Giant advantage in TOs, sacks paves the way

Taking turnover differential more seriously is something Tom Coughlin started stressing the day he was introduced as Jim Fassel's successor nearly two years ago. The Giants tried to show that they understood the important message last season, but it didn't reflect on the field nearly as much as it has throughout this season.

Still, Tiki Barber's fumbling problem became a distant memory in 2004, while Eli Manning and Kurt Warner combined to throw just 13 interceptions. The 6-10 Giants intercepted 14 passes, thus they were plus-one in that category, and plus-four overall in turnovers.

That marked a dramatic improvement over 2003, when they were tied for last in the NFL in turnover differential with a minus-16 ratio.

They're around even again in interceptions, even after Manning's three-pick implosion in Philadelphia on Dec. 11.

But Giants defenders have become more effective at stripping opponents, which helped them enter their home game against Kansas City Saturday first in the NFC in the takeaway/giveaway category.

"It's just something that we've been talking about since the summer," said strong safety Gibril Wilson. "Turnovers, we've got to get them. We do a lot of stuff to get ourselves in positions to get turnovers."

Giants defensive players estimate that they spend about the same amount of time working on strip and tipped-ball drills that they did last season. But they definitely sense that they're all thinking about turnovers more when they're on the field during games. Even cornerback Will Allen, whose difficulty securing interceptions has been well documented, has mastered the art of jarring balls loose without neglecting tackling technique.

"Guys are just more aware of it," Wilson said. "That's all we stress, getting off the field on third down or getting a turnover. We're constantly repeating that in a huddle, constantly saying that on the sideline. So guys are talking about it more. It's been a more conscious effort on our part."

Every head coach in the league implores his team to force turnovers, but it was evident in Philadelphia that the Giants have benefited from Coughlin's constant reminders.

The Eagles gained momentum following Manning's third interception in a 10-minute, 36-second span of game time. But right defensive end Osi Umenyiora relentlessly pursued Philadelphia quarterback Mike McMahon in overtime and stripped him just before McMahon began his throwing motion. Backup tackle Kenderick Allen recovered McMahon's fumble at Philadelphia's 27 and Jay Feely drilled a game-winning, 36-yard field goal four plays later.

That pivotal play marked the second time in three games that Umenyiora stripped a quarterback.

"In the NFL, man, the team that wins the turnover battle usually wins the game," Umenyiora said. "So we've been focusing on that this year and we've done a pretty good job of it."

Only three teams that had a negative turnover differential entering last weekend's action were at least in position to make postseason appearances (New England, San Diego and Washington). And only three teams on the plus side were already completely out of the playoff picture (Buffalo, Detroit and Philadelphia).

"Turnovers are huge," said free safety Brent Alexander, the Giants' interception leader this season. "They're momentum swings. A lot of times they put the offense in an excellent position to score. It just gets the defense off the field quicker and allows the offense to win as far as time of possession and wearing down a defense.

"It's really one of the more important things that you do out there. Of course, your assignments and your responsibilities are important, too, but ultimately we're out there to make plays and get the ball back. So it's really one of your primary focuses when you're out there."

Manning realizes that it needs to be more of a focus on the offensive side of the ball as well. The Giants cannot afford Manning meltdowns during meaningful games, not if they're to prove in the NFC Playoffs that they're as good as their record indicates.

"I have to take it up another level," Manning said. "I've got to play smarter football. When it comes to December, you've got to play smart football for four quarters, be accurate with your throws and not make mistakes."

Manning's improvement in another area has helped the Giants, though. He is on pace to be sacked just 32 times this year, which would account for a 20-sack swing from last season. Kurt Warner, who often held the ball entirely too long in the pocket, was sacked 39 times, while defenders sacked Manning 13 times.

Meanwhile, Umenyiora and Michael Strahan have terrorized opposing quarterbacks this season, so much that the Giants enjoyed a plus-12 sack differential entering the Kansas City game. They were minus-12 in sack differential last season, although Strahan missed half the season with a torn pectoral muscle. His healthy return has helped in this area, as has the addition of right tackle Kareem McKenzie.

This was an important development in the Giants' resurgence, too, because the top five teams in sack differential in the 2004 season combined for a .738 winning percentage. Four of those five teams won division titles and each made the postseason. The Giants were sixth in the league in sack differential before facing the Chiefs, and four of the five other teams were probable postseason participants.

They're also in the top third of the league in sacks yielded per pass play. They're around the middle of the pack defensively in the sacks per pass play category, but teams throw more against the Giants because of their success in stopping the run. But no other team has two players with as many combined sacks as Umenyiora and Strahan, who were both among the league's top five in sacks before Saturday's game.

Like forcing turnovers, however, the sack game becomes a mindset, too, especially along the offensive line.

Fourteen-year veteran Bob Whitfield, who replaced injured left tackle Luke Petitgout for the last two games, couldn't care less about being flagged for four penalties in Philadelphia. Although offensive linemen are most commonly criticized when they commit penalties, the ex-Atlanta Falcon is much more concerned with keeping Manning clean.

"A quarterback can be killed back there," Whitfield said. "I'll give up five yards to save my quarterback. I'm not trying to get anybody hurt."

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