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October 22, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Enigmatic Giants Should Roll Over Paper Lions

BY SEAN LAHMAN
October 22, 2004

There's no doubt that the 2004 Giants have addressed many of the issues that led to their collapse last year. In winning four of their first five games, we've seen better play at just about every position. The offensive line is vastly improved, there's more athleticism on the defense, and the level of intensity the players bring to the field each week is definitely higher than we saw at any point last year.

But with two weeks to prepare for Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions, the Giants probably didn't spend much time celebrating their good start - I don't think that coach Tom Coughlin has a self-congratulatory bone in his body. He's experienced enough to know that there are always things that can be improved, and even with a soft stretch coming up in the schedule, there's plenty of reason to be concerned.

First of all, the run defense has been an enigma. The Giants did a tremendous job of containing two of the game's most prolific backs, holding Washington's Clinton Portis to 69 yards rushing and Green Bay's Ahman Green to 58. Yet the Giants have struggled against less talented teams. Philadelphia's Brian Westbrook scorched them for 119 yards in the opener. Cleveland's William Green and James Jackson totaled 115 rushing yards, and three Cowboys backs combined for 159 yards on the ground.

Nonetheless, the Giants do a good job of stopping teams on third down, and they're one of just two teams (the Cardinals being the other) that haven't allowed a single rushing touchdown. The Giants seem to give up yards in bunches near the middle of the field but stiffen as they approach the goal line.

The addition of tackles Norman Hand and Fred Robbins has been the major reason for the improvement, though Robbins didn't practice this week and is questionable for Sunday's game with the Lions. Without him, the Giants should be able to persevere against the inept Lions rushing attack. Despite the addition of first-round draft pick Kevin Jones, Detroit's ground game still ranks 31st this year. Jones has been slowed by an ankle injury and backup running back Artrose Pinner has only been effective as a short yardage runner.

But there will be tougher challenges ahead. To a great extent, the Giants' chances of making a playoff run depend on their ability to keep teams like the Vikings, Falcons, and Eagles from controlling the game with their ground attack.

Another area of concern for the Giants has been their short-yardage offense. During the preseason, it looked as if running back Ron Dayne might be the answer, but coach Coughlin has learned what Jim Fassel knew last year. Despite his size, Dayne simply isn't the kind of back who can gain tough yards in the middle of the field. After scoring a touchdown in the first quarter of the season opener, he's been largely ineffective.

The Giants don't really have another option in the backfield. Fullback Jim Finn is a good blocker who can catch some passes, but in his five NFL seasons he's carried the ball just six times and fumbled twice - not the kind of statistic that Coughlin is going to overlook. Journeyman back Mike Cloud probably isn't the answer either.

Of course, short-yardage and red-zone offense doesn't necessarily have to come from the backfield. It can come from a tight end, and the Giants have one of the best in the business.

Jeremy Shockey is probably the toughest tight end in the NFL, which makes him ideally suited to be the prime target on third down. There have been some signs that the Giants are beginning to view Shockey as their main weapon in the red zone. Kurt Warner has only thrown three touchdown passes this year, and two of them went to Shockey over the last two games.

There may be only one thing that the Lions do consistently well, and that's defend the run. That's why offensive coordinator John Hufnagel should look to Shockey for the tough yards. Shockey's role could also expand because of Tim Carter's hip injury. The options to replace the Giants' no. 3 receiver are David Tyree, Willie Ponder, and rookie Jamaar Taylor. None of these candidates has the experience (or, frankly, the skill) to be the vertical threat that Carter was.

While Shockey doesn't have the speed to beat defensive backs in a race to the end zone, he has the ability to knock them back on their heels within the first five yards and get enough separation to get open downfield. When he's part of the Giants game plan, most defenses have to account for him by using a linebacker to slow him down at the line of scrimmage and a safety to pick up the coverage after that.

That's probably what Detroit will try on Sunday, even though safeties Bracy Walker and Brock Marion may not be up to the challenge. The Lions gave up three touchdown passes to the Packers last week and rank 28th overall in pass defense.

Despite their 3-2 record, the Lions really haven't played very well. Their offense ranks last in the NFL and the defense is 29th. The Giants' biggest worry is beating themselves. Their record in games after a bye is 3-12, including losses in seven of their last eight. If the Giants are really a playoff contender, they ought to come out and dominate Detroit. With two weeks to prepare for a home game against a weak opponent, that's what the NFL's best teams do.

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