Third-down production, run defence and preventing big plays were just a few areas of concern for New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin heading into the team's bye week.
A head coach can always discover something to improve no matter what type of record his team bears. That especially holds true for the iron-fisted Coughlin, whose squad is in good position right now alone in first place in the NFC East. The Giants should be pleased with their 4-2 mark after many had wondered how they would manage when Philadelphia was crowned division champions even before the season commenced. The Eagles' so-called "Dream Team" is 2-4 and last in the division standings.
Having missed the playoffs each of the past two years, the Giants had a preseason list of injuries longer than Rapunzel's locks, but so far have managed to overcome those odds with depth. Still, there are several questions for Big Blue to answer, such as the basics in running the football and stopping the run and keeping drives alive. The Giants are 25th against the rush, allowing 127.7 yards per game, and their ground attack is ranked 26th (90.2 ypg).
"There are areas in each [area] that we'll try to focus and concentrate on," said Coughlin after last Sunday's 27-24 win over Buffalo. "The third down stuff with the offensive team, obviously. Just the ability to recognize that we have more and more work to do with our defence in terms of stopping the run, stopping the big play. We'll continue to work on that."
Bills running back Fred Jackson ran for 121 yards and a touchdown, an 80-yard scoring scamper, in last Sunday's loss at MetLife Stadium. In the Giants' home setback versus Seattle one week earlier, the Seahawks' Brandon Browner had a 94-yard interception return for a score and Marshawn Lynch finished two yards shy of 100 on the ground. Although it came in a losing effort to New York in Week 4, Arizona running back Beanie Wells ran over the Giants for 138 yards and three touchdowns on 27 attempts, while Eagles running back LeSean McCoy added 128 yards and a score in a 29-16 win for New York the week before.
Oddly, the Giants are 3-0 when allowing a 100-yard rusher.
St. Louis didn't do much to phase the G-Men in Week 2, but the Redskins rode the legs of Tim Hightower in a season-opening win over New York at FedEx Field, where he gathered 72 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.
So you can see the Giants haven't been as stout on defence as Coughlin would like, and the veteran coach knows his team won't be able to get away with that against the league's elite. New York also converted only 5-of-11 third-down chances against the Bills and have succeeded only 31.5% of the time in those situations.
The road following the bye week for the Giants resembles the cover of Stephen King's novel "The Bachmann Books", with the skulls representing what could be a few deadly tasks on the horizon. Though winless Miami is first on the list, which should be an easy win for the Giants, the team then has to play New England, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Green Bay, Dallas, Washington, the New York Jets and the Cowboys again in succession.
New York should know by now that games against the Patriots, Saints and Packers will all be major tests for its patched-up secondary, which is 16th in pass defence (245.8 ypg).
The Giants are currently 1-1 in divisional play, having lost to the Redskins in the opener and beating the Eagles on the road back in Week 3.
Luckily a few nicked-up players should be able to return after the break, including defensive end Justin Tuck, cornerback Prince Amukamara, running back Brandon Jacobs, fullback Henry Hynoski and guard Chris Snee. Amukamara has yet to play this season after the rookie broke a bone in his left foot back in August, but appears ready to go when play resumes Oct. 30 versus the Dolphins.
Amukamara said that watching other rookies around the league make an immediate impact has bothered him, and he believes he can make a difference too.
"For sure, and that makes my blood boil a little bit because I know I can make an impact on this team," Amukamara said on Tuesday. "I can't control that now but as soon as I am ready to go, I am going to give it all I've got."
Aaron Ross and Corey Webster have been holding it down from the cornerback spots, and Ross may lose some playing time when Amukamara is healthy enough to return. Safety Antrel Rolle has been used as a slot cornerback in the nickel and dime packages, but could be supplanted in that role by the healing rookie as well.
In other injury news for the Giants, safety Kenny Phillips underwent an X-ray on his injured ribs during the week but shouldn't miss any time. Tuck, meanwhile, claimed that he will be ready for the Dolphins game after missing four of the first six nursing neck and groin issues. He said the two weeks off to rest should suffice in his attempt to return to the field and improve New York's already-strong pass rush. He even joked about not wanting to jump off the George Washington Bridge anymore now that his health has been spiked because of rest and treatment.
The Giants haven't missed Tuck's presence all that much, as fellow ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Osi Umenyiora lead the team with eight and five sacks, respectively. Another beast coming off the edge certainly will make this defensive line even scarier, however, and help give more chances for Eli Manning and the offence to produce.
Manning has the Giants seventh in passing and possesses a 101.1 rating through six games to go along with 1,778 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. He threw a career-worst 25 interceptions a year ago, but vowed in the offseason that he's not a 25-INT type of quarterback. So far he's hushed the naysayers and isn't depending on a running game to come to his aid.
Manning is on pace to pass for more than 4,000 yards this season and has helped New York to consecutive 400-yard performances in total yards. The team has also won its last five games and seven of its eight outings in which it did not turn the ball, which was the case against the Bills.
Though Ahmad Bradshaw rushed for 104 yards and three touchdowns on a career- high 26 carries last week, the Giants' running game still needs improvement. The loss of Jacobs due to a knee injury and a lack of solidarity across the offensive line are two reasons for the team's inconsistent ground game, but Jacobs is hopeful to return soon after missing the last two games. According to Coughlin, the medical staff is still trying to get some things under control before he can contribute again, however.
The big back was injured in a 31-27 victory at Arizona back on Oct. 2.
"It never gets any easier sitting out a game," Jacobs said. "You see your teammates out there fighting and scratching as hard as they can fight and scratch for 60 minutes and you want to be out there helping. That's the only thing you think about. You got your teammates there and you want to be there for them, and it stinks when you can't and you're hurting."
Who knows how intimidating New York's offence can be if Bradshaw and Jacobs are both running on a full head of steam.
Another aspect to keep an eye on is how the Giants finish out the second half, something they have struggled to do on more than one occasion under Coughlin.
MCCOY, EAGLES IN A RUSH TO IMPROVE
That has usually been the ratio from pass-to-run when it comes to the Philadelphia Eagles' offence under head coach Andy Reid. This year, however, Reid has been turning to the run more often because he has a Pro-Bowl caliber back in LeSean McCoy and also wants to keep quarterback Michael Vick healthy.
Reid has received plenty of criticism in the past for his passion for throwing the football, and that comes with the territory when running (no pun intended) the West Coast offence. Short passes are substituted for the run within that particular scheme, which was perfected by the great Bill Walsh and been duplicated by several other coaches. Walsh had players like Roger Craig to run between the tackles and also catch passes out of the backfield, while Reid has a comparable weapon in McCoy. Like Craig, McCoy has been a monster in gaining yards from scrimmage and is beginning to keep Reid's playbook open at the run section.
McCoy has pushed his team to the apex of rushing this season, as the 2-4 Eagles sit atop the NFL with an average of 170.0 yards per game on the ground and a league-best 5.7 yards per carry. The Eagles racked up 192 rushing yards in last week's win at Washington, with McCoy leading the deluge with 126 yards and a touchdown on a career-best 28 carries. The second-round pick in 2009 leads the NFL in first downs and has recorded a touchdown in all six games.
"There are not a lot of backs in this league playing as well as LeSean is right now," said Reid. "He has a lot of value as a blocker and as a receiver and you can obviously see how good of a runner he is when he has the ball in his hands."
McCoy has six rushing touchdowns and two receiving and is first in the NFC with 569 rushing yards. He is also fifth in the NFL with an average of 94.8 rushing yards per contest and owns three 100-yard performances so far in 2011. McCoy is also among the league leaders in yards from scrimmage (692) and appears on his way to earning a trip to Hawaii at season's end barring injury.
The Eagles would be in a world of hurt had it not been for McCoy's breakout campaign, though the offensive line deserves some credit in that department as well. The unit has endured its fair share of verbal assaults during the early part of this season, and a lot of that has to do with guys not being healthy. Through all the line shifts, rookies and injuries, the group has been able to make holes and hold blocks long enough to spark the running game.
"It's getting there," Eagles rookie guard Danny Watkins said after the win over Washington. "We're preparing the right way. It felt good being on the field at the end, running down the clock. That was a good position to be in."
Watkins made his second NFL start against the Redskins and is joined by rookie centre Jason Kelce up front. Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters has been sidelined the past two games with a hamstring issue, but should be back after the bye week for the team's game against Dallas.
Philadelphia is resting this week before returning to action with three straight home games versus the Cowboys, Bears and Cardinals. After a trip to the Meadowlands against the Giants, the Eagles will head back home for a matchup with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.