NFL Preview - Washington (0-0) at N.Y. Giants (0-0)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Redemption is likely on the minds of both the New York Giants and Washington Redskins, two bitter NFC East rivals hoping to start off their 2009 seasons better than they finished the previous one.
The Giants entered the final month of the 2008 regular season perched at the top of the conference heap with a glossy 12-1 record, but proceeded to lose three of their final four games before being shut down by the Philadelphia Eagles in a frustrating 23-11 setback in last January's NFC Divisional Playoffs. It was a swift and bitter end to a campaign that will best be remembered for mercurial wide receiver Plaxico Burress unintentionally shooting himself in the thigh at a Manhattan night club just days before New York's 23-7 Week 13 triumph over the Redskins at FedEx Field.
The endless barrage of media scrutiny caused by Burress' well-publicized screw-up that seemed to take its toll on the Giants down the stretch may finally have gone away, but the 2007 world champions will be entering Sunday's season opener with Washington still needing to prove whether they can prosper without the valuable wideout on the field. There are other questions to answer as well, such as whether a defense that has been one of the NFL's most havoc- wreaking units over the past two years can be as fearsome with esteemed coordinator Steve Spagnuolo now the head coach of the St. Louis Rams, or if a bone-crunching running game that produced a pair of 1,000-yard backs in Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward can be as effective with one member of the duo (Ward) no longer on the roster.
Washington enters Giants Stadium this weekend looking to atone for a late-year collapse of its own. The Redskins were sitting pretty midway through rookie head coach Jim Zorn's first season after winning six of their first eight tilts, but the honeymoon quickly came to end when the Burgundy and Gold went 2-6 over the second half and wound up in the basement of the competitive NFC East.
The Redskins' extensive offensive struggles over that poor eight-game stretch have put both Zorn and beleaguered quarterback Jason Campbell, a free agent at season's end, squarely on the hot seat with an ownership group that hasn't stressed patience in the past. If Washington has any serious aspirations of bettering last year's .500 mark and climbing the ladder in what is regarded as one of the league's toughest divisions, improving upon the team's No. 28 overall ranking in points scored is an absolute must.
While the offense brings its share of uncertainty, the Redskins should be able to lean on an already-formidable defense that was enhanced even further by the acquisition of big-ticket free-agent Albert Haynesworth over the spring. The massive All-Pro lineman was lured away from the Tennessee Titans with a contract sizeably larger than his 350-pound frame, a seven-year, $100 million deal that made the 28-year-old the NFL's highest-paid defender.
The Giants have a 87-61-4 advantage in the all-time regular season series with Washington, including a home-and-home sweep last year. New York earned a 16-7 home victory when the teams met to kick off the season in Week 1 at the Meadowlands, and came away from FedEx Field with a 23-7 victory in Week 13. The teams engaged in an unconventional split of the 2007 home-and-home. The Giants are 3-0 in Washington since last losing there in 2005.
The teams have also split two postseason matchups, with the Giants' 17-0 victory in the 1986 NFC Championship countering a 28-0 Washington win in a 1943 NFC Division Playoff.
New York's Tom Coughlin is 8-5 against the Redskins all-time, including 1-2 while with the Jacksonville Jaguars (1995-2002). Zorn is 0-2 against both Coughlin and the Giants as a head coach.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
Washington was at its best last year when star running back Clinton Portis (1487 rushing yards, 9 TD, 28 receptions in '08) was healthy and slicing through enemy defenses, something he did with impressive regularity during the first half of the season. The colorful veteran averaged a meager 2.9 yards per rush attempt while battling through an assortment of injuries over the final five games, however, and the offense nearly came to a standstill as a result. Although the Redskins will lean heavily on the eighth-year pro again in 2009, the coaching staff plans to mix in capable understudy Ladell Betts (206 rushing yards, 1 TD, 22 receptions) more often in order to keep Portis fresh. An aging offensive line that also wore down over the course of last season got some offseason retooling with the free-agent addition of guard Derrick Dockery (from Buffalo). With the depth behind the starting five mostly unproven, the group will need to remain intact if Washington is to match last year's fine output of 130.9 rushing yards per game (8th overall).
The diminished returns from the ground game also had a profound effect on Campbell's (3245 passing yards, 13 TD, 6 INT) performance. After not throwing any interceptions and hitting on over 66 percent of his throws over the first eight games, the former first-round pick was picked off six times and had a 59 percent completion rate over the final eight. Developing reliable targets other than gritty wideout Santana Moss (79 receptions, 1044 yards, 6 TD) and Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley (83 receptions, 1 TD) would also go a long way towards upgrading an offense that finished an unwanted 23rd in passing yards (189.1 ypg) last season. The Redskins are counting on 2008 second-round draftee Malcolm Kelly (3 receptions) to take a big leap forward and make an impact opposite Moss, which would push incumbent starter Antwaan Randle El (53 receptions, 4 TD) into a more suited role as a slot receiver.
Campbell and his teammates will be going up against a sturdy New York defense that had its way with the Redskins in the two meetings last year, with Zorn's troops mustering a mere seven points in each game as well as only 84 and 92 rushing yards, respectively. The Giants ended 2008 ranked fifth overall in both yards (292.0 ypg) and points allowed (18.4 ppg), and this season's group could conceivably surpass those strong numbers due to an influx of offseason signees and the return of feared pass rusher Osi Umenyiora, a 13-sack performer in 2007 who missed all of last year due to a torn ACL. Tackles Chris Canty (37 tackles, 3 sacks with Dallas) and Rocky Bernard (55 tackles, 4 sacks with Seattle) were brought in through free agency to further fortify an already deep line that will have Umenyiora, All-Pro Justin Tuck (67 tackles, 12 sacks, 1 INT) and Mathias Kiwanuka (51 tackles, 8 sacks) rotating on the ends, while speedy former Falcon Michael Boley (73 tackles, 1 INT) was inked to a five-year deal to bolster a linebacking corps headed up by leading tackler Antonio Pierce (95 tackles, 1.5 sacks) in the middle. Boley will sit out the opener while serving a one-game suspension for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, with either special-teams stalwart Chase Blackburn (61 tackles, 1 sack) or second-year man Bryan Kehl (35 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) taking over in the interim.
The Giants will also likely be without starting cornerback Aaron Ross (52 tackles, 3 INT) on Sunday after the 2007 first-round selection strained a hamstring in the preseason, while nickel back Kevin Dockery (43 tackles, 1 INT) figures to be a game-time decision due to a hamstring injury of his own. Sophomore Terrell Thomas (45 tackles, 1 INT) is slated to take Ross' place alongside top cover man Corey Webster (50 tackles, 3 INT, 24 PD) in what could be a thin secondary. New York had to replace one starter in the backfield in the offseason, with strong safety James Butler joining Spagnuolo in St. Louis, but the club is extremely high on last year's top draft choice and new replacement Kenny Phillips (67 tackles, 1 INT).
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
New York's game plan on offense is centered around a relentless running attack that piled up league-best averages of 157.4 yards per week and a healthy five yards per attempt last season. With the receiver group in a state of uncertainty due to Burress' departure and the team's decision not to retain steady veteran Amani Toomer, it's possible the G-Men will rely even more on the broad frame of the 264-pound Jacobs (1089 rushing yards, 15 TD, 6 receptions) and on new second-stringer Ahmad Bradshaw (355 rushing yards, 5 receptions, 2 total TD), who takes over Ward's old role as a change-of-pace and third-down option following the latter's move to Tampa Bay via free agency. The tandem will again be working behind a top-notch offensive line that features a pair of Pro Bowl honorees in center Shaun O'Hara and guard Chris Snee, while blue-collar fullback Madison Hedgecock (8 receptions) was named second-team All-Pro at season's end for his abilities as a lead blocker.
The Redskins sported the league's eighth-best rushing defense (95.4 ypg) in 2008 and may be even more stingy in that department this year, now that Haynesworth (51 tackles, 8.5 sacks) will be drawing constant double-teams while camped out in the interior, and established run-stopper Phillip Daniels is back from an ACL tear that caused the 36-year-old to sit out all of last season. Washington also possesses one of the game's premier middle linebackers and iron men in team captain London Fletcher (133 tackles, 0.5 sacks), who hasn't missed a game in 11 years and annually stands among the NFL's leaders in tackles. All three will be needed on Sunday, considering the Redskins allowed a season-worst 154 yards on the ground in their Week 1 visit to the Meadowlands.
The Giants' willingness to run the football is also designed to ease the burden on quarterback Eli Manning (3238 passing yards, 21 TD, 10 INT), whose yardage totals took a nose dive after Burress took himself out of commission. Who emerges as the now well-paid signal-caller's go-to receiver remains a mystery at this point, with third-year pro Steve Smith (57 receptions) and fellow holdover Domenik Hixon (43 receptions, 2 TD) the early favorites to claim that important job. Smith led the team in catches working primarily out of the slot last year, while Hixon was serviceable after taking over Burress' split end spot for the final few games of 2008. A pair of talented but green youngsters, sophomore Mario Manningham (4 receptions) and 2009 first-round draft selection Hakeem Nicks, will also be expected to make significant contributions in the new-look rotation of wideouts, and the team is hoping third-year tight end Kevin Boss (33 receptions, 6 TD) can make further strides after topping New York in touchdown catches in his first season as Jeremy Shockey's replacement.
New York's work-in-progress receiver group will be challenged by a quality secondary whose play enabled the Redskins to finish seventh overall in pass defense (193.4 ypg) a year ago. Two-time Pro Bowl corner DeAngelo Hall (73 tackles, 5 INT, 21 PD) proved to be a nice fit alongside the consistent Carlos Rogers (56 tackles, 2 INT, 24 PD) after being picked up at midseason following a brief and unsuccessful tenure with the Raiders, while 24-year-old LaRon Landry (65 tackles, 2 INT, 11 PD) is a developing star at free safety. All three one-time first-round picks should benefit from a pass rush that seems to be boosted with the additions of Haynesworth and promising rookie Brian Orakpo, a freakishly athletic former defensive end at the University of Texas who's made a smooth transition to outside linebacker. Washington generated only 24 sacks in 2008, one of the lowest marks in the league.
These teams engaged in a low-scoring slugfest at the Meadowlands in last year's season opener, and there are indications that history could repeat itself in this game. With both fielding above-average stop units and entering Sunday's tilt with concerns in key offensive areas, either defense seems to be a prudent choice for Week 1. Jacobs is the safest play among the individual participants, since the powerful back was a fantasy cash register at the goal line last season and he has a good track record of success in this series. Portis carries a little more risk on the Washington side, as he'll be facing a stout run defense and may lose touches to Betts. Cooley and Moss are solid every-week performers and good starts at their respective positions, but the Giants' situation at wide receiver needs to sort itself out before any single player can be recommended. Manning and Campbell make for decent options at quarterback, but should only be used this week by those without better alternatives.
In a matchup of two teams with strong defenses and rather conservative approaches on the other side of the ball, this game will likely come down to which one is better able to control the point of attack. The Giants' well- established offensive line is better than the Redskins' questionable front wall, so advantage goes to the home team. Look for the defending NFC East champions to begin 2009 in much the same fashion they started the previous season, with a methodical win over their rivals to the south that won't have much in the way of style points.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 16, Redskins 10
09/10 12:52:44 ET