Eagles Eye: Eagles-Giants predictions
Victor Cruz has been held under 100 yards and no touchdowns in his last three games. (AP)
The Eagles have improved each week on defense, going from showing small signs to life to taking a major step forward last Sunday against Dallas, holding the NFL’s second-ranked scoring offense to just 17 points.
Where they were weakest in the preseason, up front in gap assignments, they’ve made the most strides since the opener. They’ve allowed just 221 rushing yards in their past three games and for the season, they’re allowing just 3.8 yards per carry.
It’s imperative on Sunday that they capitalize on injuries that have relegated the Giants to a street free-agent running back and backups at center and right guard.
The Giants had already been decimated before they played the Eagles on Oct. 6 and lost running back David Wilson to a neck injury early in the game. Wilson has been sidelined since. The Giants will probably also be missing Brandon Jacobs, who they coaxed off the street last month as Jacobs is set back by a hamstring injury that forced the team into yet another scrap-heap signing, Peyton Hillis, who was coaching high school football just a few weeks ago.
Still, in an effort to keep the Eagles off Eli Manning’s back, the Giants will try to get Hillis and Michael Cox going to set up play action and favorable passing downs. Unlike the speedy, shifty Wilson, Hillis is a classic power runner with a downhill style. He and Cox ran for 59 yards on 29 carries against Minnesota on Monday night.
Neither of those two backs has breakaway speed or elusive moves, so gap discipline for Cedric Thornton and Fletcher Cox will be less of a focal point as wrapping up tackles and holding up blocks to keep lanes open for linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks.
Thornton, who’s nursing a sore knee, has been the team’s most consistently productive defensive lineman for the first seven games. He rotates from end to nose, and is especially dominant when lined up over center. He was outstanding last Sunday in run defense against Dallas and this time draws Giants center Jim Cordle, another backup thrust into the starting role with David Baas (knee) out for the rest of the season. Bass joined Pro Bowl right guard Chris Snee (hip) on injured reserve as the misery for the Giants continued.
The key to the Eagles’ success in the first meeting was forcing the Giants into becoming one-dimensional and then bringing heavy pressure against Manning, who was picked off three times in the fourth quarter alone.
Without an elite tight end or pass-catching halfback to be concerned with, Ryans and Kendricks can be active in the “A” gaps, enabling coordinator Billy Davis to get creative with his pressure. Outside linebacker Trent Cole is making steady progress each week with dropping into coverage, which has allowed Davis to be less predictable with his blitzes. Even without getting an abundance of sacks, the Eagles have succeeded in rattling quarterbacks and forcing hurried throws.
Believe it or not, the Eagles’ secondary has become a strong point as of late. Right cornerback Cary Williams did about as good of a job as anyone could do against Dez Bryant last Sunday. Bryant went over 100 yards, but was targeted 10 times -- catching just five passes -- and made a few grabs that normal human beings don’t make. On the other side, Bradley Fletcher is a pass breakup machine who’s smart with his hands and body. He knows how to interfere without getting flagged excessively.
The Giants don’t have a Bryant-like receiver who can use his body to fend off coverage while making acrobatic catches, but they’ve got three wideouts who can separate as well as any receiving trio in the league.
The problem they’re having is Hakeem Nicks’ sudden unreliability. Nicks might have the best natural talent among their receivers, but playing in a contract year seems to be distracting him. He’s dropping passes he usually makes and his lethargic play is reflective of the team’s 1-6 start.
When he’s kept upright, Manning throws an accurate deep ball and likes to stretch the field with Nicks and slot receiver Victor Cruz, who has 591 yards and four touchdowns but has been held under 100 yards and without a touchdown for three straight games. Since his season-high 142 yards against the Eagles, Nicks also hasn’t exceeded 100 yards or found the end zone in either of his past two games.
No Eagles defensive back is playing better than slot corner Brandon Boykin, who locked up Miles Austin last week, but Cruz has given Boykin some trouble in the past. The Boykin-Cruz matchup should be the highlight of the game.
The home run hitter lately is Rueben Randle, who plays outside in three-wide receiver formations when Cruz moves into the middle. Randle had 96 yards against the Eagles three weeks ago and two third-quarter touchdown grabs that briefly put the Giants ahead. His 211 yards and four touchdowns in the past three games are most among Giants wideouts.
The Eagles played a lot of two-deep coverage against the Giants to limit big plays, but they were beaten often on slants and crossing patterns. Communication at the linebacker and secondary has improved since these last teams met, so look for the Eagles to tighten their coverage on the underneath routes.
(To read the Eagles' offensive scouting report, click here.)