Giants In Search Of Consistency

The Giants have become somewhat of a mess, on the offensive line and in the defensive secondary. Those shuffling positions could give the Vikings an opportunity to beat a team that has become a playoff-positioning rival in the past few years.

Rivalries are typically determined by how often two teams play and what is at stake when they meet. Under those criteria, Sunday's game with the New York Giants would definitely qualify as a rivalry. The teams have met three times since January 2001. The first was a Giants blowout win in the NFC title game. The second came in 2001, when the Vikings won on a Monday night to knock the Giants hopelessly behind Philadelphia and keep them from making a playoff run. The last meeting was in 2002, when the Giants beat the Vikings 27-20 and all but eliminated the Vikings from a mathematical chance at the playoffs.

The Giants of the last two years and these current Giants, by and large, are one and the same team, with only a couple of notable changes. At quarterback, Kerry Collins has been an up-and-down performer but has quietly become one of the most consistent yardage and touchdown QBs in the league. While his TD numbers are down (averaging just 1.1 TD pass a game), he is still a threat the Vikings will have to deal with.

One big change in the Giants has been at running back. For years, the Giants had a RB-by-committee, with Tiki Barber and Ron Dayne leading the charge. That is over. Barber has become a consistent 20-carry-a-game player. This season he has more than 90 percent of his team's rushes — a higher percentage than Priest Holmes or Ricky Williams. The Vikings likely will have to game plan only for Barber, who is also among the team leaders in receptions.

The receiver corps is a different question. With three front-liners in Amani Toomer, Ike Hilliard and Jeremy Shockey, the Giants have the weapons to hurt their opposition. But injuries have limited both Toomer and Shockey. Going into last week's game at Philadelphia, those three had all the touchdown receptions for the Giants this year, which is why depth is a big concern. The only veteran depth at WR is Ron Dixon and he's had injury problems. If any of the big three receivers go down, the Giants will have problems moving the ball.

The offensive line has been a hodge-podge this season, with players moving in and out as the Giants try to build some cohesion. It all came crumbling apart last week when they lost Rich Seubert to a broken leg. That apparently is causing a complete reshuffle of the deck, with a center moving to guard and a tackle moving to center, although Giants coach Jim Fassel won't confirm it. Luke Petitgout remains at left tackle, but the rest is an experiment in progress. Chris Bober is moving back to center, former center Wayne Lucier (a seventh-round pick) is moving to left guard and Jeff Roehl and Ian Allen are expected to rotate at right tackle. David Diehl (taken in the fifth) is supposed to remain at right guard. The Vikings will look to collapse these youngsters with a push from Chris Hovan and Fred Robbins.

The defensive line is a different story. With the exception of a wild scoring fest versus Dallas, the Giants had held the rest of their opponents to 23 points or fewer. That, in large part, was due to the strength of the defensive front. Michael Strahan leads the charge as the pass rusher extraordinaire. But he is far from alone. Seven-year vet Kenny Holmes mans the other end spot, and tackles Keith Hamilton and Cornelius Griffin are solid run stuffers. The team has depth here as well, with first-round rookie William Joseph in the middle and Keith Washington as a third end.

The linebackers don't have the depth of the D-line, but they do have the starting talent. The duo of outside linebackers Brandon Short and Dhani Jones, along with MLB Mike Barrow, gives the Giants veteran leadership and savvy. Short and Jones are both returning starters in their fourth seasons, while Barrow is an 11-year vet who brings many of the same qualities Greg Biekert brings the Vikings. While depth is on the short side here, the starting unit is strong and will try to bottle up the running game and short passing attack.

The big matchup question will be in the secondary. The Giants have talent in the defensive backfield, but it has players that have been exposed by opposing quarterbacks, including Daunte Culpepper. The G-Men had aggressive corners in Will Allen and William Peterson, but Peterson suffered a back injury last week that will keep him out for at least six weeks. In his stead, Ralph Brown is expected to make only his fifth start against the Vikings, giving the Vikings an obvious target in the secondary. Safeties Shaun Williams and Omar Stoutmire are in their sixth and seventh years, respectively, and both are big hitters with ball-hawk skills that will need to compensate for Brown. Depth is also thin here, with Kato Serwanga used as a nickel back.

The Giants will be coming off a bruising game with the Eagles, which could play to the Vikings' advantage, but for those players who remember the 2000 playoff loss, this newfound rivalry has its own advantages and disadvantages for both teams.


MATCHUP TO WATCH
Mike Rosenthal vs. Michael Strahan —
When Mike Rosenthal became available on the free-agent market, he was one of the first players targeted by Vikings coach Mike Tice. He felt Rosenthal could fill the missing need in the offensive line. By signing Rosenthal, Chris Liwienski could move to his more natural left guard spot and be dominating. It has all worked out well for the Vikings and bad for the Giants — creating the key matchup this week.

Giants coach Jim Fassel was confident that the Giants could get along without Rosenthal. The initial plan was to have second-year pro Ian Allen take over and move Chris Bober from tackle to center. That hasn't worked, and now fifth- and seventh-round rookie draft picks man two interior line spots. The Giants wish they had kept Rosenthal now, and Sunday will be his first chance to make them regret it firsthand.

Rosenthal's assignment, however, will be a tall order indeed. He will line up opposite DE Michael Strahan, who set the NFL record for sacks two years ago and is one of the most revered and disruptive pass rushers in the NFL today. But, what makes his matchup with Rosenthal key is familiarity.

While a great DE and OT may meet twice a year at best, and most far less frequently, Strahan and Rosenthal spent four years opposite each other almost every day in practice. Rosenthal became a better offensive lineman by learning the tricks of one of the game's best pass rushers and Strahan learned all of Rosenthal's strengths and weaknesses from mere repetition.

Many great matchups are intriguing because of the unknown factor. This one, however, will be based on a wealth of experience. No offensive lineman knows Strahan as well as Rosenthal, which should give him the chance to neutralize the Giants' defensive playmaker


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