NFC East: Charles Woodson

Double Coverage: Packers-Cowboys

December, 12, 2013

IRVING, Texas -- The Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys are two of the most storied franchises in NFL history, but with three games to play in the 2013 season both are on the outside of the playoff chase and in need of a win.

The Packers have fallen on hard times without Aaron Rodgers but won last week against the Atlanta Falcons. The Cowboys are coming off a humiliating loss to the Chicago Bears and have a short week to get ready. Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer debate the matchup in this week's Double Coverage.

Archer: I'll skip the "What's Aaron Rodgers status?" and ask about Ted Thompson's approach to the backup quarterback. The Cowboys pay Kyle Orton a lot of money to hopefully never throw a pass. Is there any regret form the Packers that they did not have a better backup quarterback situation behind Rodgers, considering their struggles without him?

[Editor's note: Rodgers was officially ruled out for Sunday's game on Friday.]

Demovsky: Thompson admitted at the end of training camp that he probably should have signed Vince Young much earlier than he did, although after watching Young for about a month, I'm not sure he would have been any better had the Packers signed back in the spring. Where they probably erred was in not drafting a quarterback. They overestimated what they had in Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman, and neither one developed enough. When Ron Wolf was the GM, he made it a regular practice to draft a quarterback in the middle-to -late rounds. Not all of them worked out, but guys like Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks all came up through the Packers' system.

Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Tony Romo is "playing probably as good as he has in his career." Do you agree with that assessment?

Archer: I'd agree with that, sure. It's hard to argue against his numbers. He has 3,244 yards passing with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's taking care of the ball. He had one really careless throw and it cost the Cowboys big-time in their loss to the Denver Broncos. Romo gets most of the blame for the December/January woes this team has had, but in his last 16 games he has 34 touchdowns and seven picks. It's hard to play better than that. But you know what? He has to. This defense is so bad that Romo has to be nearly perfect. There can be no poor drives. If they don't get points they at least need to chew up time because there's not an offense the Cowboys can slow down right now.

When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV at AT&T Stadium they were able to overcome so many injuries, especially on defense as we talked about. The difference this year is Rodgers missing time, but is there anything more to it than that?

Demovsky: They did end up with 15 players in injured reserve in their Super Bowl season, and then during that game itself they lost Charles Woodson to a broken collarbone. But you know what? This defense played fine early this season and even during the stretch Clay Matthews missed because of his broken thumb. Capers said last week that losing Rodgers had nothing to do with the Packers' defensive slide, but I'm not buying it. The Packers' defense got four turnovers in the Thanksgiving game at Detroit and still got walloped 40-10 because the offense couldn't do a darn thing with them. To be sure, there are issues on defense. Their failure to address needs at safety has hurt them up the middle, where their inside linebackers also haven't played well enough.

It sounds like Monte Kiffin is already taking heat, but how much of it is personnel? When I saw Packers castoff Jarius Wynn playing Monday night against the Bears, to me that was a red flag that there are talent issues, perhaps some of them caused by injuries.

Archer: There are talent issues and there are depth issues. Blame the owner and GM who constructed this team. Blame the coaches -- Kiffin and Rod Marinelli -- for saying the line was a position of strength. The Cowboys thought they had pieces to fit Kiffin's scheme at the start of the year. DeMarcus Ware has not been DeMarcus Ware in part because of injuries, but he acknowledged he has to play better. Bruce Carter was supposed to be the ideal weak-side linebacker and he just has not made any plays. The corners are more man corners and Kiffin has tried to play more man but all of them -- Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick -- have had issues. Sean Lee has been hurt and could miss Sunday's game with a neck injury. He's been good but the defense has been lit up with him on the field, too. It's just a mess. Until Jerry Jones realizes he needs better players, not necessarily better schemes, it will be a mess.

Let's stick with the defensive coordinators. From the outside looking in, it appears Capers is catching a lot of grief too. Are the Packers committed to the 3-4 regardless or could they pull a Dallas and move to a 4-3 in the future?

Demovsky: When the cornerstone of the defense is Matthews, an outside linebacker, I would think they'd have to stick with the 3-4 even if they part ways with Capers, which I'm not sure will happen anyway. Mike McCarthy has continually praised Capers and the defensive staff. It's probably more about personnel. They need a few more playmakers to help out Matthews. They haven't gotten enough production from their defensive front. I'd look for an overhaul in personnel more than a coaching change.

Knowing the temperature in the Cowboys locker room like you do, how do you think they will react to getting steamrolled Monday night? Is this a group that will fight? Or will they pack it in?

Archer: This is where I have to give Jason Garrett credit. This team has fought. Maybe they didn't fight all that much in the losses to New Orleans and Chicago, but they have not packed it in. You saw the last time the Cowboys packed it in in 2010 at Lambeau Field when Wade Phillips was the coach. The Cowboys lost 45-7 and were completely disinterested. Phillips was fired the next day and Garrett took over. There is some gumption to this team. They do work hard. They do the right things. I'll say it again: Most of it is a talent issue. I'd expect the Cowboys to come out with the effort Sunday because they're still very much in the playoff chase. But do they believe they can really make a run? I don't know about that.

Scott Tolzien and Mathias KiwanukaGregory Shamus/Getty ImagesNew Packers quarterback Scott Tolzien will face Mathias Kiwanuka and an improved Giants pass rush.
The New York Giants will be looking for their fourth win in a row following an 0-6 start. The Green Bay Packers will be trying to snap their first two-game losing streak since 2010. The two teams square off Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Giants reporter Dan Graziano and ESPN NFL Insider Matt Williamson (filling in for Packers reporter Rob Demovsky) break down the matchup for you.

Dan Graziano: Hey, Matt. Thanks for filling in while Rob's on the inactive list this week. The big question the Giants have this week is: Who is Scott Tolzien and what can we expect to see from him? So let's start with that one.

Matt Williamson: Well, Dan, that's a good question! I don't think we really know the answer, but he did move the team well in relief of an injured Seneca Wallace and was generally a smart distributor of the football. And we know Green Bay has weapons to get the ball to. We don't have a lot of tape to evaluate, but I think the Packers are better off with Tolzien over Wallace while Aaron Rodgers recovers from a broken collarbone.

While we are talking quarterbacks, what on Earth is going on with Eli Manning? Despite this winning streak, he really has not played well.

Graziano: Matt, my theory on Eli is that the protection issues at the beginning of the season were so egregious that he just fell into this zone of discomfort from which he's been unable to extricate himself. He just doesn't look right back there, and while the protection issues have improved some, they're still present. The Giants have had no blocking help from the tight-end position at all. They're vulnerable in the middle of the line, and I'm not sold on either tackle, to be honest. They haven't had reliable blitz pickup help from the running backs.

Downfield, Hakeem Nicks isn't playing wide receiver the way he used to play it. A lot has gone on around Manning to make him far less comfortable with his surroundings, and I'm not sure what it's going to take before he starts playing with that old Eli confidence again. Great quarterbacks make the best of bad situations, and Manning has not done that this year. As the Giants' situation improves, they will need him to play much better if they're really going to make this miracle run they still believe they can make.

They get another break this week with Rodgers out and Tolzien in, but they are already talking about that improved Packers running game. What do you see from Eddie Lacy & Co. and how do you think they'll attack the Giants, who have generally been pretty good against opposing running backs this season?

Williamson: This Packers' running game is terrific and should continue to excel even with less of a passing threat. The left side of the offensive line is playing great, but isn't healthy on the right side and has had to do a lot of shuffling of personnel there. Still, the rushing attack isn't easy to prepare for, as the Packers can run a wide variety of plays out of a wide variety of personnel groupings and formations. Lacy is quick to get downhill and is a punishing runner who can wear a defense down, and he also excels at reading his blocks and showing patience with the ball in his hands -- rare traits for a rookie running back. The Packers' ability to run the ball will probably be the most crucial component of this game.

Along those lines, I feel like the Giants might actually have a respectable rushing attack of their own now with Andre Brown carrying the rock. Do you agree?

Graziano: Yeah, the 30 carries and 115 yards for Brown on Sunday in his first game back off a twice-broken leg were eye-opening. I think the workload they gave him showed that the Giants knew just how much they were missing this season at running back. David Wilson never got going and then got hurt, and they patched it together with Brandon Jacobs and Peyton Hillis. But watching Brown run with vision and power and gain yards after contact Sunday, it was obvious that he's the Giants' best option going forward and the best they've had all season.

The injury risk has to be considered, given Brown's history, but at this point the Giants need to win pretty much every game, and they're going to have to lean hard on Brown to do it. Even if he can't be as productive every week as he was against the Raiders, the legitimate threat he poses on film should open up the play-action passing game as a way for Manning to combat those protection issues.

So the Giants feel they can offer a balanced offensive attack against a Packers defense that couldn't get the ball back from the Eagles in the final 9:32 of Sunday's game. Was that a LeSean McCoy issue, or are the Packers really struggling on defense right now?

Williamson: The Packers are struggling on defense and allowing too many big plays. I expected last week's return from injury by Clay Matthews to pay off much more than it did. However, we know Matthews is a great player, and maybe he just needed a week to get back into the swing of things. I still expect Matthews to torment the Giants' tackles this week.

On the inside of their defensive line, the Packers have a lot of sheer mass and power with guys like B.J. Raji, Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett. I also expect the Giants' interior offensive line to have a difficult time moving this group in the running game. This could be a bounce-back week for Green Bay on this side of the ball.

The Packers' run defense had a difficult time when the Eagles stacked both of their offensive tackles on the same side of the formation. While I expect the Giants could use some personnel groupings with six offensive linemen, I don't see them duplicating what Philadelphia did to make room for McCoy.

Watching the Giants game from last week, I noticed they had a difficult time getting the Raiders' Pat Sims blocked. Sims is a big-bodied and powerful defensive tackle in much the same mold as the Packers' group. I think that bodes well for Green Bay this week.

And expect the Giants to have a difficult time blocking little-known Mike Daniels in the passing game. Daniels has taken over the Cullen Jenkins role -- a spot Green Bay drafted Datone Jones for in the first round -- as an interior pass-rusher, and he has excelled.

The Giants' defense is based entirely on great defensive line play. This is a deep group with a ton of important resources tied up in it, but it hasn't been an elite group. It is improving, however. Where do you see this unit right now and this week against the Packers?

Graziano: Well, the sack numbers have come up. The Giants had only six sacks in their first seven games, but then got eight in their past two games. So they've moved from last in the league in sacks, where they spent most of the season, to a tie for 30th in that category. Odd thing is, of the eight sacks in their past two games, only four have come from defensive linemen. Safety Antrel Rolle has as many sacks (two) in the Giants' past two games as defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has in their past 16.

The line has been very good, as I mentioned, against the run this year. But over the first seven games of the season, opposing quarterbacks did a good job of unloading the ball before the Giants' pass-rushers could stop them from doing so. Not sure they get the full test this week against Tolzien, but at some point we're going to find out whether the front four really has improved, or whether it has just been feasting on lesser competition.

Thanks again, Matt. Catch you online in one of our game chats soon, I'm sure.

Eli Manning and Charles WoodsonGetty ImagesEli Manning's Giants aim to maintain their momentum when Charles Woodson and the Raiders visit.
It will be a battle of teams looking to climb out of the cellar of their respective divisions as the 2-6 New York Giants host the 3-5 Oakland Raiders at 1 p.m. ET Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The Giants have won two games in a row after an 0-6 start and are coming off their bye week. The Raiders just suffered their most embarrassing loss of the season, 49-20 at home to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Which last-place team will get the win Sunday at the site of Super Bowl XLVIII? Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez and Giants reporter Dan Graziano break it down for you.

Dan Graziano: Paul, I was a little surprised by how poorly the Raiders played Sunday. I knew they were a sub-.500 team, but I didn't think they were a terrible one. What was up with that defensive effort against Nick Foles and the Eagles?

Paul Gutierrez: Dan, you're not the only one who was surprised by what the Raiders in general, and the defense in particular, put on the field against the Eagles. Everyone from coach Dennis Allen to veteran safety Charles Woodson wondered out loud if the defense got caught reading its clips from the week before. After all, the Raiders' D was playing lights out and was the team's strength, entering the game with the No. 10-ranked defense, despite 10 new starters.

Like boxing, styles make fights, and the Eagles' high-octane offense worked to near-perfection and dropped Oakland early and often. The Raiders were a step behind all game long, especially top draft pick D.J. Hayden, who was given the Elvis "Toast" Patterson treatment (I'm sure that name will elicit varied responses from Giants fans) by Riley Cooper and DeSean Jackson and gave up three completions to the two for a combined 139 yards and two touchdowns. In short, it was a complete meltdown by the entire defense, which had been feeling itself a little too much.

The Giants, though, seem to be heading in the opposite direction after that ghastly start. Do you get the sense they have righted the ship, or is it fool's gold after beating the hapless Vikings and then-hopeless Eagles?

Graziano: It's unquestionably fool's gold. They beat the Vikings when Minnesota foolishly and inexplicably started an unprepared Josh Freeman at quarterback and beat the Eagles when they started a clearly injured Michael Vick and had to replace him with unprepared Matt Barkley. And it's not as though they looked especially good in either win. Eli Manning hit clumsy Minnesota defenders in the hands three times in that Monday night game and somehow still didn't get intercepted, and the Giants didn't score a touchdown in that 15-7 victory over the Eagles. They are a bad team with major problems at almost every position, and the fact that they've won two in a row after starting 0-6 doesn't make that go away.

That said, it's possible they'll get a gimpy Terrelle Pryor this week, right? (And maybe an Aaron Rodgers backup next week.) Pryor left against the Eagles with a knee injury. Do you expect that he'll play, and assuming he does, what kind of special problems does he present for a Giants defense that has been getting fat on the likes of Freeman and Barkley?

Gutierrez: Pryor said after the game that his knee was fine, that treatment and ice and the like were all "precautionary," that his knee was not "wobbly" or anything like that. The Raiders were going to take him out of the game for those last two series of a blowout anyway. While Pryor did not speak at the facility Monday, he was walking around the locker room and was not wearing a brace. He should be ready to go.

Then again, if there is even the slightest hitch in his giddyup, that could spell trouble since his running game is his strength. The problems he presents defenses are not unique for a team like the Giants, who already face the read-option from Washington's Robert Griffin III (when healthy). But Pryor's combination of size and speed is what makes him unique, or did you miss his 93-yard touchdown run against the Pittsburgh Steelers in which he looked like he was coasting but actually was pulling away from defenders? Earlier in the year, the Raiders' coaches wanted him to run more to take advantage of his strength. Now, Allen said Pryor has to trust the process more, from the protection to his reads. This should be interesting to see how Pryor soaks it all in.

Then again, it will be interesting to see how the Giants' defense responds to Pryor. The Steelers and Eagles had some success in keeping him under wraps by putting a spy on him, challenging him to beat them with his arm. Would the Giants employ such a tactic and who would that spy be, or would they rather play him straight up?

Graziano: It's a good question, though they don't seem interested in giving away the answer just yet. In the past year, they have played guys like Vick and RG III without a spy and have paid the price. Vick ran for 79 yards against them in the first half in Week 5 before pulling his hamstring.

If they do change it up and decide to spy Pryor, the most likely candidate would be linebacker Jacquian Williams, who has good sideline-to-sideline speed. They tend to like to use him to cover tough tight ends, but it's possible that the Raiders' receiving options will allow them to get everyone covered with their nickel-safety or nickel-corner package with Week 8 NFC Defensive Player of the Week Terrell Thomas covering the slot. That might free up Williams to spy Pryor, which I think would be a good idea. But the Giants can get stubborn at times, and it's possible they'll decide to play him straight up. I would like his chances of picking up yards on the ground on the outside if they did.

Manning hasn't thrown an interception in his past two games, but he still leads the league with those 15 he threw in the first six weeks. The Giants have been vulnerable to A-gap pressure due to the fact that they're using backups at center and right guard, and as a result, Manning has been uncomfortable in the pocket all season. The lack of a run game has hurt his play-action passing game too. Are the Raiders going to be able to pressure him better than they did Foles? Or will Eli have an easy day?

Gutierrez: Using the past-is-prologue approach and sprinkling in the notion that hindsight is always 20/20, the Raiders simply have to put pressure on Manning. Allen acknowledged the Raiders did not bring enough pressure to disrupt Foles, and when they did, he simply rolled out and found a target downfield. The Raiders seemed to have learned their lesson, but we'll see. Against the Eagles, they went away from being their normal, blitz-happy selves by rushing just three at times and sitting back in coverage. Foles ate them up. And Foles is no Manning. (You can't spell "elite" without "Eli," right?)

I would expect defensive coordinator Jason Tarver to dial up the blitzes again and send anyone at any time -- unless the Giants start running a no-huddle, hurry-up offense to rattle the Raiders. Keep an eye on right defensive end Lamarr Houston, who leads the Raiders with four sacks but was slowed by a right hamstring issue against the Eagles. In fact, 11.5 of Oakland's 23 sacks have come from their front four.

The Raiders -- Hayden in particular -- had problems in coverage against the Eagles. Whom would the Giants deploy to take advantage of Hayden, who usually plays on the outside in nickel packages? Might the Giants put the physically imposing Hakeem Nicks out there?

Graziano: Yeah, Nicks plays on the outside with Victor Cruz in the slot and Rueben Randle on the other side when they go three-wide. But Nicks hasn't been himself. He's still capable of outfighting defenders for the ball and could be a tough matchup for Hayden, but he doesn't seem able to separate anymore and has had uncharacteristic issues with drops. He won't admit it, but he's playing like a guy in his walk year whose long-term future is on his mind. It's been one of many problems the Giants didn't anticipate, and if he has a big game against the Raiders, it'll be his first. He still doesn't have a touchdown this season.

Anyway, nice chatting with you, Paul. Travel safely, and I look forward to seeing you at the game Sunday.

Chess match: Fletcher versus Manning

October, 24, 2013
ASHBURN, Va. -- Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning waves his arms, shouts signals and tries to confuse the defense -- either with an audible or with a false call. He’s one of the best in the NFL, perhaps the best, at doing this and at knowing what the defense wants to do.

Meanwhile, Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher has been one of the best at his position dissecting offenses.

“It’s definitely somewhat of a chess match,” Fletcher said. “But he’s definitely a master chess player.”

Fletcher and Manning have been two of the most successful players from the class of 1998. You can’t say draft class because Fletcher wasn’t drafted. Manning, though, went No. 1 overall to the Indianapolis Colts. Yet here they both still are, Manning with the Broncos (his second team) and Fletcher with the Redskins (his third). Both have won a Super Bowl, albeit with other teams. Manning never missed a game until sitting out the 2011 season -- and he hasn't missed one since returning. Fletcher, of course, has played in 246 consecutive games.

Ironically, after Sunday the Redskins will have faced the remaining members of that 1998 class: Oakland Raiders defensive back Charles Woodson; Colts backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck; Chicago Bears long snapper Patrick Mannelly. Manning and Woodson both went in the top 5; Hasselbeck and Mannelly were sixth-round picks.

“Us old graybeards out there,” Fletcher said. “[Manning] don’t wear a beard, but I do. If he did, he’d probably have some greys in his beard as well. It’s not a lot of guys left from ’98.”

There’s a kinship that develops knowing you came out in the same year. Fletcher might not want to see Manning fare well Sunday, but he’s glad to see him still performing at a high level.

“I like to see that. I take pride in that to see him playing at the level he’s playing at,” Fletcher said. “He’s off to the best start I think he’s ever had so that says something about him, his preparation, his work ethic, the things he’s done to get himself back to this level.”

To which Manning says: right back at ya.

“For him to always answer the bell every Sunday, it tells you how tough he is. It tells you also what a professional he is,” Manning said, “keeping himself in great shape and taking care of himself. But also, there’s real want-to in that. There’s no question. He’s had tons and tons of injuries, but he always answers the bell. There’s nothing he hasn’t seen. A smart veteran and really kind of the leader of that defense -- gets them lined up. It’s always a challenge playing against London.”
Man, this is a smart, sober take from Jean-Jacques Taylor on Jason Garrett's role in the Dallas Cowboys' current management structure and decision-making process. Jacques' premise is that past Cowboys teams would have rushed to sign big-name veteran free agents like Charles Woodson, Brian Urlacher and Tyson Clabo, where this year's Cowboys passed on all of them in favor of a continuation of the program they're working to build. And his conclusion is that Garrett, and his philosophy about how to build a team, is the difference:
Say what you will about Garrett -- much of the criticism he receives is warranted -- but he gives this franchise direction. Maybe you don't like the road he's driving down, but at least he's not driving in circles.

[+] EnlargeJason Garrett
AP Photo/James D SmithIf you look closely, there are signs the Cowboys have changed philosophy and are making progress under Jason Garrett.
Just so you know, these particular decisions don't have anything to do with the Cowboys being tight against the salary cap. They can always find money and salary-cap space when they need it. Nope, this is a definite philosophical change.


The Cowboys, like most teams, finally understand that it's far better for a team's salary cap and long-term development to give draft picks and young players every opportunity to make the team. They provide a cost-effective talent base and help create the salary-cap space for a team to sign a big-money free agent who is in his prime and worth the money.

Garrett is a smart guy. He gets it.

The Cowboys benefit.

This is why I don't rush to join the crowd that assumes Garrett is coaching for his job in 2013. Could a bad season cost him his job? Sure. But it's no sure thing that another 8-8 disappointment or a first-round playoff exit or something like that gets Garrett fired. Firing Garrett at this point would represent a dramatic shift in the plan for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. While it's easy for everyone to characterize Jones as impulsive and rash, I think there's real evidence that he's tired of changing the plan every couple of years to little result.

Jones likes and admires Garrett. He respects his intelligence. He recently referred to him as the team's "premier asset," and I don't think that was just a phrase he threw out there. The sense you get when you spend time around the Cowboys these days is that they're striving to build a sustainable, long-term, successful program, and that they believe they're making progress. Last season's ending stunk for them, again, and the 8-8 records two years in a row are an easy reason for people to point and say there's no progress. But if you followed Dallas' 2012 season, the positives were unmistakable. Their comeback from where they were in early November, with half their defense on IR, to get themselves into a division title game for the second year in a row was a half-season's worth of evidence of the kind of heart they're so often accused of lacking.

Garrett coached the team through on-field adversity and off-field tragedy with no hint of locker room discord, and while his in-game decision-making is often a worthy target of criticism, the fact that you never near anything about player discontentment with him says a lot. Tony Romo led fourth-quarter comebacks without a running game to lean on, and the fact that he threw three interceptions in a Week 17 road loss to a scorching hot Redskins team shouldn't obscure that completely. Dez Bryant, Jason Hatcher and Anthony Spencer emerged as star-caliber players. The Cowboys, up until that Week 17 loss, had plenty on which to build hopes for the future, and that's what Garrett & Co. will sell to their players this offseason.

This is why I think Garrett is more to Dallas right now than just a coach-on-the-hot-seat. I think Jones views him as a key part of the long-range plan. And I'm not as convinced as a lot of people seem to be that Jones is ready to ditch the current plan for a new one -- no matter what happens this season.
This Friday's links are sorted in order of the populations of the states in which the teams play their home games. Enjoy.

Dallas Cowboys

Jason Witten will be happy to welcome second-round pick Gavin Escobar as a teammate and fellow Cowboys tight end. He'll be happy to help him get acclimated to life in the NFL. But make no mistake: Witten does not believe he's training his replacement. He believes he's got a lot of good years left.

Monte Kiffin will be the fifth different defensive coordinator for whom Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr has played in six years in the NFL. Carr is used to change.

Philadelphia Eagles

There's apparently a new documentary series about DeSean Jackson, and one of the things that's revealed in it is that his relationship with former Eagles coach Andy Reid got off to a shaky start due to some things Reid said about Jackson's family in their first conversation.

The Eagles' other starting wide receiver, Jeremy Maclin, could get a look on punt returns this season. Another chance for Maclin to make the right kind of impression in his contract year. Maclin was a brilliant return man in college.

New York Giants

Dwight Freeney's father says the veteran defensive end would love to play for the Giants but can't because the Giants are "broke." It was a day for connecting veterans still looking for jobs with the Giants, as Charles Woodson's agent said something about them being interested in his client. I have to believe, if the Giants wanted Freeney, they'd have found the money to sign him.

As for the pass-rushers the Giants do have, veteran Justin Tuck is trying to get rookie Damontre Moore in the right frame of mind to contribute right away.

Washington Redskins

Apparently the Redskins remain interested in running back Tim Hightower, who was their starter in 2011 before blowing out his knee and was cut late in training camp last year because the knee couldn't get healthy. The Giants have had some interest in Hightower this offseason as well. Whether Washington, New York or anyone else signs him has to depend on his health. He's well liked and well respected as a multi-talented back who could fill a variety of roles.

Remember that odd burgundy stripe around the collars of the Redskins' white jerseys last year? Yeah, they're not doing that again.
So yeah, this is interesting. The agent for veteran defensive back Charles Woodson tells ESPN's Josina Anderson that the New York Giants have "put their toe in the water" regarding interest in Woodson. Now, of course, you never know with agents. This could be true or it could be a ploy to scare the Broncos or some other team into upping their offer and signing Woodson soon. But if we take the man at his word, it's worth examining the idea of Woodson to the Giants, which I think makes a lot of sense, as does my friend Ohm:
Woodson, 36, would be an intriguing piece for the Giants. He could potentially play as one of the team's three safeties utilized often by defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. He also would provide the team with another veteran able to play corner, if needed, as well.

The Giants currently have Antrel Rolle and Stevie Brown as their starting safeties. Will Hill, fifth-round pick Cooper Taylor, Ryan Mundy and Tyler Sash are also on the roster.

Woodson would provide the Giants with the kind of veteran leadership presence at safety that Deon Grant provided when he played the role of the team's third safety. He also could help fill the void left by Kenny Phillips' departure in free agency to Philadelphia.

Yes, Woodson could fill a depth role as well as a mentor role with the Giants, who are transitioning to a younger defensive backfield that would benefit from the experience and wisdom of a player as decorated as Woodson. Phillips always talked about the effect Grant had on his development, and young players such as Brown, Hill, Mundy, Taylor, Sash and Prince Amukamara could surely learn something from Woodson, who has experience playing safety as well as cornerback.

As a veteran-minimum deal, Woodson to the Giants makes a great deal of sense. The fact that it hasn't yet happened makes me think the interest isn't serious, since the Giants tend to move quickly when they find someone they want on the market. But as long as he's still unsigned, it's worth imagining it.
The New York Giants cleared about $5 million in cap space with Thursday's roster moves, leaving them about $9 million under the cap. Part of the reason may be that they're trying to get some of their own free agents signed before the free-agency negotiating period opens. (And in truth, it opens tomorrow, though teams can't actually sign free agents until Tuesday.)

Ralph Vacchiano reports that the Giants "hope to re-sign guard Kevin Boothe and tight end Martellus Bennett before the market opens, though deals do not appear imminent."

The way that sentence is structured makes me wonder whether the Giants are working seriously in pursuit of deals with Boothe and Bennett or simply "hoping" those players will sign before the market opens at the prices the team has in mind for them. My hunch is the latter, and that Boothe is the more likely of the two to sign. But the clearing of cap room Thursday by restructuring David Baas' contract and getting Corey Webster to agree to a pay cut makes you think they're making room for some specific stuff, and new deals for Boothe and Bennett could be that stuff.

If they don't re-sign Boothe, they could play David Diehl at guard and find a right tackle on the market. Or they could sign a guard. If they don't re-sign Bennett, they'll surely be in the market for a veteran tight end, though recent history shows they won't feel compelled to play at the high end of that market. They brought Bennett in last year on the cheap because they thought (correctly) he would help as a run-blocker. But he's only 26, and the five touchdown passes he caught from Eli Manning might help him sell himself on the open market as more than just a blocker. If that's the case, the Giants probably look elsewhere.

Nothing much in Ralph's story, by the way, on safety Kenny Phillips. As we have discussed here many times, I think Phillips is an important player for the Giants and that they shouldn't let him hit the open market without a fight. But the fact that we haven't heard anything about a potential new deal for Phillips makes me think the Giants are convinced his knee is bad and they've decided to move on with other options. ESPN's Josina Anderson reported Thursday that the Giants are one of the teams that has expressed interest in veteran safety Charles Woodson.

Halftime thoughts: Giants look fantastic

November, 25, 2012
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The New York Giants appear to have done their homework during their bye week. Lackluster losers of two straight November games heading into their Week 11 bye, the Giants have come roaring out of the gates tonight to take a 31-10 lead over the Green Bay Packers at halftime. ESPN North blogger Kevin Seifert, seated to my right here in the MetLife Stadium press box, reports that the 31 points are the most any team has scored against the Packers in a game this season. To repeat, it is halftime.

What has gone right for the Giants? Just about everything. They have sacked Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers three times, and the third one came equipped with a forced fumble by Osi Umenyiora that set up Ahmad Bradshaw's 13-yard touchdown run in the half's final minute. They have a Corey Webster interception to go with the fumble. Eli Manning, who hadn't thrown a touchdown pass since Week 7, has thrown one each to Rueben Randle and Victor Cruz. Bradshaw has 56 rushing yards and Andre Brown 27 behind a fired-up offensive line that's blocking as well as it has in any game all season, and Bradshaw also picked up 59 on a screen pass on the Giants' first possession of the game.

Early on, when Jordy Nelson whipped Webster for a 61-yard touchdown pass to tie the score at 7-7 in the game's first five minutes, it looked as though this might be a shootout between two of the game's top offenses. But it has quickly swung the Giants' way. They looked energized and sharp, smoothly working their way in and out of various personnel groupings on offense and defense, and they appear to be confusing the Packers on both ends. Middle linebacker Chase Blackburn has one of the sacks and has been integral to the pressure they've been able to put on Rodgers. And Randle, the rookie second-round pick out of LSU, looks as though he might be developing into a reliable third wide receiver option. He is sometimes on the field even when Cruz is not, and his presence on the outside opposite Hakeem Nicks can enable the Giants to deploy Cruz in the slot, where he can get mismatches against linebackers and safeties.

The Packers are obviously never out of a game with Rodgers and all of their offensive weapons. But they're outmanned tonight with key players such as Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson out of the game with injuries. And if the Giants can keep the run game going the way it's gone so far, they should be able to control the clock enough in the second half to prevent a three-touchdown comeback. A Giants victory would keep their lead in the NFC East at two games over the Cowboys and Redskins with five games left in the season.

Kenny Phillips returns for Giants

November, 25, 2012
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- New York Giants safety Kenny Phillips, who has been out of action since injuring his knee in the team's Week 4 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, is active and expected to start Sunday night's game against the Green Bay Packers. Phillips' return is huge for a Giants defense that has thrived on turnovers but has struggled for consistency this year. He helps the run defense as well as the coverage schemes, and it's conceivable that his absence is a big part of the reason they've struggled up front in the pass rush as well.

Linebacker Keith Rivers also returns to action for the Giants after missing the last two games with an hamstring injury. And running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who has been limited in practice for weeks with foot and neck problems, also is active for the game.

The Packers are down several significant players, including wide receiver Greg Jennings, linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Sam Shields, all of whom are inactive for the game. Matthews sits with a hamstring injury, and Jennings has been out since September with an abdominal muscle injury. Star safety Charles Woodson also is sidelined with a broken collarbone, making this Green Bay defense more vulnerable than it even was when the Giants beat the Packers in the playoffs in January.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning has not thrown a touchdown pass since Week 7 against the Washington Redskins, and the Giants are looking to get their offense in gear with the Dallas Cowboys and Redskins suddenly right behind them in the NFC East race.

I will be here at MetLife Stadium tonight, along with NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert and NFL columnist Ashley Fox, as well as the crew from Check out our Countdown Live chat during the game.

How you feeling? Giants-Packers

November, 25, 2012
As the New York Giants prepared to host the Green Bay Packers at 8:20 p.m. ET on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, here's one reason for Giants fans to feel good and one reason for concern.

Feeling good: The Packers are vulnerable. With Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews out due to injury, the defense is definitely not at full strength. That should allow the Giants' offense the opportunity to grind out the kinds of long drives that keep Aaron Rodgers and the high-octane Green Bay offense on the sideline for much of the game. Now, that assumes the Giants figured some things out over the bye about an offense that has really sputtered over its last three games. But that gets to the issue of how much Giants fans should trust quarterback Eli Manning and the coaching staff to fix their problems, and I personally think they've earned a lot of that kind of trust.

Cause for concern: The Giants' defense needs to wake up as well, and in a very specific way. The Giants have forced a lot of turnovers this year, but their vaunted pass rush has not been as dominant as it has in past seasons. They will need to put pressure on Rodgers, which was their formula for beating him in January in the playoff game in Green Bay. The Giants had four sacks and 13 hurries that day against Rodgers, who threw an interception and lost a fumble, too. Jason Pierre-Paul is having a fine season, but he needs more help from Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora on the other side of the defensive line.

Redskins have no reason to keep Hall

October, 29, 2012
HallAP Photo/Don WrightRedskins CB DeAngelo Hall is ejected after confronting head linesman Dana McKenzie Sunday.

I'm not saying they're gospel, but I like the grades. Those guys watch every player and every play and offer clinical evaluations of what players are doing relative to what they're supposed to be doing. I think, given a large enough sample size, we can use them to help us get a sense of who's playing well and who's not in the NFL.

So far this season, Washington Redskins cornerback DeAngelo Hall ranks 95th overall out of the 99 cornerbacks PFF has evaluated. When you sort strictly by coverage grade (taking out penalties and performance against the run), Hall drops to 99th. Last year, PFF ranked Hall as the 66th-best cornerback in the league overall, 94th in coverage. And on Sunday, in the fourth quarter of a 27-12 loss to the Steelers in Pittsburgh, Hall lost his mind on an official and got ejected after costing his team 30 yards' worth of penalties.

My question is this: Why is this guy still on the Redskins? What, exactly, is the contribution that he's making?

It's not news that Hall can't cover. The Redskins spent this offseason trying to find ways to hide him -- moving him inside where they thought his supposed playmaking instincts might lead to something against slot receivers as opposed to exposing him on the outside, even using him at safety every now and then. They sold the idea to Hall as a cool way to jump-start the late portion of his career as some sort of Charles Woodson-type utility defensive back. But they haven't been able to hide him, in part because the rest of the secondary has fallen apart and in part because Hall just isn't playing very well.

He's known as a guy who gets beat but also makes plays, but that isn't really holding up anymore. He's got two interceptions this year after he had three last year. He's been credited with six pass breakups this year; there are 34 defensive backs in the league with more. On a team with better options, he probably wouldn't see the field. The Redskins don't have better options, but I still don't see why that should keep them from getting rid of him. It's hard to see how you could really damage your 32nd-ranked pass defense by cutting a guy who is, statistically, the worst cover corner in the league.

Especially if he's going to embarrass you. Especially if he's a nine-year veteran who needs to be restrained by actual team leaders London Fletcher and Lorenzo Alexander because he got so upset about an Emmanuel Sanders block (admittedly, a filthy one) that he felt the need to scream and curse out the officials. You can read in this Dan Steinberg blog post what Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said about Hall's meltdown Sunday, and what he said about a similarly costly and unprofessional outburst in last season's game against the Patriots. My question for Shanahan is what reason he still has to put up with it.

Would benching or dumping Hall make the secondary thinner? Of course it would. Would it also send a message to the younger players on the still-developing team that there are consequences for stupid, unprofessional behavior? Heck yeah it would, and that might be worth it at this point in the franchise's history.

I think Shanahan has nothing to lose and maybe something to gain if he decides he doesn't want Hall on his football team anymore. I think this is different from the Josh Morgan penalty against the Rams for a few reasons, mainly that it's not a first offense and that Morgan is making an obvious contribution to the team as a receiver and a blocker. If Hall can't cover anybody, can't break up a pass, averages three or four interceptions a year and can't be counted on to conduct himself with class and professionalism, I don't see what reason the Redskins have to keep him around.

Observation deck: Redskins-Bears

August, 19, 2012
As much as everybody tries to read meaning into the on-field results of preseason games, the only thing that truly matters to the teams is getting through them healthy. For that reason, the Washington Redskins' 33-31 exhibition loss to the Bears in Chicago on Saturday night was a painful one. Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo and strong safety Brandon Meriweather both left the game in the first quarter with injuries -- Meriweather to his knee, Orakpo to the same pectoral muscle he tore last year. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan said after the game that both would have MRIs on Sunday, and obviously when you lose two defensive starters you have to be concerned. Inside linebacker London Fletcher also was a late scratch from the starting lineup Saturday, and Shanahan didn't say much about Fletcher when asked postgame.

So it was a troubling night for the Redskins because of what was happening on the trainer's table, not so much because of what was happening on the field. Remember, we absolutely cannot make long-term predictions based on these games. We don't know what we're watching. Some teams game-plan for opponents in preseason, other teams don't. Much of the decisive action comes against third-teamers that won't see the field all year. All we can do is evaluate one night's performance for what it is, and to that end ...

1. Robert Griffin III is still learning. And this is fine, of course. It is to be expected. The hype around the Redskins' rookie quarterback has been intense and exciting, but on occasion it can seem to ignore the important fact that Griffin is a rookie who must learn and get used to the challenges of the NFL game. In the preseason opener last week in Buffalo, the Redskins worked hard to protect Griffin, limiting his throws and his reads to the quickest possible, and he looked very good. He makes smart decisions and displays the kind of poise and leadership you want to see from your franchise quarterback. But the Bears' Cover 2 made things more challenging for Griffin on Saturday, as did Chicago's Julius Peppers-led pass rush, and Griffin looked shakier in Game 2. He was 5-for-8 for 49 yards, was sacked three times and fumbled on one of those sacks. Fred Davis missed a block on the fumble snap, and rookie running back Alfred Morris admitted to reporters after the game that he'd failed to pick up the blitz, but Griffin also needed to protect the ball better while running from the pressure. In general, he looked like a rookie who needs to show more composure against the rush. And again, at this stage in his career, there's nothing wrong with that at all.

2. The secondary looked like a mess. Bears quarterback Jay Cutler had a field day from the start. He found big Brandon Marshall up the right sideline for 41 yards after Marshall blew past Cedric Griffin. It looked as though cornerback DeAngelo Hall was playing free safety on that play, perhaps as part of this weird plan to convince Hall he can be used the way Green Bay uses Charles Woodson. It didn't work. Later, Marshall caught a 20-yarder on Josh Wilson. This time, Meriweather was providing the safety help but overshot the tackle. Orakpo got hurt in coverage on Devin Hester, and I still can't figure out what he was doing so deep. Alshon Jeffery had a big catch a little bit later on, and it looked like he had linebackers in coverage as well. I understand the safeties are new and they're moving the cornerbacks around a lot, but the Redskins' coverages Saturday did not look cohesive while the first-teamers were on the field. I thought Madieu Williams showed some good things, including an open-field tackle of Earl Bennett.

3. Brandon Banks showed something as a returner, with a 91-yard punt return, and Aldrick Robinson flashed his incredible speed as a receiver, bursting into another gear on his 49-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Weird thing is, Robinson doesn't show much as a returner and Banks hasn't shown enough as a receiver. If you could combine them, you'd have something. But the Redskins might not be able to keep both.

4. Morris got the start at running back over Evan Royster with Tim Hightower and Roy Helu hurt. Early on, Morris showed why Shanahan likes him. He makes one cut and then gets upfield quickly, which is essential for success in Shanahan's zone-blocking run game. He also has that good forward body lean, which helps him pick up yards after contact. The sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic had 34 yards on 10 carries. Royster was the third-down back even when Morris was in the game, and he had 20 yards on two carries. Tristan Davis had 10 carries late but did little with them and isn't likely to be a factor when this running back mess gets sorted out. Morris is a factor, right now.

5. Kirk Cousins. Yes, he looked great. He was a stunning 18-for-23 for 264 yards and three fourth-quarter touchdowns, including one to newly converted tight end Niles Paul, the one to Robinson and one to Dezmon Briscoe. The Redskins like Cousins a lot. But no, as anyone who's really paying attention knows, there's no quarterback controversy in Washington and there's not about to be one. The Redskins traded three first-round picks and a second-rounder to get Griffin. They did not do that for Cousins. Their plan for Cousins is to develop him as a backup and, ideally, trade him for something of value down the road the way Andy Reid and the Eagles did with Kevin Kolb. Preseason performances like this one can only help with that latter goal. But remember, the performance was against backup defensive players. Cousins never saw Peppers.
Santana MossGeoff Burke/US PresswireWashington Redskins receiver Santana Moss showed up this season much slimmer than the past.

ASHBURN, Va. -- Santana Moss is no fool. When free agency opened and the Washington Redskins signed two wide receivers (and nearly a third) in the first hour, Redskins coach Mike Shanahan was sure his veteran wide receiver was paying attention.

"If you don't," Shanahan said bluntly, "you've got to be an idiot."

Shanahan spoke with Moss this offseason and was blunt with him too. After a disappointing season in which he caught just 46 passes for just 584 yards, the now-33-year-old Moss was plainly in jeopardy of being cut. His mission, his coach told him, was to lose weight.

"We talked to him in the offseason and said, 'Hey, this isn't you. If you want to be part of our football team, you've got to lose some weight,'" Shanahan said after the Redskins' final minicamp practice here Wednesday. "And he came back under 190 and he looks like a different guy. He's made a commitment, and you have to at that age. And he knew that if he didn't do that, he'd probably be gone."

Even with the new additions at wide receiver, the slimmed-down Moss still projects as one of the Redskins' starting wide receivers along with Pierre Garcon. Josh Morgan, the other new addition, is working his way back from a leg injury, and Leonard Hankerson, last year's impressive rookie, is coming back from a hip injury. Moss' experience, flexibility and improved conditioning pushes him ahead of the younger injury guys.

"Last season, some of the things I wanted to do, I would get winded sometimes," Moss said. "When you get older and you see some things with yourself and your game, you just want to find some things that can help you get better. I just felt I've been at my best when I'm in the 190s, so I got back there."

The best part about it, from the coaching staff's standpoint, is that Moss didn't just lose weight. He got in better overall shape.

"I feels he's more powerful," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "He's more explosive. He has a better understanding of the offense. To me, he came in possessed. He was ready to go. You saw it physically, and then to see him in the meeting rooms, he's been great. He's been so attentive and it's shown on the field. The guy's not thinking out there. He's confident in his speed. He feels confident in his knowledge of the offense, and there's no hesitation. He's been very exciting."

Some other notes from my two days with the Redskins:

Cornerback DeAngelo Hall was all over the place in Wednesday's practice. He intercepted Robert Griffin III once and nearly did it another time when he had Moss blanketed in coverage over the middle. The Redskins have been using Hall in a variety of ways this offseason, asking him and a few other of their corners (Richard Crawford, Brandyn Thompson and Chase Minnifield) to take some reps at the slot corner position.

The thinking behind this is Kevin Barnes was not good in that slot-corner role last year, and some of the smaller, quicker corners on the roster might handle it better. When they move Hall inside, they can keep Josh Wilson and either Barnes or Cedric Griffin on the outside and try to maximize everyone's strengths. They're selling Hall on this plan by telling him he'll be playing a multi-faceted role similar to the one Charles Woodson plays in Green Bay, and Hall seems to be buying. He did a handspring backflip to the sideline after his interception Wednesday.

"I think it's something new for him, so he's kind of energized," defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said. "He really likes it. He's the kind of guy that can go in there and get sacks. That position should make a lot of plays. When you look at the Charles Woodsons, the guys that play in that scheme, you know you get four or five sacks every year, you get four or five interceptions, you get big plays. And hopefully we can get that out of him."

As I've mentioned a few times, the Woodson comparisons seem too easy. Every team likes to say they're going to use a guy like Woodson, but Woodson's a Hall of Fame-caliber player who fills multiple roles because he's awesome at all of them. Time will tell if Hall can handle such an assignment.

Minnifield is a guy with whom everyone seems to be impressed. He was signed as an undrafted free agent, but Haslett said the Redskins thought he was a third-round talent whose stock slipped because he ran a lousy 40 time coming off a knee injury.

"I'm ecstatic that he did not run well in his 40 time to make him a free agent and to be able to come to Washington," defensive backs coach Raheem Morris said.

Minnifield is down the depth chart a bit, but there are opportunities in the Redskins' secondary, and if he continues to play well, he could force his way into the mix.

I'll pick Brandon Meriweather and Madieu Williams in the "who'll be the starting safeties?" pool. The Redskins coaches are all raving about Williams' intelligence and calling him "a coach on the field." And while the conventional wisdom on Meriweather is that he's a poor fit as a strong safety, Mike Shanahan thinks it only looked that way in Chicago because he was a poor fit for their scheme.

"What I think he is, what I looked at him as, playing two-deep, I'm thinking this guy's got to rush, this guy's got to bracket, and he's a really smart football player," Shanahan said. "If you just play conventional three-deep or two-deep like Chicago did the majority of the time, that's not what he does. They way we use him with blitzes, the way we use him in combinations, he's a smart guy."

Shanahan also said he called New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick to ask about Meriweather, who, Belichick released last September, and that Belichick gave him a good review and agreed that he'd be a good fit in Washington's defense.

I have more, but that's more than 1,000 words, and should hold you for tonight. Let me know what else you want to read about the Redskins in the coming days.

Former Boys draft pick stars for Packers

January, 3, 2011
In case you missed it Sunday, someone named Erik Walden sacked Jay Cutler twice Sunday and had 11 tackles. Walden was a sixth-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys in '08, but he didn't make the team. He'd spent most of his career with the Miami Dolphins, but the Packers signed him off the street in late October.

Now, he's making a name for himself after replacing the injured Frank Zombo as the starter at right outside linebacker. I vaguely remember Walden from training camp in '08, but nothing about the former Middle Tennessee player stood out. But he was arguably the best defensive player on the field Sunday, and now he'll prepare to face Michael Vick.

"A lot of guys, probably names you haven't heard this season, have come up big for us," Packers Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson told reporters following Sunday's win over the Bears. "Walden had a huge day for us. You haven't heard his name a lot this year. He's a new guy on this team, but he stepped up big.

"That has had to happen with the amount of injuries we've had. We haven't had guys that have been out two weeks, three weeks. We've had guys on [injured reserve] who couldn't come back. Backups and practice squad guys who have been called up, they've had to play and play well in order for us to get into the playoffs."

The Eagles will have to focus a lot of their attention on Packers linebacker Clay Matthews on Sunday, so Walden will probably have plenty of opportunities against one-on-one blocking. Everyone talks about the Packers being a dangerous No. 6 seed based on their offense, but their defense has been equally (if not more) impressive this season.