Thursday, September 12, 2013
Why Prince Amukamara matters Sunday
By Dan Graziano ESPN.com
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara did not practice Wednesday. He suffered a concussion in Sunday's game and has to pass several tests before he's cleared to practice and/or play in Sunday's home opener against the Denver Broncos. People around the Giants' building, including Amukamara, seemed upbeat Wednesday about his chances, and it's possible he'll practice Thursday afternoon.
This is a significant matter for the Giants because of their coverage needs against Peyton Manning and the Broncos' receivers. In many ways, Sunday night's opener in Dallas offered a preview of how the Giants plan to handle the Broncos. The Giants opened Sunday's game in a nickel defense, with three cornerbacks on the field, which makes sense because they have almost nothing at linebacker anyway and the Cowboys like to use three wide receivers. The Broncos also like to use three wide receivers, and all three of them are great, as is their young tight end, but we'll get to that in a minute.
The Giants on Sunday used Terrell Thomas as their nickel cornerback, playing him over Miles Austin in the slot. Thomas played off of Austin all night, giving him room to make catches, and Thomas told me after the game that the plan was to keep Austin in front of him and make sure to tackle well. Thomas is a good and willing tackler who liked the plan and basically carried it out. Austin's 10 catches look like a gaudy total, but his 6.0-yards-per-target average was a number Thomas and the Giants' defensive coaches counted as a win.
Thomas expects to be used the same way Sunday against the great Broncos slot receiver Wes Welker, who caught nine of his 11 targets for 67 yards and two touchdowns in Denver's opener against Baltimore. The plan against Austin was to avoid the big play, and they did it. Thomas will try to do the same with Welker -- keep him in front of him and contained.
On the outside, the Giants said all summer that their plan was to split the field and let Amukamara cover one side and Corey Webster the other. This is a shift from years past, when they would use Webster as the "shut-down" option on the opponent's best receiver and have him shadow the guy all over he field. Sunday night, they very rarely switched sides, though the Giants did shade a safety to whichever side Dez Bryant lined up on -- whether it was against Webster or Amukamara. The Broncos' best downfield threat is Demaryius Thomas, a big-bodied big-play threat in the mold of Bryant (and who actually went two picks ahead of Bryant in the first round of the 2010 draft). So it's possible the Giants would do the same thing -- shade the safety to Thomas' side and leave whichever corner is on the other side one-on-one on Eric Decker.
And that's why Amukamara's important. They'll feel a lot better about him one-on-one against Decker than they would about Aaron Ross in the same role. In fact, if Amukamara can't play and Ross has to start, it's possible they have to switch up their coverage plans and use Webster to shadow Thomas. That could mean a big night for Decker against Ross, the Giants' No. 3 or 4 corner.
As for the tight end, we saved it for last because there's not a lot the Giants can do here. Dallas' Jason Witten did what he wanted to do against the Giants, as he usually does, and Julius Thomas, who caught five passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns in Denver's opener, is positioned to have a big game as well. If middle linebacker Dan Connor has to miss the game with his neck injury, that leaves the Giants with four linebackers -- including a seemingly overmatched Mark Herzlich in the middle. They will need to find a way to get Thomas covered without help from the three corners, who will be otherwise occupied, and possibly without a safety, since they may be doubling the other Thomas. Someone like Jacquian Williams needs to step forward from the linebacker corps and show he can cover a tough tight end. Until then, this remains a significant weak spot in the Giants' defense that teams will work to exploit.