Metlife Stadium was warm and humid, a last blast of summer on it’s final full September day. The Giants came into the game desperate, facing virtual playoff irrelevance only three games into the season. Tom Coughlin took steps to relax his team – piping music onto the practice field, team exercises designed to build camaraderie, and preachin his message of following the plan. But for most of the first quarter, it seemed as if the “Same old Giants” had shown up for this game. But there was something different about the team, a determination – they weren’t going quietly into oblivion in 2014. The running game was fierce and Eli Manning was on point. The defense was solid and created it’s first three turnovers of the season. When all was said and done, the Giants came away with a 30-17 victory and renewed sense of optimism heading into their Thursday night showdown with division rival Washington.
The Texans won the coin toss and deferred to the second half, the opening kick went for a touchback and Eli Manning and the offense came out at the their own 20. Opening in a three receiver set, Manning completed his first pass to Rueben Randle on a quick pass to the left. Foreshadowing the game, the next two plays were driving runs by Rashad Jennings that netted and a first down. During the second series, J.J. Watt blew past Justin Pugh with an inside move and sacked Manning for an 8 yard loss, bring up 3rd and 16 and effectively ending the opening drive. Steve Weatherford’s punt gave the Texans the ball at their own 19 yard line.
For the second consecutive week, the Giants seemingly caught a break when a major player on the opponent’s team was inactivated for the game. Arian Foster, Houston’s top running back, and one of the NFL’s best of the past several seasons was unable to play on his sore hamstring, vaulting rookie Alfred Blue into the starting role for the Texans. Not as fast or elusive as Foster, Blue would require the Texans to move away from their base offense that ran the ball more than 60% of the time and force quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to pass. His history of turnovers, not an issue in Houston’s first two games, would become an immediate factor today.
On Houston’s first play, Blue ran left, Antrel Rolle blitzed and just missed tackling him for a loss. Mark Herzlich, starting at strong side linebacker for Jameel McClain who shifted inside for the injured Jon Beason, was blocked completely out of play, and it went for gain of 11. Blue’s next run, up the middle, was stopped for only a 2 yard gain by Jonathan Hankins and McClain. After a third down pass failed to net first down yardage when Andre Johnson was stopped by solid tackling from Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the Texans sent out their punting unit on fourth and one at their own 39 yard line
Shane Lechler, the veteran punter in his second season with the Texans after spending thirteen with the Oakland Raiders, took the snap and fired a pass to Blue, who is one of the punt protectors. Lechler is a former high school quarterback and completed the pass easily against a napping Giants punt return unit that wasn’t prepared for a possible fake. Corey Washington was the closest Giants to the Blue on the play and had his back turned when the pass was completed. He reacted quickly after the catch, but Blue already had first down yardage. Gaining 10 yards, the Texans were set up with a first down at midfield.
A 9 yard Blue run with a missed tackle by Mathias Kiwanuka put the ball on the edge of field goal range at the Giants 42. False start and illegal use of hands penalties on back-to-back plays pushed the Texans back into their own territory and set up a 3rd and 11 at the their own 48. Fitzpatrick, in a collapsing pocket, had his arm hit by Jason Pierre-Paul, and threw up a wounded duck intended for receiver DeAndre Hopkins. Prince Amukamara dove and cradled the ball for the interception, giving the Giants the ball at their own 36.
Manning went to work in the no huddle, mixing Jennings runs with quick passes to Randle and right end Larry Donnell and efficiently drove the Giants down the field to the Texans 10 yard line. This offense looked nothing like the one on display in the first two games, it was well timed, in sync, and kept the Texan defense off balance. On 2nd and 7, Manning completed another pass for Donnell who broke towards the end zone, safety Kendrick Lewis put his helmet on the ball during the tackle, jarring the ball loose. It was recovered by teammate Jonathan Joseph for a turnover, snuffing out the Giants best drive of the season inside the Texans 5 yard line.
The fumble was returned to the Texans 27, and the Giants defense stepped up, holding the Texans to a three and out. Lechler’s booming 64 yard punt resulted in a touchback. Before the first quarter ended, the Giants showed another facet to their new offense, when Manning found Victor Cruz across the middle for 9 yards. Cruz accelerated through four Texans defenders, and raced for 61 yard before cornerback Darryl Morris caught him at the Texans 15 yard line. The first quarter was dominated statistically by the Giants, but ended on a 0-0 tie.
The drive stalled at the Texans 12 and Josh Brown came out to attempt his first field goal of the season. Zak DeOssie, the team’s long snapper since 2007, bounced the snap to Weatherford who was unable to pull it down. It bounced through his hands and Brown recovered it at the Houston 41. Officially, it was recorded as a DeOssie fumble recovered by the the Giants for a loss of 4 yards and loss of the ball on downs, but it was another special teams mistake that cost the Giants points. Two consecutive drives into the red zone netted no points and the team’s frustration was palpable. Weatherford could have gotten the snap down for the 30 yard field goal attempt, and has successfully done so in the past. He mistimed his attempt and never had a realistic chance to handle it.
The teams swapped punts and the Texans second was from inside their own 20, setting up the Giants with a return opportunity. Preston Parker broke a 12 yard return that appeared to set the offense up with good field position at their own 40 yard line, but a hold by Damontre Moore wiped out the return and put the ball all the way back inside the the 20 yard line. The foul was not visible, but Coughlin’s look of disbelief from the sideline over another special teams error was quite evident.
Manning was unfazed by the poor field position and the offense line continued to open up big holes for Jennings to run through. Mixing the runs with quick passes to Randle, Donnell, and Cruz, the Giants used the no huddle to move the ball out to the 48 yard line. Houston’s response was to move closer to the line of scrimmage and the Giants adjusted to thrown mid range passes, with Manning connecting on consecutive plays to Parker for 13 yards, putting the ball at the Texans 26. Cruz again lined up in the slot and Manning hit him quickly int he face of a Texans blitz for 9 yards. Cruz stutter stepped past cornerback Kareem Jackson and raced into the end zone for a Giants touchdown. The drive covered 83 yards in 9 plays and took 4:23 and gave the Giants a 7-0 lead.
Houston returned the kickoff to their own 18, and on first down, Hopkins made a highlight reel one handed catch against Amukamara that appeared to put the ball on the Giants 29 yards line. A penalty for illegal formation wiped out the gain and put the Texans to their own 13. Hopkins, in his second season out of Clemson, is in the process of taking over the Houston’s receiver role from Johnson. He’s shown the ability to make tough catches and has the potential to be a game changing receiver. Amukamara had good position on the play, but Hopkins reached up and snagged the ball in his huge hands. The penalty was on Hopkins, who lined up on the line of scrimmage, covering up tackle Tyson Clabo, who had reported eligible on the play.
Following the momentum shifting penalty, Fitzpatrick was sacked by McClain and Hankins for a 6 yard loss. Hankins ran through left guard Ben Jones on the play, while the blitzing McClain brushed off a pickup attempt by Blue. A short run by Blue brought 3rd and 19 from the their own 9 at the two minute warning. Fitzpatrick, under heavy pressure from Robert Ayers, lined up at tackle, threw off target towards Johnson and Rolle intercepted. His weaving return gave the Giants offense a first and goal on the Texans 2 yard line. Ayers bull rushed Texans guard Jones, the second time he was beaten on this drive.
Three consecutive runs by Jennings powered the ball ball into the end zone, with the scoring run having the running back untouched between John Jerry and Pugh. The drive took only 41 seconds, and put the Giants in the lead 14-0. Houston was unable to mount a drive in the remaining 1:07 and the Giants took that lead into halftime.
Having deferred, Houston received the third quarter kickoff and returned it from their own 4 to their 26 yard line. Fitzpatrick found tight end Garrett Graham for gains of 11 and 10 yards and short blue runs brought up a 4th and 1 at the own 46. Concerned about the momentum the Giants suddenly potent offense was building, Texans’s head coach Bill O’Brien left his offense on the field and Blue plunged into line to try to pick up the first down. Herzlich, Jonathan Hankins, Kiwanuka and Mike Patterson all penetrated on the quick snap and stuffed the play for short loss, giving the Giants the ball on the Houston 45.
The Giants ran the ball with Jennings 5 straight times, with the first two gaining 13 and 10 yards, respectively. Shorter gains set up a third and three at the Texans 15, when Watt made a play to keep the game competitive for his team. Watt jackknifed between Will Beatty and Weston Richburg who were both engaged blocking other players. Henry Hynoski, who had more playing time this game, missed his block, giving Watt a clean shot at Jennings who was tackled for a 6 yard loss. Josh Brown was able to kick his 39 yard field goal attempt, and the Giants had a 17-0 lead. The 6 play, 24 yard drive featured runs to the left side of the line, behind Beatty, Richburg, and J.D. Walton, all of whom appeared to be firing off the ball. Jennings crossed the 100 yard mark at 12:19 in the third quarter.
The Texans halftime adjustments included finding a soft spot in the middle of the Giants defense and Fitzpatrick exploited it, completing five straight passes to move the ball from his own 20 to the Giants 18. A 3rd and 1 pass intended for Johnson fell incomplete when it was just out of the receiver’s reach and O’Brien opted to kick the 27 yard field goal. Randy Bullock’s attempt was true and the Giants lead was cut to 17-3. The Texans drive covered 71 yards on 9 plays and took 4:30.
A face mask penalty on the first play of the Giants next drive put the ball out to the Giants 48, but the offense failed to capitalize, punting back to the Texans when a 3rd and 2 pass to Cruz overshot it’s target. Pinned in at their own 9 yard line, the Texans mounted their best drive of the day, a 46 yard Blue run that succeeded due to excellent blocking and missed tackle by Jacquian Williams was followed by a 44 yard Fitzpatrick stick to receiver Damaris Johnson for the score. Fitzpatrick looked off Stevie Brown, and Johnson beat nickel back Trumaine McBride for an easy touchdown. The 93 yard drive required only 4 plays and 2:03 and cut the Giants lead to 7 at 17-10.
Unlike last week, when the Giants responded to The Cardinals rally with mistakes on special teams that cost them the game, the team responded with a 10 play, 66 yard drive that mixed short passes and Jennings runs and spanned the third and fourth quarters. The drive ended with a 29 yard Brown field goal, putting the Giants up 20-10, but most importantly, gave the defense a chance to rest and regroup. On the third down play before the field goal, Manning’s pass was tipped into the air by Watt. Manning, not wanting another tipped intercepting, split Jerry and Pugh, looking to knock the ball to the ground. He didn’t make it before the ball fell on it’s own, but his spirit and motivation are noteworthy.
Starting at their own 27, Houston ran Blue for 2 yards and a Johnson reverse for no gain. On 3rd and 8, Fitzpatrick appeared to scramble for a first down, but Coughlin challenged and the spot was reversed, making it 4th and a long 1 at the Texans 36 yard line. The play that followed was the signature play of the game and was shockingly turned in by the Giants special teams. Damontre Moore, who has excelled on punt block team, overpowered punt protector Daneel Manning and blocked the Lechler punt, giving the offense the ball at the Texans 29 yard line.
Two Jennings runs to the left netted 20 yards and Manning dropped a perfect pass into the end zone to tight end Daniel Fells over linebacker Whitney Mercilus to expend the Giants lead to 27-10. The 3 plays drive required only 1:06 and while not putting Houston out of the game, made a comeback highly improbable.
A touchback gave Fitzpatrick the ball at his own 20 for a drive that lasted exactly one play. Rodgers-Cromartie undercut a pass intended for Hopkins for the interception at the Houston 39, a ten yard return gave the Giants their second straight possession deep in Texans territory. Keeping the ball on the ground, a combination of Jennings and Andre Williams runs brought up a third and 4 at the Houston 13. Manning’s pass for Randle in the end zone fell through his hands, with cornerback Daryl Morris draped all over him It was a catchable ball, and one of the few offensive miscues of the game. Brown’s 31 yard field goal capped the 7 play, 16 yard drive that took 3:39 off the clock and gave the Giants a 30-10 lead with just 5:33 remaining in the game.
Houston mounted a furious drive that covered 80 yards in 8 plays was capped off by a 1 yard Fitzpatrick scramble for a touchdown. It provided the final points in a 30-17 Giants victory. The thrill of the win covers up some areas that still require improvement if this team is to compete for the playoffs in 2014, the most glaring of which is special teams.
The punt return unit is producing nothing of value for the team, with the only substantial return wiped out by yet another penalty. Kickoff returns are equally bland, although Quintin Demps taking touchbacks on kickoffs deep in the end zone represent progress. Odell Beckham’s return from a lingering hamstring injury will boost the lean production of these units.
Turnovers persist to be an issue for the offense, with Donnell’s fumble in the red zone in this game the latest example. It failed to loom large in the game, but red zone turnovers are the most damaging to an offense, and must be corrected. Finally, the defensive line, while getting good pressure, is allowing quarterbacks to elude it and gain yardage on scrambles. It’s a concerning trend and one that Perry Fewell needs to address before the team faced Colin Kaepernick and Andrew Luck, both of whom can do serious damage with their legs.
The biggest positive was the offensive line play, as both pass and run blocking were solid. Jennings gained 176 yards on 34 carries, a whopping 5.18 yards per carry. Manning was sacked just once, on the opening drive and Watt registered just one quarterback hit and two tackles for loss.
The timing of the new offense was in sync, with Manning completing 21 of 28 passes for 234 yards with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. His passer rating was 123.2 and he looked comfortable and in command all afternoon. VCruz had 107 yards receiving on 5 catches and caught his first touchdown of the season.
Donnell, save his fumble, had another solid outing, catching 6 of 6 passes thrown his way for 45 yards. Preston Parker was a passable replacement for Jerrell Jernigan in the third receiver role, catching 3 of 4 passes for 33 yards.
Hynoski appeared to have a bigger role blocking this week and may have been one reason the run game was more effective. We’ll examine this closer tomorrow when we do our deep statistical dive.
The run defense was solid, giving up only 73 yards on 24 carries if you factor out the one 46 yard gain by Blue. Fitzpatrick gained 34 yards on 7 carries, which is why containing the quarterback needs to be an area of focus for the team.
The officiating in this game was good, not perfect, but solid, with mostly good calls that didn’t disrupt the flow of the game. Terry McAulay and his crew were true to their history, calling blocking and motion penalties when warranted and not overly sensitive to contact in the secondary. If the officiating throughout the league mirrored this game, it would be a substantive improvement in quality.
With the shortened week, the Giants will have one thorough practice period tomorrow before heading to Washington on Wednesday. The winner of this game will be in position to be a factor in the NFC East race, while the loser will have a difficult path to the playoffs.
Tomorrow afternoon, Giants360 will post a deep dive into the game statistics and on Wednesday, we’ll be preparing our keys to victory over the Redskins. The Giants were able to achieve 4 of 5 of our keys for this game and good things happened.
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