Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
03 Dec 2012
by Andy Benoit
Washington’s corners did an excellent job defending Philadelphia’s wide receivers two weeks ago and a solid job against Dallas’ wideouts on Thanksgiving. This week’s NFC East foe might pose a tougher challenge. Finally recovering from his injuries, Hakeem Nicks is coming off his most productive game since Week 2. He’s still not the Nicks we’ve come to know, but he’ll be at least a mild handful for Josh Wilson and Cedric Griffin outside.
On the inside, Victor Cruz against DeAngelo Hall is a glaring mismatch favoring the Giants. Hall has improved as a tackler in recent years and is gradually growing into his "poor man's Charles Woodson" role in the slot. But as a pure interior man-defender, he’s gotten burned by fast wideouts who have a quick wiggle. It’d be wise for the Giants to align Cruz on the strong side of the formation. That would command a one-on-one scenario against Hall because, with defensive coordinator Jim Haslett often using his inside linebackers in man-coverage on tight ends, a safety or weak inside linebacker would likely have to cross the formation in order to help double Cruz.
An alternative approach to Cruz could be defending him with Griffin and playing Hall at safety, which is an alignment the Redskins have toyed around with lately. Another alternative is for Washington to drop an outside linebacker into help-coverage against Cruz. Ryan Kerrigan and Rob Jackson have both dropped back regularly this season. Their size and strength could make it tough for Cruz to gain spacing early in his route underneath, and early in the route is when Hall has been especially vulnerable. The Redskins would be giving up some pass-rushing prowess if they dropped an outside linebacker, but that’s okay. Despite what Pollyanna broadcasters might tell you, the Redskins have a very inept pass rush. It’s highly unlikely that they’ll be able to penetrate against one of the most cohesive pass-blocking offensive lines in the league. Even if they do, Eli Manning, when he’s on his game, is too good at making throws in the face of pressure for it to matter.
What’s clear is that when Manning does throw, Cruz and Nicks (and maybe Rueben Randle) will be the targets. Tight end Martellus Bennett has tailed off considerably after a hot September. He doesn’t begin to have the route-running refinement to shake free from London Fletcher, who is having a Pro Bowl-caliber campaign as a pass defender.
Back when the Redskins were 3-6 and evaluating players for the future, it was looking like they would shut down wide receiver Pierre Garcon. The $20 million free agent pickup missed six games between Weeks 2 and 9 with foot problems. He unexpectedly returned to the lineup in Week 11 and the Redskins haven’t lost since. We were all reminded of the much-needed catch-and-run spark Garcon gives this offense when he turned an inaccurate Robert Griffin slant throw into a 59-yard touchdown at Dallas. Garcon’s physical strength as a ball-handler between the numbers is a perfect fit in Washington’s system.
Garcon missed the first matchup with the Giants back in Week 7. In that game, Griffin made several spectacular individual plays down the stretch, but they weren’t quite enough to overcome the deficit that was set up, in part, by mistakes that his receivers made earlier in the contest. In order to keep eyes on Griffin, the Giants occasionally rushed three and dropped eight into zone coverage. That’s a tactic they’ll likely use again -– the question is which defensive package they'll use to do it.
When safety Kenny Phillips returned to the lineup last week, the Giants kept his replacement, rising third-year pro Stevie Brown, in the starting unit and slid free safety Antrel Rolle to the slot. This three safety look, known as their "big nickel package," is what the Giants rode to the Super Bowl last year. Unfortunately, Phillips re-aggravated his knee injury in the second half. When he left, Rolle stayed in the slot and Tyler Sash went to free safety. That may have just been a temporary tactic aimed at maintaining the gameplan. If the Giants really liked Sash at free safety in their big nickel, they would have played him there when Phillips was shelved earlier in the season.
Instead, the Giants had been using a standard nickel defense with Rolle back at safety and third-round rookie Jayron Hosley in the slot. Hosley has been solid in this spot, contributing against the run and getting pressure on the occasional blitz. That said, he doesn’t give New York as much flexibility in the box as Rolle does.
This game probably won’t be decided by the Giants’ nickel packages, though. Much of Washington’s offense comes out of base personnel. That’s where they run the toss sweeps to Alfred Morris -– something the Giants, like most of Washington’s opponents, had trouble stopping in Week 7. Also, in base sets, Griffin’s play-action and read-option fakes are more believable. The objective of the play-action is usually to fool the linebackers and safeties. With the read-option, the objective includes manipulating the defensive end. The Redskins usually run read options to Griffin’s left. Don’t be surprised if they shy away from this Monday, though, given that Jason Pierre-Paul is one of the few defensive ends who can make stops even when he guesses wrong.
4 comments, Last at 06 Dec 2012, 3:06pm by justanothersteve