Cheat Sheet: Eagles’ Defense Vs. Giants’ Offense

Here are 10 things to know about this weekend’s matchup between the Giants’ offense and the Eagles’ defense.

1. This will be the best offense the Birds have faced so far. The Giants are averaging 31.3 points per game, third-best in the NFL, and it starts with the quarterback. Eli Manning has a career completion percentage of 58.7, but he’s up at 66.9 through three games this season. There’s nothing dink-and-dunk about this offense either. Perhaps the Giants’ greatest strength offensively is their versatility. They can methodically move down the field and chew up clock, or they can burn you with big plays. For example, last week against the Panthers, they scored on eight of 10 drives. And all but one scoring drive consisted of at least seven plays. On the other hand, when they needed to score quickly against the Bucs in the fourth quarter, the Giants strung together three touchdown drives of four plays or less (starting at their own 12, 33 and 30, respectively). None took more than 1:44 off the clock.

2. Up front, the Giants have done a good job of protecting Manning. Veteran David Diehl missed last week because of a knee injury and hasn’t practiced this week. Will Beatty got the start at left tackle against the Panthers and will likely be matched up against Trent Cole. Sean Locklear will line up opposite Jason Babin. Babin leads the Eagles with 2.5 sacks and 14 hurries. This will be the first time all season he’s not matched up against a rookie right tackle. Brandon Graham and Phillip Hunt will split time behind Babin. Graham has moved ahead of Hunt on the depth chart. His snaps have gone from four to nine to 17 in three weeks. Chris Snee, a three-time Pro Bowler, will match up against Fletcher Cox and Cullen Jenkins at right guard. Cox was on and off the field last week with migraines. He practiced fully on Thursday. Jenkins was outstanding in the Eagles’ win over the Giants last season. David Baas is New York’s center, having signed with the Giants in 2011 after six seasons with the 49ers. And Kevin Boothe will line up at left guard opposite Derek Landri and Cedric Thornton. Thornton had his best game of the year against the Cardinals.

3. [Update: Nicks is listed as doubtful, as of Friday afternoon] In terms of targets, there are a few guys to watch. But Hakeem Nicks is (in my estimation) the best wide receiver in the division. A foot injury sidelined him against the Panthers, but Nicks is expected to return Sunday night. He’s coming off a year in which he set a career-high with 1,192 yards. What makes Nicks so dangerous is that he doesn’t have to be open to make plays. Manning trusts him, and if he sees Nicks in a favorable matchup, he’ll let the receiver go get the ball. For example, take a look at this play from Week 2 against the Bucs.

Nicks is circled at the top of your screen. This is at the moment Manning releases the ball. You’ll notice the cornerback appears to have great coverage. But by the time the ball gets there, Nicks makes a play.

Nicks gets inside the cornerback and comes down with a 40-yard grab. This is just one play, but Manning and Nicks do this consistently. Even when they don’t complete the pass, they’re able to draw penalties. The guess here is that both Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha will see time against Nicks. Asomugha, specifically, needs to be ready to make plays on the ball when he’s targeted.

4. Nicks, of course, is far from the Giants’ only weapon. Eagles fans are far too familiar with Victor Cruz. It seems like a long time ago, but before the first meeting between these two teams last season, Cruz had two catches for 17 yards in his career. In two games against the Birds, he had nine catches for 238 yards and three touchdowns. Cruz turned in an absurd season statistically, leading the Giants in catches (82), yards (1,536), yards per catch (18.7) and touchdowns (nine). While some of those numbers are sure to come down (he’s averaging 12.1 YPR this season), Cruz is dangerous. Eagles rookie Brandon Boykin will see plenty of him. Cruz has lined up in the slot 44.7 percent of the time, according to Pro Football Focus. Of his 279 yards, 233 have come out of the slot, tops in the NFL. Boykin had his share of struggles last week, sometimes getting matched up with Larry Fitzgerald inside. He also missed a couple tackles. Another challenge awaits him in Week 4.

5. In four years with the Cowboys, tight end Martellus Bennett averaged 14.1 yards receiving per game. In other words, he was a non-factor as a pass-catcher. But that’s not the case with the Giants. Through three games, he’s the team’s second-most targeted receiver and has come up with 15 catches for 185 yards and three touchdowns. Manning likes going to Bennett in the red zone. One more name to know: Ramses Barden. A third-round pick in 2009, Barden (6-6), filled in for Nicks last week and caught nine balls for 138 yards. Even though Nicks is expected to play, Barden will still see plenty of action.

6. The Giants have received a boost in their running game from an unlikely source: Andre Brown. Originally a fourth-round pick in 2009, they let him go, and he spent time with the Broncos, Redskins, Colts and Panthers before landing back in New York. When Ahmad Bradshaw went down with a neck injury, Brown stepped in and piled up 184 yards on 33 carries (5.6 YPC) against the Bucs and Panthers. Bradshaw is expected to play Sunday night, and the Eagles will likely see both running backs. In the first meeting against the Eagles last year, Bradshaw had 86 yards on the ground and averaged 5.73 yards per carry. He also caught five balls for 53 yards. Opponents are averaging 4.0 yards per carry against the Eagles, but the Birds’ defense has allowed five runs of 20+ yards, tied for most in the league.

7. One way the Giants can take advantage of the Eagles’ pass-rush is with delayed handoffs and draws – plays that are a regular part of their offense. Take a look at this shot from last week’s game.

Check out how far upfield the Panthers defensive end is. Brown has a huge lane to run to on the left side and picks up 7 yards. Cole has been great against the run, but the Giants could take advantage of Babin, Graham and Hunt with runs like this one. DeMeco Ryans has been a difference-maker, and Kurt Coleman helped out quite a bit in run support last week. Jamar Chaney is expected to play WILL in place of the injured Akeem Jordan.

8. Don’t forget that the Eagles’ defense had success against Manning in their Week 11 matchup last year. In fact, that might have been their best defensive performance of the season as the ‘D’ led the way in a 17-10 win. Manning completed just 51.4 percent of his passes and never got comfortable, absorbing three sacks and 10 hits. Babin stripped him late in the fourth quarter to seal the victory. The Giants were without Bradshaw and managed just 29 yards on the ground that day. Many pointed to the final four games as a sign of hope for the Eagles’ defense, but really, that game against the Giants showed their potential.

9. One thing you can expectJuan Castilloto stay away from is the blitz. Watching the Giants’ offense the past two weeks, Manning consistently makes teams pay when they send extra pressure. The Eagles only blitzed three times last week, and there’s no need to do it any more this week. Games like Sunday night are the reason they beefed up their defensive line.

Here’s one example of Manning beating the blitz two weeks ago against the Bucs.

You’ll see the slot cornerback is going to blitz, along with a linebacker. The safety is left to account for Cruz. And that doesn’t work out so well.

Cruz blows past him, Manning delivers the ball, and 80 yards later, the Giants have a touchdown. While it seems pretty simple, a key here was subtle movement in the pocket by Manning. Take a look at the image below. It looks like he’s about to get sacked.

The linebacker is about to grab Manning and bring him down. But he does a great job of stepping up in the pocket and creating space.

The yellow arrow points to the blitzer, who is now not as close to Manning as he releases the ball.

The Eagles had a few near-sacks last week where they allowed Kevin Kolb to get away. That can’t happen Sunday night. They need to finish when they get close to the quarterback.

10. Leftovers: Manning averaged 12.3 yards per play against big blitzes last year, according to Football Outsiders. …The Giants passed on first down 57 percent of the time last year, second-most in the NFL, per Football Outsiders. …The biggest thing that sticks out when watching Brown is that he regularly breaks tackles. If Eagles don’t wrap up, he’ll pick up big chunks of yardage. …The Birds have the fourth-best third-down defense in the league, allowing opponents to convert just 28.6 percent of the time.

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