GIANTS NOTEBOOK, DECEMBER 5, 2008
By Michael Eisen
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The letter they earned was rewarding, but the number that came with it still bothers the players on the Giants’ defense.
On Nov. 9, the Giants defeated the Philadelphia Eagles in Lincoln Financial Field to tighten their grip on first place in the NFC East. That, of course, was the good news for everybody associated with the Giants. But the score was 36-31 and while the offense can certainly be proud of its point production, the defense was not at all happy the Eagles kept increasing the numbers on the scoreboard.
The teams will meet again Sunday in Giants Stadium, where the Giants can push their winning streak to eight games, improve their record to 12-1 and clinch the NFC East title and a first round bye. The defense would like to do all that while holding Philadelphia to a more modest point total. The 31 points allowed was exceeded only in the Giants’ lone loss this season, 35-14 at Cleveland on Oct. 13.
“That is a disappointment,” middle linebacker Antonio Pierce said of the Eagles’ output in the first meeting. “Our goal every week is 17 points or less. We thought we played well, but when you look at the scoreboard they put up 31 points.”
“It put a bad taste in our mouths,” cornerback Corey Webster said. “We know what the coaches expect of us for this week. We will try to go out there and impose our will on them. We can’t give up the little stuff we gave up last time. I think everybody has done a good job correcting those mistakes that we made the last time we played them and I think we’ll be better off this week.”
The Giants are unaccustomed to allowing their opponents to score more than 30 points. Since giving up 45 and then 35 points in the opening two games of the 2007 season – Steve Spagnuolo’s first two contests as defensive coordinator – opposing teams have hit the big 3-0 just five times. Dallas (31), Minnesota (41) and New England (38) last season (though the Vikings scored three defensive touchdowns) and Cleveland and Philadelphia this year. The Eagles game was the only Giants victory in that group. It was the most points a Tom Coughlin-coached team (the Jaguars and Giants) has surrendered in a victory.
“We still got the win, but there will always be a bitter taste knowing you didn’t play well,” defensive end Justin Tuck said. “We have to do better than that this week.”
Philadelphia made the most of limited opportunities to score those 31 points. The Eagles ran just 57 plays compared to 77 for the Giants, owned the ball for only 20:50 and were outgained, 401-300. But they capitalized on their trips into the red zone, scoring touchdowns on four of five trips inside the 20-yard line. Philly kicked a field goal on its fifth red zone entry, so the Eagles scored all of their points from in close.
“It is a surprise,” defensive tackle Fred Robbins said of the point total. “It is something that bothers you, because you know you want to give your offense a chance and you want to give your team a chance to win the game. Obviously, to give up almost twice of what we allow ourselves is not good.”
“That game has stuck with us,” linebacker Danny Clark said. “They got us off balance early. They had a direct snap (to rookie wide receiver DeSean Jackson) and scored a touchdown. They scored four times in the red zone against us, which is not normal. So there are issues that we have to clean up. Fortunately, we had a great offense that scored more points than them, but at the end of the day we want to make sure we contain those guys. And that means we have to pay a lot of attention to number 36 and to number 5.”
That would be running back Brian Westbrook and quarterback Donovan McNabb. The Giants kept Westbrook in check for much of the game, limiting him to 26 rushing yards on 13 carries and three catches for another 33 yards. McNabb threw for three touchdown passes, but they totaled 19 yards. Overall, he threw for 194 yards.
The loss to the Giants kicked off a three-week slide for the Eagles. The following week, they played a desultory 13-13 tie in Cincinnati against a Bengals team that has just one victory this season. Seven days later, they were crushed in Baltimore, 36-7. McNabb was benched at halftime of that game. Westbrook, meanwhile, gained only 164 yards on 49 touches (a 3.3-yard average) in the three-game stretch.
Westbrook, McNabb and the entire Eagles team rebounded on Thanksgiving night, when they crushed Arizona, 48-20. The seventh-year running back ran for 110 yards and scored four touchdowns (two rushing, two receiving) to become the first player since Lydell Mitchell in 1975 to rush for more than 100 yards and have two rushing touchdowns and two receiving touchdowns in the same game. McNabb, regaining his starting job, completed 27 of 39 passes for 260 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Last week in Washington, the Giants were fixated on stopping Clinton Portis, who entered the game as the NFL’s leading rusher. They held Portis to 22 yards. On Sunday, the emphasis will be on shutting down Westbrook.
“Westbrook last week scored four touchdowns and he is looking healthy again,” Pierce said. “Obviously, when we played him he might have been a little nicked up. But Westbrook makes that team go. When he doesn’t play well or is not having a productive game they don’t play very well. So we have to make sure we key him and stop him and limit the big plays.”
“He is the main focus of the offense,” Robbins “We have to know where he is at all times. He can hurt you by running the ball and receiving out of the backfield. With their quarterback now they have some good young receivers, but you have to be able to shut the run down to begin with. They ran the ball quite a few times last week, so you have to stay focused. We feel like that is going to be their major focus coming into the game.”
On offense, the Giants expect Philadelphia to mimic their two most recent opponents, Arizona and Washington, who committed eight or nine players to stopping the Giants’ league-leading rushing attack. That strategy could be prevalent the rest of the season, because the Giants will be without Plaxico Burress, their most dangerous receiver, who was suspended and placed on the reserve/non-football injury list.
“We’re going to have to see what teams are going to do,” quarterback Eli Manning said. “Washington last week was a team that put eight, nine guys in the box on almost every play and we were able to throw the ball and be successful. That’s what we’re going to have to continue to do. Philly, we’ll see what their defensive approach is going to be. They are a team that is pretty even whether they play single safety or two safeties, so we’ll have to see if they have that same approach or if they’ll go more single-high. Then we’ll have to throw the ball well. We have our plays where we can run it against different defenses and give ourselves a shot, but we’re going to have to be a balanced attack. Last week I think we were very balanced. I think we made 35 runs and 34 passes so that’s what we hope to do and we just have to see what the game turns out to be and see how we can attack it.”
The Giants have prepared for the game under unusual circumstances. The news of the week has been dominated by Burress’ accidental shooting and his subsequent suspension and move to the reserve/NFI list. But with Coughlin constantly emphasizing the importance of the task at hand and the game to be played, the Giants have prepared diligently for the Eagles. The rewards of victory are great – their first division title since 2005 and their first opening-round playoff bye since 2000.
“We have been working all year to get an opportunity to go to the playoffs and win the division,” wide receiver Amani Toomer said. “(That is) something that none of you guys (reporters) really thought we were going to do at the beginning of the year, so it is a good opportunity to prove the experts wrong. I think the foremost thing on everybody’s mind is winning the division.”
*Coughlin was asked how the players have responded in a week filled with distractions.
“I think they have handled it as well as a group of young men can,” Coughlin said. “They have hung together, they have tried to show care and concern. But on the other hand, (they) realize they have a job to do.”
Does he expect to see any lingering effects from the week?
“I didn’t see any on Sunday, so I’m hoping none this week as well,” Coughlin said.
*Cornerback Corey Webster practiced on a limited basis and is questionable for Sunday’s game. “He practiced and seems real good,” Coughlin said. Center Shaun O’Hara (knee), defensive tackle Fred Robbins (shoulder) and running back Ahmad Bradshaw (neck) all participated in the entire practice and are probable. Linebacker Jonathan Goff (hamstring) is out.
*For the Eagles, running backs Correll Buckhalter (knee) and Westbrook (knee/ankle) are doubtful and questionable, respectively. Buckhalter has not practiced this week. Westbrook, after participating fully in Wednesday\‘s practice, did not practice the past two days.
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