Sunday, September 11, 2005

Week 1: Giants - Cardinals Recap

A 4:15 kickoff. Not ideal at all, as my concentration was already flagging from having watched about 4 games this weekend, but it’s opening day at the Meadowlands, so who’s complaining? Fox cut to the game late, literally seconds before kickoff, because the Saints-Panthers game was going down to the wire, and the Saints are now the new media darlings. I would have appreciated the usual build-up routine, from the sideline reporter (Chris Meyers, in this case), to the shots of guys warming up, to the panorama of a raucous Meadowlands, to the final shots of kickoff-teamers psyching the crowd up. Feely still puts the foot to it, and 2005 is underway.

The G-Men covered the kick decently enough, something that they haven’t been able to do in recent years, and forced Arizona to punt after one first down. Our newly signed punt-returner, Chad Morton, fields it at the 14 and brings it back to the 19. These developments in themselves aren’t significant, but it’s good to see that by signing a free agent kicker and spending a roster spot on a punt-return specialist, the G-Men have made an effort to address their special teams, which have been horrendous over the past few years. They say that Morton is recovering from a serious knee injury and isn’t the bullet that he used to be, when he made his name bringing back a couple of kicks/punts for the Jets against the Bills on opening day and then went on to sign a free-agent deal with the Redskins. Nevertheless, it’s nice to have someone on the squad that can at least field a punt, and to not have to worry about undrafted free-agent scrub receivers killing us in big spots by muffing the rock or tentatively letting the ball bounce and having it downed deep in our territory. So already, this basic competence on special teams is a good sign.

The first play from scrimmage was a happy sight for Giants fans, with Eli hitting Burress on a quick slant for 8. Tiki runs the next one for a short gain, bringing up a 3rd and 1, and bringing Brandon Jacobs onto the field for the first time, the most anticipated debut for a 4th round draft pick in recent memory. Jacobs takes a handoff off tackle for 7, much to the delight of the knowledgeable Meadowlands crowd. He trots off the field to an ovation. Two plays later, another 3rd and 1, and here comes Jacobs again. He gets the rock and smoothly bounces his run outside, turning the corner and heading upfield for a gain of 21. This guy appears to warrant the hype, and make you wonder, just as Lou Brown says of Serrano, "how come nobody else picked up on him." He runs with poise and power, with his feet firmly under him. At 6-4 he is a little upright, but he appears to have pretty decent speed, and I picture years of linebackers feebly bouncing off his piston legs as he rounds the bend. Moose Johnston, in the first of many astute observations, notes Jacobs’ feet and his patience. The rookie seems to know what he’s doing out there.

Tiki loses a yard and then bursts for 16, bringing the ball to the Arizona 20. On the next play, Eli hits Shockey on a picture perfect-seam for a 20-yard Touchdown. The play was so flawlessly executed that it looked like they were running it in practice. Easy-peezee, Japaneezee. 7-0 Giants. So far, perfect.

After a good Feely kickoff – he is reputed to be one of the league’s best -- Arizona goes three and out on the next series, and it’s looking pretty easy to this point. The Giants get the ball back, and a perfectly executed screen to Tiki takes them down to the Arizona 38. Rolling along as we are, points seem imminent, but we stall on the next three plays and fail to advance the rock. Rather than having Feely attempt the 55 yard FG, Colonel Tom opts to punt, and the consistent Feagles gets it down to the Arizona 14.

Will Peterson is not playing today, and he is standing on the sideline wearing a Giants shirt cut off at the sleeves – which reveal his massive, tattooed football-guns—and an FDNY hat because it is 9/11. We learn that although he was practicing with the first team this week despite a pre-season injury, he told Coughlin during pre-game warm-ups that he wasn’t feeling healthy enough start. When confronted with this pusscatoritry, Colonel Tom threw a spazz and told him not even to bother suiting up, leaving us with the decidedly mediocre Will Allen at one corner and the up-and coming 2nd year-man, Curtis Deloach at the other. The most conspicuous matchup advantage that Arizona has over us today is their Receivers against our corners. Not having Peterson doesn’t hurt that much, because this kid Deloach and our second-round draft pick, Corey Webster, have proven that they can play. What does hurt is Will Allen’s presence in the lineup. Allen is short and not particularly good at playing the ball, making him very vulnerable to bigger receivers who can go up and get it, or use their body to shield defenders. Larry Fitzgerald qualifies as one of these guys, as do the Cardinals other two stud receivers, Antoine Boldin and Bryant Johnson. With our secondary comprised of Will Allen and some talented but inexperienced players, we could be in for a long day of their stars making big, game-changing plays.

Arizona’s next drive illustrates this, as Warner goes 6 for 6 for 70 yards, marching Arizona down the field. We are saved by our run-defense, led by no other than William Joseph, who I notice is getting a good push and being a generally disruptive force. Moose Johnston notes that Arizona’s center and right guards are both rookies, which might explain the success that our D-Line has had thus far. Joseph has been awfully close to a bust his first couple of years, so it would be nice if he could become a solid contributor with increased experience and guaranteed burn. Free-agent acquisition Antonio Pierce introduces himself on this drive too, making a key stop on 3rd and 1 from the NYG 6, which forces Arizona to settle for a Field Goal. Moose notes Pierce’s "knack for getting through traffic" to make plays, which was a good call that he kind of ruined by saying that Pierce’s ability to do this was "the best he’s ever seen." Still, Pierce is rangy and athletic, and seems to be a guy that takes good angles, a guy that’s just good. Between Pierce and an improved and re-Strahaned D-Line, we can hope for significant improvement on defense. But for today, these receivers against our corners is something to worry about. Giants 7-Arizona 3 at 11:42 in the second quarter.

The Giants have been bad the past couple of years, and bad-ness is generally accompanied by bad luck. Bad breaks compound bad play, and before you know it, you have two eight-game losing streaks in two consecutive years. So it was extremely disturbing to watch the Giants next play from scrimmage unfold, as Eli’s pass to David Tyree was a little too hot to handle, and after bouncing off Tyree’s hands, fell into the arms of Karlos Dansby, who stumbled 18 yards into the Giants endzone. Arizona 10-Giants 7.

Fox cut back to the telecast to a smiling, congratulating Arizona bench and a quiet Meadowlands. For a place that can be as raucous as the Meadowlands, it also seems to show a susceptibility to deadness. Willie Ponder wakes the crowd up with a big return close to midfield. After a great year last year in which he led the NFL in kick return average, this Ponder is a keeper. How exciting this is for an organization that struggles to produce impact players. Unfortunately, our offense stalls and we go three and out, buried by a big 14-yard sack that Eli takes. Youthful mistake, but after that first drive, we haven’t done anything, and we don’t look good. You can hear the Cardinals’ jubilant, visiting-team shouts as our offense trudges off the field.

The Cardinals next drive is more of the same, with Warner and the receivers in excellent rhythm, basically making our defensive backfield look hopeless. Dick Stockton mentions that Warner is 9 out of his last 10, and although the running game isn’t working, they’ve been able to convert big 3rd downs against our overmatched secondary. A huge 10 yard sack by Strahan and a blitzing Antonio Pierce stalls the AZ drive, but their good kicker boots a 42-yard Field Goal to put them up, 13-7 at 3:24 in the second quarter. It seems like only a matter of time that one of those receivers breaks a big play.

Our first two plays of the next series yield us -1 yard, and on 3rd and 11, Eli’s pass gets tipped at the line and intercepted by Karlos Dansby, the same guy who made the previous pick. Moose and Stockton jock Dansby, a good-looking second-year guy. That’s two unlucky picks that Eli’s thrown, but at this point, we look to be pretty fucked. Johnston and Stockton have been going on for a little while about what Denny Green has apparently termed his "fast break defense." This phrase doesn’t really make sense, because the term "fast break" in basketball refers very specifically to a transition game which really doesn’t apply to football, but it is somehow descriptive. If he means that his defense is aggressive and fast, and this style of play causes them to get breaks, then the phrase makes sense. Since the first drive, they’ve been putting good pressure on a flummoxed-looking Eli. They’ve been flying around, and we look ponderous and tentative.

With the momentum, a six point lead, and the ball at our 29, Arizona looks poised to finally put one in the endzone against us and bury us at 20-7. But William Joseph makes a huge sack on first down, maneuvering against a weak-link rookie, and then on 3rd and 13 from the NYG 33, a bull-rushing Strahan and Osi Umenyiora meet at the quarterback, with Strahan getting the sack for a loss of 10 yards. Giants fans will remember some of the horrendous sacks that Warner is apt to take, and feel somewhat vindicated that this one cost his team points. Arizona’s punter sticks a good, potentially deep-pinning punt, but their guy stupidly steps on the goal line and doesn’t re-establish himself before downing it, giving us a touchback. But with 58 seconds to go in the half, it doesn’t matter. We go into the half down 13-7.

The half affords me an opportunity to grab a slice and a Sapporo, so I hustle out of the house clad in my ritualistic Tiki jersey, which, since the day that I first donned it for the 2002 Giants-Niners playoff game, hasn’t seemed to bring much good luck. But whatever. On my way out of the house I see these 3 or 4 block lounge-lizzard types, these weird middle-aged people that sit on stoops and carry-on as if this were Brooklyn. That’s cool, but I think I notice them casting a look of recognition upon me, apprehending that it is the strange fast-walker in the ill-fitting football jersey who has been doing all of this shouting for the past hour and half. Well screw them, and I ask the pizza guy not to heat up my slice, and get home in time to check my fantasy squad make a very disappointing debut, torpedoed by Culpepper’s .28 point performance.
Some thoughts at halftime, as I wrote them down at the time:
This game is close, but it doesn’t look too good. Pressure on Eli isn’t allowing us to get the ball upfield. Tiki hasn’t gotten established- has had his bursts, but…. Whitfield at tackle- McKenzie limped off. Whit going against Berry on the right side. But considering that they’ve gotten the breaks + that we get the rock, it’s certainly anybody’s game.

The Arizona kicker sends a tricky kick that bounces unpredictably through our coverage. Brandon Jacobs, the up-back, scoops it up at our 4, and deftly hits a seam, bringing it close to the 40 while dragging several Cardinals on his back for 3 yards . Watching this guy run is night and day from watching Dayne, the previous bearer of 27. Where Dayne was tentative, this guy is decisive. Where Dayne seemed only to be able to run in straight line segments, and just hoped to God the hole was there, this guy Jacobs runs with vision and savvy. Where the 5’10 Dayne ran all hunched over, vulnerable to having defenses just push him into the ground, this 6-4 Jacobs runs tall and strong, hard. Where Dayne was always feeling out the NFL, Jacobs strides, with purpose and authority. The rookie has roused the Meadowlands crowd, and Eli and the boys trot out.

After picking up a first-down on a penalty by the linebacker Danby – seemingly the guy’s first mistake – Eli lofts one up deep down field for Plaxico’s back shoulder, who coordinatedly snares it in a jump-ball with corner David Macklin for a 44 yard gain. Plex is 6’5", Macklin 5’10". It’s the type of matchup that we should look forward to exploiting over the next few years. Unfortunately, Arizona’s pressure hasn’t allowed us to have time to get the ball to our receivers today. This is Plex’s second catch, and Amani has been shut out. If we’re serious about utilizing these great skilled guys, then we damn-well better protect Eli. Even if we keep extra guys in for protection, at least we’ll be able to let our guys make plays. And with the three good receivers we have (Shockey, Plex, and Toomer –he’s still pretty good--), we should be able to exploit at least a matchup or two per game. But whether we can protect Eli over the course of the season remains to be seen.

Tiki off right tackle for 5, and then Brandon Jacobs, on the same exact off-tackle play, authoritatively takes it to paydirt, falling forward a few yards into the endzone. Just like that, we’re back up, 14-13. The announcers are singing Jacobs’ praises, and the Meadowlands is pumped as Arizona takes possession. On the first play from scrimmage, Warner drops back and hits a wide-open Gebril Wilson, who brings it back to the Arizona 21. After enduring Kurt Warner last year, I think I speak for all Giant fans in saying that I would have felt extremely unlucky if we went through today’s game without being treated to one of his blunders, so it was nice that we finally got one. The Meadowlands is feeling it, smelling blood, and on the very next play, Tiki follows a pulling David Diehl though a hole up the middle, makes a nifty little cut, and scampers to daylight and the endzone. At 11:37 in the 3rd Quarter, Feely bangs in the PAT to put the G-Men up 21-13.

When Fox comes back from commercial break, the Meadowlands is festive and Tiki is beaming his big, corny grin. After this abrupt reversal of fortune, it’s all smiles, until Reggie Swinton sobers up the crowd by bringing Feely’s kick across midfield to the Giant 39. The Giants continue to stuff the run, but can’t stop these big, smooth Arizona receivers, especially Larry Fitzgerald, who catches a pass for 15 yards and then 32 yards to bring Arizona to the 1 (sandwiched around an AZ 11 yard loss on a disastrous attempted reverse.) Working against both Allen and Deloach, Fitzgerald has absolutely killed us, and he can be expected to emerge as a top-flight receiver this year. The guy is a stud. Arizona goes loses a half yard over the next two plays, bringing up a crucial 3rd and 1. It can’t be stressed enough how good our run defense has been, with Pierce and Carlos Emmons making two key stops. Between Pierce, Emmons, and the similarly rangy and aggressive Reggie Torbor, our linebacking corps looks pretty solid these days, perhaps the best that it’s been since the Michael Brooks/Carlton Bailey/LT tandem of ’93.
But their efforts are rendered moot when Fitzgerald catches a quick out on the next play, beating Will Allen, who promptly turns around and flails his arms accusingly in the very best of the time-honored Giants defensive back tradition of attempting to shift blame by making it seem like someone else blew their assignment. (The most egregious example of this was Jayson Sehorn’s chin-strap snapping indignation after being dusted by Brandon Stokely in Super Bowl XXV. Now also seems like as good a time as any to point out that Will Allen is a free agent after this year.)

The touchdown makes the score 21-19 Giants, and faced with a decision, Denny Green decides to do the ballsy thing and go for 2. I like Denny Green. I remember when the Vikings first hired him, SportsCenter did a big profile on him, and I remember him saying, "I’m a child of the ‘60’s" in that raspy voice of his. He seems like a cool guy, and I agree with his decision to go for 2, but unfortunately for Denny, Warner throws a tough-to-catch ball to a tight-end, who can’t come down with it as the conversion fails. It wasn’t a bad throw, necessarily, and it wasn’t a bad play by the tight-end. Yet the guy was open, so the play should have been made. We’ll assign the blame 50/50. So it remains 21-19 Giants, at 7:11 in the third quarter. A lot of action in this 7 minutes and 48 seconds.

The Meadowlands, now subdued, sees Willie Ponder catch the ball 4 yards deep in the endzone and bring it out to the NYG 17. There’s a flag on the play, and I’m thinking that we’re gonna be backed up more, and that Arizona, having shown some heart by scoring on that last drive, are on the verge of seizing the momentum back. But fortunately, the penalty is on them, and they are forced to re-kick. Ponder fields this next kick at the 5, and darts left and then inside for a couple steps before jacking back left to the sideline -- all on the dead run -- and sprung by none other than Brandon Jacobs who is valiantly holding his block, outruns all pursuit and is off to the races. Willie Ponder. He’s legit. 28-13 Giants.

The crowd is up and doing its part, sensing the urgency of a defensive stand, and the D responds by finally putting the clamps down. Although Fitzgerald continues to kill us, catching a 17 yarder on the series, we force AZ to burn their final timeouts, and stuff them after this one blip. Antonio Pierce is shown jawing at Anquan Boldin after Boldin fails to keep both feet in bounds on a potential first down pass – we still can’t stop their pass – and this shit-popping makes me feel good. It’s been a long time since we had a dude with a ‘tude like Armstead, and Omar Stoutmire and Shaun Williams don’t count. Morton takes their punt at our 8 and brings it to the 22.
Our drive stalls, but our special teams come up big again as Feagles lines a punt that takes a big Giants bounce, all the way to the AZ 13, downed by David Tyree, who I forgot to mention along with our other excellent special-teamers. Tyree is a huge asset on special teams, and despite his earlier mistake, he’s a pretty serviceable receiver as well.
After a Pierce penalty gives AZ a first down, their drive is stalled as William Joseph makes a huge play, sniffing out a screen and making an athletic stop in space on the scatty JJ Arrington. The Giant crowd appreciates it, because as John Madden would say, "These Giant fans appreciate defense." Joseph has had himself a game, and Arizona punts, and we take the ball around midfield.

On a big 3rd and 14, Eli hits Tiki on a perfectly executed screen pass that goes for 31, bringing the ball to the ‘Zona 25. On the play, Tiki had to stay behind his wall of linemen, so he actually wound up getting run down from behind by an Arizona Defensive lineman. I thought to myself that it wasn’t too long ago that Tiki came down with that potentially career-crippling case of fumbleitis, and this play showed that he’s come a very long way since then. Derrick Ward, who seems competent in a backup role, brought his fresh legs into the game for a tough 9 yard run, in which he pushed the pile with the help of a hustling O-Lineman. On 2nd and 1, our short-yard specialist Brandon Jacobs plowed ahead for 3. First and 10 at the AZ 13, and Eli comes clean off a play action bootleg, hitting a diving Burress in the endzone for the touchdown. Burress was actually wide open because impressive Arizona rookie CB Antrel Rolle fell down on Burress’ move, and so Eli’s throw -- which was one of those tough, squeezed-in throws that could have only been caught by Burress or fall harmlessly incomplete – was unnecessary, but a good throw nonetheless. For his part, Plex showed great body control by dragging his feet as he fell forward while cradling the ball against his chest. 35-19 G-Men, with 11:38 left in the game. We’ve put up 28 in a little over a quarter. Moose Johnston, who had been going on about the Giants weapons and how they would allow Eli to realize his talent, peremptorily concludes, "This kid’s gonna have a big year."

A couple of series’ go by, and the clock ticks down, and with the outcome of the game well in hand, Moose Johnston continues the broadcasting tradition of gushing over-the-top praise on the winning team by getting as excited about the Giants as Giants fans themselves would. I wonder if they instruct these guys to do this? Arizona punts to us, and Chad Morton makes a couple of shifts and jukes, and finds himself off to the races, zigzagging horizontally into the endzone to outrun AZ’s punter. Morton has clearly lost much of his pure speed, but he’s still quick and shifty. The big block on the punt return? Brandon Jacobs. The guy can play. 42-19 Giants, officially a laugher.

As the game winds down, Moose makes a couple more solid points. First, he correctly pinpoints Willie Ponder’s kickoff return after the Fitzgerald touchdown as the backbreaker in the game. To have a drive like that undone by one big play has gotta suck. Second, after Eli grounds one, on the way to 10-23 performance that was really better than that, he points out that Eli has occasional release point problems and is very susceptible to throwing it low. I agree, and have noticed that this is especially apparent when his footwork isn’t straight and when he’s on the move.

But we’re 1-0, with the ‘Aints next week at the Meadowlands in a road game at home. Good win.


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