GIANTS NOTEBOOK, JANUARY 8, 2009
By Michael Eisen
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants’ defensive linemen will be in a rush to sack Donovan McNabb Sunday.
For the last two seasons, the Giants have had one of the NFL’s best pass rushes. Their 95 sacks in that span are second in the league to Dallas’ 105. The Giants failed to resister a sack in just five of their 36 regular season and postseason games the last two years.
But two of those shutouts occurred in their NFC East matchups this season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Donovan McNabb dropped back to pass 67 times against the Giants and was never sacked. The Giants won the first of those games by five points in Philadelphia. But they lost the rematch a month later, 20-14. On Sunday, these ancient rivals will meet for the third and final time this season in an NFC Divisional Playoff Game in Giants Stadium. The Giants believe they will greatly improve their chances to win in January if they put more pressure on McNabb than they did in November and December.
“You get angry,” defensive tackle Barry Cofield said when asked how he feels when he sees a zero in the sacks line on the statistics sheet. “You don’t really sit back and think about why you didn’t get the sacks. You think about getting the sacks the next time. You very rarely get an opportunity to play a team three times, so if I had to choose to get sacks in any game it would be this one. This is the game we are looking forward to and we know that if we’re able to pressure McNabb, then that will slow the whole offense.”
“Yeah, it does (bother us),” said Fred Robbins, the other starting tackle. “All credit to McNabb and the offensive line with the scheme they had. But our job is to generate pressure and harass the quarterback a little bit and sack him and frustrate him a little bit, and we haven’t done that in two games. It makes it easy on our defensive backs when we get the quarterback rattled up. When you don’t get to the quarterback it gives him confidence when he is not rattled and not getting hit a lot. That’s the major issue for us. We have to do a better job this time around of putting pressure on McNabb.”
The Giants did a great job of that in 2007, when they led the NFL with 53 sacks. On Sept. 30 of that year they brought down McNabb 12 times when he was attempting to pass, a franchise record. Osi Umenyiora had six of those sacks, another Giants mark. In the rematch 2½ months later, the Giants had three sacks of McNabb to increase their two-game total to 15.
Given the dominance the Giants’ defensive line displayed against Philadelphia last season, it’s understandable the Eagles increased the security around their quarterback this year. McNabb was hit just five times by the Giants in 2007.
“They are pretty good at what they do,” said defensive end Justin Tuck, who led the Giants with 12 sacks this season. “I think this year after last year when we had the 12-sack game against them and I don’t know if it is just us or not, but they made a true emphasis on protecting their quarterback. They are keeping a lot of guys in. But that is no excuse for it. We just have to play better. It is as simple as that.”
“He’s played well against us this year, but he’s been a little too comfortable,” Cofield said. “We have to do whatever it takes to make life more difficult for him. Our defensive backs have been playing well all year for us, so we know they are going to cover for us. We have to do whatever it takes regardless of how many people they keep in for protection, regardless of how many backs shift and how many tight ends stay in to block, we have to find a way to make life more difficult for McNabb.”
Of course, sacks alone don’t guarantee success. The Minnesota Vikings sacked McNabb three times in last week’s Wild Card game. But the Eagles quarterback completed 68 percent of his passes and threw for 300 yards in Philly’s 26-14 victory.
The Giants harassed many quarterbacks this season. Their 42 sacks ranked sixth in the NFL, behind Dallas, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Minnesota. They had four or more sacks in a game seven times. But against the Eagles they came up empty, in part because of Andy Reid’s commitment to keeping his quarterback standing.
“They definitely did some different things, they kept a lot of people in and had a few receivers running routes, but that’s irrelevant, honestly,” defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka said. “Teams have done that to us in the past, but we’ve still gotten there so it’s not a matter of what they do. We’re focused on ourselves and what we didn’t do and what can we do better. If we execute everything 100 percent, it’s going to be real tough to stop us.”
“They start keeping a lot more guys in to protect him,” Robbins said. “They do a pretty good of protecting, but we still have to get a half a step quicker. A lot of time we were close, but not close enough.”
Subduing McNabb is just one of many issues the Giants defense must deal with. The first order of business will be to contain versatile running back Brian Westbrook, who made the decisive plays in Philadelphia’s victory last month. In that game, Westbrook rushed for 131 yards on 33 carries and caught six passes for a season-high 72 yards. He scored touchdowns on a 30-yard run and a 40-yard reception.
The Giants fared much better against him in their first encounter in Philadelphia. Westbrook rushed for only 26 yards – and did not have a run longer than seven yards – and had three catches for 33 yards. Clearly, the Giants will increase their likelihood of winning if they more closely approximate their first performance against Westbrook and not the second.
“That is always the question when you play this team,” Coach Tom Coughlin said. “You just have to play every play, especially now in the playoffs, as if it is the last. This guy is very, very good. He is a guy that can disappear behind the line of scrimmage and then find a crack - as we know from the last time we played here. He hurts you on the screen. That has been his big play over the years. So you have got to be aware of where he is all of the time and do a great job of studying – trying to figure out any type of tip that will help to take you to him. They line him up in a lot of different spots to try to take full advantage of him. So it is a challenge.”
Minnesota learned in last week’s Wild Card game how difficult it is to stifle Westbrook. The Vikings held him to 38 rushing yards on 20 carries and 12 yards on his first two receptions. But his third catch was on a screen pass and Westbrook turned that into the game-deciding 71-yard touchdown in Philadelphia’s victory.
“He is our number one focus,” Tuck said. “I think everybody knows that. He is the type of back that if you shut him down in the running game you saw in the Minnesota game he can get loose on screens or passes, too. We have to have 11 sets of eyes on him every play, knowing exactly where he lines up. We have keys as far as when and where they want to give him the ball and we just have to be focused on that, but not to the point where we lose track of everybody else. Like I said, he is the number one person on that field that we have to definitely know where he is.”
Westbrook’s explosiveness and versatility also help slow down the pass rush. For example, those 11 sets of eyes watching him have to be aware of the screen. And if the linemen think it’s coming, they might not chase McNabb with the same commitment.
“That’s what it’s built to do – that’s the objective of a screen,” Cofield said. “What you’d expect the offense to do as a D-line if you’re a team that prides itself on getting to the quarterback, then they are going to try and slow you down with the screen and with guys blocking, like they did last week against Minnesota. With a back like Westbrook it’s very dangerous. It takes a group effort. Guys have to put their foot in the ground and not be selfish and turn around and chase Westbrook rather than going for the sack. The guys on the back end have to make tackles. It’s a tough aspect to deal with, but you can’t let it take you off your game. But at the same time you have to respect it.”
The Giants definitely respect it. On Sunday, they have to find a way to stop it.
*Every player on the Giants’ roster practiced today. Only Tuck (lower leg/knee) and linebacker/long snapper Zak DeOssie (back) were limited.
Three Eagles did not practice: Westbrook (knee), tackle Jon Runyan (knee) and fullback Dan Klecko (shoulder).
*The Giants won 12 games, two more than their victory total in their 2007 Super Bowl season. They are the fifth defending Super Bowl champion to win more games the season following a championship than they did on their way to winning the Lombardi Trophy (not counting the strike-shortened 1982 season). Three of the previous four teams went on to win a second consecutive Super Bowl.
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