The Giants’ secondary has experienced many ups and downs since training camp began.
They’ve weathered injuries to key players and inconsistent play. But they’ve yet to face a maelstrom as powerful as Cardinals wideout Larry Fitzgerald.
The perennial Pro Bowler is off to a fast start (259 yards and two touchdowns) and possesses a skill-set that Big Blue’s secondary has yet to face. Shutting down shifty receivers like DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin is one thing, but Fitzgerald is a better route runner, has better hands and is much bigger. The 6-foot-3 Fitzgerald is much taller than any of the Giants’ corners — and is the best jumpball wideout in the league. New York’s secondary already had a taste of trying to deal with a large target and failed that test, as the Rams’ Danario Alexander (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) torched them for three catches, 122 yards and a touchdown.
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has been beating home that point all week.
“Larry Fitzgerald [is a] guy that every team recognizes and tries to defend. You’re talking about a different physical style, but the same kind of problem,” Coughlin said, comparing him to the Eagles’ receivers.
Fitzgerald is a different type of threat — not many cornerbacks can single cover him. Former Cardinal Antrel Rolle had to face Fitzgerald daily in practice.
“Normally when people are successful against him, they double coverage him. I have never seen a defensive back shut him down. I’m not saying it can’t be done, [but] I am saying that I haven’t seen it done,” Rolle said. “We are going in with a game plan and Larry Fitzgerald is not going to be our only focus. Everyone here is aware of his talents and capabilities, but we are focused on the Arizona Cardinals as a group.”
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That group also includes wideout Early Doucet, who’s tallied 10 receptions for 175 yards so far this season, and receiving tight ends Todd Heap (nine receptions for 109 yards) and Jeff King (four catches, 97 yards and two touchdowns). Arizona tight ends totaled 210 yards last season, while Heap and King combined are already at 206 after three games.
Adding to the Giants’ stress is trying to stop the guy throwing to Arizona’s stable of receivers. Kevin Kolb, a former Eagle who was obtained via trade this offseason, is familiar with the Giants and will no doubt try to exploit the mismatches. Kolb has completed 62.5 percent of his passes for 812 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions.
If Fitzgerald is target No. 1, then Kolb is 1A, said corner Aaron Ross.
“He is a good quarterback. He was in Philly, so he knows us a little better than a normal Arizona quarterback would,” Ross said. “He can make all the throws and he throws the seven [corner] route really well. He can throw the fade ball, the slants … all the throws.”
The secondary is well aware they’ll be the target of the Cardinals’ offense, especially since New York’s front seven has been so good at shutting down the run. Ross is coming off a two-interception game against the Eagles, so he may be tested immediately by Kolb to see if that was a fluke. Opposite of Ross is veteran Corey Webster, who also figures to keep busy because Arizona’s wideouts don’t just stay in one spot. He noted that both Fitzgerald and Doucet motion often in hopes to find a defense’s weak link.
Webster said when the Cardinal receivers find some success it’s up to the secondary to have a short memory.
“A receiver is going to catch some balls, [because] they get paid to do the opposite of what we do. Sometimes receivers are going to catch some balls, but it is how you respond to it,” Webster said. “You have to have short-term memory as a [defensive back] so it doesn’t really bother you … we just have to keep on working and getting better and if it happens, you just have to show your perseverance and sticking with what you have been coached to do.”
Come Sunday, the Big Blue secondary will find out that’s easier said than done.
Big Blue notes
» The Giants secondary enters the Arizona game with increased confidence. After four consecutive opposing quarterbacks (including two last year) threw for more than 300 yards against them, they held Philadelphia’s Mike Vick and Mike Kafka to 211 combined yards.
The Giants will have their hands full, as Fitzgerald has posted some insane numbers over his illustrious career. He’s caught at least 90 passes in each of the previous four years and is the first player in NFL history with that many catches in five of his first seven seasons. He also holds the Cardinals franchise records for receptions (628) and touchdown catches (67, which he established last week).
» Coughlin said defensive end Osi Umenyiora’s status is a day-to-day situation. He noted the long flight out West might actually deter Umenyiora from joining the team, but said he hasn’t ruled him out because he’s encouraged by Umenyiora’s daily improvement: “We will see how that is. I am hoping that we can have one good day and then not have any repercussions the next day. That will help us understand what we’ve got. I would like to have Osi get some practice time [because] you have to get them on the field at some point. Whether it is Thursday or Friday, you have to get them on the field [unless] it’s a really exceptional case. You really do have to be out there and practicing.”
Coughlin added he’s not worried about Umenyiora’s mindset because veteran players are more accustomed to dealing with physical adversities: “You know they are working hard and studying in their position meetings and tape. They have to visualize themselves and make the corrections as if they were the ones playing that position. They are veterans, so they have done it before. And if they are young ones then you really do have to keep your finger on them.”
Jason Pierre-Paul, who has filled in admirably for Umenyiora, said he’s well aware he’s keeping the starting position warm until Umenyiora returns: “I knew when he came back that he would get his starting position back. It’s cool.”
Pierre-Paul was humble and deferential when discussing Umenyiora and added even though he’s off to a fast start he doesn’t feel as if he’s earned the starting nod, regardless of whether Umenyiora is healthy: “No, because the way I play, when they put me in, I am going to get a sack regardless. It is not if you start [because] you can come off the bench and you can do the same thing … there are enough snaps. I am still going to get at least 40 or 50 snaps every game because people do get tired.”
» Rolle said while he still has close friends in the Cardinals organization he won’t let his emotions get the best of him: “I’m not concerned. This is the first time for me because I have never had to face a team that I was once with but I am going in there and playing the game at the end of the day. I am going to go and be the same player that I am week in and week out.” Rolle noted some special times with the Cardinals, including a Super Bowl appearance in Super Bowl XLIII, following the 2008 season, and a Pro Bowl appearance in 2009.
» The Cardinals’ home field is the scene of the Giants’ 2007 Super Bowl win. Eli Manning says it’ll always be a special place to him, but Sunday is all about the Cardinals and not nostalgia: “I think it is [special], but once you get there it’s going to be, ‘Focus on the game at hand and get ready for the Cardinals.’”
Follow Giants beat writer Tony Williams on Twitter @TBone8.