Attention to details key to victory
After looking unprepared in an ugly home loss last week, the Giants jumped all over the Vikings.
MINNEAPOLIS -- As a conference, the NFC apparently stands for "Not For Consistency."
Except for the Eagles, who are unbeaten, each of the nine NFC teams .500 or better have blown critical home games. The Falcons and Giants lost at home to the Lions. The Lions were blown out by the Packers. The Packers lost their first three home games. The Seahawks blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to the Rams.
Like basketball, the key for playoff survival is being able to rebound from embarrassment. The Giants did that Sunday. They bounced back from a poorly played loss at home to Detroit and destroyed the Vikings 34-13.
Coming off a bye week, the Giants may have thought they were above preparing. They were 4-1 at the time and apparently full of themselves. Coughlin is anal about preparation. For whatever crazy reason, they tuned him out and Coughlin sensed it during the week. Linebacker Barrett Green was late and temporally lost his starting job. The Lions whipped them 28-13.
That loss was apparently an attention-getter. Coughlin built off that loss by having a great week of preparation. "Hustle." "Be smart." "Never stop until you hear the whistle." The players heard those overused motivational words for years, but the loss to the Lions allowed it to sink in. In defeat, the Giants gained character.
"The persona of this team is that we don't play great all the time, but we always get back up and keep playing hard," halfback Tiki Barber said. "You don't want to say a loss can be good for a team, but maybe that's what happened."
Coughlin wrote the textbook for bouncing back from a bad home loss. Four plays into the game, Coughlin's attention to detail paid off. Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper tried one of his patented "bubble" screens. Halfback Mewelde Moore floated to his right for a quick screen behind the line of scrimmage. Culpepper took a quick couple steps and fired a pass. Moore let it slip through his hands, but only linebacker Kevin Lewis, drilled all week on those bubble screens, knew the ball was still alive since it was technically a lateral and a fumble.
Lewis picked up the ball and ran it to the Vikings' 22-yard line, setting up a 50-yard field goal by Steve Christie and a 3-0 lead less than two minutes into the game.
"Only Kevin Lewis knew it was a (live) ball because I sure didn't," defensive end Michael Strahan said. "I was walking away and he was running the ball. It was heads-up and a great way to start the game."
Vikings coach Mike Tice fired his red hanky to challenge the play, but it only wasted a timeout.
The Giants didn't stop there. After a Vikings three-and-out, Kurt Warner sent Shockey along the sidelines against safety Corey Chavous. In this one-on-one matchup, Shockey has a 50-pound advantage, so Chavous ended up grabbing him and getting a 38-yard interference penalty down to Minnesota's 22.
Here's another example of improved preparation. The red zone has been the Giants' enemy all season. In six games, the Giants had seven touchdowns in 21 trips inside opponents' 20, worst in the NFC. The team was terrible on short yardage, so bad that Giants fans last week booed ineffective halfback Ron Dayne when he ran onto the field for short-yardage plays. The Giants don't have the personnel to bunch three tight ends into a short-yardage play and let Dayne try to hit a hole behind a fullback.
Coughlin self-scouted his team and came up with a different formula. He kept his regular offensive personnel on the field in the red zone. Regular personnel often meant two receivers (Amani Toomer and Ike Hilliard) and two tight ends (Shockey and Visanthe Shiancoe). The result was four short touchdown runs -- two each by Barber and Mike Cloud. Dayne didn't even get dressed.
"We were just staying in regular personnel, not bunching everybody up and we just ran our best plays," Barber said. "I hope we keep doing that. It proved effective. We had no heavy package (with a sixth offensive lineman). We had no three tight ends. We just left our best players on the field in regular situations."
One of the Giants' best players is Shockey, who seems to be shaking off the rust from an idle preseason while he recovered from foot surgery. Coughlin flanked Shockey into a split end position and let Warner make play calls at the line based on how the Vikings covered him.
The strategy was simple. If the Vikings left him in single coverage by committing an extra safety to stop Barber, Warner would audible to a pass for Shockey. If the Vikings slid a safety or corner to Shockey's side in zone coverage, he'd audible for a Barber handoff on a draw play.
Barber's second touchdown was a 5-yard draw with the Vikings committing two defenders to Shockey in a zone. With 13:20 left in the second quarter, the Giants cruised to a 17-0 lead, and Vikings fans started filtering out of the Metrodome after a 20-0 halftime deficit.
"As a team, we were not going to lay down," cornerback Will Peterson said. "People were counting us out after last week. But it's going to be as tough as you make it. The preparation last week was the key. We prepared like we never prepared before."
|“||The persona of this team is that we don't play great all the time, but we always get back up and keep playing hard. You don't want to say a loss can be good for a team, but maybe that's what happened.”|
|—Giants TB Tiki Barber|
The Giants' defense was ready for anything the Vikings wanted to try. Defensive coordinator Tim Lewis came up with a copy of what the Eagles did to defend Culpepper. Defensive end Osi Umenyiora played several novel positions. He'd sometimes line up at middle linebacker against three-receiver sets and blitz. He'd move from middle linebacker to either side at defensive end. It kept the blocking schemes a little off-balance and gave the defense options in case Culpepper ran out of the pocket.
"Like I said earlier in the week, these guys are the best offense in the league," Strahan said. "For those guys to put up 300 yards, that's a half for them. We kept them under 300 yards today (actually they had 324 yards). Daunte's had three games of five touchdowns or more. You just don't want to be the team that has that happen to you. Our defensive backfield and linebackers played great today."
Culpepper completed 24-of-42 passes for 231 yards and one touchdown. The Giants shut out the Vikings until the nine-minute mark of the fourth quarter. All day, the offense didn't get into a rhythm.
With that victory, the Giants rebounded to 5-2 and could be considered the best NFC team that isn't the Eagles. They won in Dallas, Green Bay and Minneapolis. Barber got his usual 100-plus rushing yards and will now get more carries in the red zone. Shockey is getting into a rhythm for the first time this year.
He caught three passes for 60 yards, but he needs to get more action. In the third quarter, Warner hit him in the open on a third-and-23. Shockey avoided safety Brian Russell and dove to the end zone. His legs hit out of bounds at the 1 before he lunged the ball on top of the pylon. Frustrated, he ripped the pylon out because he didn't score a touchdown.
"I get very emotional out there," Shockey said. "I'm not the player I was a couple of years ago. I would have scored on that play a couple of years ago."
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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