NFC East: 2012 Difference-makers

Difference-makers: Kevin Boothe

January, 13, 2012
1/13/12
9:46
AM ET
The New York Giants you see before you -- a team that has made it to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs -- are not the same New York Giants we watched for most of this season. Their enthusiasm and effectiveness bear little, if any, resemblance to that of the team that lost five of six games from mid-November to mid-December. What's the difference? Well, there are many. And each day this week, leading up to the playoff game Sunday in Green Bay, we'll take a look at a player or players who have helped turn these Giants from a mid-pack pretender to a Final Eight contender.

Today: OL Kevin Boothe

lastname
Boothe
Yeah, I was there the day in training camp when Giants GM Jerry Reese came out to defend his offseason inactivity. I heard him explain that re-signing Boothe -- in addition to securing free-agent center David Baas -- had been a priority, and that the Giants were pleased to have done it. And I rolled my eyes just like everybody else did at what sounded like the delusional rantings of a man trying to justify doing nearly nothing to improve a team that had missed the playoffs two years in a row. I wrote a post cleverly entitled "Jerry Reese is kidding himself," or something along those lines. Felt like a real smart guy, I did.

But that Kevin Boothe signing sure looks good now.

You don't get offseason style points for locking up your backup offensive linemen. It's the kind of thing that doesn't seem important until a starting offensive linemen gets hurt and you look up a few weeks later and realize all of the offensive stats have gone down because the blocking is a mess. Go to Washington and ask Mike Shanahan how he feels about offensive line depth, and if he wishes he'd had a couple of guys on the bench who could play like starters once his guys started getting hurt this year.

That's what Boothe has quietly done for the Giants, slipping into a starting left guard role in Week 12 when Will Beatty's eye injury forced David Diehl back out to left tackle. Boothe also played some center this year, when Baas was hurt. After making 14 starts as a rookie for the Raiders in 2006, Boothe made seven total starts for the Giants over the following four seasons. This season, he made nine regular-season starts and on Sunday will start his second playoff game.

"He's played well," right guard Chris Snee said. "Just a quiet, do-your-job guy who knows the system, knows what we're about and what he's supposed to do. You need guys like that on your 53-man roster."

Boothe had some center/QB exchange issues with quarterback Eli Manning, so guard may be his more comfortable spot. But it's nice to know he's available in a pinch if Baas goes down. And more importantly, Boothe's insertion into the starting lineup has coincided with a dramatic improvement in the Giants' run-game numbers. I wrote on Diehl in this space a couple of days ago, and what I wrote then applies here as well. Whether Boothe is a better player than we realized, whether Diehl should have been playing tackle all along, whether it's the weather or something in the water or whatever it is, the run-blocking has been better since the Beatty injury forced the Giants to make these adjustments to their starting lineup. Boothe is a part of that, and he can take pride in the improved numbers. And as it turns out, it was a good thing he was so high on the Giants' offseason priority list.

Difference-makers: Chase Blackburn

January, 12, 2012
1/12/12
9:58
AM ET
The New York Giants you see before you -- a team that has made it to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs -- are not the same New York Giants we watched for most of this season. Their enthusiasm and effectiveness bear little, if any, resemblance to that of the team that lost five of six games from mid-November to mid-December. What's the difference? Well, there are many. And each day this week, leading up to the playoff game Sunday in Green Bay, we'll take a look at a player or players who have helped turn these Giants from a mid-pack pretender to a Final Eight contender.

Today: LB Chase Blackburn

Blackburn
The Giants decided not to bring back Blackburn last offseason opting instead to go with a rookie corps at linebacker even once Jonathan Goff and Clint Sintim went down with preseason injuries. But the November injuries to Michael Boley and Mark Herzlich were too much, and so the Giants called their old friend and brought him back Nov. 29. He started the very next game -- the one against the Packers on Dec. 4 -- and came up with an interception of Aaron Rodgers. He wasn't even on the flip card yet, and he wasn't wearing his old uniform number. A week earlier, he was working out the details of a substitute math teaching gig in Ohio. It's possible his was the most surprising interception Rodgers threw all season.

"I think he'll know who No. 93 is this time," Blackburn said earlier this week.

Blackburn's return has brought stability to the Giants' middle linebacker position, which never attained that following the Goff injury. Rookies Greg Jones, Jacquian Williams and Herzlich all took their turns in the middle, but things remained unsettled, as they often do with rookies, and the Giants suffered for it. Had Herzlich not injured his ankle, they might have continued to roll with the rookies. They take the middle linebacker off the field on passing downs anyway, and they don't view it as the most essential position in their defensive scheme.

But having Blackburn back and manning the middle has helped in ways the Giants didn't foresee. The most important element he brings is familiarity. He's played here before. He knows the scheme, the system, the terminology.

"Think about it," Boley said. "You bring in a guy in Week 13 and he's never been here before, he has to spend a lot of time just learning what things are called. He's catching up. But with Chase, there was no catching up. The stuff we do is exactly the same as it was when he was here before. So he just slid right in."

The Giants' defense still runs off the big guys up front -- the four-man pass rush. And the play of the secondary is likely to matter more and get more attention this week in the playoff game in Green Bay. But Blackburn's contribution since he arrived Week 13 has been quietly significant, if for no other reason that it's allowed the Giants to stop moving pieces around as much as they were before he returned. He's made plays. He's fit in. He's been everything the Giants needed when they went out looking for a substitute linebacker in late November. And more, almost certainly, than they expected.

Difference-makers: David Diehl

January, 11, 2012
1/11/12
9:56
AM ET
The New York Giants you see before you -- a team that has made it to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs -- are not the same New York Giants we watched for most of this season. Their enthusiasm and effectiveness bear little, if any, resemblance to that of the team that lost five of six games from mid-November to mid-December. What's the difference? Well, there are many. And each day this week, leading up to the playoff game Sunday in Green Bay, we'll take a look at a player or players who have helped turn these Giants from a mid-pack pretender to a Final Eight contender.

Diehl
Today: OT David Diehl

Diehl has of course been on the team all year, but he played left guard for the first 10 games. When starting left tackle Will Beatty had to have eye surgery and miss the rest of the season, Diehl slid out to his old spot and has been the Giants' starting left tackle ever since, with Kevin Boothe or Mitch Petrus (when Boothe had to move to center in place of an injured David Baas) playing guard next to him.

The new alignment has worked out well, and has coincided especially with a major improvement in the Giants' running game. New York has averaged 33.4 more rush yards per game in its last six games than it did in its first 11. Whatever the reason -- whether Diehl has been energized by the move back to tackle, whether he's played better than Beatty has, whether Boothe is a starting-quality guard who just happened to be on the bench -- it's working. Offensive line play is about cohesiveness and communication, and the current combination is getting the job done better than the old one was with Diehl at guard and Beatty at tackle.

Pro Football Focus rated Diehl's performance as the third-best by a tackle on wild-card weekend, behind only Bengals left tackle Andrew Whitworth and Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert. It should be noted that PFF graded Diehl rather poorly over the final six games of the regular season -- only twice ranking him in the top 50 among tackles in a given week and topping out at 41st in the Week 13 loss to the Packers. But this is less about Diehl's individual performance than it is about the way the line has worked together.

"He's a pro's pro," Boothe said of his veteran teammate. "He's seen it all and done it all, at every position, basically, on the line. So it's easy to communicate with him in any situation. When you have somebody who's been in as many battles as Dave has and who works as hard as he does, it makes it easy."

This is one of the advantages the Giants feel they have over almost any other team in the league. They have veterans who have been in their locker room for a long time -- guys who have been champions and who can be trusted to set a cool, professional tone regardless of the circumstances. The Giants lost their starting left tackle in Week 12. That would have been a difficult thing for most teams to overcome. But the Giants were able to replace him with a guy who knows the position cold, and because of that they have been able to turn a potential negative into a major positive.

Difference-makers: Osi Umenyiora

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
10:00
AM ET
The New York Giants you see before you — a team that has made it to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs — are not the same New York Giants we watched for most of this season. Their enthusiasm and effectiveness bear little, if any, resemblance to that of the team that lost 5-of-6 games from mid-November to mid-December. What's the difference? Well, there are many. And each day this week, leading up to the playoff game Sunday in Green Bay, we'll take a look at a player or players who have helped turn these Giants from a mid-pack pretender to a Final Eight contender.

Today: DE Osi Umenyiora

The sack came right at the end of Sunday's playoff victory, with the game in hand and the Giants' defense focused only on maintaining what from its standpoint was a shutout. But it came nonetheless, as they always seem to when Umenyiora plays. It was a high-energy, hyper-athletic sack that required him to practically jump over the man who was blocking him and grab Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan up high before dragging both passer and blocker to the ground. It was not the type of sack you see other pass rushers make, and it reminded you why Umenyiora is not like other pass rushers.

Umenyiora
Yeah, it looked as though the Giants were going to be all right without ol' Osi in the mix. Umenyiora missed four games in December with an ankle injury, but with Justin Tuck on one side and the year Jason Pierre-Paul was having on the other, you figured they could generate the edge rush they needed while Umenyiora hobbled around the training complex. But when you actually watched the Giants play without him, you could tell something was missing.

Aaron Rodgers picked them apart one week, Tony Romo the next, albeit in a Giants win. Rex Grossman didn't put up huge numbers, but he picked up every third-down conversion he needed in Week 15 as the Redskins dropped the Giants to 7-7 and into what looked like major trouble. A defense that lives off its pass rush was hurting for Umenyiora's absence. Dave Tollefson is a good, professional defensive lineman who can make a play and fits well in the Giants' scheme, but what he is not — and what Umenyiora is — is one of the best pass rushers in the world.

So when Umenyiora returned for the regular-season finale against Dallas, the whole thing looked different. The Giants were able to rotate all of their defensive ends, to play Tuck at an interior line position on third downs if they wanted to, to drop Pierre-Paul into coverage to confuse Romo, who by the way was sacked not once but twice by Umenyiora. Sunday brought more of the same, as a fully operational Giants pass rush made Ryan's day miserable and kept the Falcons' offense off the scoreboard.

"I think earlier in the year, when we were trying to find our identity and kind of struggling on defense, a lot of individual stuff was showing up," Tuck said after the game. "Now it's just all about team effort and playing together as a team."

Umenyiora's on the train. The contract dispute from last summer and the knee injury that cost him the first three games of the season have been shoved into a distant corner of his memory. Challenges await in the offseason, and there's no way to know whether the next game he plays will be his last as a Giant. Umenyiora said last week, though, that he doesn't care. He's enjoying this run. He's feeling healthy — or healthy enough, at least, to play playoff games — and most importantly for the Giants, he's making an impact. This is about more than just having all of their players back healthy. Few players make an impact the way Osi Umenyiora does.
The New York Giants you see before you — a team that has made it to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs — are not the same New York Giants we watched for most of this season. Their enthusiasm and effectiveness bear little, if any, resemblance to that of the team that lost 5-of-6 games from mid-November to mid-December. What's the difference? Well, there are many. And each day this week, leading up to the playoff game Sunday in Green Bay, we'll take a look at a player or players who have helped turn these Giants from a mid-pack pretender to a Final Eight contender.

Today: Running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs


Bradshaw cracked a bone in his foot in a Week 8 victory over the Miami Dolphins and missed the next four games. The Giants, who spent the year at the bottom of the league in rush yardage, went 1-3 in those games, and at the end of Week 12 their rush yards per game average for the season stood at 82.3. Their average yards per carry was a miserable 3.18.

Bradshaw
Bradshaw returned for the 38-35 Week 13 loss to the Packers, and he hasn't topped 60 rush yards in a game since. But his return, coupled with the injury-prompted changes the Giants have made on the offensive line, coincided with the takeoff of the Giants' run game. In the six games since, they are averaging 115.7 yards per game and 4.42 yards per carry. They rushed for 172 yards in Sunday's playoff victory over Atlanta — their highest single-game total this season by 50.

As is often the case, more goes into this than the healthy return of one player. David Diehl moving out to left tackle and playing it as well as he has, plus the way Kevin Boothe has played as a starting left guard and (for a couple of games) center have been factors as well. So has the rejuvenation of Bradshaw's friend and fellow running back, Brandon Jacobs.

"We feel as tough as any team in the league," Bradshaw said after Sunday's win.

Jacobs averaged 48.5 yards on 15.3 carries per game in the four games Bradshaw missed. Again, not eye-popping numbers, but the line was still having major problems opening holes at that time and the point here is that Jacobs, during that time, got to play and feel like part of the team again. He'd been marginalized somewhat over the past two seasons as Bradshaw had emerged as a feature back, and Jacobs is the sort of guy who can mope about that sort of thing.

Jacobs
Since Bradshaw's return, Jacobs is averaging 57.2 yards on 10.5 carries per game. His big 34-yard run and his spin move on the fourth-and-one conversion that set up Sunday's first touchdown were two of the key plays of the Giants' season. Jacobs looks energized and focused. He's running with power, and at 265 pounds, when he gets in the open field he's an uninviting guy to try and tackle. He said his own defense was telling him that during Sunday's game.

"'Keep it running, big back, because there's nothing they can do to you,'" Jacobs said the Giants' defensive players were telling him. "Trust me. We play defense, and they don't want to hit you. They're done and they don't want to hit you."

Jacobs and Bradshaw are very close — Jacobs took a pay cut this past offseason so the Giants could sign Bradshaw to a new contract — and the way the two friends are running behind an improved offensive line is one of the keys to the Giants' late-season success.

Bradshaw's not having any kind of stellar statistical season. And it's possible he's not as healthy as he was earlier in the year due to his foot. But his Week 13 return has helped spark a Giants run game that was dormant for much of the season, and the idea that they could have run for 172 yards in a playoff game would have seemed inconceivable just a few short weeks ago.

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