As was the case in the 49ers versus Lions game last year, a postgame coaching spat has overshadowed what could be considered the best game of this young season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants gave us everything we’d want to see on a football field (except sound defense). Eli Manning revisited some old flaws with three first-half interceptions, and then rebounded to throw for a whopping 510 yards. Eric Wright lived up to his contract during a dazzling interception return. Fans remained breathless during a 14-point comeback and four touchdowns in the final eight minutes. A conceded touchdown conjured memories of last year’s Super Bowl. A replay overturn stymied a potential last-second miracle by the Bucs. And, yes, even the final kneel-down was not without drama.
New York proved once again that it shouldn’t be counted out of any game, while Tampa Bay showed the league that it’s not a team to be taken lightly. Both leave with a 1-1 record, reasons for optimism, and some holes to address.
Tampa Bay – Three Performances of Note
Keep On Pressing
It’s clear the Bucs’ defense came into this one with an aggressive game plan for the Giants’ passing attack. They blitzed Manning on 27 of his 54 dropbacks and their cornerbacks played tight press coverage against Hakeem Nicks (+4.9) and Victor Cruz (+3.3) all game long. Despite mixed results, Tampa Bay stuck with this strategy to the bitter end, including on Nicks’ 50-yard catch with 1:28 left to set up the game-winning score. To that point, Aqib Talib had compiled three passes defensed against the Giants’ top wideout, but surrendered seven receptions for 118 yards. Yet the Bucs still sent three blitzers while leaving Talib alone with Nicks on the outside, and Manning made them pay with a deep completion down the right side.
While Nicks got the better of Tampa’s press on the outside, Cruz found plenty of coverage holes over the middle. Rookie linebacker Lavonte David (-3.3), slot cornerback Brandon McDonald (-0.4), and converted safety Ronde Barber (-0.9) all received negative grades for their pass coverage, with Barber’s missed assignment on Cruz’s 80-yard touchdown standing out as the biggest gaffe. When your defense surrenders the eighth-most passing yards in NFL history, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
The Best Bennett
In our Three to Focus On preview, we highlighted the matchup of the Bennett brothers, Giants tight end Martellus and Bucs defensive end Michael, in the run game. Both made their mark, but in uncharacteristic fashion. Martellus actually received a -1.4 run block grade and had two costly drops in the end zone, but made the biggest bang with a beautiful go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes. Michael’s contribution was quieter but more consistent, as he accounted for eight of Tampa Bay’s 17 QB hurries. Considering that he had 28 QB hurries all last season, this could be a sign that this Secret Superstar’s pass rush is coming in line with his superb run defense.
In between drives where Manning connected with Nicks and Cruz like clockwork, Josh Freeman continued to develop his own chemistry with his new target, Vincent Jackson. So far, Jackson has been everything that the Buccaneers had hoped for when they signed him to a big contract. His +4.1 grade led the Bucs’ offense and he had receptions on all four cornerbacks the Giants put across from him. His back-shoulder catch at the 10:46 mark of the third quarter was a particularly pretty connection with his new QB. While Freeman (+3.2) couldn’t match Manning’s production, he had a solid game in his own right. His awful interception under pressure at the end of the third quarter aside, his +8.7 grade this season hints that he may be putting his turnover-ridden 2011 season behind him.
New York – Three Performances of Note
A Tale of Two Eli’s
No matter how much he’s accomplished, there is still a certain skepticism surrounding Eli Manning (+5.8), and the first half of Sunday’s game told us why. Giants fans groaned as Manning’s misreads and overthrows led to three interceptions, 21 Buccaneer points, and a 14-point halftime deficit for the Giants. The biggest difference for Manning in the second half, frankly, was that he stopped making bad decisions. He was almost faultless after halftime, and he went back to his bread and butter, the deep ball. Manning led the league with 1,490 yards on deep passes last year, and he finished this game with 203 yards, two touchdowns, and a 141.4 QB rating on passes over 20 yards. His +10.8 grade this season ties him with Matt Ryan for highest among all QBs.
No Big Diehl?
If you’ve read almost any of our Giants game analysis from last season, then you’re probably aware of the struggles of offensive lineman David Diehl. Announcers call him versatile because he can play guard or tackle, which really means that he can hurt the Giants at two positions. He compiled an abysmal -47.2 grade at left guard and left tackle in 2011, and has shown no signs of improvement at right tackle this season. He graded a -6.0 against the Cowboys and -1.8 in just 15 snaps on Sunday before he left with an injury. Sean Locklear (-0.6) struggled in pass protection in his stead and William Beatty (+0.2) had a couple of bad false start penalties, but even their average performances are an upgrade from Diehl’s standard. If Diehl has to miss any time with his injury, the Giants may be getting a blessing in disguise.
What’s The Hurry?
For having such a famous reputation, the Giants’ front four is really taking its time getting into gear this season. After they came up small in the opener against Dallas’ offensive line, New York’s pass rushers failed to apply much pressure to Josh Freeman this week. Too often the Bucs’ QB was allowed to stand tall in the pocket with nary a defender around him. All three QB hits came from defensive tackle Linval Joseph (+2.4), and the only sack by a lineman came when Freeman literally ran into the arms of Jason Pierre-Paul (+4.1). Justin Tuck (-2.1) has yet to record a pressure this season. With an injured and under-performing secondary, the Giants’ defensive line can’t afford to leave its teammates out to dry.
– Only three of the 19 Tampa Bay defenders who played in this game did not rush the passer at least once: Leonard Johnson, Adam Hayward and Aqib Talib.
– It’s clear that the Giants don’t trust their offensive rookies enough yet to give them significant playing time. Despite injuries to Ahmad Bradshaw and Domenik Hixon, David Wilson and Reuben Randle were on the field for a combined nine snaps.
– The Giants may be starting to accept Antrelle Rolle’s limitations in man coverage. He spent only one snap in his usual slot cornerback position, instead playing centerfield as a free safety for the entire game.
PFF Game Ball
Eli Manning giveth, and Eli Manning taketh away. As much as his first half reminded us of his early-career struggles, Manning’s second half was a showcase of the top-tier QB that he’s since become.
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