NFC East: Michael Wright
October, 10, 2013
USA TODAY SportsGiants quarterback Eli Manning and Bears quarterback Jay Cutler are having drastically different seasons.
Desperate teams make for intriguing matchups, which might be exactly what we see Thursday night at Soldier Field, when the winless New York Giants face a Chicago Bears team coming off two consecutive losses.
The Giants are off to their first 0-5 start in more than 20 years, while the Bears hope to get back to the positive vibe created by a 3-0 start. After Thursday, the Bears will play only one game in 24 days as they travel to Washington on Oct. 20, before taking their bye the next week.
ESPN.com’s Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Giants reporter Dan Graziano break down the matchup.
Michael C. Wright: No team has ever started the season 0-5 and made the playoffs. My guess is everybody in that locker room believes the Giants can be an exception to that. What’s the feeling in the locker room and is there genuine belief the Giants can right the ship?
Dan Graziano: I think the Giants are shell-shocked, Michael. I don't think, in their wildest imaginations, they could ever have expected to be 0-5 with 20 turnovers and a minus-100 point differential. I truly don't believe they know where to put themselves or how to handle this situation. Last week, with a division game in front of them and an 0-4 record, there was talk of being able to fight their way back into things. Now, when you ask them about that, they say they don't even want to think about whether they can make the playoffs. It's all just, "We just need to win a game -- find a way to win one game." Things are truly awful with the Giants on every level right now, and the worst thing about what they've done is the 20 turnovers -- most of any team in the league. With that in mind, I'm inclined to think that Chicago is absolutely the worst possible place in the world for them to have to go on this particular short week. Am I right? Is the Bears defense the same kind of turnover-generating monster it was in the Rod Marinelli days?
Wright: You might be, Dan. But at the same time, the turnovers seem to have dried up somewhat. The Bears forced 11 takeaways during their 3-0 start, but over the past two games, they’ve taken the ball away three times, and had no takeaways Sunday in the loss to New Orleans. Given New York’s penchant for turnovers, and the fact that takeaways have been ingrained in the culture of this team’s defense dating back to the start of the Lovie Smith regime, I’d guess the Bears find a way to force at least one turnover in this game. The Bears lead the league in points off takeaways (55), rank No. 1 in takeaways (14) and since 2004, have returned more interceptions for touchdowns (28) than any team in the NFL. So despite the recent drought, the Bears still field a turnover-producing defense.
Speaking of turnovers, Dan, Eli Manning leads the league in interceptions. Why? Is it the result of bad luck, bad decisions? Is he just forcing things and trying to make a play because of the team’s dire situation?
Graziano: After Sunday's game, Tom Coughlin said he really believes Manning is trying to do too much -- to take too much of the responsibility on himself. And honestly, I think that excuse held up a lot through the first four games, as several of the interceptions came when the team was well behind late and he had no choice but to try crazy throws to get them back into it. But Sunday was flat-out weird. The score was 22-21 Eagles early in the fourth quarter when Manning threw his first interception, and it was the first of three he would throw in the span of nine throws. The whole game fell apart as a direct result of those plays, and Coughlin also pointed out that Manning was flagged for three costly intentional grounding penalties in the game. Coughlin called Manning's mistakes "demoralizing" to the team, and it was clear he was uncomfortable criticizing the quarterback with whom he has won two Super Bowls. I think Manning is a quarterback who's just not comfortable right now, and his performance may be a symbol of the team at large as one that finds itself in uncharted territory and unsure of what to do and how to act. This all started because of a horrible offensive line that's still not doing its job, but Manning's errors Sunday were largely unforced, and I think they're evidence that the problems are snowballing.
How about the Bears? They looked so good those first three games and now have lost two. They also looked more vulnerable to the pass rush Sunday against the Saints. The Giants have only five sacks this year and aren't the fearsome pass-rush unit they were in the days when they were able to sack Jay Cutler nine times in a single half. But will they get opportunities to turn it around Thursday night? Or do the Bears protect Cutler better than they used to?
Wright: The protection is definitely better under Marc Trestman, who prioritized keeping Jay Cutler clean from the first day he became head coach. The Saints definitely got to Cutler early on, sacking him three times in Chicago’s first 12 plays from scrimmage. But after that, the protection held well and didn’t surrender another sack. Give New Orleans coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan credit for devising a few blitzes the Bears admitted they weren’t prepared for. Chicago’s offense is almost exactly the same as the system run by the Saints, so Payton likely gave Ryan some pointers about the scheme’s vulnerabilities in protection. The offensive line has given up nine sacks through the first five games. Last year, they’d given up that many in the first two games. So I wouldn’t count on the type of performance we saw a few years ago when Cutler absorbed nine sacks in that brutal first half against the Giants. This is a much-improved offensive line, bolstered by an offensive scheme designed to get the ball out of Cutler’s hands quickly.
Since we’re being a little nostalgic here, what about Tom Coughlin? Under Coughlin, the Giants have been in these types of situations before where they’ve struggled, but later rebounded wonderfully. Aside from the losses, what’s different about the current situation?
Graziano: I think you see symptoms of decay on the lines, and to me that means the problems run deeper and will take a long time to correct. Yes, they're 0-5, but they're also 3-10 in their past 13 games dating back to the midpoint of last season. The offensive line is a wreck, and they haven't developed replacements for their aging and injured guys. The defensive line doesn't get sacks anymore (Jason Pierre-Paul has one in his past 11 games), and they haven't developed anyone in the pipeline on that side either. These are foundational problems that are showing up and killing this team, and the only way to fix them is with a few good drafts. The Giants, I believe, are embarking upon a painful rebuild, and I'm fascinated to see if they can accomplish it while Manning is still in his prime, and take advantage of whatever window he has left.
Coughlin's going to get to coach them as long as he wants to, however, as a result of the two Super Bowl titles. But how about the Bears' first-year coach? What's different there with Marc Trestman at the helm this year?
Wright: The biggest difference is the level of trust Trestman has established among the players -- Cutler, especially -- in such a short period of time. It has totally changed the culture in the locker room, and you see evidence of it every day at Halas Hall. In the past, coaches rarely stepped foot into the locker room, but now, you see coaches in there every day chatting with the players. Most important, Cutler totally believes in what the team is doing offensively, and that certainly wasn’t the case in the past. You can see that in the way Cutler reacts to adversity. In past years, the Bears had a tendency to go into a tailspin when they fell behind or when Cutler was taking sacks or turning the ball over. Not anymore. The Bears put together come-from-behind victories in their first two games, and in the past two losses, the club rallied from horrid starts to get back in serious contention. Trestman is definitely a very cerebral coach, and almost every player in that locker room raves about him being a good listener.