Statistically, the Giants haven’t set the world on fire so far this season, but what they lack in sizzle they’ve made up for in efficiency and taking great care of the ball. Eli Manning has solid numbers — 1,778 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. His 101.1 passer rating is the highest of his career after the first six games. Last year’s numbers were gaudier, but Manning also led the league with 25 interceptions. This year’s numbers are more modest, but he’s taking care of the ball better and not making the killer mistakes. Quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan said he’s been impressed with Manning’s decision making.
“We’ve been very, very pleased with his ability to make great decisions, be smart with the football, and be accurate,” Sullivan said. “When he’s had time to throw, I’ll put his accuracy and his ability to spot the ball against anybody in this league and put it on a target.”
Conversely, the running game hasn’t been effective at all, which is a byproduct of injuries to the offensive line and a knee injury to Brandon Jacobs. Even when both Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw are healthy they haven’t given the same production as last year. Big Blue running backs are averaging only 3.3 yards per carry. And only one time has either crossed the 100-yard mark.
Meanwhile, New York’s passing game has been spotty at times, but has received a nice boost from unlikely sources. Second-year players like wideout Victor Cruz and tight end Jake Ballard have been pleasant surprises, making fans forget about Steve Smith and Kevin Boss. Cruz, thought to be a long shot as the guy to take over Smith’s slot position during camp, has posted 21 catches for 398 yards and three touchdowns. Ballard, who spent all of last season on the practice squad and was thought more as a blocking tight end than a receiving threat, has added 15 receptions for 273 yards and two touchdowns.
Big Blue’s defense has been one of the most injury-ravaged units in the entire league. They have lost as many as nine regular contributors to injuries since the start of training camp. Be that as it may, the Giants have still fielded a respectable effort each week. That says as much about the front office’s way of stockpiling talent as the talent itself. Not many teams could lose a starting cornerback (Terrell Thomas), their best pass rusher (defensive end Osi Umenyiora) and two highly-regarded draft picks (cornerback Prince Amukamara and defensive tackle Marvin Austin) and not miss much of a beat.
What they’ve lacked in numbers, the Giants have made up for with creativity, versatility and guys playing above their means. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (7.5 sacks) has made many people think that Big Blue might actually be better with him in the lineup over Umenyiora. Fellow reserve defensive end Dave Tollefson (three sacks) has also filled in nicely in spot duty during Justin Tuck’s extended absence. Former lineman Mathias Kiwanuka has bounced from his new starting position (strongside linebacker) to his old pass-rushing duties seamlessly when needed. And rookie linebacker Jacquian Williams has been a regular starter for the Giants when they go to their nickel (five defensive backs) look. Williams has posted respectable numbers — 35 tackles (28 solo) — during his first six games of action.
The secondary has been torn apart due to injuries and has given up some big plays, but they seem to make the plays when necessary (see: Corey Webster’s two crucial interceptions in the Bills game). Now that Amukamara is set to return soon, it’ll allow defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to be even more aggressive in his play calling.
The Giants are getting healthy on defense at just the right time, so it’ll be interesting to see how everyone jells.
Special teams coordinator Tom Quinn has been under fire ever since the “Matt Dodge Game” last December when they kicked to the Eagles’ electric return man DeSean Jackson, effectively ending any hopes of a playoff bid. That scrutiny hasn’t subsided much, as the return units have been pedestrian. Sure, losing Domenik Hixon to yet another torn ACL doesn’t help, but his replacements haven’t done anything of note as of yet. Quinn even said as much when discussing Hixon’s fill-in — Devin Thomas.
“Too many muffs. He’s got to start catching the ball cleaner,” Quinn said of Thomas. “I think all returners want to bring every ball out, [but] sometimes he needs to keep it in the end zone so we don’t put our offense in a negative situation.”
The punt return game hasn’t fared much better. Cornerback Aaron Ross has taken over those duties, but Quinn said a punt returner in their scheme has one goal only — catch the ball. Any yardage on the return is just bonus: “He does a good job of wanting to catch the ball and go [and] not a whole lot of dance. [Ross] tries to get vertical as quick as he can … it’s improving.”
Punter Drew Weatherford doesn’t have the leg strength of Dodge, but is far better suited for Coughlin’s directional punting style. His high angling kicks have constantly pinned opposing returners and has allowed his coverage team to get down the field in a hurry. Quinn said such punts are what make his coverage team stand out — particularly the young linebackers: “[Middle linebacker] Greg [Jones] started off really well in the training camp then he got kind of called to duty so I think he kind of got split. Now he’s trying to get back into more of a special teams role. But he’s a physical player, real good with his hands, real good instincts. Mark [Herzlich] is bright, studies the game better than a lot of people that we’ve had in a long time. So he really knows where to be and how to use his skill set and how to get the job done. And Spencer [Paysinger] is really making a lot of progress. He’s good with his hands, real good recognizing what teams are trying to do and how to defeat it ... they’re all making strides and it’s been really a good group to work with. They’re young and hungry.”
There’s no telling how long a Super Bowl win buys good grace with a fanbase, but judging by the catcalls for his job, the grace period for Coughlin’s 2007 championship win may be wearing off. Coughlin has been scrutinized ever since the Giant’s bid for a repeat went the way of Plaxico Burress’s wayward firearm in late 2008. He’s done nothing but post a winning record dating from the 2009 season until present day (22-16), but all Big Blue fans want is someone else. Contrary to the sentiments, Coughlin has done a great job this season. Throw out the horrible home loss to the Seahawks three weeks ago and Coughlin and his staff have weathered mounting injuries, a lack of allocated practice time thanks to the new CBA and no real off-season thanks to the lockout. He gets a nice grade to date, but knows he won’t be judged by his current 4-2 record, rather how his team responds to its last 10 games.
Follow Giants beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.