Breaking down Sunday's New York Giants at Pittsburgh Steelers game (4:15 p.m., Eastern, Fox) ...
1. Just how good are the Giants? I'll tell you around 7:15 ET on Sunday. OK, so it's not exactly something to "care about," per se, but it's something you should certainly consider before thinking too hard about this game.
This Bergen Record headline from Wednesday tells the story: Hard Part of Giants' Schedule Begins. In other words, let's take New York's NFC-best 5-1 record with an enormous grain of salt. What good team have they beaten besides an erratic Redskins squad that was just getting its sea legs on Sept. 4?
They roughed up St. Louis, but who hasn't? Also, they barely edged Cincinnati in overtime; they locked down Charlie Frye and the Seahawks -- whoopee!; and they hung tight against a miserable 49ers team. San Francisco was within two points in the fourth quarter despite two turnovers in the Giants' red zone. (And those two J.T. O'Sullivan picks? My great aunt Dorothy could have made those.)
Then there's the great Cleveland debacle. Giants fans had an easy time shrugging that one off. Heck, New York had won its last eight games; it had to lose eventually. But come on. The Giants breathed life into a corpse that evening. The same Browns squad (plus Kellen Winslow) got absolutely molly-whopped by Washington six days later.
Now come the hard ones. New York still has five division games remaining -- all but two of them on the road. It also has Pittsburgh away this week, plus playoff hopefuls Baltimore, Arizona, Carolina and -- accent on the hopeful -- Minnesota.
And if you're doubting a Tom Coughlin-coached team's propensity for or ability to collapse, just look back two years to 2006. That team started 6-2 before finishing just 2-6.
And with that setup, we move on to the game itself.
2. The unit to watch here: New York's offensive line. These hogs are counted on to do two things and they are doing them sublimely in '08: One, give Eli Manning enough time to work, because we all know, with the rare exception of Super Bowl XLII, how he behaves under pressure; and two, give the massive Brandon Jacobs a little room to maneuver.
So far Manning has been sacked just six times, which is second-fewest among regular starters. That's much better protection than he's ever had (one sack a game in '08 compared to a career average of 1.7), and his passing stats reflect it. His completion percentage is more than five points over his career average and his passer rating is up 15.
As for Jacobs, the Giants' improved line has allowed the 6-foot-4, 264-pound beast to evolve into more than just a point-and-shoot battering ram. Surprisingly, he's pretty nimble at the line of scrimmage, and this year he's managed to pick and choose a little more than usual. And when he hits the open field: Buh-bye.
Against San Francisco last week, Jacobs flashed that brilliance on a first-quarter run between the right tackle and guard. On the play, 317-pound guard Chris Snee got downfield to make an excellent driving block that took middle linebacker Patrick Willis out of the picture (Rich Seubert executed likewise on the opposite side); and both right tackle Kareem McKenzie and tight end Kevin Boss planted defenders on their butts at the line of scrimmage. As a result, Jacobs danced through the line without even a finger being laid upon him en route to a 24-yard score that skirted the right sideline.
Will Pittsburgh's superb linebackers be such pushovers? Doubt it.
3. The Plaxico Effect. Let us count the possible story angles involving Burress.
This is his first visit to Heinz Field since leaving Pittsburgh on not-so-good terms four years ago. Granted, Plax might not recognize many faces on this roster -- or on the staff, for that matter -- but a decidedly unchanged Pittsburgh fan base will surely be in his ear all day. Then there's the lingering effect of a suspension levied just three weeks ago. (Burress has caught only seven balls over the two games since and was spotted sparring with coach Coughlin on the sidelines last week; fine pending.) And there's the damaged little finger on his right hand, which Burress has played coy about, to say nothing of the shoulder and neck pain that forced him to miss two practices this week.
Finally, there's his overall indignant demeanor of late. Against San Francisco last week, Burress single-handedly killed a promising second-quarter drive at midfield with an offensive interference penalty and an unsportsmanlike penalty for mouthing off to referee Terrence Miles. Afterward, Burress shrugged, "Nobody lost any sleep over it." True, but that will change quickly if Burress behaves similarly in a loss. We've already learned that New York can survive without Burress. In other words: Domenik Hixon, keep your helmet by your side.
The player whose responsibility it will be to stoke Burress' flames on Sunday is likely to be Ike Taylor, who's proven more than capable as a lockdown cornerback over his six-year career. His play against the similarly-equipped Chad Johnson last week was splendid (he wasn't responsible for Ocho Cinco's lone score) and included two of the more impressive pass defenses of the year. He also had a textbook open-field tackle on Johnson that should be required viewing for any high school corners out there. (It's at 14:25 of the second quarter if you're wondering.)
Add Troy Polamalu, who's playing with a chip on his shoulder lately, and the Giants figure to face a pretty stout secondary. The league's best, in fact. Pittsburgh has only yielded two passing scores in '08, and those came in blowout wins. So don't count on Eli or Plax as fantasy starters. In fact, I think this just might be the secondary that reminds us how bad the younger Manning can be from time to time. Of course, that will also require some pressure from Pittsburgh's defensive line and linebackers, which brings us to ...
4. You'll see two of the more blitz-happy teams in the NFL on Sunday, but I think they'll play this one conservatively. Against Cincinnati last week, I didn't see Pittsburgh pressuring as much as it had been from the outside. That can largely be chalked up to a "go ahead and beat us, Ryan Fitzpatrick" approach. Makes sense.
I think the Steelers will get back to the blitz a little bit this week only because of who they're facing. (Give Eli time and he'll burn ya.) But I don't think they'll go crazy with blitzes either. For one, Pittsburgh will be playing with a fully intact defensive line for the first time in weeks, courtesy of the return of 325-pound Casey Hampton, so the Steelers can count on a little more natural pressure in that respect. Also, I think they have to fear overdoing it. In that New York-San Francisco game last week, I simply couldn't understand why Mike Martz didn't throw some more quick slants and screens to slow down the relentless Giants blitzing. In the same situation, I think Coughlin would adjust. If Pittsburgh goes blitz-crazy, it'll get a steady dose of Derrick Ward screens.
Same goes for the Giants. I misdiagnosed Pittsburgh's offensive line earlier this season. In fact, it is atrocious. Absolutely awful. So I don't think New York has to blitz too heavily. I think the Giants got away with using such heavy pressure last week against the 49ers because, well, J.T. O'Sullivan ain't Ben Roethlisberger. Different story this week.
Every week we ask an NFL assistant with relevant game experience to provide an anonymous scouting report on our Game of the Week. Admittedly, I've spent plenty of time on the Giants already, but they're arguably the more interesting team, and they're definitely the more changed team from '07. Therefore, I decided to let one assistant from a team that has already played the Giants in '08 provide a scouting report on New York's defense while another scouted their offensive line for us. (Sue me, Steelers fans.) Here's what they had to say:
"[The Giants'] front seven is still good and their secondary is better because of the pass rush. We couldn't get the ball downfield because of the pass rush. [Defensive coordinator] Tony Spagnuolo does a good job of mixing his pressures up. They find your weak link and put one of their best pass rushers on him.
"We thought their weakness was going to be the secondary, but the pass rush is so good that the secondary just has to hold up. I think [the secondary] is better this year because their corners are better. Aaron Ross has come into his own this year. [And] Corey Webster, they benched him last year before he came on strong in the playoffs, and now he's playing up to his potential. It looks like they believe in him now."
And then there's this little nugget on the Giants' offensive line:
"That is a tremendously cohesive group. They finish each others' sentences. In the pass game, the quarterback is going to get rid of the ball quickly, and when he throws deep they're going to max protect. If you watch an end zone tape, everybody [on that line] takes a step at the same time. That's the way they work together. Individually, they are all good players, but I didn't even cover that with my guys. I didn't cover individual guys; I covered the unit. Even when something goofy happens, they cover each other."
Handicapping isn't my thing, but if I had to lay down money here, I'd put it on Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. I think Roethlisberger takes some serious licks --probably more than Eli. But I also predict Big Ben gets it downfield to his weapons enough to one-up the Giants, who get their first serious defensive test. As a guy who always admired Mewelde Moore in Minnesota, I think the Steelers win 27-13, with or without Fast Willie Parker.