Barber is beginning to prove once again that he is the catalyst of the Giants' offense. Without him and his 185 rushing yards -- his fifth-highest total of his career -- they would not have been able to come from behind and beat Atlanta last week.
So it's understandable that they'll do everything they need to do to get him going again against the Dallas Cowboys (3-2), who would like nothing better than to extend the Giants' Monday night hex. The Giants are 9-21-1 in road Monday night games. But Barber can make a huge contribution to turning that around with a third-straight 100-yard rushing effort.
The issue this week, though, may involve getting past Barber's proclamation that he is leaning toward retirement after the season. The wear and tear of the season has clearly caught up with him and Barber, with many options outside of football, appears ready to explore those avenues. He has said in the past that a Super Bowl victory or a horribly sub-.500 season would definitely trigger a retirement. But recent reports indicate he's hardening his stance toward an exit. He will not, however, retire during the season under any circumstances.
So the Giants will have at least the remainder of the regular season to work with the franchise's all-time leading rusher, who currently leads NFL backs with 533 yards. And that's not good news for the Cowboys, who will now need middle linebacker Bradie James to shut down Barber's fleet corner running and his cutback ability on the misdirection.
If Barber can't get the ground game going, quarterback Eli Manning will still have a chance to get it done via the air. That evidenced itself again in the second half last week, when Manning found Plaxico Burress, Amani Toomer, and Jeremy Shockey on big passes during the comeback from a 14-3 hole. Shockey, in fact, wound up with the first two-touchdown game of his career, while also leading the team with six catches for 55 yards.
Not that he was all that happy about it. Shockey remains sullen over the fact that the coaching staff insists on using him as a blocker as much as a receiver. But at least he lasted the whole game despite a still-sore right foot and ankle. It was the first full game he played since the opener, and his final touchdown came with 3:45 remaining in the game.
Manning does need to get back to the accurate passing he showed against Washington, however. He was wild high in the first half against Atlanta, and even some of his second-half completions were of the leaping variety. If he forces his receivers into those positions against a Dallas secondary, led by the fearsome safety Roy Williams, the Giants might be short some pass catchers when they face Tampa Bay next week.
The offensive line has done a decent job of keeping the heat off Manning, but they'll have to step it up a notch against front that has gotten three sacks from Jeremiah Ratliff and four and a half combined from outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Greg Ellis.
Defensively, the Giants rose to 19th in the league in pass defense after shutting down Michael Vick. But the Falcons base their entire offense around the running game, anyway, and the run defense did give up 223 yards on the ground. Take away the 22-yard touchdown run from Vick and the 90-yard scoring run from Warrick Dunn, and it doesn't look half as bad.
Still, Julius Jones and Marion Barber can run the ball, and they have 680 yards and six touchdowns between them. So middle linebacker Antonio Pierce and weak-side Brandon Short will have to be effective inside and out to force a mistake-prone Drew Bledsoe, who threw two interceptions last week and has seven on the season, into the air.
Osi Umenyiora can put tremendous pressure on Bledsoe if he gets around bulky left tackle Flozell Adams. This might also be the time -- and this has been said before -- to let LaVar Arrington loose. He is playing the system, doing what defensive coordinator Tim Lewis is telling him -- but he's been woefully ineffective in terms of statistics. Arrington put up just one tackle last week, and has yet to even share in a sack.
Beating the Monday night jinx would put the Giants at 4-2 heading into an easy two-game swing with Tampa Bay and Houston before a probable night game (thanks to the NFL's flexible scheduling plan) with the Bears.
SERIES HISTORY: 88th meeting. The Cowboys lead the regular season series 51-34-2. The teams have never met in the postseason. They split the season series last season, with each team winning at home. The Giants are only 10-23 in Texas Stadium, which is bad enough. But their Monday night record on the road is even worse at 9-21. The Giants have lost six originally scheduled Monday night games in a row -- last year's Monday night win vs. New Orleans was moved from Sunday because of Hurricane Katrina -- and nine of their last 10. Two of them have been to Dallas, both at Giants Stadium. The most recent loss came on Sept. 15, 2003, 35-32 in overtime. The Giants trailed 29-14 in the fourth quarter, but Kerry Collins staged a memorable comeback, hitting Jeremy Shockey and Amani Toomer with touchdown passes. Matt Bryant kicked a go-ahead field goal, only to send the ensuing kickoff out of bounds to allow the Cowboys to drive for a tying field goal as regulation expired. Quincy Carter drove in overtime to set up Billy Cundiff's game-winning field goal at 5:56 of overtime. The game began a 1-4 slump that eventually saw the Giants wind up 4-12 for the season, Jim Fassel's final one as Giants coach.
--LaVar Arrington, the strong-side linebacker who compiled just one tackle against the Falcons, reacted in his usual glib fashion to Michael Vick's claim that the Giants' seven-sack defense was surprisingly "vanilla." "We left with a win," linebacker LaVar Arrington said. "Whether it was vanilla or not, the bottom line is it was some good vanilla. It was some good vanilla ice cream, with a little bit of caramel swirl in there."
--LB Brandon Short, the weak-side linebacker who came off the inactive list when Carlos Emmons went down with a strained left pectoral muscle, has done a remarkable job replacing Emmons. He has two sacks, a forced fumble, a pass breakup, and 14 tackles in the two games since Emmons went down. His two sacks against the Falcons marked the first multiple-sack game of his career.
--Tiki Barber, whose rushing performance generally determines whether the offense will succeed or fail, had his fifth-best performance ever in a 185-yard afternoon against the Falcons. But he has yet to score a touchdown this year despite leading the league in rushing with 533 yards, which includes 308 yards in his last two games. He's second behind the Rams' Steven Jackson in yards from scrimmage with 723.
--The Giants offense, which looked dead in the first half, responded to a potential back-breaking 90-yard touchdown run by Warrick Dunn by mounting scoring drives of 84 and 91 yards to take the wind out of the Atlanta defense's sails.
--The Giants offense's 113 first downs rank them second behind Indianapolis in that category. Their 43 rushing first downs rank third behind Atlanta (51) and Washington (44).
--DE Michael Strahan, who stands two sacks behind Lawrence Taylor's franchise record 132.5, was the only member of the starting defensive front not to at least share a sack against Atlanta. Better luck Monday. He has 15 career sacks against the Cowboys, his third most-sacked team behind Philadelphia and Washington.
--WR Michael Jennings, who helped imitate Michael Vick all week on the scout team, got a little reward by being allowed to run an end-around early in the game. He responded with a 21-yard gain in his first carry of the season.
BY THE NUMBERS: 10 -- The number of sacks the Giants' pass rush, which had two over the first three games, has compiled over the last two games. That includes the 7 against Michael Vick, the Giants' biggest total since they had eight against Arizona on Oct. 18, 1998.
13 -- The number of first downs Tiki Barber accounted for against the Falcons (10 rushing and three receiving), the highest one-game total of Barber's career and the highest total of any NFL player this season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think this team is done with all the distractions and people trying to label us as such and such. We just want to go out and play football." -- Giants C Shaun O'Hara on the team's focus of the past two weeks heading into the Dallas game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
When Gibril Wilson went down with a torn-off toenail on his right big toe during practice last Friday, the immediate suspicion was that all would be lost against the running Falcons. But Jason Bell stepped into the breach and did a good enough job in containing Michael Vick and Warrick Dunn that he'll get another shot against Dallas on Monday.
"You need to say Jason Bell did an outstanding job in the short amount of time he had to prepare," coach Tom Coughlin said. "Most of the reps during the week are taken by Gibril. The last thing you want to hear on a Friday afternoon is that there's an injury and the individual can't go."
Bell made three tackles, but was unfortunately the last guy with a shot at Warrick Dunn on his 90-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Still, with a full week of practice, Coughlin expects that the 6-foot, 182-pound sixth-year veteran will step in admirably again. Just in case, though, he'll give James Butler extra reps, too, especially since he just got back to action against Atlanta from a sprained knee. Butler took 17 snaps, mostly in the dime, and played well with one tackle.
--TE Jeremy Shockey, hampered most of the season with a bad right foot and ankle, lasted the whole game and recorded his first-ever two-touchdown game. His six catches for 55 yards led the Giants receivers, and he reiterated his displeasure at being used as a blocker. "I was frustrated because I wanted to help the team," Shockey said. "I'm not a 300-pound tight end like Howard Cross. I don't want to block. I want to catch the ball."
--LB Carlos Emmons, whose strained left pectoral muscle has kept him out of two games, is expected to take some contact work this week but remains questionable for Monday. No rush, since Brandon Short has done a good job in his place.
--WR Sinorice Moss, whose strained quads have kept him out since the Seattle game, did some work with the scout team last week and is expecting to step up the workload this week. He's still a ways from coming back, however.
--RB Derrick Ward, whose broken foot has kept him sidelined since the second day of training camp, ran with change of direction last week and appears ready to return to certain drills. It's unlikely he'll be active for Monday night, but next week is a possibility.
--RB Brandon Jacobs, who came out of the Atlanta game late with a pinched neck nerve, had a stiff neck but is not expected to miss significant practice time.
GAME PLAN: The circus atmosphere surrounding Cowboys wide receiver Terrell Owens should never deter the Giants' secondary from believing he is still a dangerous, big-play entity. Owens grabbed three touchdown passes last week, and even though they came against the defense-challenged Texans, it proved Drew Bledsoe is still looking for him in the end zone. So the same, tighter, physical coverage is called for. Cornerbacks Sam Madison and Corey Webster will be carrying added responsibilities, though, because Terry Glenn, with a team-high 25 catches for 337 yards, is just as explosive a receiver as Owens.
The defense should have no worries about a mobile quarterback this week. If the front four can pressure the statue-like Bledsoe as well as they did Michael Vick a week ago, they might break records this week. Getting through a solid offensive front will be the key, though. But Osi Umenyiora showed outstanding speed and can fly around the corner.
For the offense, it'll be the same formula that they have yet to mix properly. Score some early points -- they still only have seven first-quarter points through five games -- and establish the running back behind Tiki Barber.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Giants DE Osi Umenyiora, who sacked Michael Vick twice last week, against Cowboys LT Flozell Adams, who has turned into one of the NFL's premier tackles. Umenyiora possesses fantastic speed, as he showed last week in chasing Vick around the backfield all game long. He actually did more than make two sacks, his third and fourth of the season, as he slapped out a fumble from Vick's hand on his second sack, hit Vick one other time on his release, and had five tackles. He won't have anywhere near as mobile an object to deal with in Drew Bledsoe, but he'll have to get around the 340-pound Adams first. By simple virtue of his girth, it will take an extra step to sweep around the Pro Bowl left tackle. Besides that, the entire line has allowed 12 sacks on Bledsoe, which puts the pass protection in the middle of the league efficiency-wise. Sacking Bledsoe will be the best way to prevent the Cowboys' fleet set of receivers, that includes Terrell Owens, Terry Glenn, and Patrick Clayton, from exploiting a secondary that is still coming together.
Cowboys MLB Bradie James, the Cowboys' leading tackler of last season, vs. Giants RB Tiki Barber, who leads the league with 533 rushing yards. James took over last year for the retired Dat Nguyen, and he came up with a cluster of big tackles and big hits. That will come in handy in a 3-4 alignment designed to funnel the running back into the middle. But Barber, who indicated he's leaning toward retirement at the end of the year regardless of the outcome, isn't your normal running back. He's fast enough to zip outside and agile enough to cut back on the misdirection, as he did in accumulating 185 yards on 26 carries against the Falcons last week. Barber has yet to score a touchdown of any kind this year, but it is obvious the offense doesn't move without him. The Giants have won two of the three games in which he rushed for 100 yards, and came close in the other one.
INJURY IMPACT: S Gibril Wilson, who missed the Falcons game after a practice mishap resulted in his right big toenail getting ripped off completely, may try to practice tomorrow. But Tom Coughlin isn't hopeful, as the swelling, pain, and fear of infection may not have subsided by then. Jason Bell would take his place if he can't make it Monday.
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