Redskins Recon: A Giant Leap for Manning?

Over the last few weeks we have been looking at the Redskins 2014 opponents. Starting with our divisional games, we have looked at the Eagles and Cowboys so far, leaving this instalment of Redskins Recon to look at our final NFC East rival - the New York Giants. If you would like to recap the first two articles in the series please click on the links below.

Pt 1: A Look at the Philadelphia Eagles Offense

Pt 2: What About Them Cowboys?

After shockingly going 0-6 to start the season, the giants won 7 of their remaining 10 games to finish 7-9, but did that paper over the cracks or were the Giants just plain unlucky? Well one thing is for sure, the Giants have had a busy offseason in 2014 so far, with some major changes in the coaching staff and also a busy free agency. So let's take a look at the elements that influenced this strange season and see how that is shaping this team in 2014.

It really is amazing what a bit of context and hindsight can do. I for one, certainly remember laughing quite hard at the Giants after week six. Sure the Redskins were not doing much better at the time, but I was living under some vague notion that the Redskins could and would turn it around in coming weeks, so I felt safe in my reckless mocking. When I looked at the Giants in those first six weeks, I felt the organisation was on the floor and tapping out. An old coach with a stale system, average players and a flawed QB. Obviously as the season panned out, that snigger and finger pointing turned to crying and heavy drinking as the Redskins stank it out and bitter infighting showed up which team was truly in better shape. Today, if you look back with the benefit of hindsight, it is a bit more obvious as to what was going on...

Take a look at the Giants first six games of the 2013 season:

Wk 1: at Dallas Cowboys

Wk 2: Denver Broncos

Wk 3: at Carolina Panthers

Wk 4: at Kansas City Chiefs

Wk 5: Philadelphia Eagles

Wk 6: at Chicago Bears

The keen observers out there may have already noticed that the Giants faced 4 teams in their first six games that would go on to make the playoffs. The worst team on that list are arguably the Cowboys who finished - surprisingly - 8-8 (same as the Bears). That's a tough schedule. They did get blown out a couple of times (most notably the Panthers beat them 38-0 in week 3), and they also put up some embarrassing performances, however as soon as they started facing easier opponents in form of the Vikings, Raiders, Redskins and a Rodgers-less Packers, they started winning. The other losses came later in the season, against the Cowboys (again), Chargers and Seahawks - so two more playoff calibre teams. To summarise, in 2012 the Giants lost to good teams and beat bad teams. Problem solved, it was the schedule's fault.

Or was it? Again, along the way in 2013 the Giants really did not play well, particularly on offense. They ranked 28th in offense in 2013. After having an average year in 2012, and four seasons before that with a top 10 offense (2008-11), this was an alarming trend downwards for a team that boasted a QB with two superbowl rings and a particularly famous last name. Some of the defeats were especially bad (as in Chiefs v Redskins bad), so what was the problem and how have they tackled it in advance of the new season?

Well first up the Giants made a (forced) change on the coaching staff. Coughlin remains as Head Coach. Interestingly, despite the season record and age catching up with him, there was little clamour for his head to in particular to roll. Instead, long serving offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride caught most of the flack, and by a stroke of good timing he retired at the end of the season. Giants fans will be the first to tell you that their offense has been stale for a while now, so I am sure they were quite pleased about this development. Along with Gilbride the Giants also released a couple of position coaches on the offensive side.

In steps Ben McAdoo (36) as the new offensive coordinator who has spent the last eight seasons as an assistant under Mike McCarthy in Green Bay. He recently served as the QB coach for Aaron Rodgers, but also spent considerable time coaching the tight ends. McAdoo brings with him the remit of invigorating this offense and judging by his comments and coaching preferences he intends to do this by:

  1. Injecting elements of the West Coast offense
  2. Having reliable pass blocking RB's who DON'T FUMBLE! (Are you listening David Wilson?)
  3. Better usage of tight ends (Think Jermichael Finley at Green Bay)

So despite the facts that the Giants (a) didn't have a good blocking running back with good ball security, and (b) were thin as paper at tight end, this was a good observation, and see later for how these areas have since been addressed.

Looking deeper though, this is a similar scenario to the one we experience now with the Redskins new coaching staff giving interviews about our offense. McAdoo knows full well that one of the main issues with the Giants last year was pass protection and ball security. The former is one of the main reasons why Manning had such a bad season (57.7%, 18 TD and 27 INT - yes 27). Pro Football Focus ranked the Giants 28th in the league when it came to offensive line performance (31st in pass blocking alone), and went on to say the following:

Stud: In good news for the G-Men, rookie Justin Pugh (+7.1) got better and better as the season went on. Derided by many as something of a reach and with questions as to whether he can hold up at tackle, he was the biggest success story in a bad year for the Giants.

Dud: He's been kicked around every position but center in his time as a Giant, but David Diehl (-26.5) really didn't take to life at right guard. He earned this grade despite missing five games and at this point just can't handle better athletes lining up opposite him.

Analysis: Injuries didn't help, with the loss of David Bass seeing Kevin Boothe move to center where he would struggle. That created all sorts of shuffling and was further compounded by Chris Snee having his season ended after 188 snaps. Throw in Will Beatty responding to getting paid with a huge drop off from his 2012 season and you have the perfect storm. A once proud unit is now a major question mark.

The Giants have attempted to improve this group, bringing in guard Geoff Schwartz and centre J.D. Walton, who will help add depth and talent to this line. They will need it as injuries follow this team around like the plague and many of their OL are still rehabbing injuries this offseason.

The running game for the Giants has been an issue for a while, partly due to the issues on the line, but also down to having a dependable running back. Despite many being high on David Wilson coming into the 2013 season he only showed glimpses of his talent, and things did not bode well when he had an immediate case of fumblitis (2 fumbles in first 7 carries is a bad dose). Wilson then suffered a season ending neck injury in wk 5, and reports are indicating he may not even be ready to start in 2014. Wilson's 2013 back ups, Da'Rell Scott and Andre Brown, could only help them average 83.2 yards per game in rushing for the season, good for only 29th in the league. In the meantime, in-line with McAdoo's comments above, the Giants have brought in Rashad Jennings who fits the bill in terms of protecting the ball and pass blocking, however he is a classic pounder and they need more versatility in this area to fix this important aspect of any offense.

Another contributing factor to the Giants poor performance on offense is their sub par WR corps. As you all know, Hakeem Nicks was a free agent this offseason, and did not seem interested in playing for his new contract in 2013. Perhaps he knew the writing was on the wall when the Giants gave fellow WR Victor Cruz a big contract last offseason. For him 2013 will be a season to forget, and needless to say he has since moved on to the Colts. Cruz on the other hand played reasonably well, reaching just under 1,000 yards for the season despite missing the last two games and being targeted more frequently by defensive schemes due to the lack of a genuine threat elsewhere on the roster. Randle and Jernigan flashed at times, but Louis Murphy was completely ineffective. The Giants have brought fan favourite Mario Manningham back into this group during the recent free agency activity, but WR still remains a big need for Big Blue, and the draft could be a way of fixing this, especially with a deep WR class this year.

When it comes to tight ends, the Giants really underperformed in 2013. Subsequently they released Brandon Myers, and brought in Kellen Davis, who is a classic blocking tight end. This is another position where you could see the Giants focussing on for the remainder of free agency and certainly the draft as we know what McAdoo is asking for from this position. A Finley-esque player would be hard to pass on if they have the chance.

But what about Eli Manning himself? He obviously has the calibre to win a Super Bowl - or two for that matter. Should he shoulder some of the blame? Well many will excuse him for his poor performance based on all of the above, but others think his career may be dwindling.

The expectation, or hope, is that with the additions to the blocking schemes, not only on the offensive line but also tight ends and running backs, Manning will be able to flourish once again. Other believe he will be energised by the new offensive scheme, having been part of the same offense for 11 years prior to this. Since McAdoo was only an assistant coach prior to taking this job, it is hard to tell exactly how this team will play and what he is planning to unleash on his opponents. On a personal level Manning recently had surgery on the ankle he injured against the Redskins in the final game of last season, and has two years left on his contract, so if he wants that final contract to be a defining one, and more importantly beat off any talk of finding his replacement, then he will need to bounce back strongly this year. I see many similarities with Tony Romo here as the organisation naturally starts to plan for life after their franchise QB. The Giants picked up Josh Freeman in free agency recently, but could they use another pick on a QB in this year's draft? Is Nassib a long term solution? Time will tell.

Onto the defensive side of things where it is much simpler.

After nearly losing their long serving coordinator Perry Fewell to the Redskins during our recent head coaching search, the Giants will come back to training camp this offseason with their coaching staff pretty much as it was last year. The Giants traditionally run a 4-3 scheme, however last year they were trying to mix in some more variation and hybrid schemes, as is the league-wide trend at the moment. The main difference in the Giants defense in 2014 will be the absence of long serving DE Justin Tuck and the much coveted DT Linval Joseph. Added to this they have some issues on the defensive line, as Pro Football Focus have written about:

Pierre-Paul opted not to have shoulder surgery on the injury that cost him the final five games of the season, his hope being that rest and rehab will enable him to return to his 2011 form when he posted a career-high 16.5 sacks.

What about the defensive line's depth?

Great question!

At defensive end, there is Damontre Moore, the second-year player who, per The Star-Ledger, is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

At defensive tackle, there is third-year man Markus Kuhn, who played in just five games and recorded one tackle last season after opening the year on the PUP list while he continued his recovery from ACL surgery the year prior.

Having two guys (Kuhn and Moore) who are coming off injuries and who have limited experience isn't a very settling picture. It's also a big (no pun intended) difference from last year when Reese made it a priority to give defensive coordinator Perry Fewell as many "big butts"as possible to beef up the run defense.

So how do the Giants address the holes on the defensive line?

They'll probably be looking to draft a defensive lineman, perhaps as soon as the first day.

It is worth adding that Kiwanuka was ranked the worst defensive end in 2013 by PFF, so this is yet another area they probably want to look at strengthening.

When it comes to their secondary, the Giants spent some money during free agency bulking up at the corner back position, adding Walter Thurmond and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to a group that already has the pretty solid Amukamara, so this puts them in good stead here. At safety they have long serving captain Antrel Rolle, and a few others who add depth (notably Will Hill - who has reported suspension issues as I write this - and Stevie Brown). This is the one group where the Giants are almost good to go, but as with everyone else, should a talent drop to them in the draft they wouldn't pass up on an opportunity to add depth here.

On the linebacker front, the Giants had a hole at SAM going into FA and subsequently picked up McClain from the Ravens. He fills that role adequately but doesn't bring anything to write home about. The Giants paid veteran Jon Beason to come back and anchor this unit, and Jacquian Williams adds youth and coverage skills. Similar to the secondary, this is a functional group but adding draft picks and competition for places is not out of the question.

Other free agency signings this off season added a number of depth and quality special teams players to the roster, meaning this all added up to a busy time for the Giants front office. Remember, this is an organisation the likes to be sensible when team building, but in 2014 they have turned over nearly 20% of their playing staff, so they must have felt like a change was needed.

Overall, defensively the Giants will need to fill holes primarily along their line meaning their draft will need to be solid to pick starters for week one. The danger if they don't is their improved secondary will be exposed to quarterbacks who can pick them off at will.

On the offensive side of the ball we have an unknown quantity with a new schemes in place for the first time in many years. Wide receiver is a concern, as is the running game and the offensive line, however all aspects of this group will need to up their game considerably in order to improve on 2013's often dire efforts, but as usual, all the attention will be on QB Eli Manning.

With all that in mind I see the Giants being their tough, disciplined selves when the Redskins come to town. At the end of the season it wouldn't surprise me if the two teams were in a similar position battling it out for second, and potentially pushing the Eagles for top spot, but if I am a Giants fan that defensive line worries me. Another team with high hopes for the draft.

That brings us to the end of our look at our fellow NFC East opponents. By the time I write my next instalment we will know our schedule, meaning I will go in chronological order from the remaining 10 teams.

What do think will become of the Giants and Eli Manning in 2014?

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