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September 27, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Coughlin's Get-Tough Approach Paying Off for Giants

BY SEAN LAHMAN
September 27, 2004

On sports radio shows and around water coolers, nearly everyone has been questioning the get-tough approach of Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. Some players were grumbling about playing time, others complained about being fined for being late to meetings, and a lot of Giants fans were wondering if the new skipper had the ship heading in the right direction. With a decisive win over the Browns yesterday, Coughlin's critics were effectively silenced.

The victory moves the Giants into second place in the NFC East with a 2-1 record; more importantly, this game was our first real glimpse of Coughlin's impact on a team that hit rock bottom last year.

Last year's Giants had the worst turnover differential in the league (minus-16). This was one of the first things that Coughlin needed to address, and so far, it appears that he has solved the problem. Through three games this season, the Giants are at plus-8. They have not thrown an interception and the offense has lost just one fumble - a bobbled snap in the third quarter of the Week 1 loss at Philadelphia.

Another trademark of Coughlin's teams has been solid offensive line play, an area that was a major weakness for the Giants last year. New starters occupy four of the five line positions, and they have for the most part been dramatically better than last year's crew.

With veteran center Shaun O'Hara and rookie guard Chris Snee, the Giants interior line is more physical at the point of attack. Moving Dave Diehl from guard to right tackle has helped improve the pass protection. In general, this year's line is tougher and more aggressive, and the difference is beginning to show.

The improved run blocking has helped the offense become much more efficient in the red zone, with a league leading five touchdown runs. Tiki Barber has averaged 5.5 yards per carry and he is on pace for the best year of his career.

How about the run defense? Coughlin replaced all three starting linebackers to give the Giants more youth and speed, and he brought in veteran defensive tackles Norman Hand and Fred Robbins to stuff the run. So far, the revamped unit has not allowed a single rushing touchdown.

The Giants proved last week against the Redskins that they could beat a team that was self-destructing. Yesterday, they showed that they could beat up on a bad team that's riddled by injuries. But what's important about these two games was how the Giants won.

Whereas last year's Giants seemed content to wait for their opponents to make mistakes, Coughlin's crew is forcing mistakes by applying pressure. The newly aggressive Giants defense has begun creating turnovers and pressuring the quarterback. The offense has avoided turnovers and exploited man coverage and mismatches for some big pass plays.

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In his heyday with the Rams, Kurt Warner put up the kind of numbers that made your head spin. In 43 starts from 1999-2001, Warner had 21 games with at least three touchdown passes and surpassed 300 passing yards 26 times.

He hasn't reached either of those milestones in his three games as the Giants quarterback, but his solid play has been a significant factor in the team's 2-1 start. Warner has thrown only one touchdown pass this year, but yesterday he set up three TD runs with big plays.

In the first quarter, his 47-yard pass to Amani Toomer moved the Giants to the 8-yard line; Tiki Barber scored on the next play. In the third quarter, a 38-yarder from Warner to Toomer gave New York a first-and-goal from the six. Two plays later, Warner ran the ball in himself to give the Giants a 17-0 lead. In the fourth quarter, Barber took a Warner pass 41-yards to the 1-yard line, setting up a Steve Christie field goal.

The Giants' offense is much more conservative than the one Warner ran in St. Louis, but it appears he has made the transition successfully. By avoiding turnovers and throwing more high-percentage passes, Warner has helped to resurrect an offense that averaged less than 10 points a game in the second half of the 2003 season.

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An early bye week gives the Jets a chance to rest some injured players and continue making fine adjustments to their new defensive schemes. While the Jets have played well so far this year, what's most compelling is how poorly their upcoming opponents have played. Their next three opponents are still winless, and each faces some serious problems.

The Dolphins offense has been horrible, ruined by poor play at quarterback, the absence of an NFL-caliber running back, and a meager offensive line. The veteran defense is still solid, but they're not good enough to win games by themselves. Things may get better, but the team is in free-fall as they prepare to host the Jets next week.

The Bills boast a solid defense, but the offense is completely stalled. Drew Bledsoe has thrown just 13 touchdown passes in his last 21 games, and the running back tandem of Travis Henry and Willis McGahee is averaging 2.7 yards per carry.

San Francisco is rebuilding after a tremendous talent drain, losing most of their assistant coaches and all of their key offensive players during the off-season. Their 34-0 loss to the Seahawks yesterday gave a good indication of how much rebuilding the 49ers have in front of them.

The Jets have a good chance to win these next three games, giving them a 5-0 record as they head up to Foxboro to face the Patriots on October 24 in what will be a critical AFC East matchup. They face the Dolphins and Bills again after that, opening up the possibility of a 7-1 start and a legitimate shot at the division title.

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