By Jason La Canfora
Monday, December 1, 2008
Greg Blache would not relent to the NFL's top-ranked rushing attack. If the New York Giants were going to beat his defense, it would be through the air, which, as it turns out, is precisely what occurred.
Blache, Washington's defensive coordinator, wanted the game in the hands of quarterback Eli Manning rather than New York's group of running backs. He stacked at least eight defenders near the line of scrimmage for much of the game, in essence selling out to contain Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward. He was gambling that his deep and talented secondary -- the strength of the team -- would negate big plays, as it has all season. That was anything but the case.
The Giants (11-1) had a one-dimensional offense for much of their 23-7 victory at FedEx Field, carving Washington's defense with passes while getting stuffed for no gain on the ground. Manning bettered the Redskins (7-5) with a bevy of audibles -- reading the defense at the line and switching to passing plays from run formations -- and Washington's pass rush was back to its woeful form after a brief surge last week at Seattle.
"We were planning on giving them an eight-man box and making them throw the football," said Blache, who blitzed less vigorously than a week ago. "We didn't feel like we had a chance if we didn't minimize their rush yardage."
The tactic rendered Jacobs a non-factor until the Giants went virtually all-run, sitting on their lead in the fourth quarter. New York averaged just 3.1 yards per carry as a team -- it entered the game with an NFL-best 5.1 per rush. But Manning, who was without his top target, injured wide receiver Plaxico Burress, had 305 passing yards in the first three quarters alone (no quarterback had thrown for more than 300 yards against the Redskins all season).
Three Giants had at least 71 yards receiving despite the slippery and rainy conditions, and New York never trailed after Manning hit Amani Toomer for a 40-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive. On the touchdown play, cornerback Fred Smoot languished in press-man coverage with no safety help, the norm for Washington's corners, but even more pronounced yesterday given the emphasis on defending the run.
"We should have made more plays no matter what the game plan is," Smoot said, speaking for his position group. "We know it's going to come down to us with how we played, and we didn't play up to par, starting off with me. I feel like I started it off bad.
"And we never just caught up with what they were trying to do. Every time we thought we had what they was doing, they switched up to something else. We thought they was going to stay on outside routes, and they started going to inside routes."
The Giants took a deep outside shot on their first offensive play of the game; several Redskins said they believed New York was looking for a quick strike to offset Washington's emotional rush after the late Sean Taylor's induction into the Ring of Fame before the game. That opening drive closed with Toomer streaking by Smoot on a sideline route. Smoot maintained he jammed Toomer sufficiently off the line, but, with Toomer being more of an intermediate receiver, he figured Toomer was running a comeback route and not a go route to the end zone. Smoot slowed, allowing the receiver to pass him.
"When a team presses you [in coverage], they're really kind of disrespecting you as a receiving corps," Toomer said. "So to get a big play early on them just kind of lets them know that we're not afraid of you, we'll go right at you."
The Giants shifted to an array of slants on the inside, particularly on third down. "It was just bread-and-butter plays executed to perfection," cornerback DeAngelo Hall said. Domenik Hixon and Toomer picked up big first downs and yardage after the catch, often after Manning had audibled to the pass.
"They have situations where [Manning] and the receiver, they're the only two who know he's going to throw it quick, because there's too many people in the box," linebacker London Fletcher said.
Blache tried to counter with a pass rush of four to six defenders, with defensive end Jason Taylor playing more than usual on his natural right side, defensive ends Andre Carter and Chris Wilson getting turns in nickel situations, and with cornerback Shawn Springs playing more free safety in order to get safeties LaRon Landry and Chris Horton near the line. It didn't work, and with so many players near the line, "that does leave us a little bit vulnerable on the back end," Carter said.
New York's offensive line -- which Blache considers the best in the league -- dominated the line of scrimmage. Manning was sacked just twice and had time -- a second or more too long -- to complete key passes.
"We could have helped ourselves by rushing the passer better," Blache said, "and we could have helped ourselves by being better in our alignments and technique in our coverage."
On the occasion when Blache went cover-0, essentially an all-out blitz, Manning passed the ball to Ward on the opposite side from the pressure, and he took the screen 48 yards to set up a field goal that made it 13-0 in the second quarter. Ward set a career high with 75 receiving yards; he never had more than 50 in a game before.
"There were a couple of instances where we started to help somebody else do their job, as opposed to just doing ours," Blache said. "And it allowed Ward to make some plays that shouldn't have been. Some of those check-downs should have been: catch, tackle, down."
That screen pass was one of 10 passing plays of 13 yards or more for New York in the first three quarters. The Giants had at least two such completions in each of those quarters, and six of their first 13 plays from scrimmage were passes of at least 13 yards. New York had a meager 78 yards rushing through 45 minutes, but it made no difference. The outcome was no longer in doubt.