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One of the big questions coming in to the Monday Night Football game against the Browns (10/13) was whether the Giants truly were the best team in the NFL, since they were one of the two remaining undefeated teams and they were the defending Super Bowl Champions. A win, many speculated would guarantee that they’d be seen as the best team in the NFL.
They defeated the second place Redskins, destroyed St. Louis so badly that three of their running backs had notable fantasy football days, beat Cincy, and then destroyed Seattle with a very varied passing attack, despite not having Plaxico Burress. Even David Carr was able to get in on the fun and look like a competent quarterback. Surely a win against the Browns would mean that they’re the best, right?
Well that’s where I disagree. First, I think we should consider their opponents. Cleveland, Cincinatti, St. Louis and Seattle are all deeply flawed teams that have not had two games of looking like they could compete on anything more than the college level. And it’s fair to say that the Thursday start for the Redskins might be the excuse for why they looked really bad against the Giants. Then the Giants would face San Francisco before coming up against some real competition in Pittsburgh. So certainly their record for the first 7 weeks is the product of mostly weak competition.
The Giants offense has really evolved under the helm of Jerry Reese. Eli Manning has matured into a capable NFL QB who rarely shows us the Eli face anymore. He has gotten better about overthrowing receivers and smarter about realizing how much time he has to get rid of the ball. Part of that comes from the next strength of the Giants: The offensive line.
Diehl, Seubert, O’Hara, Snee and McKenzie have worked together on the O-line for a few years and do a very good job, especially with the run game. The Giants have three very good running backs for a reason. After Monday, the Giants had only allowed 6 sacks on the season, tied for third. Some of that low number is due to the subpar opposition, but they still have a very solid pass defense in place.
Having three very good running backs allows the Giants to mix and match based on opponents and formations. It also allows them to keep the personnel fresh. Brandon Jacobs will get the majority of the workload, but Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw get mixed in. Bradshaw has seen the majority of his work in the fourth quarter his season, but made the most of it. And in case of injury, the Giants certainly don’t have to lessen the amount of running they do.
At wide receiver the Giants have a plethora of options, to the point that Mario Manningham isn’t active most weeks. Plaxico Burress is the main target and his height and speed allow him to burn most cornerbacks for solid numbers. Amani Toomer is a possession type receiver, but he still does his job very well and can still toe the out of bounds line with the best.
The main two backup receivers are Steve Smith (not the one from Carolina) and Domenik Hixon. Smith is a route runner and does his job well and has a solid future ahead of him. Hixon is a very good receiver who seems to have copied the genes from Brandon Jacobs for how to not go down during the first five tackle attempts. These four make for a solid receiving corps that also has Sinorice Moss as a fifth option.
At tight end is probably the Giants’ biggest weakness on offense, Kevin Boss. He does a pretty good job blocking, but in the passing game, he has not become the option that Jeremy Shockey was.
Finally, at fullback, Madison Hedgecock, signed after being released by St. Louis before the 2007-2008 season, is a very good run blocker who also is part of the Giants’ running success.
The Giants lost Michael Strahan to retirement and Osi Umenyiora to surgery, forcing Mathias Kiwanuka to right end. Despite the holes, the defensive line has still done a pretty good job. Justin Tuck has shown he deserved his big extension that he received after the Super Bowl. Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins do a solid, but not exceptional job on the inside with run defense.
However, the depth of the line is not that good, which means an injury or even necessary breather can weaken the line a lot. Dave Tollefson has done a pretty good job as a backup DE, but Jay Alford, Renaldo Wynn and Jerome McDougle have left a lot to be desired. Kiwanuka’s move back to DE has left the LB corps pretty thin.
Antonio Pierce is starting to show his age a little, though he has calmed down from some of the dumb penalties he made last year. Gerris Wilkinson is an alright weakside linebacker, but nothing great. Danny Clark has not impressed me much. I suspect teams try and throw a lot of short passes up the middle his way. Kawika Mitchell and Reggie Torbor, these two are not.
Chase Blackburn is a pretty good backup MLB who won’t be too exposed in the short term, but if needed to replace Pierce for the whole season, he would be shown to be below average. Zak DeOssie is a filler backup OLB. Bryan Kehl was one of the Giants draft picks and is the other backup OLB. Unfortunately, I have not seen much of him, so I cannot give a valid opinion of the talent he has.
In the backfield, the Giants have the oddest mix. Very good safeties and mediocre cornerbacks. Aaron Ross showed last week he is exploitable and can let himself be taken out of a game. Corey Webster is alright, but if forced to cover a #1 receiving option as opposed to a #2, he will fail a little bit more. Backing them up are Kevin Dockery and Sam Madison. Madison is a solid backup who has experience to know what his limits are and not try to be too fancy. Dockery has shown both the ability to be exceptional and be exceptionally bad. You’d rather not have to start him for a full game against a very good #1 or #2 receiver.
At safety the Giants have James Butler and Michael Johnson with Sammy Knight and rookie Kenny Phillips backing them up. Butler is a solid tackler. Michael Johnson has gotten more involved in pass defense this year and has improved at that. Kenny Phillips is the Giants highly raved about first round pick who impressed in training camp, but the Giants felt it was better to slowly bring him into the NFL, rather than push him out as a starter right away and let his confidence take a hit if he made a major mistake early. Sammy Knight is a decent 4th safety option, though not much better than R.W. McQuarters. Still, it’s good to have decent depth rather than Cincinnati Bengals-style depth.
Overall, the defense is strong on the line and at safety, but elsewhere has been more easy to exploit than last year. This is not the solid defense from last year and is probably overall a league average group.
Finally, there is special teams. John Carney has been the kicker thus far and he does a much better job with accuracy than Lawrence Tynes, however Tynes has the stronger leg (and apparently a larger mouth). Jeff Feagles is back yet again to punt. He does a pretty good job with punt placement, though he’s no longer in his prime. The Giants offense has kept him from having many chances to shine this year, though. That’s a good thing since you’d rather score points than make nice punts.
Domenik Hixon does most of the punt returning, and as mentioned before, is pretty hard to tackle. Ahmad Bradshaw has not been so stellar with the kickoff returns, but he doesn’t do anything dumb, either. He hasn’t broken off any runs like last year, so it may also be a worse group of blockers around him. David Tyree, who does a wonderful job on special teams, has been hurt and may be one reason why this has been an average special teams group.
So overall, when you add up a good offense, average defense and average special teams group with a weak schedule, you do not get the best team in the league. I’m quite positive Pittsburgh is going to beat the Giants (like the Browns did). They execute well and have solid talent with few weaknesses. That’s the sort of team that is likely to be better than the G-Men.
Addendum after Sunday’s 49ers-Giants game: I think this game furthers my point. The 49ers turned over the ball three times, the Giants didn’t at all, and yet the margin of victory was just 12 points. The Giants controlled the ball for more than half of the game. Eli never really got into a sync with the receivers, Aaron Ross massively underplayed his talent level, the Giants barely had over 100 rushing yards as a team, and they had a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown. Would a team that is best in the NFL perform that poorly against the 49ers? Not at all. The Giants will compete for a playoff spot, but they will certainly not finish with the best record.