Saturday, September 27, 2008

Big Blue, the Bye and the Beast, Pt. II: The Focus

(To read Part I, click here.)

The Giants' early season success this year has followed the same formula as their post-season success last year: playing tough, playing as a team, and taking care of the football. It has also helped that they haven't had to play the Bucs, Cowboys and Packers in the first three weeks, but by and large the Giants are winning games because they have the winning intangibles to go along with their tremendous talent.

Perhaps most significant of these intangibles is what I'll call a champion's attitude: confidence, swagger, and mental toughness. This attitude has jumped out at me this season as it seems to permeate into every facet of their play. I get the impression that not only do the G-men believe they can win any game they play, but that they also know what it takes to prepare and perform at a level necessary to do so. Winning the Super Bowl will do that for you...

One aspect of that attitude is playing one game at a time, and trying to elevate your game each and every week. Champions don't just settle for playing better than the other team, they strive to play better than they did the week before. The Giants' showed a marked improvement across the board from Week 1 to Week 2. Granted, it helped that they were playing the Rams, but still they had issues that needed work in the first game, and they corrected them in the second.

Week 3 was a different story, as the Giants played what was clearly not their best football against a struggling Cincinnati Bengals team. The offense struggled to get into the end zone and could not establish the run; the defense let the Bengals march down the field multiple times and gave up too many third down conversions. Part of this was execution and part of it scheme.

After a narrow escape in Week 3, I think the early bye comes at an opportune time for the defending champs to reflect and correct what is necessary. On the one hand, it's troublesome because it leaves a long, punising 13 week stretch to close out the season (though I think that provides all the more reason to push for that Division Title and 1st round bye), but on the other hand, it allows Big Blue to refocus as their season enters the next phase. The competition is going to get tougher, much tougher, and the Giants need to refocus in order to continue their success.

As Big Blue enters the next phase of their season, improvements in the following four areas will be critical to their continued success:

  • Offensive play-calling: One thing is clear about the Giants offense through 3 games - they've got more weapons than they know what to do with...literally. With 3 starter-quality running backs and a six-pack of talented receivers, the Giants have still struggled at times to produce offensively or put touch downs on the board. This is not necessarily for lack of execution, but rather poor play calling. When it's first and goal to go and you don't try running the ball when you've been running wild all day, that's a problem; when Brandon Jacobs is shut down by 9 guys in the box and you don't pass the ball, that's a problem; when you don't utilize the youth and speed at the bottom of the receiving corps when the same old thing isn't working with the 1 & 2 guys, that's a problem.

Giants Offensive Coordinator Kevin Gilbride
  • Prognosis: Say what you will about OC Kevin Gilbride, but Eli Manning is very comfortable with him, and he did help win the Giants a championship. Perhaps he is too limited in how he thinks to attack the opposing team: a 1-2 RB punch; there's a depth chart at wide receiver for a reason, etc; but I think that unless the Giants are posting 24 points or more a game and getting the ball in the end zone on consistent basis, Tom Coughlin and the New York media will not let it sit. Gilbride's still feeling out the offense much like the players are still feeling each other out. Things will click eventually...Perhaps a Burress-less offense in Week 5 will give the OC a chance to experiment a little bit more.
  • Green zone efficiency: The Giants are 5 for 11 in trips to the "Green zone" this season, around 45%. This number needs to improve, and as the play-calling becomes more developed and diversified, it should. The Giants drive the ball very well. If they start coming away with 7's instead of 3's at the ends of their drives, look out.
  • Forcing turnovers: The Giants have only forced one turnover through three games. As pretty as Justin Tuck's "pick 6" was, the defense will have to do a lot more as the competition picks up. The Giants have taken care of the football so far, allowing only one turnover themselves, which has helped minimize this shortcoming, but the G-men can't count on that the rest of the season (though it would be awesome). A number of players in the secondary have come close to picking passes off, and during the bye week, it's been a point of emphasis at practice. Steve Spaguolo's says turnovers come in spurts. Hopefully the Giants can start a streak on Sunday against the Seahawks.
  • Improving 3rd down efficiency on defense: Finally, the Giant defense will have to improve on third down percentage, where they have allowed opponents a 37% conversion rate so far this season. This number jumped considerably after the Bengals converted 59% of their third downs in Week 3, and it should settle back down in the coming weeks. The defensive game plan against Cincinnati was perhaps more responsible for this figure than any lack of execution. The Giants were playing deep and concentrating on the Bengals pro-bowl wide outs. This left some holes that the Bengals were able to exploit, and I think the Spags and company will make the necessary adjustments.
With much to work on, the early bye week could stand to be of great help to the Giants. As I've mentioned, I look at this season in stages, with Stage 1 obviously being the 3 games before the bye. Stage 2 consists of 4 games, starting with Seattle in Week 5 and finishing with Pittsburgh in Week 8. The level of competition in Stage 2 goes up a notch, but it builds gradually each week. This phase presents the opportunity for the Giants to continue to gradually improve each week, and win football games. All four match-ups in Stage 2 are winnable ones, and having a 6-1 or 7-0 record before a brutal 9 game stretch that features 5 divisional games would be a tremendous advantage for the Giants.

That brings me to my final point: The NFC East is far and away the best division in the NFL right now, with all four teams capable of earning a playoff spot. After Week 4, the Giants find themselves in sole possession of first after the resurgent Redskins upset the Cowboys. The Eagles also lost to the Bears in a close game to fall to 2-2. This early lead is not something the Giants can afford to take lightly, and it makes each of the games in Stage 2 all the more critical.

If the Giants can protect this lead, however slim, it will be to their benefit and have major implications for the playoffs in this tight division. The Cowboys are combusting and the Eagles are beat up. Philly will have to play the Redskins in Week 5, who then have a lighter load the following two weeks. If the Giants can get back on track and make the necessary adjustments in the coming weeks, they should be able to stay on top of the heap.

It will all come down to sustaining that champion's attitude, constantly improving, and taking it one game at a time.

Stage 2 starts Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks.

... ...

Please leave your comments! I like hearing from readers. Also, you can now subscribe to Giants' Steps via e-mail using the subscription feature on the left side, below the Shot of the Week.

Stay tuned!

- Will

No comments: