Eli Manning and Andy Dalton don’t have a personal rivalry, but both will be desperate to get the better of each other this weekend, as the New York Giants face off against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Giants(6-3) and the Bengals(3-5) are both coming off of losses from last week and their quarterbacks are not performing to their expected standards. Dalton has struggled all season, throwing 14 touchdowns to 11 interceptions, while Manning hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in his last two games and completed under 52 percent of his passes in both games.
This Giants’ team has consistently performed in big games during the past few seasons, and while this is certainly not a big game for the whole roster, Manning will be determined to reverse his own recent fortunes and stop his recent slump at two. When Manning is motivated, the whole Giants’ roster follows his lead on both sides of the ball. That can only be bad news for whatever unfortunate team lies in his wake at that time.
This week, that team is the Bengals. Even though the Bengals are entering the game amid a four game losing streak, they do have reasons to be optimistic. Most teams with losing records don’t have superstars like AJ Green and Geno Atkins on their rosters. Those that do, rarely get to put those players in position to swing a result against one of the best teams in the whole league. In this game Green and Atkins have marked advantages over both Corey Webster and David Diehl, who are likely to line up across from them at their respective positions. Green’s potential big day will primarily rely on Dalton. By proxy, that places a huge precedence on keeping Dalton upright.
Even though Dalton’s line can’t be blamed for his struggles this year, they will need to be at their very best in this game. The Giants’ defensive line has enough talent to take over any football game if they are let loose. The Pittsburgh Steelers neutralized Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Linval Joseph and Chris Canty‘s impact on the game for long stretches with their play-calling. Pierre-Paul, Tuck and Umenyiora combined for four sacks and a questionable forced fumble, but considering the difference in talent between those players and the players trying to block them, that was a successful outing for the Steelers.
While Jay Gruden can undoubtedly learn something from Todd Haley’s approach to play-calling for the Steelers last week, he must not completely replicate what the Steelers’ offensive coordinator did. The Bengals have a very different offense from a personnel point of view. While the team’s offensive line likely won’t be able to pound the ball through the middle, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis isn’t as abrasive a runner as Isaac Redman, they do have much better protection on the edges. Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith didn’t necessarily have bad games last week against tough pass rushers, but they will both have expected better from themselves. The duo are arguably the most talented teammates at the position in the whole NFL. If Smith and Whitworth can hold the Giants’ defensive ends at bay outside, the Bengals will be able to work the ball through the middle and repel the interior rush. In essence, they would be inverting the approach, but running the same game-plan as the Steelers did last week.
If the Bengals do hold off the Giants’ front seven, the focus is then put on Jermaine Gresham to exploit the favorable matchups he should receive as the Giants focus their coverage on Green. From there, the Bengals’ offensive success will hinge completely on Dalton’s ability to make good reads and find his receivers, because the Giants don’t provide serious problems as a coverage unit.
The Steelers relied on outstanding cornerback play to shut down the Giants’ offense last week. Dre Kirkpatrick will likely wait at least another week to play a big role on defense, as he missed practice on Friday this week. More importantly, Terence Newman practiced fully on Friday after his two interception performance against the Broncos last week. Newman and Leon Hall face tough matchups against Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. Unlike the Steelers’ cornerbacks, neither of the Bengals’ duo is big enough to be consistently productive in single coverage against Nicks. Nicks was limited to just one reception and a pass interference on four targets against Keenan Lewis. Stopping the Giants’ offense starts with how you approach Nicks. If the Bengals commit multiple defenders to cover him, they expose themselves to Cruz’ big play ability in space. If they don’t, then Nicks could go off for a huge day. This should force the Bengals to play plenty of zone coverage.
At the very least, the return of Pat Sims to play alongside Atkins at defensive tackle should allow them to shut down Ahmad Bradshaw and Andre Brown without pushing a safety into the box. The Giants’ only glaring weakness on offense is their offensive line play and the interior of that line carries the most question marks of any aspect of the offense. Whether it be pass protection or run blocking, the Bengals should get the better of them upfront. Even though Mike Zimmer’s group faces a very tough test this weekend, they do at least matchup well in certain places to disrupt the Giants’ productivity. Of course, that is still relying on Manning not being in playoff mode.
Rightfully, the Giants enter this game as the favorites, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is certain to be an easy win for the reigning Super Bowl champions.
Cian Fahey can be found on twitter @Cianaf. He also writes for the Guardian, Irishcentral and Balls.ie.