Giant Difference This Time Around
by Mike Conklin
November 24, 2012
When the Packers played the Giants last January, the entire game...and season...could be capsulized by one play. It eventually proved to be the turning point for the Packers' hopes of winning back-to-back championships.
Clinging to a 13-10 lead, the Giants lined up at the Packers' 37-yard line for the last play in the first half. They could have attempted a 54-yard field goal, which looked like it could be important in a contest that gave every indication of remaining close throughout its duration. Although the prospects of making a long field goal at Lambeau in January are not particularly good, the weather was mild that day and there would have been little risk to attempt the kick. After all, it was at the end of the half and even if the field goal were missed the Packers would not be able to benefit from the ensuing field position.
Although the odds of making the long field goal were fairly low, the Giants chose even worse odds. They decided to go for a desperation heave into the end zone. The chances of actually converting a play like that are typically somewhere between slim and none.
The Giants beat the odds...thanks to sloppy defensive play by the Packers...and the rest is history. Hakeem Nicks caught the ball cleanly, the Giants went into halftime with a ten-point lead, and all the air was let out of Lambeau. Although the Packers had an entire half to come back, their fate was essentially sealed with that one play. With momentum clearly on their side, the Giants went on to win going away.
The play can be seen again here, and a screen capture that tells the story can be seen below:
One thing that jumps out in that picture is that the four defenders chiefly involved in the play are Charles Woodson, Charlie Peprah, Jarrett Bush, and Sam Shields.
None of these players will be in the defensive backfield for the Packers against the Giants this time around.
The defense has changed dramatically over a very short period of time. If that play were to happen again, it would likely be defended by some sort of combination of Tramon Williams, M.D. Jennings, Davon House, Jerron McMillian, and Casey Hayward. (Williams was on the field for last year's play, but was covering a receiver on a different part of the field.)
After that and the subsequent "Fail Mary" in Seattle, the Packers have likely been coached heavily and learned their lessons about giving up such passes. As the season has unfolded since the Seahawks game, the pass defense has clearly improved despite the fact that key players have missed considerable time to injury.
The Packers defense finished dead last in yards allowed in 2011, and the biggest reason why the defense remained competitive at times was because of the uncommonly high number of turnovers they were able to produce. (They finished with eight more interceptions than the second-best team.) This year's defense has leapfrogged half the league in the rankings, and now stands at a much more respectable 16th in yards allowed. That is a big jump.
Statistics have been known to lie at times, but Tom Coughlin doesn't think so. When the Giants head coach was asked what he saw when he looked at this year's Packers team on film compared to last, he noticed the improvement as well.
"The Packers defensive team last year had a tremendous number of takeaways," said Coughlin. "This year’s team doesn’t have as many takeaways but they’re playing what appears to be much tighter defense. There are a lot of young players contributing. The structure appears to be the same and they’re playing with outstanding quality."
As Coughlin stated, the defense appear to be playing "tighter" now. Considering how open Hakeem Nicks was on that Hail Mary last year, that is a very good...and necessary...thing.
Coughlin also brought up the fact that young players are contributing, and they appear to be the biggest reason for the improvement for the pass defense. Consider the differences between the players on the field now, as opposed to who was on the field for that fateful Hail Mary play illustrated above.
Although Charles Woodson is surely missed, he is not the same player he was when he won Defensive Player of the Year. Last year, he was the instinctive slot corner that was used as a jack-of-all-trades and hybrid safety. The Packers seem to be grooming Casey Hayward into that role, and it could be argued that Hayward is actually covering better as a cornerback this year than Woodson did last year.
It was a surprise when Charlie Peprah was released before the Packers even broke camp in July. One could say that he was initially replaced by Charles Woodson, but as it has panned out that safety spot is being manned by a combination of M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian. Each has served adequately, and seem to be improving as the season progresses and they get more experience.Both of them appear to have better speed and coverage ability than Peprah.
Jarrett Bush was the player lined up on the line of scrimmage across from Hakeem Nicks on the Hail Mary play. Although Bush saw playing time as a cornerback early this season because Davon House was out with an injury, his playing time has since been relegated to special teams, which is clearly his strong suit. House is now back and playing considerable minutes. His length offers the Packers a different dimension than their other cornerbacks, and he appears to challenge receivers on every play.
Sam Shields has not seen the field for several weeks, but even before his injury he looked like a different player than he was last year. He was playing a much more physical brand of football, and if he returns to the same form the Packers will face some difficult decisions when doling out playing time.
The other cornerback that still remains a vital part of the Packers defense is Tramon Williams. Although he was not directly involved in the Hail Mary during the last Giants game, he is playing much improved now that his shoulder had an offseason to heal. It is difficult to cover the other team's best receiver when you can't even lift a 30-pound dumbbell over your head, as was the case with Williams during last season. Williams may not be playing to his 2010 form, but he is vastly improved over the shell of himself that fought through the injury in 2011.
The Packers may not win this time around against the Giants. They will be on the field in a difficult environment against the defending Super Bowl champions. Clay Matthews will be unable to play again, and the defense may have to play a near-perfect game to overcome his absence. The Packers' new-look offensive line will be sharply tested against the Giants pass rush, which has been one of the best in the league for years now.
The Giants should be highly motivated, as they played extremely poorly going into their bye week and have had two weeks to stew about it. Despite their struggles in recent weeks, it should not be forgotten that the Giants are little more than a month removed from wiping the field with the 49ers on the road, and are still a dangerous team.
Whether the Packers win or lose this game, one thing that seems unlikely is that their pass defense will look like it did last January. Although it is unlikely to come down to a last-second Hail Mary again, if that is the way the game unfolds the Packers should like their chances much more this time around.
Photo Credit: Reuters