In the biggest game Carolina has played in years, Carolina travels to New Yo...well, New Jersey to play the New York Giants for first place in the NFC and home field advantage. These are the games you train for, you work for, you live for. This game will be a battle of evenly matched, hard hitting run based teams, and the winner likely walks away with a big advantage.
The Giants' defense, under rising star defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, has been solid against the run this year. They're 6th in yards, 4th in points; they're 5th in rush yards and 10th in pass yards. However, the run stat is mildly deceiving, having been ahead in so many games and receiving third best in attempts; they give up 10th in per-play average, a much more average stat. Conversely, their pass defense looks worse because of attempts - they're sixth in net average against the pass.
Their defense is keyed off of MLB Antonio Pierce, captain and playcaller. Pierce never leaves the field and is their most vital piece. Fred Robbins, at NT, voted captain as well, is an under-rated force inside to allow the ends more leeway. A second alternate Pro Bowler, Robbins plays a lot of odd-front on the center and can be disruptive. Without him this past week, the Cowboys had huge broken runs inside. Across from him, Barry Cofield is an unassuming player, neither great against the run nor pass, that rotates in. Backup end Renaldo Wynn comes in for pass plays.
Jeff Otah should be commended for only giving up five sacks when he's still raw, but he draws a huge assignment this week. Justin Tuck will probably require help, having notched 12 sacks on the season. Tuck takes mostly outside routes to the QB, and if Otah has the awareness to notice, crossing back over on hump moves probably won't work. As well, while he's been consistent all year, half his sacks have come in six division games, and had 5 more against SF, STL, and AZ in routs. 70% of sacks have come in the second half. Tuck's outside paths give him good ability on contain, but he doesn't make many plays against the run (3 stuffs) despite his tackle numbers (60, 47 solo). New Pro Bowler Jordan Gross takes on Matthias Kiwanuka, new to end after being pushed to LB in the past. Kiwanuka has 8.5 sacks, three of which came against Pittsburgh, another 2.5 coming in two games against Dallas. Kiwanuka abuses larger left tackles, but most players that have a solid amount of quickness can contain him.
Free agent Danny Clark (6'3, 245) and undrafted 4th-year Chase Blackburn (6'3, 250) start strongside and weakside next to Pierce. Both are primarily run stoppers, but the overachieving Blackburn does play in the nickel.
Rookie Kenny Phillips worked his way into the lineup and has been a solid SS. Michael Johnson, a 2nd year, 7th rounder, is the FS. His lanky frame has picked off two passes, both against SF in a blowout. Neither get sucked into playaction too much, but both get inexperienced. Combo routes, spreading the defense out, and pump fakes could help.
Corey Webster and 2007 first rounder Aaron Ross are the starting corners. Webster has 3 INT and 21 PD, and Ross has 3 INT, 8 PD. Webster is adept at man technique coverage in zone, while Ross is physical and breaks on routes. Of the two, Webster is more likely to pull Steve Smith in coverage; Ross is more likely to take on Muhsin Muhammad. These are good matchups for the Giants, though Ross won't out-bump Muhammad and double routes will be beneficial if Carolina has time. Webster has enough speed to stay with most receivers, but may not for Smith. He'll probably have help over the top but both safeties are young. Ross will anticipate playing deeper on Muhammad, where he won't have help while the Giants roll toward Smith, so it's plausible to see the smoke route revised toward Muhammad a few times early to help move the chains.
Terrell Thomas is the nickel, having ousted Sam Madison, and the second round pick has contributed well. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes, but lacks the physicality or size to take on Dwayne Jarrett. The team does have an advantage in 3 WR, but they lose a bit of running prowess from that situation, so expect more outside running, dumps to the backs, or motion in passing situations. The team doesn't expect to be less than obvious in running situations, but draws can be used right against the Giants from the guard out since their ends take such wide stances.
The Giants don't have the LBs to pull a safety for a 4th LB the way that Denver and others have situationally tried. They have most of their DL talent on the field, and while they could bring Renaldo Wynn to stack a 5th DL in the game, they don't have much else. Teams have tried various things to counter our goal offenses and our power sets, but the Giants don't have a ton of options due to injury.
Carolina's going to need combo blocks to neutralize the middle of that Giants' D. Putting Ryan Kalil in a position to combo off Robbins and let the guards push him toward the sideline will be a big help, as will Brad Hoover's isolation blocks on the on-side OLBs. Expect a lot more two-tight end, and a fair bit of motion, as Carolina tries to manipulate the Giants' defensive front without spreading them. The Eagles used a lot of two tight end and max protect schemes to keep Donovan McNabb in the clear with enough time, and were able to outmuscle in the running game as well.
From those sets, the Eagles played a lot of small-ball, running and short passing to a high percentage of first downs. In that ideal, Carolina hasn't played as well in the short passing game of late, with some miscues with the TEs and not many balls going to the backs, but it's an effective strategy if they can make it happen, and Deangelo Williams has slowly built up 22 receptions to be the team's 3rd leading receiver. With the Giants' rush, and their expansive array of pressure schemes, it'll be a good time to bring out a few screen packages. And if the Giants will work on stopping Steve Smith first, the run and the short pass should be there.
As well, watch for more Smith in the slot and in motion. Dwayne Jarrett is a better split end than slot receiver, so other than setting up slants and stop routes, Jarrett will probably line up wide in 3 WR and let Smith go in motion to free up coverage a bit more. Look for a few setup tricks, possibly revolving around Smith, early on, and a weakside reverse to Smith from motion.
With Brandon Jacobs back, the key will remain stopping the run first. The Giants' 1st ranked run offense stalled without Jacobs in, and the Giants struggled to respond. Their 18th ranked pass offense, lacking Plaxico Burress, is efficient but somewhat punchless, and Eli Manning's trip to the Pro Bowl is despite stats more akin to Delhomme's than brother Peyton's. Despite having power and having the ability to pass, the Giants have struggled to convert touchdowns in the red zone. Losing Jacobs for a time hurt, and worse, having Burress' size missing has disrupted.
Jacobs is almost exclusively a runner or blocker - he's only caught 5 balls all year, compared to backup Derrick Ward's 38. As well, FB Madison Hedgecock has only caught 5; the team has a high amount of pass attempts from playaction, in base formation. The team, despite their supposed offer to trade for Tony Gonzalez, don't use a lot of 2 TE, and backup TEs Darcy Johnson (6'5, 267) and Michael Matthews (6'2, 260) have two catches apiece. Hedgecock is a Pro Bowler, and starting TE Kevin Boss is an alternate. Only Boss, of the secondary blockers, plays often in pass sets, and has 28 rec/338 yards/5TD, ranking 6th on the team. Boss is, of course, a more likely short and goal target.
Ward plays more often in pass sets compared to Jacobs or third back Ahmad Bradshaw, and the other four top receivers are WR. Tom Coughlin would traditionally prefer to spread the defense out, but keeps things tighter for the run game, so on more traditional passing downs, he'll use more spread and push 3-4 WR into combo routes and rely a lot on the slot. 6'3, 200 lb Amani Toomer, the veteran of the group, starts and plays mostly outside, leading the team with 537 yards on 44 catches.
Backup Steve Smith, who leads the team in receptions with 52, does a lot of short work from the slot, but it was Dominick Hixon that got the start with Plaxico Burress out. Hixon, 6'2, 190, is good at beating the bump because of an unorthodox stance, not unlike a praying mantis, that has him exploding through a defender. He's had mixed success as a starter, after playing well in situations and having excelled as a kick/punt returner. Carolina doesn't lack size in the secondary, so there are no real matchup problems. It will be imperative to keep Charles Godfrey at home, however, and keep him on his man while Coughlin attempts various ways of luring the rookie out of position. Smith on Richard Marshall short won't be a key worry, as Marshall has struggled more deep and the Giants don't send him deep. The Panthers have good passing game matchups here, and may be able to pull Chris Harris into the box more often than if they were playing against a midseason Giants team with Burress.
Eli Manning, who has been named to the Pro Bowl, completes 60.3% of passes, has 20 TD/10 INT, but has struggled at home in recent games (53.7 QB rating) and since the second week of November (his completion percentage for December drops 10 points from the other three months). With a lessened run threat, he hasn't been able to produce, and without Burress to go get his jump balls he's been more limited in his daring. He's also had trouble working the sidelines this year, and trouble in the cold oddly enough.
LT David Diehl has 5.5 sacks on the year, and gave up 13.5 sacks last year. He faces a hot Julius Peppers, who has turned it on down the stretch (though was held statless against Denver due to Ryan Clady and numerous double teams). Banged up Kareem McKenzie faces the rotation of Charles Johnson and Tyler Brayton. Inside, the Giants had problems last week - Rich Seubert went out with injury (and should be starting again this week) and the Giants struggled with Grey Ruegamer in. The middle of Seubert and Pro Bowlers Chris Snee and Shaun O'Hara is rock solid, and Carolina will need whatever they can get out of Ma'ake Kemoeatu to go with Damione Lewis, and the team may upgrade Nick Hayden to a jersey instead of Darwin Walker to add size. Gary Gibson will definitely be active.
Injuries played a part, but Dallas also did a lot schematically that helped. Three wide situations, instead of putting the traditional nickel in, Dallas played 5 DL and 1 LB more often, although their OLB are effectively DL, Ware did stand up. Stacking the line a bit more against the Giants' front caused more confusion, allowed more stunting, and Diehl struggled heavily against Ware standing. Peppers is solid standing up, and with 4 other DL on the field, they can afford to play with him a bit more. The team hasn't messed with moving Julius Peppers around much other than swapping sides, but it would cause confusion to dust that off. Blitzing Manning from a traditional 4-3 isn't as effective, but blitzing from nickel (while more transparent) has been more effective since protection isn't as great as he's used to from a max-protect playaction style pass.
The key will, of course, be stopping the run, and letting the Giants get a bunch of 3rd-and-2 situations will lead to disaster for Carolina.
NY sent both their kicking specialists to the Pro Bowl. John Carney, now 44, hasn't tried a 50+ FG all year, and is 29-31 overall. Punter Jeff Feagles has a 44.0 yard average, and their coverage unit allows only 4.3 per return. They use Hixon as a returner, but have shied away from using him since starting, and Bradshaw takes more of the kick returns anyway. They allow 22.4 on kick returns.
An aside - it's the battle of the Ledford High School fullbacks, with Hoover and Hedgecock both graduating from there.