New York State of Mind

Most NFL observers felt the New York Giants would be improved in 2005. New York lumbered through a 6-10 campaign last year, a season during which much of the focus was on the acquisition and development of quarterback Eli Manning.

Kurt Warner started the year under center, and the Giants got off to a good start, winning five of their first seven games before cratering to an 0-8 mark in November and December. Manning started seven games last year for the Giants, and when he finally took over the position for good, New York hailed the dawning of a new era, despite the team's dismal record.

So what's gotten into the Giants this year? The free-agent signing of former Pittsburgh wide receiver Plaxico Burress is significant, to be sure, but does he alone make a once-dormant offense into a juggernaut on a team that has jumped out to a 3-1 start, tying the Giants with the Washington Redskins for first place in the NFC East?

At quarterback, it almost looks like Eli is playing with the Colts and Peyton is playing with the Giants -- the normally explosive Colts suddenly are winning with defense, and the Giants, a traditionally defense-driven club, are flinging the ball all over the field and piling up yards and points at a record rate.

Spotlight: Drew Bledsoe

Give the uncertainty of Julius Jones' ankle, and Parcells' disdain for relying on rookies, the Dallas gameplan likely will center largely around Bledsoe taking to the air more than usual. Outside linebackers Carlos Emmons and Reggie Torbor each have an interception, but tight end Jason Witten should be able to find success against either one. At 6-foor-5, 250 pounds, Emmons almost matches Witten's size. The 6-2, 254-pound Torber holds his own in the strength department, but doesn't have Witten's height and reach. If Bledsoe can hit Terry Glenn deep early in the game, that will force the New York safeties to stay back to help the cornerbacks, often leaving Witten in single coverage. Going to the air also will help neutralize New York middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, who is among the NFL's best defenders against the run, but is less effective in pass coverage.

If the Cowboys park tight end Dan Campbell next to right tackle Rob Petitti to the rookie keep defensive end Michael Strahan off Bledsoe's back, the veteran passer should have a big day in the air. If he stays upright in the face of the Giants' rush, it could well be Bledsoe, instead of Manning, who garners the headlines Monday morning.
Release the Hounds!
The way things are going, Eli Manning might have a better chance at getting to the Pro Bowl than his record-setting brother. But he is still young and relatively inexperienced. The obvious answer is that the defense needs to apply pressure, thereby forcing Manning into quick, errant passes. But Manning has been extremely accurate, and while he's not oblivious to pressure, that might not be enough. With that said, the Cowboys need to hit Manning: hard and often. They need to sack him repeatedly, and without supporting actual injury, they need to let him feel it. He's still young, and if, say, defensive end Greg Ellis and defensive tackle La'Roi Glover were to meet full speed … at Manning … he'll spend the rest of the day looking for the pass rush. He's smart and mature and poised enough that he's not going to stop running the offense or forget to make his reads. But if the Cowboys can hit him early … and hard … he might just throw a little earlier than he normally might, leading to either an interception or at least more incomplete passes. In addition, forcing such throws will help reduce the Giants' effectiveness on first down, which has been one of Bill Parcells' mantras all week. Because New York has found itself in second-and-short or third-and-short so often in the early part of the season, Tom Coughlin and his staff have had many more options, and a much better chance to be successful. Force the Giants into second-and-long, or third-and-long, and the Cowboys will have a much better chance to bog down the New York offense.

Something to Ponder
New York's Willie Ponder is arguably the NFL's best kickoff return specialist in the early going this season, averaging 30.1 yards on 14 returns thus far. Parcells (and several of his players) credit Ponder with a major assist in the New York offensive juggernaut this season, because he has given the Giants great field position. Several players cite Ponder's explosiveness as one of the main reasons for the Giants' offensive prowess this season, because he has allowed his team to play on a short field. Dallas needs to make New York muster long drives by kicking away from Ponder (or forcing touchbacks) and showing improved coverage when he is allowed to field the ball.

Time to Run
There are many who believe time of possession is an overrated statistic. The theory is that if a team can keep the opposition off the field for long periods of time, that team will have less of a chance to score. That's true, in a sense, but if a team scores as a result of a 12-play, grind-it-out drive, or on an 80-yard fly pattern, a touchdown is still a touchdown.

However, in this case, the Cowboys will do well to chew up clock time by running the ball effectively. If Dallas can get a late lead, New York will largely abandon the running game and have Manning take to the air, where he can take aim at Burress, Amani Toomer, Jeremy Shockey, David Tyree and Barber coming out of the backfield, where he's extremely effective on screen passes. Dallas needs to eat up significant chunks of clock early in the game to allow their defense a chance to have fresh legs in the late going. Manning is not fast, but he has started to resemble his brother, or Tom Brady -- two prolific passers who make up for their lack of footspeed with an innate ability to sidestep pressure or slide through the pocket to evade pressure. Additionally, if the Dallas defense can stay off the field early, the Cowboy defenders should have the legs to chase Burress, Toomer and Tyree -- all of whom have considerable speed -- in the game's waning moments.

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