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November 1, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Big Blue Victory Begins and Ends With Defense

BY SEAN LAHMAN
November 1, 2004

Most local football observers agreed that the Giants' game against the Vikings yesterday would be their biggest test of the season. Big Blue came through with a great game, bouncing back from a disappointing loss against the Lions at home to score a decisive road victory against one of the league's hottest teams. In the process, they served notice that they can compete with the best teams in the league.

Yesterday's win began and ended with the Giants' defense, which completely dominated the league's most prolific offense. In the first half, they forced the Vikings to turn the ball over twice, and shut them down for a three-and-out on four of their other five possessions. Minnesota's only drive of any consequence ended when kicker Morten Andersen's 38-yard field goal attempt bounced off the upright.

Minnesota has had success running the ball because they spread the field and force defenses to account for their talented receivers. That leaves some soft spots in the middle for the Vikings backs to exploit. With Randy Moss injured, the Giants were willing to play more single coverage and focus on shutting down the run. Minnesota's leading rusher, Mewelde Moore, was held to just 20 yards in the first half, and their inability to get the ground game going completely derailed their offense.

The Giants recorded 10 sacks in their first three games but have only had five in their last four games. That doesn't mean they can't be effective. Buoyed by the return of Fred Robbins, the Giants' front seven dominated the Vikings at the line of scrimmage. While they didn't sack Daunte Culpepper yesterday, the Giants did generate enough pressure to disrupt the Minnesota passing game. Culpepper was forced into making some bad passes and had to scramble several times.

New York's secondary had its best game of the season after Marcus Robinson burned cornerback Will Allen twice for long receptions in the first half. For the rest of the afternoon, the Giants pass defense was flawless. The absence of Moss made life easier for the defensive backs, but they did a better job of containing the Vikings receivers this week than they did against the Lions last week. The key was being more physical, playing tight at the line of scrimmage and keeping them from getting into their routes. They kept the normally explosive Vikings passing attack from getting any balls downfield, with Culpepper failing to connect with his wide receivers for any other pass plays longer than 15 yards.

Allen and safety Gibril Wilson each had an interception, and Kevin Wilson recovered a lateral pass on Minnesota's first possession. The Giants are now tied for the league lead with 18 takeaways.

It was a banner day for the offense, too, which scored 34 points on a day when veteran center Shaun O'Hara was out and both starting receivers were battling injuries. The Giants not only took advantage of Minnesota's misuces, they unveiled a couple of new things that caught the Vikings off guard.

Early in the game, the Giants were lining up with tight end Jeremy Shockey split out wide. This put him into a matchup with a defensive back, a huge mismatch. It led to a 38-yard pass interference penalty that set up the Giants' first touchdown.

Shockey didn't score a touchdown, but not for lack of effort. He was stopped inside the 1-yard line just before halftime, and the Giants ended up settling for a field goal. Midway through the third quarter he caught a pass on a crossing pattern and was brought down less than a foot from the end zone.

The Giants seem to have solved two key problems with their running game. First, given Ron Dayne's failures as a short yardage back, they made the long-overdue decision to put the ball in Tiki Barber's hands at the goal line. He responded with two tough touchdown runs. Conventional wisdom says that you need a power back near the goal line, but Barber demonstrated yesterday that quickness can be just as dangerous. On both of his touchdown runs, the Giants spread out wide and let Barber bounce into an opening for the score.

The Giants also appear to have figured out who will take the heavy load off Barber's shoulders. Mike Cloud gained 55 yards in relief of Barber and scored two rushing touchdowns in the second half yesterday. It would appear that he has supplanted Dayne as the number two back, giving the Giants a reliable option when Barber needs a rest. That's going to be critical in the second half of the season.

***

Three touchdowns in a span of three and a half minutes gave the Steelers a 21-3 first-quarter lead against New England yesterday, and the Patriots couldn't recover. It was the defending Super Bowls champions' first loss in 19 regular season games, and it revealed several vulnerabilities.

Playing without running back Corey Dillon, the Patriots ended the first quarter with minus-two rushing yards and didn't try to run any more. They threw the ball on 35 of the next 38 plays, with only limited success. Tom Brady threw two interceptions and coughed up a fumble, facing relentless pressure from the Pittsburgh defense. Even though he lined up in the shotgun for most of the second half, the Steelers still managed to sack him four times.

One of the reasons why New England's defense has been successful is because they confuse opponents with a variety of fronts and coverages. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, making just his sixth NFL start, was completely unfazed. The Patriots' pass rush didn't bother him at all, and he picked apart a pass defense that had been pretty formidable in its first six games.

The Steelers showed the rest of the NFL that there is a clear template for beating the Patriots. Unfortunately for other teams, knowing how to do it and having the personnel to pull it off are two different things. Not many teams are blessed with the offensive firepower the Steelers have, and even fewer have been able to knock Tom Brady off his game.

Both the Steelers and Patriots emerge from the game with a 6-1 record that is best in the AFC. The Jets can match that mark with a win tonight against the Dolphins.

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