Inside Slant, Notes, Quotes, Report Cards

The steps aren't quite baby-like, but young Eli Manning, the Giants' starting quarterback, with less than a full season under his belt, is making strides week after week and, along the way, picking up a few grudging compliments from stern-visaged coach Tom Coughlin.

"Eli played better this week than he did last week," was Coughlin's pronouncement, and while the NFL's top overall draft pick in 2004 hasn't yet lit up the scoreboard a la big brother Peyton, he is growing more confident and poised. "I hated to see them take away that last touchdown from him," said defensive end Michael Strahan, referring to a 22-yard scoring strike to wide receiver Plaxico Burress called back because of an illegal formation call on the other wideout, Amani Toomer.

"But I have seen him take command in the huddle, show great poise and he is only going to get better. As he continues to grow as a player, we should be pretty hard to beat."

In his two games thus far this season, Manning has completed 23 of 47 passes for 337 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions. "It is nowhere near what I think I can do," he said. "I am just learning to feel a little more comfortable in the huddle. I know what our guys can do, and I know enough to understand that everything starts and ends with the offensive line.

But it is very encouraging for us to be winning while I am learning." Burress, signed as a free agent from Pittsburgh in the off-season, smiled when someone mentioned Eli. "We are getting to learn each other," said Burress, who caught five passes for 64 yards against the Saints, giving him 10 for 140 yards over two games.

"It is just beginning, you know?" The next big test for Manning is this Sunday, when the Giants play their first true road game (the Saints had been "designated" as the home team last Monday night) across the country in San Diego. The Chargers, you'll remember, drafted him as the first overall pick despite his warning that he would not play there. He kept his word, they had to trade him to the Giants and now the fans are in an uproar of rejection. "It's just one game," Eli shrugs. "The next week there'll be another one."


--The Giants have scored 69 points in their first two games, the highest such total in their history dating to 1925. "We got two special teams touchdowns," said LG David Diehl. "You can't say that our offense has produced all that. But it sure is a nice number, isn't it?"

--DE Michael Strahan, who almost didn't play because of back spasms that he said finally loosened up just before game time, was asked what he likes about the Giants defense, which has surrendered 29 points over the first two games. "I think what I like the most is that guys are aggressive," he said. "That hasn't always been the case."

--The Giants had 14 interceptions all last season, and they have five in two games now. "We are creating turnovers," said free safety Brent Alexander, who picked one off vs. the Saints. "Overall getting turnovers is great but we have to improve on our third-down performance." Opponents have converted 16 of 34 third-down situations, which is way too high.



OFFENSE: C-plus - The relatively low grade is perhaps a mild criticism of the conservative nature of the passing game overall. Coordinator John Hufnagel seems somehow reluctant to open all the weapons and mount an all-encompassing attack. Eli Manning threw only 24 times Monday night, completing only 13 for 165 yards. It is a controlled passing game, much like the one in New England used to be, and Hufnagel was the QB coach there. TE Jeremy Shockey is getting open more often and caught five passes vs. the Saints for 64 yards, exactly the same statistics achieved by WR Plaxico Burress. There is some question why other wideouts aren't being invited to join the party, such as veteran Amani Toomer (two receptions and none last week), David Tyree (who was a barnburner during training camp) and Tim Carter (considered the fastest receiver on the roster).

 RUSHING OFFENSE: B - Tiki Barber gained 83 yards in 22 carries, and is still searching for his first 100-yard game. He scored twice, once on a 12-yard run, the other on a 6-yard pass. The mystery is why coach Tom Coughlin refuses to use his bright rookie, the 6-4, 260-pound Brandon Jacobs, more often. He had three carries vs. the Saints for five yards and a touchdown. The offensive line is still playing well, especially RG Chris Snee and C Shaun O'Hara. LT Luke Petitgout has only one penalty in two games, almost unheard of for him. RT Kareem McKenzie is still one of the NFL's top run blockers.

PASS DEFENSE: C - Despite three interceptions, there is way too much yardage being given up (375 by Saints' QB Aaron Brooks), and of the Saints' 23 first downs, 19 came via the pass. LCB Will Allen is still playing too far off the receiver and getting beat man-to-man more often than he should. It may well be that a change to rookie second-round pick Corey Webster is in the offing. He had three tackles and a pass defensed in limited action. The two DEs, Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, accounted for three of the four sacks of Aaron Brooks (Osi had a pair) and the D-line got all four, with tackle Kendrick Clancy ringing up the other one.

RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus - For the second week in a row, the Giants' obvious plan was to turn the Saints into a one-dimensional offense by taking away the run, and despite the presence of star RB Deuce McAllister, the goal was accomplished. Deuce gained 47 yards in 15 carries, with a long gain of just 9, and the Saints ran up a total of 72 total yards rushing. Added to Arizona's 31 the week before, that's 103 rushing yards allowed in two games. For the second week in a row MLB Antonio Pierce was the leading tackler (nine, giving him 20 in two games).

SPECIAL TEAMS: B - Free agent rookie James Butler had four special teams tackles and allowed a punt to hit his foot, giving the Saints the ball. Chad Morton, who electrified the Giants with a 52-yard return last week, had only one for 7 yards. Rookie RB Brandon Jacobs took one kickoff back 25 yards while Willie Ponder, the NFL's leading kickoff returner last year, had another for 10 yards. On the other hand, the Saints were snuffed in their return game, as four punt returns netted 35 yards and five kickoffs produced 76. Punter Jeff Feagles averaged 45.8 yards per kick (38.8 net) and put two inside the 20, with one bouncing out of bounds at the 5.

COACHING: B-minus - The offense moved to a conservative beat, probably an attempt by coordinator John Hufnagel to limit the pressure and responsibility on QB Eli Manning, who had started only the ninth game of his career Monday night. Defensively, coordinator Tim Lewis is jazzing up the action, using various blitz packages and making opposing offenses check to new calls frequently. Coach Tom Coughlin, whose influence is everywhere, seems to be doing a good job of motivating (by fear?) his players.

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