is on short-term injured reserve. Brandon Jacobs was summoned from his couch just a few weeks ago and is now their featured back.
Even with Wilson, the running game lacked explosion – evidenced by no rushing-plays of 20+ yards – and has rendered them a pass-first team. Only the Falcons have a bigger disparity (122) between passing and run plays than the Giants (120).
This pass-first approach is both out of necessity and design. Their best weapons are receivers Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, and the emerging Rueben Randle. Gilbride ran the run-and-shoot back in his Houston Oilers days and has Cruz and Nicks applying the principles of in-route sight adjustments and taking what the defense gives them to get open. The Giants also like to throw the ball deep, ranking third in the league in both pass attempts of 20+ yards and air yards.
Cruz’s quickness and ability to adjust his routes to the coverage makes him the league’s top performing (and paid) slot receiver. Switched releases with Cruz and Nicks to get advantageous matchups are a staple of their offense. They also isolate Nicks as a split end where he can work against – and typically beat – single coverage.
Knowing Gilbride’s preference for base personnel, free-agent tight end Brandon Myers was a curious fit. Myers has always been a pass-catching tight end who struggles to block. With the Giants, his productivity as a receiver has been minimal and his run blocking is a liability.
Defensively, the Giants have allowed a league-high 182 points, a 36 point-per-game average. To be fair, 55 of those 182 points (30%) have come directly off of the 12 turnovers by the offense in their own territory. Any way you look at it, the Giants are playing losing football on both sides of the ball.
For years, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell’s hallmark has been getting pressure with his front four so he can run different coverage schemes with his back seven. This was a winning formula when the Giants were getting consistent pressure and had stable talent in their back seven. They’re getting neither now.
The players they’re counting on most to apply pressure – Jason Pierre-Paul, Mathias Kiwanuka, Justin Tuck – aren’t getting the job done. Through five games, the Giants have a league-low five sacks.
When you combine a poor pass rush with a secondary that has been ravaged by injuries, it’s difficult for Fewell’s matchup zone schemes – which rely on communication and cohesion – to function.
One bright spot has been the run defense. The numbers are deceiving, as teams are building early leads and piling up yards based on volume rather than gash plays. The Giants have already held two of the league’s top backs – Jamaal Charles, and LeSean McCoy – to under 65 yards.
As poorly as the edge rushers have played, the interior of the Giants defensive line has been stout. Free agents Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson have been bargains and anchors at the point of attack. Rookie Jonathan Hankins made his NFL debut last weekend, and is another quality space-eater in the defensive tackle rotation.
Linebacker has been a problem area for the Giants for a few seasons. They’re still searching for the best trio. Five different players have seen action this season, and newly acquired Jon Beason figures to quickly make his way into the mix at Mike-backer.
Spencer Paysinger has gone from special teams standout to making the calls for the defense, which is a big jump for a first-time starter. Paysinger has been on the field for nearly every snap as he’s a fixture in their nickel package along with former Bengals first-round pick Keith Rivers.
The Giants secondary is decimated. Nickelback Aaron Ross (back) is on season-ending injured reserve and their top cover corner Corey Webster (groin) has missed three straight games.
It’s now up to former first-round pick Prince Amukamara and former Bear Trumaine McBride. Amukamara is off to a decent start, but has yet to live up to his draft status. Look for the Giants to sit back in a Cover-2 shell with Antrel Rolle and Ryan Mundy keeping the top on the defense.
It goes without saying that the Giants are a desperate team with nothing to lose. They’re certainly flawed, but their record isn’t an accurate indication of what this team is capable of. They have a core of talented veterans who have been to the top, and a two-time Super Bowl MVP at quarterback, which is enough to win in this league.
They’re just a shell-shocked group that is pressing too much.
Considering they were booed at home, playing on the road may be the safest place for the Giants to play right now. But given the number of injuries they’re dealing with and a short week to prepare, winning on Thursday will be a giant task.
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