The New York Giants will be looking for their fourth win in a row following an 0-6 start. TheGreen 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.
ESPN.com 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 whileAaron 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 likeB.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 Jonesfor 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 endJason 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.
Mike McCarthy has been raving about Scott Tolzien, who the Packers promoted from their practice squad when Aaron Rodgers fell to injury.
Much like Seneca Wallace the week before, Tolzien was thrust into duty last week after most likely getting very little work in practice leading up to that game against Philadelphia, as the Packers had to give Wallace extra attention to get him up to speed. Green Bay fell to the Eagles at home, but Tolzien was impressive, especially considering the difficult situation he was presented with.
Sunday was the first regular-season action in the 26-year-old Tolzien's career, so we don't have a lot to base our evaluations on. But going back to his college evaluations and some good moments in the preseason with the 49ers -- along with what we saw last week -- there are some critiques we can take away from this young player. First off, Tolzien isn't a physically overwhelming specimen. He lacks a big arm, doesn't have outstanding size and isn't a high-end athlete for the position.
A mostly short to intermediate passer, we also know that Tolzien isn't bashful or “Just a Caretaker” at the position. He will attempt difficult throws, including back shoulder throws, and plays the game with swagger and confidence. Because he won't be able to fit the ball into tiny windows like Rodgers can, he is willing to pull the trigger. Tolzien probably will have some rough patches with defenders getting their hands on his passes, but I see his boldness as a positive, especially considering the strong set of weapons he is throwing to in Green Bay.
Expect the Giants' defense to key on the outstanding Packers' running game and Eddie Lacy, and to dare Tolzien to beat them through the air. While I wouldn't argue with that strategy, the group of Jordy Nelson, James Jones andJarrett Boykin have a major edge over the members of the Giants' secondary. Lacy, who has logged at least 20 carries in every game since taking over as the lead back in Week 5, was outstanding after contact last week. The Packers might have found another quality wide receiver in Boykin, who is big and physical with adequate speed and good body control. I love the way Boykin attacks the football and, like Tolzien, he is not a bashful player despite playing few meaningful regular-season snaps.
The Giants better be aware of tight end Brandon Bostick, who could be yet another break-out weapon for this offense. Bostick is a big time athlete who might be ready to create matchup problems from different alignments all over the field, which is something McCarthy excels at creating.
Tolzien moved the Packers' offense consistently against the Eagles, although he did make a few ill-advised throws and threw two interceptions. But Tolzien also just missed on a few big plays and should do a fine job of getting his receivers to use their strong after-the-catch skills. A turnover or two by Tolzien would not surprise me in New York, but I expect a very successful outing by Tolzien in his second game and first career start.
Everyone knows this is Rodgers' team, but if Tolzien is as effective as I expect after receiving a full week of preparation time as the Packers' starter, Green Bay should be able to keep their head above water in the NFC playoff race while Rodgers is out. And in the big picture, Tolzien might end up as the ideal young backup to Rodgers.
The Carolina Panthers came into San Francisco on Sunday and won 10-9 in a physical, grind-it-out football game. It's the type of game this team simply hasn't won the past couple of seasons. Carolina's defense was fantastic and the offense under Cam Newton did enough to win. The Panthers have now won five in a row, are 6-3 overall and find themselves in the thick of the NFC South race and overall playoff picture.
Are the Panthers for real? And can this exceptional defense carry them to the playoffs?
Newton had shown a lot of improvement coming into this game and the Panthers will always show a dedication to their diverse power running game under offensive coordinator Mike Shula. But as he has displayed for much of his career, Newton's accuracy can come and go -- and on Sunday it took a step backward, as he registered a 19.3 Total QBR and completed only 50 percent of his passes. He still relies far too much on just his upper body when throwing the ball, and in turn his passes can sail and lack repeatable accuracy because of an inconsistent base. Of course Newton still needs much work on his fundamentals, but he has a cannon for a right arm and gets away with his deficiencies much more than a less talented quarterback would. He is also improving from a mental perspective, not trying to force too many throws and throwing the ball away if nothing is there.
Newton happens to be an elite running threat as well, which gives the Panthers a rare luxury of having four ball carriers with a variety of strengths to their game in Newton, DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert and Jonathan Stewart, who looks fully healthy for the first time in recent memory. Shula has kept it simple for Newton, calling more run plays and simple passing plays, but if it wasn't for one of the league's best defenses this strategy wouldn't be possible.
Luke Kuechly, last year's defensive rookie of the year, has already emerged as one of the league's truly elite linebackers and this is his 4-3 defense. Comparisons to greats such as Patrick Willis and Ray Lewis are not too far-fetched in terms of expectations for Kuechly's career, as he simply excels in all areas of playing the position. Kuechly is a great blitzer, rarely takes a false first step to the ball and is a tremendous tackler (11 tackles on Sunday). But for as great as Kuechly is -- his counterpart on the second level, Thomas Davis, is also one of the top linebackers in the league -- it all starts up front for the Panthers' defense.
This might be the best front seven in the NFL and Carolina's defensive line ruled the day Sunday against what is often considered one of the league's best and most physical offensive lines. The 49ers' running game is extremely difficult to prepare for and play against because of the variety of personnel and formations they can throw at you. Frank Gore did have an impressive day (16 carries for 82 yards), but the Panthers did a good job tackling. As ESPN Stats & Information noted, the 49ers were limited to 44 yards after contact on 32 rushes and receptions Sunday, their lowest of the season. Carolina's defensive ends also did a great job limiting Colin Kaepernick's scrambles, as it was the first game this season Kaepernick didn't have a scramble.
But the bigger difference in the game was that Carolina's pass rush was simply overwhelming. Kaepernick was under pressure on nearly every snap and was sacked six times. Carolina did a lot of blitzing, but also consistently got into the backfield when rushing just their four-man defensive line. The Panthers could have back-to-back defensive rookies of the year, as Star Lotulelei is playing as well as any rookie in the league on that side of the ball.
Lotulelei is a big, powerful player who frees up everyone around him but also shows penetration skills. The addition of second-round pick Kawann Short also can't be overlooked, as Short is much more of the traditional upfield three-technique. While these two rookie defensive tackles complement one another very well, the ends were already stars -- even though Charles Johnsonand Greg Hardy are not household names to many fans. Both are stout at the point of attack, but more importantly they consistently beat the offensive tackles across from them in the passing game. Six different Panthers defenders registered at least a half sack Sunday. Entering the season, the biggest question to me on the defensive side of the ball was the Panthers' secondary.
Of course this group benefits a great deal from this front seven and the pass rush it generates, but it is playing very well in its own right. Carolina is much better off at safety now with the additions of Quintin Mikell and Mike Mitchell, both of whom have revived their careers with the Panthers. The same can be said for Drayton Florence at cornerback, while Captain Munnerlyn is an undersized, but tough CB who is having a good season. This defense, and the secondary specifically, was exceptional on third downs in against Kaepernick, allowing only 2-of-13 conversions. This is notable, as San Francisco had been efficient on third downs coming into this game. When factoring lost yardage to sacks, the 49ers had just 46 passing yards in San Francisco. But the Panthers will not face passing games that are ailing as much as the 49ers' is right now every week. Carolina hosts the Patriots next week with New England having two weeks to prepare. That will be a great test for the Panthers' defense.
Looking ahead to the playoff race, the Panthers match up well against the Saints, who are still on the schedule twice in the second half of the season. Those contests should ultimately decide the NFC South champion. Carolina's defense is much better against the pass than run, but the Saints are not going to beat anyone on the back of their run game. As we saw when the Saints visited the Jets in Week 9, New Orleans is a team that be pushed around on both sides of the ball. The Jets ran all over the Saints in a physically dominating fashion, with New Orleans missing tackle after tackle en route to giving up 198 yards on the ground. Carolina could do exactly the same thing.
At this point, it would be a shock if the Panthers didn't end up in the postseason, and they have a great shot of winning the NFC South. This team is built very much in the same way as San Francisco and Seattle, albeit a year behind in the process. Ron Rivera and this organization have a distinct plan for winning football games behind a strong defense and a power running game and they are a difficult team to play against right now. If Newton can continue to protect the football, this team will be a tough out in the playoffs.