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October 28, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Giants' Improvement Is Deceptive

BY SEAN LAHMAN
October 28, 2004

There are two schools of thought about how to evaluate the Giants' performance so far this season. One is to compare their progress to the six other teams that made coaching changes at the end of last season. Five of those teams have a record of 2-4 or worse, and in places like Buffalo and Oakland, there's a sense that no progress is being made.

The Giants (4-2) and Atlanta Falcons (5-2) are the only winning teams with new coaches. By that measure, the Giants have been pretty good so far.

But we shouldn't measure the Giants simply by whether they've improved over last year's 4-12 performance. Of course they have improved - it would be hard to play worse than they did last year - but the more important question is whether Tom Coughlin has transformed them into a team that can win playoff games. On that scale, the Giants don't grade nearly so well.

As inspiring as it was to watch the Giants win road games in Green Bay and Dallas, we know now that neither of those teams is very good. At this point, all four of the teams the Giants have defeated have losing records, and the two winning teams they faced (Detroit and Philadelphia) each beat them by two touchdowns.

If that trend continues, this team will finish 9-7, hoping to squeak into a wildcard berth that would send them to Minnesota or Atlanta for a playoff game they can't win.

The Giants are doing some things well. Their offensive line has improved dramatically, and Tiki Barber is seeing some big holes. The Giants running back ranks fifth in rushing yards and, more importantly, he hasn't lost a single fumble. The solid play of the new linebacking corps has also been a pleasant surprise, and the hard-hitting and opportunistic secondary has come up with some big plays.

But the loss to the Lions illustrated three serious problems that, if they aren't addressed, will keep the Giants from making a serious playoff run this year: the play of quarterback Kurt Warner, the under-utilization of tight end Jeremy Shockey, and the growing struggles of the defense.

Warner fumbled three times against the Lions, including once in Detroit territory to end a promising eight-play drive. Turnovers have always been the two-time MVP's Achilles' heel: He turned the ball over 78 times in 53 games with the Rams.

While the vertical passing game in St. Louis made it more likely Warner would throw interceptions, he lost his starting job after fumbling 14 times in his last nine games. With the Giants he has fumbled seven times in six games, and while they weren't all recovered by the opposing defense, they all killed drives.

It wouldn't be fair to say that Warner is dragging the offense down, but by the same token, he hasn't been giving the team much of a spark. Through six games, he still hasn't thrown a touchdown pass to either of his starting receivers, Ike Hilliard and Amani Toomer, who combined for 11 TD receptions last year.

It's nice when Tiki Barber can take an outlet pass 62 yards for a touchdown, as he did against the Lions, but you have to be worried about an offense that isn't getting more contributions from its wide receivers.

What about Shockey? One of the best tight ends of his generation was missing in action when the Giants were in the red zone against the Lions. At his Monday press conference, Coach Coughlin suggested that the Lions defense took away the passing option when they were close to the end zone.

But my review of the game film showed that the Giants ran six passing plays and eight rushing plays when they were inside the Detroit 20-yard line. They threw the ball to Jamar Taylor, Jim Finn, Hilliard, and Barber... everybody but Shockey.

Shockey has two touchdown catches this year, which ties his career high for a single season. That's ridiculous. Mark Bavaro had eight touchdowns in his third season as a starter, Shannon Sharpe had nine, and Tony Gonzalez had 11. Each one of those guys often faced double-coverage, yet their teams made a conscious effort to get them the ball in the red zone, something the Giants have never done with Shockey.

If opposing defenses are really shifting their coverage to shut down the Giants tight end, then that's an even more damning indictment of the team's inability to score with Toomer and Hilliard. If the defenses aren't focusing on Shockey, then the Giants are simply ignoring one of their most dangerous weapons. He can outmuscle most defensive backs and fight for balls in traffic, and linebackers don't have the speed to stay with him.

Yet for all the offense's problems in the red zone, the Giants defense has been even worse. Opposing teams have made it to the red zone 16 times and emerged with 12 touchdowns, a 75% success rate that makes the Giants the worst in the league. The Giants don't give up many big plays, but from one down to the next they aren't doing a good job of slowing teams down.

That's going to be a huge problem when the Giants face the Vikings this weekend. Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper is having an MVP caliber season: He has thrown 19 touchdown passes and 3 interceptions and is averaging 325 passing yards a game.

On the other side of the ball, defensive end Michael Strahan has now gone three games without a sack. If he and his linemates can't generate significant pressure on Culpepper, the Vikings passer will have his way with the Giants secondary. It's hard enough for cornerback Will Allen to match up with the league's big receivers, but without a significant pass rush, covering Randy Moss will be an impossible job.

Moss has been battling an ankle injury, but he practiced yesterday and coach Mike Tice says he will play on third downs and in the red zone. In their last three meetings, the Vikings Pro Bowler has scorched the Giants for 381 yards and five touchdowns.

When these two teams met last year, Moss had 125 yards receiving and two touchdowns. The Giants won that game 29-17 and improved their record to 3-4, giving hope that the team could salvage its season and contend for the playoffs. A loss in this year's trip to Minnesota would leave them at 4-3, proof that the Giants have improved, but that they're still not ready for a Super Bowl run.

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