If one team were going to enter this weekend’s game at MetLife Stadium game with a win under its belt, most would have expected it to be the defending champions rather than the squad that went 4-12 in 2011. Yet after a pair of surprising Week 1 upsets, it’s the young Tampa Bay Buccaneers who will try to improve to 2-0 against the New York Giants.
The Bucs pushed around the Carolina Panthers in their convincing win Sunday, exuding the toughness and discipline that new coach Greg Schiano has preached from the moment he arrived in Tampa. After a primetime loss to the Dallas Cowboys, New York knows that a magical postseason run did not erase their holes on the offensive line or health concerns in the secondary.
Will the Giants avoid the early rumors of a Super Bowl hangover, or will Tampa Bay stake its claim as one of the upstart contenders of the 2012 season?
Who Has The Better Bennett?
Despite the way things worked out, it must have pained Tom Coughlin to have the least-productive rushing attack in the league last season. Ahmad Bradshaw’s impressive Elusive Rating was New York’s only saving grace, as all five starting linemen owned a negative run block grade by the end of 2011. Many assumed that the Giants acquired free agent Martellus Bennett with the hopes of unearthing his potential as a receiver, but shrewd PFF subscribers may have noticed that the former Cowboy’s +11.7 run block grade ranked second among all tight ends last year. Over the past two seasons in Kevin Gilbride’s offense, Jake Ballard and Kevin Boss ran a pass route on 41.1% of their snaps and run blocked on 44.2% of them. Last Thursday’s fingertip touchdown catch notwithstanding, Bennett’s biggest contribution this season should come in the running game.
The Buccaneers have their own Bennett to keep the Giants’ rushing attack down. That would be Secret Superstar Michael Bennett, whose +14.2 run defense grade was by far the best on the team last season. He’s off to another good start after a +1.9 mark against the Panthers, who rushed for only 10 yards on 13 team carries. A Buccaneer defense that averaged a whopping 10.6 missed tackles per game last season had just 7 on Sunday. Has Schiano already affected a much-needed culture change in Tampa? New York will try to establish the run much more than Carolina did, so there will be plenty of opportunities to follow the Bennetts on Sunday.
Free To Pass?
Giants fans felt some déjà vu this August when cornerbacks Terrell Thomas and Prince Amukamara suffered leg injuries for the second year in a row. New York survived their absence last season because its starting corners, Corey Webster and Aaron Ross (now with the Jaguars), improbably stayed healthy. The Giants’ luck ran out quickly this time around, as Michael Coe suffered a hamstring against the Cowboys and reserve Justin Tryon surrendered four receptions on four passes for 71 yards and a touchdown. The backup was a popular target, both for Tony Romo during the game and the New York media after it, but more concerning for the Giants should be the play of Antrel Rolle (-1.0 pass coverage grade) and Webster (-2.4). New York’s injuries in the secondary are only part of the problem if it can’t count on its seasoned veterans.
Webster faces an old adversary this Sunday in the Buccaneers new weapon, Vincent Jackson. The last time these two matched up in 2009, the 6-foot-5 receiver racked up seven catches on eight targets for 59 yards and two touchdowns for the Chargers, including the game-winner with 0:21 left. Jackson and quarterback Josh Freeman had quietly effective performances against the Panthers on Sunday, as the Buccaneers threw for 138 yards on just 24 pass attempts (earning Freeman our PFF Game Ball). Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan is familiar with the deficiencies of the Giants secondary from his time as the quarterbacks coach in New York. Sullivan is stepping cautiously after Freeman’s 22 interceptions last season, but given New York’s questionable cornerbacks, this may be an opportune time to loosen the reins.
Where’s the Rush?
The Buccaneers have their share of question marks on the offensive line heading into this season. After a couple of down years, left tackle Donald Penn rebounded with an impressive +17.9 grade last season. Sadly, the same cannot be said for bookend Jeremy Trueblood, whose -20.9 mark placed him fifth-worst in the league among all offensive tackles in 2011. High-priced free agent left guard Carl Nicks (+1.2) graded well in his Bucs debut, but right guard Ted Larsen is starting for the IR’d Davin Joseph and hasn’t always done well in reserve (-21.0 over 14 starts the last two seasons). This should conceivably be an advantage for the Giants vaunted pass rushers, but they were largely invisible last week against a Cowboys offensive line that had only one starter at the same position as last season. Jason Pierre-Paul was the only standout for the Giants as his six quarterback hurries doubled the amount of all the other New York linemen combined. Considering the aforementioned struggles in their secondary, the Giants can ill afford to have its pass rush fade away so early into the season.
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