The New York Giants open their 2011 NFL season today at FedEx Field against the Washington Redskins. Below, Sports Network breaks down the matchups and keys to the game"
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
Expect the Giants to pound the football right away against a Washington front line that features some new faces. Ahmad Bradshaw (1,235 rushing yards, 8 TD) enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2010 and led the Giants with 276 carries. He unseated former starter Brandon Jacobs (823 rushing yards, 9 TD), who still held his own by taking the team lead in rushing touchdowns. New York should be concerned about the new offensive line and how it will work towards improving the ground game, however. The Giants were sixth in rushing a year ago, averaging 137.5 yards per game. Eli Manning (4,002 passing yards, 31 TD, 25 INT) acknowledged that the offensive line, receivers and running backs performed well during the preseason, but some kinks still needed to be worked out after the team was hampered at times by turnovers, missed assignments and dropped passes. Manning has his own problems to right after putting forth a 25-interception campaign from a season ago. He did set new franchise marks for completions (339) and completion percentage (62.9 percent) in 2010, however, but faces a tough challenge from Washington’s talented defensive backfield. Hakeem Nicks (1052 yards, 11 TD) led the team with 79 catches and 11 touchdowns last season, while Manningham (60 receptions, 9 TD) looks to build on a strong 2010 campaign.
Washington may not have talented safety LaRon Landry (85 tackles) for Sunday’s season opener because of a hamstring issue he suffered while making his way back from a previous Achilles’ injury. Former Ram Oshiomogho Atogwe’s addition will help in that department if the hard-hitting Landry is unavailable, while stud cornerback DeAngelo Hall (95 tackles) was named a captain and is a dangerous player to test, as evidenced by his six interceptions a year ago. Inside linebacker and top tackler London Fletcher (136 tackles) was also named captain on defense and will be counting on his teammates creating a strong push up front to make plays, especially against Bradshaw and Jacobs. Right outside linebacker Brian Orakpo (56 tackles) led the team with nine sacks in 2010 and will be rushing Manning on several occasions, while rookie Ryan Kerrigan — Washington’s first-round pick in April’s draft — will be tested on the other side. The Redskins took a step towards improving their front line with the addition of Barry Cofield (54 tackles), who was drafted by the Giants in 2006 and spent his first five seasons in New York. Defensive end Adam Carriker (37 tackles) is the top option at his position on the Redskins’ roster.
WHEN THE REDSKINS HAVE THE BALL
The Redskins said goodbye to longtime running back Clinton Portis in the offseason and brought in both Tim Hightower and rookie Roy Helu to compete with holdover Ryan Torain. Hightower (736 rushing yards, 5 TD) was acquired from the Cardinals just prior to camp and had a strong preseason to earn the starting job, while Torain (742 rushing yards, 4 TD) is just making his way back from a broken hand suffered at the start of training camp and figures to start out the year in a reserve role despite finishing as the team’s leading rusher last season. The offensive line was in complete disarray last season, as evidenced by the 37 sacks McNabb endured and the nine more Grossman took. Four significant lineman were not retained in the offseason, as guard Derrick Dockery, tackles Stephon Heyer and Mike Williams and center Casey Rabach are all gone. Second-year tackle Trent Williams, a first-round pick in 2010, will start at left tackle and protect the backside of Rex Grossman (884 yards, 7 TD, 4 INT). Santana Moss (93 receptions, 1115 yards, 6 TD) is Grossman’s top target, while tight end Chris Cooley (77 receptions, 3 TD) hopes to be ready for Sunday after missing all of the preseason with a knee injury. Jabar Gaffney (65 receptions, 2 TD) joined the receiving corps in the offseason in a trade with Denver.
The Giants may not be too worried about Grossman and his receivers, instead keying on stopping Hightower and Torain. With Cofield now across the sidelines in Burgundy and Gold, the Giants hoped rookie Marvin Austin could fill the void until he suffered a season-ending pectoral tear. Tackle Chris Canty (39 tackles, 2 sacks) is earning a lot of money, but his production hasn’t increased since signing a big contract in 2009. Umenyiora (48 tackles, 12 sacks) ended his holdout during training camp and is entering his ninth year in the NFL, though he missed the entire 2008 season because of a torn knee ligament. He and fellow defensive end Justin Tuck (76 tackles) finished tied for the team lead in sacks and give the Giants two dangerous bookends coming off the edge. Second-year end Jason Pierre-Paul (30 tackles, 5 sacks) had an entire rookie season and offseason to get acclimated with the schemes, and will have a chance to increase his production with Umenyiora likely to miss the first couple of game. Linebackers Michael Boley (85 tackles, 1 sack) and Mathias Kiwanuka (11 tackles, 4 sacks) are healthy, but middle starter Jonathan Goff (80 tackles, 1 sack) suffered a season-ending torn ACL in practice this week and the secondary is banged up with the losses of cornerbacks Terrell Thomas (torn ACL) and rookie Prince Amukamara (broken foot).
KEYS TO THE GAME
Can Grossman make Shanahan’s decision a wise one? The Redskins are hoping he can, and so does the two-time Super Bowl winning head coach. Grossman should have a stronger backfield with Hightower to relieve some of the pressure.
Bradshaw and Jacobs are two of the top running backs in the conference and must literally get the ball moving early Sunday to open up the Giants’ offense. New York’s one-two punch is a dangerous one and will be a challenge for the Washington defense in this classic NFC East showdown.
If Manning believes he is in the top tier at his position, now is the time to hush the naysayers with a strong performance. There’s there’s no longer a safety valve at tight end with Boss’ exit, he still has Nicks and Manningham stepping to the forefront.