Giants use kickoffs, turnovers to roll over Saints

Last week against Washington, the Giants committed numerous penalties on special teams and started five drives inside their own 20-yard line. With the Saints in town on Sunday, New York made big plays on defense and special teams that allowed them to start a whopping seven drives in New Orleans territory.

It’s a cliche that’s heard too often in the unpredictable NFL, but it’s amazing the difference that one week makes.

Instead of infuriating their fans with holding calls, New York’s kick return blockers opened up highway-sized lanes for kick returner David Wilson to run through. The Giants wasted Wilson’s 58-yard opening kickoff return with a three-and-out (and then drove me crazy by punting on 4th-and-3 from the New Orleans 37), so Wilson just returned the next kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown.

That was much needed because on New York’s previous possession, Eli Manning forced a third down throw to Jerrel Jernigan that was taken back all the way for a touchdown by Saints defensive back Elbert Mack. Even more upsetting than the fact that Manning had made a horrible mistake so early in a crucial game was that the NFL Network guys decided to go with a “Mack Daddy” line instead of the preferable “Secret World of Elbert Mack.” Inexcusable.

Anyway, Wilson’s thrilling kick return completely erased Manning’s error and set the tone for a 52-27 Giants victory that kept Big Blue in first place in the NFC East. It’s a good thing that the Giants pulled ahead and won by 25, because most fans’ hearts were already ready to explode from watching the Redskins and Cowboys pull out last-second, come-from-behind victories earlier in the day. Even though New York did not gain any ground on their divisional opponents, the easy of its victory made it seem like Dallas and Washington needed to expend all their resources just to keep pace with the Giants.

That’s not factually correct, but just because it seemed that way will make the Giants and their fans feel a little safer this week, at least until the team falls behind Atlanta 10-0. Here’s what else was interesting about New York’s big win on Sunday:

  • David Wilson ended up with more carries than any other Giants halfback. That was in part because Ahmad Bradshaw was banged up and in part because New York was up by at least 15 points for most of the fourth quarter.
  • Thanks to said carries, Wilson exploded for a 52-yard touchdown run during garbage time. He is only the only player in NFL history with at least 200 kick return yards and at least 100 rushing yards in a single game
  • Wilson also set a Giants record with 327 all-purpose yards (227 return yards plus 100 rushing yards).

Now for the stuff that doesn’t involve awesome rookie halfbacks:

  • The Saints gained more yards than the Giants on the ground (142 to 135) and through the air (345 to 259). New Orleans also had more yards per rush (5.9 to 5.0) and yards per pass (8.0 to 7.4) than the Giants.
  • The difference in the game was New York’s huge advantage in kickoff return average (47.8 to 18.6) as well as turnovers. The Saints fumbled twice in the first half and Drew Brees threw a pair of interceptions in the second half. Both picks were caught by the ubiquitous Stevie Brown.

The game basically played out the way most of New York’s season has played out. Yeah, the kickoff return excellence is relatively new, but giving up lots of yards isn’t. The Giants have been living off of turnovers all season long. That’s why they rank 27th in the NFL in pass yards allowed per game and 10th in the NFL in Football Outsider’s pass defense DVOA (not updated for Week 14 yet, but it shouldn’t change too much).

The Giants tend to give up a high volume of passing yards because of their ability to jump out to leads (see the Tampa Bay game and the away Dallas game). Still, there have been too many big plays given up in any case.

Big plays have been an Achilles’ heel for the Giants defense. Entering their Week 11 bye, the Giants had given up 39 pass plays of 20 yards or more, third-most in the league, and eight pass plays of 40 yards or more, tied for second-most in the league.

I couldn’t find any more recent data, but the point is that the bend-but-don’t-break-and-then-force-a-turnover thing doesn’t work very well when opponents can score from 50 yards out. New York did a pretty good job cutting down on chunk yardage gains against the Saints, but there were still a handful of breakdowns.

Now, someone needs to find out if the aggressiveness that allows opponents to get behind the Giants is the same quality that allows them to make the big interceptions that they’ve been able to come up with. It would be nice if New York could cut down on big plays allowed while retaining the ability to turnover opponents, but I’m not sure if that’s even possible.

Either way, the defense functions much better when the opposing quarterback is under pressure, and I think the Giants did an excellent job with their four-man rush despite only one sack of Brees in the entire game. On the other side, David Diehl held up very well at right tackle and Manning usually had plenty of time to throw. The Giants did a great job of chipping with halfbacks and tight ends, which is easy to do when the wide receivers are taking opposing corners to school like Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz did in this game.

My favorite play of the game was in the third quarter when Martellus Bennett knocked down a Saints defensive end right off the snap and then managed to get wide open in the middle of the field. Talk about killing two birds with one stone, right? Well, Manning wasted the effort by throwing an interception to a receiver further down the field. That almost cost New York the game, but all’s well that ends well.

You can follow me on Twitter @apy5000.

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