New York Giants: Larry Fitzgerald
@DanGrazianoESPN: Giants safety Stevie Brown was one of several culprits on Calvin Johnson's 67-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter Monday Night in Detroit, as he collided with cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and allowed Johnson to come wide open to receive the pass from Matthew Stafford. From what I could see on the play, it looked as though Rodgers-Cromartie let Johnson go anticipating the safety help from Brown, but Brown was coming up to play the quarterback scramble because it looked as though Stafford was going to try to run after he had eluded the Damontre Moore pass rush. If this is the case, it was a bad decision by Brown, as a run by Stafford in that situation is a far less damaging event than allowing Johnson to get open. Someone surely would have tackled Stafford if Brown didn't come up to do it. But once he let Johnson go by him, there was no one to stop the league's best receiver from going the distance. Brown in general was hit-and-miss in coverage in his breakout, eight-interception 2012 season. But he has looked more reliable as an all-around safety in camp and in the preseason. He can come up and play the run, and he can handle himself in coverage. I think he's going to be fine back there, but the breakdown on that play in particular was inexcusable.
@DanGrazianoESPN: You could make that case, but the Giants' defensive line wasn't happy with its own performance. The pass-rushers aren't satisfied with getting to the quarterback and hurrying him. They want to sack him. After collecting just 34 sacks last season, the Giants' pass rush is focused on bringing that number up, and they are not happy they only had one sack Monday Night. Jason Pierre-Paul was very good against the run, as were Cullen Jenkins and Johnathan Hankins on the interior of the line. But Pierre-Paul isn't satisfied with playing the run well. He wants sacks, and he wants Moore, Mathias Kiwanuka and Robert Ayers to get sacks, too. So if you want to say the defensive line was the Giants' strongest unit in the opener, I think I can agree with that. But I also think it's important to remember that (a) that's not necessarily a compliment, considering the way the other units looked and (b) the defensive line isn't going to be happy with its own performance unless the sack totals improve.
@DanGrazianoESPN: If the Giants stick to their plan of having Rodgers-Cromartie shadow the opponent's top wide receiver, he is going to go with the Cardinals' Michael Floyd this week. Floyd plays on the outside, and the Cardinals have been using Larry Fitzgerald in the slot. Floyd is, at this point, a bigger, faster, scarier threat than Fitzgerald, who is likely to draw Walter Thurmond if he stays in the slot. I'm more intrigued by the rookie, Arizona's John Brown, who plays on the side opposite Floyd. He is super-fast, and Prince Amukamara could have a hard time staying with him. Amukamara has looked fantastic through camp and the preseason, and I thought he looked good Monday. I wrote something in camp about how he feels faster this year because of new, lighter cleats he's wearing. So it's possible he can handle the speedy rookie. But the coverage situation will surely be worth watching, as Arizona runs a lot of four-wide and five-wide sets with empty backfields. You're likely to see a lot of nickel and dime packages from the Giants on Sunday, with Trumaine McBride coming in as a fourth cornerback in a lot of situations.
@DanGrazianoESPN: This question about linebacker Jacquian Williams obviously rises from the fact that Williams had a rough game Monday. But his case is an interesting one, as he did not come off the field for any of the team's 68 defensive snaps. Williams used to be a linebacker the Giants used on the weak side in their nickel package. But they believe he developed this offseason as a guy they could use on all three downs, and they backed that up Monday by playing him every play. His strength is supposed to be as a coverage linebacker because of his speed, and though he did struggle Monday, they are not giving up on him just yet. Expect him to stay on the field for much if not all of the game Sunday, especially because Arizona will use tight ends in the passing game and they believe Williams is among their best bets for coverage against tight ends..
Thanks for all of the questions. Enjoy the rest of your Saturday.
Johnson is the toughest test there is, so there's no reason to think the Giants will move away from that "shadow the best WR" plan with Rodgers-Cromartie. But the next opponent on the Giants' schedule is the Arizona Cardinals, and they bring with them a talented corps of wide receivers without an obvious top candidate for the honor of "best."
Is it veteran Larry Fitzgerald, who's in the top 30 in NFL history in catches and receiving yards? Is it the emerging Michael Floyd, who had five catches for 119 yards in Arizona's opener late Monday night and was targeted seven times versus Fitzgerald's four? Could it even be electric rookie John Brown, who also saw more targets Monday (five) than Fitzgerald and caught the game-winning, 13-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter?
My guess is Floyd will be Rodgers-Cromartie's man if the Giants go the same way they did in Week 1. But the broader point here is the Giants need to be open to rethinking their coverage plan with their cornerbacks.
As my colleague Herm Edwards is fond of saying on air, "A plan that can't be changed is a bad plan." The Giants might have signed Rodgers-Cromartie under the belief he was a shutdown corner who could match up with top wide receivers, but the fact is he has not been that, consistently, throughout his career. Prince Amukamara showed some good things Monday night and remains a quality option, as does slot corner Walter Thurmond. The Giants obviously need to play better in zone coverage than they did Monday.
Cornerback is the strongest position group the Giants have, on paper, but it didn't look very strong Monday night. They might need to make some adjustments to the way they're deploying these guys if they want to get the best out of them the rest of the way.
When asked how exactly DRC would be employed within defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's defensive system, head coach Tom Coughlin didn't hesitate.
"Are you the best receiver of their team? [He's] following you then," Coughlin said Wednesday at the NFL Meetings.
Coughlin and the Giants targeted that type of player right from the start of free agency. They checked in on all the top cornerbacks, before landing Rodgers-Cromartie when the options were slimming. It's clear what drew them to talented cornerback.AP Photo/Tony GutierrezNew Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, left, can expect to be matched up with elite receivers like Dallas' Dez Bryant next season.
"He's physical enough. When you watch him closely, he doesn't shy away," Coughlin said. "He's got great big long arms, he's tall, he's fast, he can match up."
So that's the answer to a lot of the questions that were asked when the Giants signed Rodgers-Cromartie. The question is whether he can handle the assignment of tailing guys like Dez Bryant, Calvin Johnson, Larry Fitzgerald, Julio Jones and maybe DeSean Jackson around the field for a whole game. All of those guys are on the Giants' 2014 schedule (unless Jackson gets traded to a team that is not), and each is a tough matchup for even the best cornerbacks in the league.
Rodgers-Cromartie hasn't really been used that way in previous stops, and it will be interesting to see how he responds. I asked my NFL Insiders colleague Louis Riddick what he thought. Louis is a former defensive back himself who worked in the Eagles' front office when Rodgers-Cromartie was there in 2011 and 2012.
"He may actually respond favorably to that, to be honest, especially if there are guys like [Antrel] Rolle who he doesn't want to let down," Louis said. "While we had him, no, he would not have reacted well to that kind of responsibility."
Interesting point about safety Rolle, who is the Giants' defensive team captain and was a teammate of Rodgers-Cromartie's in Arizona earlier in their careers. Rodgers-Cromartie was calling Rolle "big bro" around the time of his signing and clearly looks up to him. Part of the reason the Giants have confidence Rodgers-Cromartie can harness his talent and establish a level of consistency with them that he hasn't shown to this point in his career is that they expect Rolle's influence to be strong and positive.
If Rodgers-Cromartie can handle that "shut-down" responsibility with regard to the opponent's top wideout every week, that would obviously be a huge asset to the Giants' defense and justify their five-year, $35 million investment in him. It would ease some of the pressure on Prince Amukamara, who tried gamely to fill the No. 1 cornerback spot in 2014 but isn't really suited for that role full-time. It would allow fellow newcomer Walter Thurmond to stay on the slot receiver, where he should be a tough matchup every week. And the overall depth at corner now should allow Rolle to stay at safety for a whole season, which he prefers and will likely make him as effective as he can be.
If Rodgers-Cromartie can't handle that assignment ... well, then they're going to have to move a lot of pieces around to make up for that. The positive thing there is that they have a good number of quality pieces to move around in case Plan A doesn't work out.
Thanks as always for your questions, and enjoy the rest of your weekend.
Fitzgerald is 6-foot-3, which gives him a three-inch height advantage on each of the Giants' starting cornerbacks, Corey Webster and Aaron Ross. The Giants would be wise to assign Webster to him for a couple of reasons. First, Webster has the leaping ability to at least compete with Fitzgerald and give him a chance to help make up for the height differential. And second, Ross is still finding his way as a starter in place of the injured Terrell Thomas. Ross had a rough game in Week 2 against the Rams but played well in Week 3 against the Eagles, and it would probably make more sense to keep him on other Cardinals receivers and help him continue to build confidence.
But even if they assign Webster to Fitzgerald, he's going to need help, and that's where one of the Giants' defensive strengths comes in. Their depth at the safety position, and their ability and willingness to put three safeties on the field when they go down to two linebackers on passing downs, should enable defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to constantly have a safety help out Webster over the top against Fitzgerald. There's no guarantee it will work, of course. Fitzgerald wouldn't have fashioned the career he has so far if he weren't able to beat double-teams. But unlike a lot of teams, the Giants have a lot of options and flexibility when it comes to making those double-teams as strong as possible. Phillips, Rolle and Grant are as solid a group of safeties as there is in the league.
Last week, they had to deal with Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. This week, it's Cardinals all-world wideout Larry Fitzgerald.
"He's a big play receiver," cornerback Aaron Ross said. "…. The plays never over with him."
In other words, it may be a long Sunday in the desert for Giants' defensive backs.
Said Tom Coughlin: "Fitzgerald [is] a guy that every team recognizes and tries to defend."
Try is the operative word there.
Because stopping the 6-3, 211-pound receiver is as easy as a baseball team overcoming a nine-game deficit in September.
Sure, it's possible. But if it happens, it's remarkable.
Fitzgerald has a 17.3-yard per-catch average, second among receivers with at least 13 catches. He's also had at least 90 catches the last four years and has a franchise-record 67 touchdowns.
"He's one of the top-5 receivers in the game," Kenny Phillips said. "It's going to be a challenge."
Giants defensive backs wouldn't reveal much about their plan for Sunday, but, in a surprise to no one, Antrel Rolle hinted they will double-team Fitzgerald.
"I have never seen a defensive back shut him down [one-on-one]," Fitzgerald said. "I'm not saying it can't be done, I am saying that I haven't seen it done."
And Rolle's seen plenty of Fitzgerald.
The two played together for five seasons in Arizona. They also played against one another in college in 2003. Rolle was at Miami, Fitzgerald at Pittsburgh.
On Wednesday, Fitzgerald recalled that Rolle tackled him in that 2003 game and, inadvertently, made his nose bleed.
So, in a playful text message this week, Fitzgerald told his ex-teammate that he was “going to bust his nose.”
Turning serious, Fitzgerald added: "I love Antrel, he is like a brother to me.... I am looking forward to the matchup. I don't know what Coach Coughlin and Coach [Perry] Fewell are going to do, but I know those guys are going to be ready."
The Giants secondary limited Maclin and Jackson for a combined seven catches for 99 yards last Sunday. It appears they've turned a corner after two rough weeks against Washington and St. Louis, in which they allowed both starting quarterbacks to throw for more than 300 yards.
"Our focus is to get better every single week," Rolle said. "That's what our main mindset is."
That's going to be difficult to do with Fitzgerald on the field. But Rolle is looking forward to the challenge.
"Larry's a good receiver every knows he's good, if not the best receiver in the league. We're all aware of that," he said. "But we're also aware of our talents and we're also aware of what we have here in the secondary."