Giants Continue With Defensive Theme

If the Giants decide to keep Michael Strahan on the left side of their line instead of going after Bryant McKinnie, then it will be up to Chris Liwienski to contain Strahan. But Strahan is only one of numerous talented New York defenders.

The Vikings have found themselves doing a lot of soul searching over the past two seasons. Following two trips to the NFC title game in three years, their dream of a Super Bowl win came crashing down last time against the New York Giants. However, if the Vikings are going to make good on beating the Giants in the Metrodome for a second straight year, they're going to have to contend with a team capable of beating anyone.

The Giants have a more diverse offense than what they've shown in previous years. That may, in large part, be a credit to the maturation of Kerry Collins. A former top pick of the Carolina Panthers, Collins was stumbling around the league until he came to New York. He has not only found a home, but he has lived up to the expectations he had thrown on him from the start. A pure pocket passer, Collins won't beat you with his legs. But, if given time, he can pick you apart.

One of his favorite targets is the recipient of simple dump-off passes. Tiki Barber used to be a third-down back. Then he split time with Ron Dayne. Now it's his job both as the primary runner and receiver, and the Giants will try to use plays that will get Barber alone in space and allow his speed to do the damage. As for Dayne, the former No. 1 pick from Wisconsin has struggled mightily in the NFL, where his size and lack of bullish explosion inside have made him an easy target on tip toes. While both players will see carries, Dayne is only a featured back about every third or fourth game, so expect to see much bigger doses of Barber than Dayne.

The receiver corps took a huge hit when Ike Hillard was lost for the season with a shoulder separation. His spot in the lineup has been taken by third-year man Ron Dixon, who relishes the chance to work alongside Amani Toomer. Toomer is clearly the go-to guy, but with Hilliard gone and Joe Jurevicius departed via free agency, depth is a huge question mark.

There are also uncertainties at tight end, where the Giants took big Jeremy Shockey in the first round of the draft. He has been bothered by a turf toe much of the season and likely will be hobbled for the rest of the season. Still, he remains a big-play threat that could bust a huge play at any time.

Up front, the Giants have done some major shuffling on the offensive line to make up for problems earlier in the season. Entering the preseason, the starting lineup was supposed to have Chris Bober at left tackle, Dusty Ziegler at center, Luke Petitgout at right tackle, Jason Whittle as backup center, and Mike Rosenthal was supposed to be a backup tackle. When they play the Vikings, Petitgout will be the LT, Bober at center, Whittle at RG and Rosenthal at RT. The only player who is still where he was to start the year is left guard Rich Seubert, in his first year as a starter. With all the changes, no wonder the Giants have had running difficulties.

On the defensive side, end Michael Strahan is still the rock of the defense. He set the NFL sack record last year and, while his numbers have dipped, the Vikings are well aware of what he can do to disrupt an offense. He is joined by Kenny Holmes at defensive end, but it is the tackle position that has become a concern. With the season-ending injury to Keith Hamilton, second-year man Lance Legree has been thrown into the mix and asked to fill some big shoes. He is flanked by Cornelius Griffin, who has shown a lot of improvement since becoming a full-time starter last year.

The linebackers, as always with the Giants, have been very good and one of the reasons why none of their first seven opponents managed more than 21 points in a game — including San Francisco, St and Philadelphia. In the middle, Mike Barrow remains a centerpiece in his 10th year and, while the free-agent loss of Jesse Armstead has hurt, Brandon Short and Dhani Jones have done a nice job in both blitzes and pass coverage.

The secondary continues to undergo change, as former Pro Bowler Jason Sehorn has become the most expensive nickel back in the NFL. William Peterson and Will Allen — both in their second season — have become the starters and infused a solid youth movement the Vikings may look to copy in the near future. They're prone to making some mistakes but have good aggression and cover skills. At the safety spots, Omar Stoutmire and Shaun Williams are very solid and provide some veteran leadership to a youthful secondary.

The last time the Vikings played the Giants it was an emotion-filled night with the retiring of Korey Stringer's jersey, and the Vikings responded with a 28-16 blowout that could have been worse. This time around, Carl Eller's jersey gets inducted into the Vikings Ring of Honor but the team will have to build its own momentum. The Giants are a team teetering on the brink of contention, and a loss to the Vikings would serve as a knockout blow.

KEY MATCHUP
Michael Strahan vs. Chris Liwienski
There are really several matchups to watch, such as Randy Moss against the young starting corners of the Giants, as well as a shuffled offensive front of New York against a recharged front four of the Vikings. However, the biggest single matchup that could determine the outcome of Sunday's game will be the pairing of Michael Strahan and Chris Liwienski.

Even though Strahan's final sack of the season to set the NFL record last year was more a case of Brett Favre doing a belly flop and being landed on (and then congratulating Strahan), the 20-plus sacks prior to that were no fluke. He is capable of making a game-turning play at any time. It is for that reason that Liwienski will be so critical to the Vikings success.

The Giants aren't going to give up a lot of points. Through seven games, nobody had scored more than 21 points against the Giants defense, and that has kept them alive for playoff contention. In Stringer's last game, the Vikings became one-dimensional early when falling behind in the 2000 NFC Championship Game. Strahan was able to pin his ears back and make a difference.

Last year, in the Vikings' revenge win at the Metrodome, Minnesota got up early and was able to mix up its offense. Liwienski was praised afterward for the stellar job he did against Strahan and the limited impact he allowed him to have. In a typical game, Strahan will make about a half-dozen plays where he either gets to the quarterback in the pocket, gets a hit on the QB, gets a sack or flushes him out of the pocket. The Vikings and Liwienski would like to limit that number to two or three.

Liwienski and the coaches know Strahan is rarely shut down entirely. But if Liwienski can minimize the number of chances Strahan gets to put his hands or shoulders on Daunte Culpepper, it will likely be the key to winning or losing.

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