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Faltering New York Giants try to get on track

The Redskins' executive vice-president of football operations steps down after the team starts the season with a 4-9 record.

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By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 19, 2009

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Replacing Plaxico Burress this season hasn't been nearly the challenge the New York Giants anticipated. But the Giants have dealt with an entirely unexpected set of problems instead. They have found themselves usually able to score points but unable of late to prevent opponents from scoring even more, and they'll enter Monday night's game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field clinging to evaporating postseason hopes.

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"We just have to have the mind-set right now that we have three games left and we are going to have to win all three," Giants quarterback Eli Manning said after a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday night at Giants Stadium, "and it is going to start next week at Washington on Monday night. . . . It's all about winning games. You never know what kind of game it's going to be. You never know whether you're going to have to score six points to win a game or 40-plus to win a game, but you have to do whatever it takes."

Even scoring 40 points wouldn't have been enough against the Eagles. The Giants lost that game, 45-38, and their record dropped to 7-6. They've lost six of eight games since a 5-0 beginning to the season, and the biggest problems have come on defense. The Giants are ranked ninth in the league in total defense, which is based on yards allowed, but are 28th among the 32 teams in scoring defense. They've permitted 25.4 points per game this season, and each of their last eight opponents has scored more than 20 points.

The Eagles scored in every way imaginable last Sunday night, with one touchdown by their defense and another on a punt return. But mostly, they exploited the Giants' inability to cover dynamic wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who had six catches for 178 yards.

"I don't think there was much pressure on the quarterback," Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said after the game. "We did not cover very well, and we didn't cover for very long. We keep trying to maneuver people in and out of different spots to try and come up with a better answer. We will just have to keep doing it. . . . You just keep working at it [and] take a look at the personnel. We will do the evaluation. We will do everything that we can. I still say it is a combination of things."

By Monday, Coughlin was being asked whether he was considering ousting his first-year defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan, who was promoted last offseason when Steve Spagnuolo left to become the head coach of the St. Louis Rams. Coughlin said he wasn't considering such a move, adding that he was disappointed in the results but he remained supportive of Sheridan. Still, it's a sign of the times that the topic even came up.

"We have to be a more disciplined team," cornerback Corey Webster said after the loss to the Eagles. "We have to keep on fighting. We have to be smart about it. We have to line up and identify the playmakers on the other team. We have to know where they are at all times."

The search for answers recently led the Giants to promote defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka and defensive tackle Chris Canty into the starting lineup, ahead of end Osi Umenyiora and tackle Fred Robbins. But that didn't fix the problems on a defense that is playing without injured middle linebacker Antonio Pierce, who is sidelined for the rest of the season because of a disk problem in his neck. The Giants seemed primed to have a pass rush as fierce as ever this season with Umenyiora, Kiwanuka and fellow defensive end Justin Tuck, yet they rank only 22nd in the league in sacks with 26.

The offense is doing its part. The Giants are ranked fifth in the league in total offense and also are in the top 10 in scoring, rushing offense and passing offense. Manning threw for 391 yards and three touchdowns against the Eagles.

The Giants have one wide receiver, Steve Smith, already over 1,000 receiving yards and two others, Mario Manningham and rookie Hakeem Nicks, closing in on 700 yards apiece. They've totaled 15 touchdown catches among them. Nicks, a first-round draft pick last spring, has had the expected rookie ups and downs. Against the Eagles, he dropped two passes on the same drive, one of them a sure touchdown on a on-target deep throw by Manning, but rebounded to break two tackles and turn a catch for a medium-sized gain into a 68-yard touchdown. That was one of five touchdowns in that game of 60 yards or longer, three of them by the Eagles.

Burress is long gone, having been released by the Giants and serving a prison sentence on a weapon charge stemming from the incident last year in which he accidentally shot himself in the leg at a New York nightclub. Many observers attributed the unraveling of the Giants' 2008 season to the Burress incident. They'd followed their Super Bowl-winning season in 2007 by being the league's most dominant team for much of last season, but weren't the same after losing Burress and bowed out of the playoffs meekly.

They aren't suffering from a lack of production at wide receiver now, although Manning said the offense must share the blame for the team's struggles.

"We know we have to score," Manning said. "We have faith in our defense, and each week we have great faith that they are going to get us the ball, get us turnovers. But offensively we know we have to do our part also. We expect to go out there and score points. We think we have the firepower to do that, to be an explosive offense whether we are running the ball or throwing the ball. We have to get off to a better start. We have to get things going, get a lead, put some pressure on the opposing offense, help out our defense."

The Giants find themselves chasing both the first-place Eagles and the second-place Dallas Cowboys in the NFC East. They're only a game behind the Cowboys in the race for the second wild-card playoff spot in the NFC, however.

"By no means is our season over," Kiwanuka said. "This is the position that we've put ourselves in, but we have to pick ourselves up and keep going. That's our job. We have to get the corrections made and play better."


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