What do you call a fifth-round rookie WR with real expectations? Tajae Sharpe, and there may not be another player like him in NFL history. Tennessee's poor history of developing wideouts has led to a rare opportunity that Sharpe can seize this season.
28 Jan 2008
by Bill Moore
Before it became the game that launched a Super Bowl contender, the Week 17 game in the Meadowlands was completely meaningless for the Giants and solely for posterity's sake for the Patriots. The Giants, a 4-3 team since their bye week, were struggling to maintain a reputation as a playoff contender. Eli Manning had a 45 percent completion rate with four touchdowns and eight interceptions in his previous five games. Still, their playoff seed was locked up and a large contingency of Giants fans (as well as media figures) felt the best use of the players' energies was resting on the bench. Interest in the game by New York fans was minimal. Patriot fans were lining the Cross Bronx Expressway with tickets in hand they bought from New York season ticket holders on eBay. In fact, the hottest show in New Jersey that day was not even the football game, but rather the Hannah Montana show down the road. The common view, which is ironic with 20/20 hindsight, was the Giants could either play a game to stop history, or rest to win a playoff game. The fact that they had a chance at both was apparently implausible.
Tom Coughlin had other ideas. The much-maligned coach reminded anyone who would listen, "we will do what is best for our football team," and that meant play all out. As a show of dedication towards winning, wide receiver Plaxico Burress participated in practice despite his sore ankle for only the third time all year. The Giants treated this like a playoff game. Or did they?
New York did play an emotional game against the Patriots, but it was also a pressure-free encounter. Even Tom Coughlin acknowledged that by telling his players beforehand, "we have absolutely everything to gain, and absolutely nothing to lose."
The Patriots also had something to play for -- the record books -- but did not treat this game with 100 percent gravity either. The game was on a Saturday, leaving the team with a short week to prepare, but players still had both Monday and Tuesday off, and only one day of regular practice. The organization announced their departure time for New York for the first time all season, and players were seen joking around recording the trip on video cameras. They had a few goals for the week 17 game: set the record for most points scored, set the record for touchdowns by a team, set the record for touchdown passes by a quarterback, set the record for touchdown catches by a receiver, and, oh yes, win to accomplish an undefeated regular season. All those things are important, but this wasn't a playoff game for the Patriots either.
It wasn't the Super Bowl, but it's worth looking back (way, way back) to Week 17 to analyze what happened in the surprising Super Bowl preview.
Both teams attacked this game with a passing focus, but potentially for different reasons. The Patriots' weak link is unquestionably their secondary. Ellis Hobbs is in his third season, but he has not made major strides in coverage. Opposing quarterbacks often target Hobbs' side of the field. Asante Samuel made a name for himsel last year, leading the league in interceptions and proclaiming himself the best cornerback in the league. However, the Giants were well aware of Samuel's over-aggressiveness and eagerness to jump routes. In the safety position, Rodney Harrison is more of a rusher/run-stopper than coverage safety, and James Sanders (drafted one round after Hobbs) has matured into a capable safety, but can only do so much. The media consensus going into the game was that Giants would use their two-headed running attack to wear the Patriots down, but it was clearly the Patriots secondary that was the pre-game target.
On offense, the Patriots spread it out. The matchup of New England's multiple offensive weapons against the Giants' relatively ordinary secondary wasn't the only reason to spread the field. The Giants upfront rush was the biggest threat to the Patriots, and by spreading it out with three, four, or five receivers, they can force potential rushers to occupy themselves with coverage assignments. Nineteen times during the game, the Patriots used tight end Ben Watson in a standing position as a receiver. Almost 50 percent of their passing plays were from four- or five-wide sets (often including Watson as one of those receivers). In fact, 55 percent of all their rushing plays were run out of three- or more-receiver sets, compared to only 11 percent by the Giants. Part of this was personnel-related. Three integral elements of the Patriots rushing game were missing in Week 17: The entire right side of the offensive line, Nick Kaczur and Stephen Neal, as well as tight end Kyle Brady, a blocking specialist, were all inactive.
From a defensive perspective, the Giants were focused on getting pressure on Brady right from the get-go. They pressured him much like Philadelphia had done weeks earlier, and sacked him twice (including one negated by an illegal contact call), but the pressure was not particularly effective. On almost every play in which the Giants blitzed from the slot, New England hit the hot route. The Patriots scored on each of their four possessions of the first half; however, the Giants secondary coverage was successful at making the Patriots settle for field goals early on. That is what kept the game close. The Patriots, on the other hand, were more keyed on dropping guys into the secondary, and only turned on the rush late in the third quarter when they took the eventual lead. The fact that Eli Manning was so effective surely surprised the Patriots, and the in-game adjustment proved to rattle him. The Giants scored touchdowns on four of their first six possessions, giving them a twelve-point lead with nine minutes to go in the third quarter. Yet the next three possessions resulted in a punt, a punt, an interception, and 21 straight points by the Patriots offense.
On to the game, drive by drive:
Giants' first possession
Began: First quarter, 15:00, NYG 26.
Length: 4:01, 7 plays, 74 yards.
Result: Touchdown: Giants 7, Patriots 0.
Sore ankle or no sore ankle, practice makes perfect, and Plaxico Burress was the key to this Giants drive. The Giants started off running Jacobs with great pushes by tackle Kareem McKenzie (on Junior Seau) and fullback Madison Hedgecock (on Mike Vrabel). Surprisingly, that four-yard gain turned out to be Jacobs' longest running play of the half. On the next play, the Giants ran a play-action pass out of a two-tight end set that really fooled no one. Fortunately for the Giants, the Patriots were overloading the right side of the line, but the play was a stretch to the left. Manning, with lots of time and seven blockers, set the tone of the game. Ellis Hobbs, caught in one-on-one coverage on Burress' outside shoulder, had no chance on an inside post route for 52 yards. The aggressiveness continued as Manning threw into tight coverage to Steve Smith, who dropped the ball when he hit the ground. Hobbs was targeted again on a curl route to Burress for a first down, then a short crossing route to Jacobs over Adalius Thomas made the score 7-0, Giants. This drive defined the attitude of the Giants â€“- Game On!
Patriots' first possession
Began: First quarter, 10:59, NE 27.
Length: 5:40, 12 plays, 54 yards.
Result: Field goal: Giants 7, Patriots 3.
The Patriots opened with a two-tight end set, and the Giants immediately showed double-team coverage on Randy Moss. However, the safety on Moss' inside didnt' cover, he blitzed. Laurence Maroney did a good job with blitz pickup, and Moss started the game with a 14-yard completion. Linebacker Reggie Torbor faked a blitz on the second snap, and Wes Welker used that one-step fake to create a hole between Torbor and cornerback Sam Madison for another 14-yarder. After a run and a dropped screen pass by Watson, the man that everyone talks about not being talked about, Kevin Faulk, snuck out the backfield for another screen and eight yards on third-and-10. Too far from the end zone to kick a field goal, the Patriots went for it. Although end Justin Tuck schooled center Dan Koppen to take a free shot a Brady, the league's MVP stood tall and hit Randy Moss for a first down. Going five-wide (with Watson split right) and the Giants rushing four, Brady pumped Torbor out of position for a 12-yard gain to Welker. With New England five-wide again, defensive end Osi Umenyiora beat tackle Matt Light to the outside for what should have been a strip, but Brady somehow ducked under it without ever turning his head. Watson, however, dropped his second pass of the drive. The Giants countered the third-and-8 five-wide set with a nickel zone and rushed only three. Both primary receivers had doubl-coverage and Brady, despite having plenty of time, appeared to force one into Moss. The high pass sailed out of the end zone, and New England settled for a field goal.
Giants' second possession
Began: First quarter, 5:19, NYG 21.
Lasted: 1:43, three plays, -1 yard.
The Patriots put six on the line of scrimmage and eight in the box, and the Giants ran twice for an aggregate loss of one yard. On third down, the Patriots brought five but didn't get anywhere near Manning. Amani Toomer broke free of Randall Gay, but dropped the ball. New York punted.
Patriots' second possession
Began: First quarter, 3:36, midfield.
Lasted: 3:41, 8 plays, 50 yards.
Result: Touchdown: Patriots 10, Giants 7.
The Patriots started with a formation they used a lot this year, an I-formation, two-tight end set with Randy Moss as the sole receiver. Although this is a power set, the Patriots often passed from this formation, as they did here. The play didn't have time to develop since Giants nose tackle Barry Cofield swept past a stumbling Login Mankins, forcing Brady to throw it away. On the next play, nobody blocked Gerris Wilkinson (who had substituted for an injured Kawika Mitchell) in the A-gap, and he proceeded to drop Maroney for a loss. A Corey Webster illegal contact call negated a Brady sack, which had been initiated by a nice move by Jason Tuck. The Patriots spread the defense, and over the next five plays, they spread the ball around to two different running backs on draw plays and three different receivers, who each caught passes for more than 10 yards. Included in those receptions was a nice wide receiver screen where Welker beat Antonio Pierce after an excellent block of Sam Madison by Moss. The drive was capped off with the same one-receiver set the drive started with. Moss outjumped Aaron Ross in the end zone for the score. The touchdown was the tied records for Moss, Brady and the Patriots as a team. A dubious end zone celebration penalty pushed Stephen Gostkowski's kickoff to the 15-yard line, and New York would take full advantage of the bonus yardage.
Giants' third possession
Began: Second quarter, 14:55.
Lasted: 0:11, 0 plays (kickoff return).
Result: Touchdown: Giants 14, Patriots 10.
The Patriots kickoff coverage was a little overzealous in pursuit. It backfired as a number of coverage guys (including rookie Brandon Meriweather and, surprisingly, veteran specialist Larry Izzo) overpursued and broke their lanes. The Giants took seven to the house and retook the lead.
Patriots' third possession
Began: Second quarter, 14:44, NE 33.
Lasted: 4:45, 8 plays, 39 yards.
Result: Field goal: Giants 14, Patriots 13.
This Patriots' drive saw the game's first 10-plus-yard run as Brady saw something in the defensive scheme and changed the play. Good blocks by Mankins and guard Russ Hochstein freed up Maroney for a 13-yard scamper. As the Giants continued to double Moss, the Patriots countered with four short swing passes to either a split-wide Faulk left uncovered or a stacked Welker on the opposite side. Good backside pursuit by Cofield of stutter-stepping Maroney followed by a Welker stumble on a wide receiver screen put the Patriots in third-and-long. Lots of help deep leads to the final underneath swing pass to Faulk, and yet another field goal.
Giants' fourth possession
Began: Second quarter, 9:59, NYG 30.
Lasted: 2:19, 4 plays, 20 yards.
Manning started the drive with a nice play-action pass that drew in the linebackers and freed up tight end Kevin Boss for a 17-yard wide-open catch. However, the Giants continued to pound Jacobs into the line with no success. Manning sought out Boss again on third down, but Rodney Harrison read the route very well and was able to break up the pass. Giants punted.
Patriots' fourth possession
Began: Second quarter, 7:40, NE 20.
Lasted: 5:41, 11 plays, 61 yards.
Result: Field goal: Patriots 16, Giants 14.
The Patriot running game showed some signs of life on this drive, with five runs for 26 yards. The Giants had been getting significant push against the two replacement linemen, Hochstein and Ryan O'Callaghan. The Patriots used that to their advantage, allowing the defensive tackle the first step inside and then sealing him off. On the passing front, the Patriots began to hit both Moss and Welker with short passes underneath the Giants zone (including one hot blitz read). After their second first down of the drive, the Patriots again exploited the threat of Moss. No Giant defender covered Watson in the flat 19 yards downfield because three defenders followed Moss to the post. After a decent run by Maroney, and an excellent read of another wide receiver screen by Giants corner Aaron Ross, Brady blew a sure touchdown by underthrowing Moss in the back of the end zone. Moss was covered by Wilkinson, whose back was turned to the play. Rather than an easy jumping reception, the ball careened off an unaware Wilkinson's helmet. Patriots settled for their third field goal.
Giants' fifth possession
Began: Second quarter, 1:59, NYG 15.
Lasted: 1:46, 8 plays, 85 yards.
Result: Touchdown: Giants 21, Patriots 16.
Not content going to the locker room down by two, the Giants came out throwing from their own 15-yard line. A blitzing Harrison put enough pressure on Manning that he missed an open Toomer 10 yards out on first down. The Giants offensive line was bowled over on the next down, but somehow Manning avoided two would-be tacklers and on the run hit Kevin Boss for a toe-tapping, 23-yard sideline grab. In what could have easily been an "I told you so" moment, the Giants lost starting center Sean O'Hara on the play. Not to be outdone, Toomer made a bobbling circus catch near the left hashmarks for another 19 yards, and Brandon Jacobs slipped out of the backfield for a three-yard catch and a 14-yard follow-on run. On all three plays, the Patriots faked a blitz and Junior Seau had coverage responsibility. Seau furthered his questionable performance by sitting on Kevin Boss, drawing a five-yard delay-of-game penalty and stopping the clock with 31 seconds left. Manning smartly scrambled 11 yards on the next snap as the Patriots dropped eight into coverage. Manning capped off what might have been his most impressive drive of the year with a pump fake that juked Rodney Harrison, a step up and short toss to Boss in the end zone. Manning went five-for-seven for 69 yards, an 11-yard run and the go-ahead touchdown on that drive.
The Patriots ended the first half with a one-play kneeldown drive.
Patriots' fifth possession
Began: Third quarter, 15:00, NE 20.
Lasted: 1:38, 3 plays, 3 yards.
The second half started with the Giants faking out the Patriots by showing double-coverage on Moss, but Ross blitzed from the slot and Madison dropped off Moss to the hot route, holding Watson to a three-yard gain. After an uneventful draw, Brady and Moss almost showed why they are so dangerous. The Giants blitzed two to the left side of the line. Kevin Faulk, left alone by Matt Light to block both blitzers, turned the inside man, Torbor, loose. Torbor grabbed Brady by the jersey and hauled him down, but not before Brady heaved the ball 25 yards downfield to a returning Moss. In the midst of a would-be incredible throw and catch, the ball hit the turf for an incompletion. Three-and-out â€“- albeit an exciting one.
Giants' sixth possession
Began: Third quarter, 13:22, NYG 40.
Lasted: 4:10, 7 plays, 60 yards.
Result: Touchdown: Giants 28, Patriots 16.
The Giants, who had not employed much of a running attack all game, sought to establish it on this drive. Great blocks by Hedgecock, guard Rich Seubert, Boss, guard Grey Ruegamer and McKenzie freed up Jacobs for 16- and 15-yard runs. On third-and-9, Manning rolled to his right and pump faked. Asante Samuel inexplicably dropped off Burress to cover the already double-teamed underneath route. The move left Burress wide-open for a toe-dragging touchdown.
Patriots' sixth possession
Began: Third quarter, 9:12, NE 27.
Lasted: 5:12, 8 plays, 73 yards.
Result: Touchdown: Giants 28, Patriots 23.
On the first play of the New England drive, Wilkinson once again busted through the A-gap untouched and dropped Kevin Faulk for a two-yard loss. Following a short crossing route to Faulk, New England spread their only tight end, Ben Watson, outside the tackle for the next six plays. The doubling of the wide receivers again left Watson uncovered, and then Giants safety Gibril Wilson apparently missed the blitz call, leaving Welker uncovered when Ross blitzed from the slot. Welker was on the receiving end of the next two throws. The Giants were coming at Brady hard, even hitting him at times. However, he had time enough to make his reads and complete this passes. For the second time in the game, Wilkinson was somehow responsible for covering Randy Moss. This time he's not as lucky, drawing a pass interference penalty. The Patriots scored as Welker showed his versatility, throwing a great seal block that freed Maroney for the touchdown.
Giants' seventh possession
Began: Third quarter, 4:00, NYG 40.
Lasted: 3:30, 6 plays, 14 yards.
Although the Patriots had shown blitz previously, this marked the moment in the game when blitzing Manning became a staple of the game plan. At first Manning handled it well, putting the ball in his receivers' hands. However, after the fourth blitz of this drive -- only the second time the Patriots had sent six pass rushers all game -- Manning was sacked while backpeddling for a 14-yard loss. Technically, tackle David Diehl would be charged with a blown block on Thomas, but frankly, Junior Seau's pressure up the middle was the instigator of the play. Further pressure on third down by Harrison forced Manning into the hot read well short of the first down.
Patriots' seventh possession
Began: Third quarter, 0:30, NE 18.
Lasted: 0:30, 6 plays, 10 yards.
A few dumpoff and screen passes by the Patriots, but overall a very uneventful drive. Twice the Patriots looked to Moss, but double-coverage by Wilson on one play and Webster on another disrupted the New England attack.
Giants' eighth possession
Began: Fourth quarter, 12:46, NYG 30.
Lasted: 1:17, 3 plays, 3 yards.
The first time that the Giants truly missed O'Hara was when Ruegamer and Manning fumbled the snap exchange on first down. A tipped ball by Thomas and a blown wide receiver screen lead New York to punt.
Patriots' eighth possession
Began: Fourth quarter, 11:29, NE 35.
Lasted: 0:23, 3 plays, 65 yards.
Result: Touchdown: Patriots 31, Giants 28.
New England emerged on first down in a five-wide set, and the Giants continued to rush five. The pressure was successful, as Brady overthrew an open Welker. On second down, with Randy Moss as the only wide receiver on the field, the Patriots ran play-action and had plenty of time. Brady threw a bomb 49 yards downfield to Moss. Madison appeared to come up lame on the play (indeed, he pulled an abdominal muscle and would not return) and free safety Gibril Wilson fell down, but Brady didn't get enough on the ball. A completely open Moss had to turn and come back to the ball, and it went right through his hands. The next play "couldn't be more different," as Bill Belichick sternly pointed out in the postgame press conference, but had one similar feature. This time in a four-wide set, Moss blew past safety James Butler for a 43-yard completion, and with an additional 22 yards after catch, a touchdown and new records for himself, Brady, and the Patriots. The Patriots then converted for two with a Maroney run up the middle.
Giants' ninth possession
Began: Fourth quarter, 11:06, NYG 23.
Lasted: 1:13, 3 plays, 4 yards.
After two Jacobs runs and a 10-yard Toomer penalty, Manning made his first costly mistake of the game. The Giants lined up with three receivers, Burress in the left slot. The Patriots rushed four and failed to get any significant pressure. Harrison was the cover man on Burress and positioned himself three yards off the line to jam him. However, he basically whiffed. With Burress open by at least two yards, Manning tried to float the ball over Harrison, but got too much air under it, and it landed in the hands of cornerback Ellis Hobbs.
Patriots' ninth possession
Began: Fourth quarter, 9:53, NE 48.
Lasted: 5:17, 9 plays, 52 yards.
Result: Touchdown: Patriots 38, Giants 28.
New York continued to pressure O'Callaghan and Hochstein on the right side even when only rushing four. Brady barely avoided the rush and lobbed the ball to Stallworth, open in the flat. The next play, Hochstein wasn't as lucky as he allowed Torbor to rush up the middle untouched for the Giants' first official sack of the game. For the next two plays, the Giants brought pressure, but Brady found his men, including Kevin Faulk, who slipped a drive-ending Torbor tackle to find the first-down line. Finally, the Patriots caught the Giants in a fake blitz, which allowed Maroney to strut up the middle for a touchdown and a 10-point lead.
Giants' tenth possession
Began: Fourth quarter, 4:36, NYG 32.
Lasted: 3:32, 11 plays, 68 yards.
Result: Touchdown: Patriots 38, Giants 35.
The final drive by the Giants was marked by two things: the lack of urgency by the Giants offense and the pressure by the Patriots defense. New York ran the ball on three plays in the final drive and often struggled to manage the clock. New England was physically blitzing on every play. In passing plays, the Patriots brought six rushers four times and seven once. The Patriots secondary was willing to give the underneath route, but its not surprising that the defenders on those passes were Hobbs (three times), Randall Gay, Meriweather, Harrison and the man once known as Eugene Wilson. The bizarre disappearance this season of the once-feared Wilson is a story unto itself. However, the fact that he fell down, allowing a wide-open Burress to score the Giants final touchdown, was apropos.
There are few moral victories in sports. New Englands' recovery of the ensuing onside kick sealed the game, but the Giants truly achieved a moral victory. Trying to break the trend of mediocrity, they convinced themselves they were a contender.
In the end, Manning played what may end up as one of his career-defining games. He recorded a DPAR of 9.9, and the passing offense recorded a DVOA of 61.6%. However, in a head-to-head match up, the Patriots offense clearly outplayed them. Brady posted a DPAR of 16.7, and the Patriots offense generated a 98.1% DVOA. Interestingly, it was Welker, not Moss, as the most valuable receiver with a DPAR of 4.7, even though Moss scored two touchdowns. Hixon's kickoff return was a vital component of the Giants success, especially when one considers it was sandwiched between two ineffective drives for Big Blue.
The Giants brought lots of pressure, but mostly to no avail. Brady was able to make his reads for the most part, and was only sacked once. Punter Chris Hanson only took the field twice. To the extent the Giants were successful, it was in making the Patriots settle for three field goals in the first half. You could make an argument that Josh McDaniels was focused on getting Brady and Moss their records, and play calls were made to achieve that end. As such, the double coverage on Moss may have stifled them. When it became clear that that the outcome of the game was in jeopardy, they opened up the offense and became much more effective. Can such a defensive effort be replicated? Can Manning have a repeat performance? Can the Giants play a similar all-out game when the stakes are higher? We shall see.
67 comments, Last at 31 Jan 2008, 6:50pm by BDC