The St. Louis Rams and New York Giants are each waiting for their first passing touchdown of the season, and the home team is reeling from a series of injuries on defense. Can the Rams come into MetLife Stadium and steal a win from the Giants?
St. Louis' offense vs. New York's defense
In his rookie season, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford(notes) was limited by the conservative game plans of then-offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. Now that Josh McDaniels is in charge of the team's passing game, the thought is that Bradford will open it up and use the deep accuracy that impressed so many when Bradford was at Oklahoma University. The season-opening loss against the Philadelphia Eagles told a story that looked much like 2010 – Bradford, perhaps still getting on the same page with McDaniels, threw a lot of underneath stuff to a patchwork group of receivers.
Amassing just 188 passing yards and no touchdowns on 30 attempts, Bradford ran the offense out of several more conservative sets.
This may have been more a response to the Eagles' ability to blitz heavily. Against a decimated Giants squad, McDaniels may urge his young quarterback to air it out. Losing possession receiver Danny Amendola(notes) for the next few weeks to an elbow injury is a real problem for Bradford. Amendola has been the quarterback's primary target. Rookie Greg Salas(notes) will likely start in Amendola's place if Mike Sims-Walker(notes) doesn't. Rookie tight end Lance Kendricks(notes) and receiver Brandon Gibson(notes) must put an extra kick in their respective games.
Optimally, New York's defense is a mixture of front-four pressure, linebacker versatility and an interesting secondary that will use more three-safety looks than any other team in the NFL. However, in the season-opening 28-14 loss against the Washington Redskins, it was just about holding enough of a roster together to survive the game. Missing defensive linemen Justin Tuck(notes) and Osi Umenyiora(notes), linebacker Jonathan Goff(notes) and talented rookie cornerback Prince Amukamara(notes) added up to personnel issues that showed up on game day.
To compensate for the holes, the Giants will bring different blitzes to their four-man fronts, especially linebacker blitzes up the middle. But against the Redskins, the Giants made quarterback Rex Grossman(notes) look better than he actually was by running their linebackers into zone coverage too frequently and allowing Grossman to find receivers in those zone pockets. Like the Redskins, the Rams have a receiver corps that is more about matchups and personnel than pure speed, and if the Giants back their back seven into coverage too often, Bradford will pick them apart.
Safety Antrel Rolle(notes) and cornerback Aaron Ross(notes) looked vulnerable in coverage – Ross will be picked on with the deep pass until he proves he can stop it – and the Giants gave up seven plays of 18 yards or more. And that was against Grossman. Imagine what Bradford could do?
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The Giants were also far too vulnerable against outside runs, giving up early big plays to Tim Hightower(notes). With their offseason acquisitions, the Rams have the ability to take advantage. Against linebackers and safeties unable to seal the edges, veteran back Cadillac Williams and young speedster Jerious Norwood(notes) could break big gains outside the numbers. After starter Steven Jackson was hurt, Williams came in and proved to be a natural fit, from screen and swing passes in the quick-strike passing game, to the draws and stretch plays designed to keep Philly's iffy run defense honest. The longtime Buccaneer and first-year Ram looked very much like a brand new Cadillac. Jackson looks to be a game-time decision, so Williams is a nice pickup for all you fantasy football fanatics.
New York's offense vs. St. Louis' defense
The Rams' defense has been overhauled in the past three seasons by head coach Steve Spagnuolo, and you will see similar elements here to what the Giants do – after all, "Spags" was the Giants' defensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008. He also spent years in the Eagles' defensive coaching staff under the late-great Jim Johnson, so there isn't a blitz he hasn't either observed or tried. In 2010, the Rams ranked second in percentage of plays in which they brought six or more pass rushers, and they ranked third in the league in zone blitzes.
You'll see St. Louis bring cornerbacks and safeties up to the line to blitz, and the reason it can get away with that is middle linebacker James Laurinaitis(notes), one of the NFL's best young defensive players. When Spagnuolo vacates the intermediate middle of his defense with his pressure concepts, he does so secure in the knowledge that the third-year linebacker will drop into coverage with impressive speed and acumen. However, the Rams need to get home with the blitz when they use it, because their cornerbacks and safeties are average players who will struggle if left on an island too long. You'll see a lot of zone coverages accentuated by that pass pressure.
The Rams pressured Michael Vick(notes) consistently in their season opener, and they didn't even activate first-round defensive end Robert Quinn(notes) for that game. This could be bad news for Eli Manning(notes), who doesn't have a lot of security blankets. Tight end Kevin Boss(notes) is gone to Oakland, and the Giants are still trying to fill that position. Last season, Manning was far better with more tight ends on the field. The Giants ran a total of four three-tight end sets, and Manning threw three touchdown passes in those four plays.
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After all these years, Manning still struggles with the little technical things. He still gets flustered in the pocket, still throws flat-footed or off his back foot too often, and will make some head-scratching throws into coverage. Manning is best-served by leading with play-action and forcing defenses to key on the Giants' talented running backs, Brandon Jacobs(notes) and Ahmad Bradshaw(notes). Bradshaw in particular can be a real force.
While Jacobs is known for his ability to bull through lines at 270 pounds, Bradshaw is the perfect lead back for the Giants' heavy two-back draw offense. He's a real bruiser for his size, cuts into gaps with great speed and can bounce quickly outside when the opportunity presents himself. The Rams proved susceptible to delays and cutbacks against LeSean McCoy(notes) in Week 1, so a heavy dose of Bradshaw would be a good idea. The Giants are also trying to find continuity in their offensive line.
Hakeem Nicks(notes), Manning's best receiver, is a game-breaker. He's one of the best receivers in the NFL, and he can get past just about any cornerback on a deep go route. He's an exceptional route-runner who will fake defenders out with tight, timely route cuts. Mario Manningham(notes) and new addition Brandon Stokley(notes) need Manning to refine his accuracy in a hurry if the passing game is going to turn it around.
What could happen
The Giants have to make some adjustments on defense; having Tuck and his ability to get pressure inside would be a huge help. Expect Bradford and McDaniels to coordinate a series of tests for that pass defense when man coverage is the call. Manning has more of his targets than Bradford right now, but the Giants would do well to put the passing game out there in measured doses and start the game by seeing how much they can take advantage of a defensive front that's vulnerable against the run based on a need to bring pressure. If the Rams hope to pick up a crucial road win and avoid being the team walking out of that stadium with an 0-2 record, the key will be how much Bradford can exploit New York's defensive confusion.