As he pulled into the end zone at the end of his punt-return touchdown, Domenik Hixon shrugged his shoulders and turned his palms skyward. That's a common celebratory sports gesture these days -- it originated when Michael Jordan hit six three-pointers in the first half of Game 1 of the 1992 NBA finals, and then shrugged in the direction of Marv Albert as if to say, "I don't know why I'm so good." I don't know what Hixon meant with his shrug, but perhaps, like Jordan, he was admitting that he was stumped by the obvious questions: Where was all this for the previous six games? And just as suddenly as we went from great to terrible in the middle of the season, can we go from terrible to great down the stretch?
What's to like:
Tom Coughlin: They played with pride for Colonel Tom. Aren't you glad he's our coach and Wade Phillips is Dallas's coach? And Andy Reid is Philly's coach, and Jim Zorn is Washington's coach, and... you really can keep going for a long time.
Bill Sheridan: After last week's game, I wrote that if the Giants defense didn't substantially improve, they should depart with their usual patient approach and fire Sheridan at season's end. Well, they substantially improved, and played with a sense of urgency that had been troublingly absent for the past six games. Maybe the reason for improvement was psychological: By replacing three starters, Sheridan conveyed that resting on the laurels of 2007 and 2008 would not help us get to the playoffs in 2009. Maybe it was schematic: Sheridan's game-plan was designed to stop the run, rush the passer with blitzes, and prevent deep passes even if it meant allowing intermediate and short gains over the middle.
So how did we do in these areas? After they rushed for 251 yards in Week 2, Dallas rushed for 45 Sunday at a clip of 2.0 yards per carry. We recorded two sacks, forced one intentional grounding penalty, and hit Romo an additional seven times. Aside from that 22-yard touchdown pass to Austin toward the end of the game and an earlier 32-yarder to Witten, we were relatively successful in preventing big plays considering the Cowboys passed 55 times.
More importantly, of the 24 points Dallas scored, seven came after a fumble deep in our territory and seven came in clock-consumption mode at the end of the game (although the defense's performance in this situation wasn't entirely forgivable). Sheridan has made a lot of appearances in the "What's not to like" column recently. I'm happy to put him here for this game.
The run-defense: The NFL is so hard to figure. How does a team go from 251 yards at 8.7 yards per carry to 45 yards at 2.0 yards per in two games against the same team? I really don't get it. Doesn't the first game show that the Cowboys are just bigger and stronger up front than we are, and wouldn't you assume that this advantage translates from game to game? Do execution and even scheme explain the discrepancy between 8.7 and 2.0?
Tackling: Maybe some answers to the above questions owe to our improved tackling. After hitting rock bottom in the Denver game, we tackled really well on Sunday. I've often felt that the term "tackling" was a little too encompassing, that what is often considered "good tackling" and "bad tackling" owes more to factors like positioning than anything else. But comparing the Denver game to this game, it's clear that players are sometimes more or less disciplined in holding onto a foot, a piece of jersey, and getting the guy to the ground.
The pass-rush: As I said before: two sacks, one intentional grounding, and seven additional hits on the quarterback.
Barry Cofield: A constant disruptive force. He made three solo tackles, two tackles for losses, and got penetration in the backfield a couple of other times to drastically alter the routes of the running backs.
Aaron Rouse: Made some great sticks in the running game, and didn't seem to be the culprit on many of those passes over the middle to Witten et al. Also had that sack of Romo on the blitz. He wound up as our leading tackler with 12, including 10 solo. Though I'm honestly not sure how many of these tackles reflect well upon him and how many do the opposite.
Jonathan Goff: Yes, he got beat on those long completions to Witten and Martellus Bennett. But the defense did get better with him in the middle than it was with Pierce or Blackburn, so give the young guy some credit.
Osi: I've made this point before, but I was once again impressed today with Osi's hand-eye coordination. He displayed it with his league-leading fourth fumble recovery like he has in the past with his forced fumbles in which he doesn't lay a finger on the quarterback. I think this guy would have been a great baseball player if he hadn't come to the States by way of Nigeria and England.
Most of all, I'm just happy for Osi, an all-time great Giant who has had a rough time this year (and yes, I've criticized him too, I think justifiably). Osi could have gone into the tank and pouted. Instead, he made plays and smiled all game. And after the game, when asked if it hurt to have been demoted from the starting lineup, he said this:
It hurt. For a little while it was extremely painful to be honest with you, man, because I'm a man with tremendous pride or whatever. But I woke up in the morning, this morning, I talked to a great friend of mine, LaVar Arrington. And I realized, man, I'm alive! You know, I'm making a great living, and I get to still go out there and play football, which is something I love to do. So, you know, no matter what happens, man, I can never let my joy get taken away from me because of that, man. And I love this team, I love this organization, and whatever I can do to help this team win, I'm all for it, man. And obviously it worked, we went out there and won the game. And I'm happy for those guys, I'm happy for myself, I'm happy for the team.
Eli: If he were a pitcher, we'd label his performance a "gritty effort." He didn't have his best stuff but he battled and made enough of the throws that he needed to. Sure, his numbers would have looked entirely different if it weren't for the 74-yard pass to Jacobs (He had a strange statistical day: 11/25, 241 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 88.9 RAT.) But give him credit for bouncing back from a 2/8 start on the first three series to finish 9/17. And consider this: his numbers would've looked a lot better had Smith not dropped three passes including one sure touchdown.
As if often the case, Eli's brilliance was highly concentrated and manifested itself when we needed it. From the moment the Giants took over down 10-0 with 3:14 remaining in the half until they had a 1st and goal at the 1 on the verge of taking a 14-10 lead, Eli went 4/4 for 64-yards, plus that flip to Boss. That's Eli. He perks up when he needs to.
Ahmad Bradshaw: Another "gritty" performance. The fumble was bad, but we finally saw some flashes of the old Ahmad, although it's clear that his ankles are bothering him. Still, he finished with 47 yards on seven carries for a very Ahmadian 6.7 yards per. It had been a rough stretch for him -- I mentioned in my game preview that he had been averaging 2.7 yards per carry since the Oakland game. Pray that he's back to something resembling his early season and early career form. Then pray that he stays healthy. He's clearly our best back and represents the only hope that we'll have a well-rounded offense down the stretch.
Hakeem Nicks: On his touchdown catch, he showcased both his ability to use his body to shield defenders and his big hands to pluck the ball out of the air. He had only two catches for 37 yards, but as Mike Garafolo of the Star-Ledger pointed out, he also made two really nice blocks on our first touchdown drive. On that drive, Nicks also helped get us going with a 16-yard catch.
Steve Smith: What to make of Smith's day? Let's just think about what it would have looked like had he not dropped those three passes (yes, one of them was deflected). We'll give Smith a break on the drops because it's not a recurring problem. You know what the best description for Smith is? A "wonderful player."
Run-blocking: Our running backs carried the ball 20 times for 86 yards, an average of 4.3 yards per. Not spectacular, but solid. I'll take it.
Pass-blocking: One sack, five hits on Eli. Again, I'll take it.
Domenik Hixon: Man we needed that. It's hard to discern who gets the credit/blame for kick returns, but it wasn't hard to notice that the Giants return units had done nothing since the Saints game. Maybe Sunday's return restores Hixon's confidence and enables him to return to 2007-2008 form, when he was a legitimate threat. Also, credit to Terrell Thomas and Derek Hagan for some excellent hustle-blocks on the play.
Flozell Adams: The Giants had been getting pushed around a lot over the past few weeks, a period that included most of the first half against Dallas. But then the Giants scored a quick 14 points. And then Flozell shoved Tuck. And the Giants saw to it that they wouldn't get pushed around again on Sunday. Thanks, Dirtbag.
What's not to like:
Coverage of their tight ends: I'm not sure who to blame this on, but it must be pointed out that Cowboys tight ends caught 18 balls for 184 yards. Yes it was a good win, but that stat is simply staggering.
Bruce Johnson: Yikes. He's the latest in the succession of Will Allen/Kevin Dockery-types: Short corners who are often in position to make a play, but are both too short and too lost in space to do so. By my unofficial count, he allowed three big completions on plays where he was well-positioned, including the tip-up to Witten. He also fell down on a play late in the game on which Roy Williams was wide open for a touchdown, but Romo overthrew Williams. It's true that Johnson has been pretty shaky, but think of it this way: Can't you make the case that his pick-six in the first Dallas game singlehandedly cancels out all the bad things he's done since then?
Corey Webster: Webster actually did some really good things: He made a great play on an end zone fade to Roy Williams earlier in the game (later, he got toasted on an end zone fade to Williams). He made nice stops on an outside run by Jones and then a screen to Jones, and then he broke up a third down pass to Williams in the third quarter. Troy Aikman said Webster should have been called for interference because he had his arm around Williams's waist, but I thought it was pretty minimal contact and was just a nice play on the ball. I disagreed with Aikman in that case, but I agreed with him in his characterization of Webster's coverage on Austin's 22-yard fourth quarter touchdown as "lazy." You can't let a guy get behind you in that situation. The egregiousness of that play, combined with the fact that it was the second touchdown pass Webster had given up, lands him in this column.
Mario Manningham: I really like this guy, but he seems like a player who needs to have his balls busted for little things. So I'm gonna take him to task for three little things he did in this game, in order of egregiousness: 1) On that second quarter fly pattern that came on a "free play," Manningham ran one of the laziest routes I've ever seen. He was in single coverage on the outside, but he drifted practically out of bounds so that Eli had no choice but to throw the ball out of bounds. 2) On Mike Jenkins' interception, Manningham gave a poor effort breaking up the pass. And 3) There was a play early on where he easily should have just picked up the first down by going forward, but he made one hop-back move too many and almost lost it. Coughlin chewed him out after that one.
All of these plays constitute minor mental lapses that can potentially keep a player like Manningham from making the leap from "dangerous" to "truly good." You get the feeling that these lapses are not unrelated to Manningham's dropped passes. So I'm gonna bust his balls. And I bet the Giants coaching staff is too.
Roy Williams: When he does the "Hook 'em horns!" salute after he scores a touchdown, isn't he admitting that he peaked in college? Just sayin'. Also, the guy seems pretty vocal and demonstrative for someone who should be embarrassed by the turn his career has taken. Also just sayin'.