This Sunday, the Cleveland Browns will take on the defending Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. The Giants are a funny team, as they always teeter back-and-forth between dominance and shaky early on in the season, but then flip a switch to be one of the most dangerous teams in the league come the postseason. Let's take a look at five key points to consider when scouting the Giants.
#1 - The Eli Manning Era: He might be overshadowed by his brother this week due to the "Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady" matchup, but Eli Manning has done everything possible to escape Peyton's shadow. If his first Super Bowl victory was not enough to convince people he was an elite quarterback, then last year's performance and second Super Bowl victory was more than enough to win people over. The mark of a good quarterback is that he can make everyone around him better. It may have taken a few years for everything to click just right for Manning, but he has done just that. Whether you throw Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, or Domenik Hixon into the lineup, they will succeed. Heck, you can throw David Tyree into a game, and Manning will help make him a worldwide sensation overnight.
How do you get under Manning's skin? It's tough. Over the past three seasons, he is only taking a little over one sack per game. Even in the face of pressure, Manning can make all of the big-time throws. The key is for the opposing team (in this case, the Browns) to do well in all of the other aspects that don't involve Manning. They need to crack down on the running game to create some third-and-long situations for a thin wide receiver group. They need to tackle well and break up passes. The Giants have the tools to be an aerial assault type of team, but that's not the strategy they take. When things go wrong, Manning just tends to help bail everyone out. And then, when Manning needs someone else, like Lawrence Tynes, to finish the job, he gets a little sad when they don't come through.
#2 - Banged Up at Wide Receiver: The Giants will be without their No. 2 and No. 3 receivers this week, Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden. Nicks is the Giants' best receiver in my book, and Barden had a heck of a game two weeks ago before suffering a concussion against the Giants. Dominek Hixon did get a lot of reps last week against the Eagles and will start alongside Victor Cruz, but being a little thinner at receiver can only help a Browns secondary that has struggled the past three weeks without Joe Haden. Sometimes, all the Giants need at receiver is Cruz, at least if secondaries leave him this open:
The Giants' third receiver this week could be rookie Rueben Randle. Randle has not had very many opportunities this year and has only logged one catch for four yards. He is sure to see a couple more looks against the Browns on Sunday, but is he ready to handle the big-game pressure? We have seen how much receivers who aren't ready or don't come through (i.e. Greg Little and Josh Gordon) have burned the Browns. The Giants' other option besides Randle is last year's third-round pick, Jerrel Jernigan, who is also an unproven commodity.
Fearsome Front Four Three?: Many people believe that defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul is the best defensive player in the NFL. If that is the case, then it is only fitting that he is going up against the league's best left tackle (our words) in Joe Thomas. JPP only has 1.5 sacks this year, but don't let that fool you into thinking he isn't living up to his potential after a 16.5 sack season in 2011. On the other side, going up against Mitchell Schwartz, will be Justin Tuck. Tuck's numbers are a bit down too, but he can't be underestimated.
If you're wondering why the strikethroughs are in the heading, here is the explanation: this unit doesn't really seem to go full blast until late in a season, and they will be without starting defensive tackle Rocky Bernard this week. Bernard has a quadriceps injury, and it is unknown who will replace him. Bernard is a good run stopper, so his loss could create some more opportunities for Trent Richardson. Bernard could be replaced by backup defensive tackles Marvin Austin or Markus Kuhn. They have three career tackles between them. The other option, and one that might seem more practical, is to take advantage of their depth at defensive end. Osi Umenyiora, Tuck, or JPP could move to the inside, with the other two staying outside. Either way, the Giants aren't as strong as they usually are up front.
RANDOM INSERT: We will benefit if the Giants' offensive line does this to our front four on Sunday:
#4 - More Trouble in the Secondary: The Giants were only missing one player up front, but they are facing a different situation in their secondary. Starting strong safety Kenny Phillips has been ruled out with a knee injury he suffered last week against Philadelphia. Replacing him will be Stevie Brown, who has one career start in three years. The other starting safety, Antrel Rolle, is questionable with a hamstring injury. He will probably play, but just because a player ends up starting does not mean they will be 100 percent.
At cornerback, the Giants were not particularly strong to begin with. Veteran Corey Webster has not played very well, and on top of that, he is listed as questionable this week with a hand and hamstring injury. Our Giants affiliate, Big Blue View, says that last year's first-round cornerback, Prince Amukamara, is the team's best cornerback. Still, he only has one career start under his belt, and that came last week against the Eagles. Rookie cornerback Jayron Hosley, who started two games this season, is out with a hamstring injury. That will likely force Justin Tryon into some more action. When you add everything up, you have a lot of players playing hurt or in a position they aren't necessarily familiar with.
#5 - Dishing Out the Bulletin Board Material: As harmless as it might have been, heading into Week 2's game against the Bengals, LB Ray Maualuga provided some "bulletin board material" for Browns RB Trent Richardson. Richardson proceeded to have a breakout game. Richardson did not really provide bulletin board material this week, but he was confident in the Browns' ability to be able to move the ball on the ground, when speaking to the New York media:
"Oh yeah," Richardson said on a conference call with the New York media today. "If we put a hat on a number, just cover them up, I think we can get yards on 'em. But at the same time, I know they're going to throw everything they can at us. I'm pretty sure they're going to game plan on our running game, and so we've got to make sure we open up the passing game so we can get some good runs in."
"We've got to run some outside zone, and we've really got to try cover up No. 90 as much as you can and big Tuck," he said, referring to defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck. " 'Cause both of (those) guys can bull rush and use their power and their quickness. (Those) guys are two big guys that are very fast. They've got two big guys up the middle, too. I think that if we cover the edges and run our hardest – don't be doing all this juking and stuff like that, one move and go – I think we can have pretty good success in the running game."
"I think Brandon can have a solid day if he is responsive in the passing game," Richardson said of Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden. "As long as he stays confident and stay comfortable, with these guys in the secondary, they are kind of banged up. So that's one thing that we are going to do, we’re going to try to go at them in the secondary.
"But every guy is a professional out there, so you cant expect that any guy that is on the second team is going to be any worse than the guy on the first team."
The only Giant to respond to Richardson's statement was DE Osi Umenyiora, who had this to say:
"If (Trent) looks on tape and he thinks he sees some candy, come try and get it," Umenyiora said Friday.
If Richardson was looking for target No. 1, he just found it. Watch what you ask for, Umenyiora: