August 2, 2005 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version
BY SEAN LAHMAN
August 2, 2005
Last season marked the beginning of a new era for the New York Giants. The arrival of head coach Tom Coughlin and the excitement of a promising young quarterback made last year's training camp a rousing place to be. But as those hot summer days in Albany gave way to the autumn winds at the Meadowlands, it became painfully clear that the Giants had a lot of problems to solve before they could think of competing for a playoff berth. By the end of December, an eight-game losing streak helped to deflate whatever optimism remained.
During the off-season, the Giants actively addressed their biggest needs and made some major additions through free agency, including tackle Kareem McKenzie, linebacker Antonio Pierce, receiver Plaxico Burress, and kicker Jay Feeley. But that doesn't mean their work is complete. When the team convened its 2005 training camp this past weekend, there were still some important questions to answer and challenges to face. Four key issues in particular need to be addressed before the Giants leave Albany and head for their regular season match up with the Cardinals.
KEEP THE OFFENSIVE LINE HEALTHY
The Giants attempted to shore up their offensive line last summer, but by the time training camp was over, injuries were forcing them to scramble to find five healthy starters. Guard Rich Seubert didn't recover from his broken leg, and free-agent tackle Barry Stokes suffered a back injury that sidelined him for the year. Good offensive line play requires five players to work in unison, and that's almost impossible when you're repeatedly forced to insert new guys into the lineup. The Giants need to find a way to get this year's crew working together without exposing them to injury.
The addition of former Jets tackle Kareem McKenzie will go a long way toward resolving the offensive line problems that have plagued this team in recent seasons. His presence will help solidify the pass protection, but he'll make the biggest impact as a powerful run blocker. Guard Chris Snee and center Shaun O'Hara both have the brawler's mentality that you need on the interior of the line. With third-year man Dave Diehl at left guard and veteran Luke Petitgout at left tackle, this line has the potential to be one of the better units in the league.
If one of these guys tears his knee up or breaks a leg on the practice fields in Albany, though, the whole offense could be in trouble. Eli Manning will never become a superstar quarterback behind a patchwork offensive line.
SOLIDIFY THE FRONT SEVEN
The Giants run-defense finished 28th in the NFL last year in rushing yards allowed (134.8 yards a game), and was particularly horrible in November games against Atlanta, Washington, and Baltimore. What was particularly troubling was the poor play by the defensive line and linebackers in the red zone. Opponents had the ball inside the Giants 20-yard line 50 times last year and came away with 36 touchdowns.
The addition of fifth-year middle linebacker Antonio Pierce is expected to help shore up the run defense, but the Giants will also need defensive tackle William Joseph to make more of an impact. Joseph has been a disappointment since being taken with the 25th overall pick of the 2003 draft. He has a rare combination of size and speed, but hasn't yet been able to translate those skills into a consistent performance on the field.
Big Blue's pass rush is also a concern, with 33-year-old Michael Strahan on one side of the line and new starter Osi Umenyiora on the other. Though the Giants will continue to play a base 4-3 defense, coordinator Tim Lewis will mix in the 3-4 look that he used in his days with the Steelers. This will enable the defense to use a zone blitz or a fire zone scheme to help get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Over the next five weeks, the defensive line will need to acclimate itself to the new system.
BUILD A PASS OFFENSE AROUND ELI
The passing game never got off the ground with Eli Manning under center last year. His inexperience was a big factor, and you can expect that he'll be better with a full off-season of preparation under his belt.
The lack of production from his wide receivers last year certainly didn't help. Deficiencies on the offensive line forced tight end Jeremy Shockey to spend more time blocking than catching passes, and starting wide receivers Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard combined for a grand total of zero touchdown receptions.
To address this lack of productivity, the Giants signed former Steeler Plaxico Burress, the biggest name on the free-agent market. With Toomer, Burress, and Shockey in tow, the team now has three big targets for opposing defenses to worry about. All are over 6-foot-3, which will create match-up problems, especially for some the smaller defensive backs who play in the ever popular cover-2 defense.
New offensive coordinator John Hufnagel would like to use the same kind of passing attack he helped run as the quarterbacks coach in New England - an aggressive scheme that spreads the field. That wasn't possible with the receiving corps the Giants had last year, but the addition of Burress should open things up. Over the next few weeks, Hufnagel has to implement a system that takes advantage of the big receivers without asking Manning to do more than he's capable of at this point.
FIND A BACKUP FOR TIKI BARBER
With a league-leading 2096 yards from scrimmage, Tiki Barber not only had the best year of his career, he was the chief weapon in an offense that spent most of 2004 sputtering. Even in the second half of the season, when opponents were focused on stopping the run, Barber continued to produce. But 322 carries is a heavy load for any back, especially one who is only 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds. Add to that the fact that Barber turned 30 in April, and you'll see why finding a reliable no.2 back should be an immediate priority.
Barber has lasted this long because he has been able to avoid serious injuries, missing just six games in eight seasons. But given how many times he's carried the ball in the last three years, there's a good chance his luck could run out. Even if he does stay healthy, it wouldn't be much of a surprise if his productivity wanes and another player is forced to carry the ball 75 or 100 times over the course of the season.
The failed experiment that was Ron Dayne has fled for Denver, and while veteran Mike Cloud is a decent change-of-pace back, the offense would be sunk if it were forced to rely on him for any significant stretch of time. Rookie Brandon Jacobs might be the answer. The 6-foot-4, 256-pound fourth-round pick out of Southern Illinois is a bruising back with deceptive speed. His ability to run inside could also be a big boost for a team that has not been able to run the ball in short yardage situations for several years. If Jacobs isn't capable of contributing this year, the team will have to find someone who is.
The Giants have a lot of work to do over the next five weeks. On paper, they have more talent than they did a year ago. If they can resolve the major issues they face, they'll be a competitive team in what figures to be a tough NFC East division. If they cannot, it's going to be another long season for the men in blue.
Mr. Lahman will cover the Jets in tomorrow's New York Sun.
August 2, 2005 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version