Speaking with the Enemy: A Look at Sunday's Giant Clash

Speaking with the Enemy: A Look at Sunday's Giant Clash

Perhaps overlooked amid several of the other huge stories going on around town, the Philadelphia Eagles, winners of three straight, are locked in a first place tie over the NFC East, and must play the Giants in New York this Sunday night. It's kind of a big deal. We see the Giants a lot, but they're a bit of a different team this season, so we asked Rick Resch from Giants Football Blog some questions about their current make-up, and what we can expect to see this week and maybe even down the road.

Donovan McNabb had one of his best games of the season the last time these teams met (you knew I was going there). If Osi Umenyiora doesn't make his presence known, and he hasn't been having his best season, do the Giants have enough of a pass rush otherwise to match up against the Eagles' explosive offense?

The Giants' pass rush has disappointed all season, and while I'd love to see it come alive Sunday night, I don't know if I can honestly predict that.  Even in a rejuvenated performance against the Cowboys, Romo was usually given enough time to find an open receiver.  I could see the Giants doing what they did against the Cowboys and lock down on the running game, making the Eagles' offense one dimensional (which might actually play into Andy Reid's hand).

Specifically on Osi, he has basically been relegated to a part time player, only getting on the field in passing situations.  He does have a nose for the big play, but he is lacking on a play-to-play basis.  Mathias Kiwanuka started in his place last week, and he is the better overall player right now.  If the Giants are going to get their pass rush going, it'll start with Justin Tuck and Kiwanuka winning their battles.

The Giants just recently lost the quarterback of their defense in Antoino Pierce, pressing second year linebacker Jonathan Goff in at middle linebacker. How did he perform in his first start last week against the Cowboys, and what are his limitations or those of the defense when he's in the game?

I thought Goff played well given that it was his first start.  He plays the run very well and is faster than I thought, although he did over-pursue the ball carrier a couple of times.  It's still too early to tell if he can be the future at MLB, but I saw more positives than negatives in his first game.  

As for the loss of Pierce: it hurts in a leadership perspective, although last week Pierce was on the sideline acting as a coach/cheerleader.  Michael Boley has stepped into Pierce's shoes as the quarterback of the defense, and I feel that he is the linebacker most suited for the role.  When healthy, Boley has been the Giants' best linebacker, Pierce included. 

The Giants rushing attack has been averaging 124.6 (10th) yards per game, which is somewhat surprising because they haven't been able to get both Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw going within the same 60 minutes for much of the season. Jacobs in particular has struggled. The offensive line has been healthy, so what is the problem?

This actually surprises me; I didn't know the Giants still averaged that many rushing yards.

My opinion is that there are three problems with the Giants' running game.  Jacobs seems to be running a tad bit more cautiously than in the past, although recently he looks like he's been running harder.  Bradshaw has been plagued with injuries, although he looked like his old self last week. 

Most importantly, the offensive line just hasn't been playing like it had the past couple of years.  Both Jacobs' and Bradshaw's troubles are related to the lack of holes being opened up by the offensive line. They are getting pushed around by defenses, and my only guess is that age has finally started to catch up with them.  I hope that they can keep momentum going from their performance last week, but I'd be less surprised if the Giants go into the offseason with offensive line as a top priority.

Like the Eagles, the Giants have a deep group of young receivers. Steve Smith is having what could be considered a Pro Bowl season, though I'm not sure we're talking about a dominant player here. Will he ultimately wind up the best of the bunch, and how would you describe Mario Manningham's and Hakeem Nicks' roles compared to Smith?

I am very high on the Giants' receiving core, as I believe the team has turned a weakness into a strength.  Coming into the 2010 season, wide receiver depth will be one of the Giants' greatest assets.

I think Nicks will become the best of the bunch, probably by next season.  He has deceptive speed, good strength and the best hands on the team.  He has a knack for making the big play, and he has already become a go-to weapon for Eli when he's on the field.

Manningham's biggest problem is a common case of the butterfingers.  When he has the ball in his hands, he can be as tricky to tackle as anyone, and he does a great job of keeping his feet in bounds along the sidelines.  But he's always a candidate to drop or bobble a ball.  If he can get past the drops, he can turn into a very good NFL receiver.

Steve Smith is one of the most confusing players on the team.  He's not that fast, he's not tall and his go-to move after making a catch is the "fall down."  Yet, on third downs, it is impossible to cover him.  At least a couple times a day, I find myself saying "how can they let Smith get that open?"  Whenever Eli needs a first down, he's usually looking for Smith, who just knows how to find soft spots in the defense.

Coming into the season, I expected Smith to be relegated to slot receiver, while Nicks and Manningham would become the focus of the passing attack.  But 78 catches and almost 1,000 yards later, I have learned not to underestimate Steve Smith.  So, no, Smith does not have a dominant skill set, and he's not a prototypical number one receiver.  But it's hard to argue that a guy on pace for 104 receptions and 1305 yards is not a dominant player.

Right now, who would you say most Giants fans feel will win the NFC East?

It's funny what one big win can do for a fan base.  I think most Giants fans are pumped up by the win over the Cowboys, and having gotten a glimpse of what this team can do when firing on both sides of the ball, a newfound hope has been restored.  I'd say that most Giants fans expect to make the playoffs, and a good deal of them believe they will win the division.

Personally, given the Cowboys' tough remaining schedule, I think there's a good chance that the winner of Sunday night's battle will take home the division crown.

Let's get ahead of ourselves.  Which team would you feel more comfortable facing in a potential playoff game: Eagles or Cowboys?

Any team can beat any other team in the NFL, and for that reason, I usually don't get caught up in rooting for a certain playoff opponent.

With that said, I do think I would feel less comfortable playing a team that has knocked us out of the playoffs twice in the past three years.

The Giants have beaten the Cowboys twice, albeit in two well contested games, and their Winter struggles are well documented.  But we've all seen heavy favorites fail to win that third playoff game after sweeping the regular season series, and the Cowboys are due to bust out of their cold-weather slump.

In the end, I'd welcome either challenge.  But if I had to pick one, not knowing what the outcome of Sunday night's game will be, I would choose the Cowboys.

Prediction time: who you got on Sunday?

Obviously, I have to pick the Giants, which is why I don't like doing predictions.  So instead I'll say this:

I fully expect the Eagles' offensive line to keep Donovan McNabb clean once again.  If the Giants can get more than two sacks, I'll do naked cartwheels in Times Square.  And with a healthy DeSean Jackson and the emergence of Jeremy Maclin, no pressure would mean McNabb can pick apart the Giants' secondary.

So if the Giants' offense can come out with a balanced attack and put some points on the board, I think the Giants can win.  But if they wait till there's 4 minutes left in the first half to score, it could be a long day.

I'd say if the Giants can score more than 30 points, they should be able to win.  If the defensive line somehow plays like its 2007, things can swing in the Giants' favor.

These are some big ifs, but as I said, I have to have faith in my team.  I'll say Giants 31-30.

But I hate doing predictions.

That was Rick Resch from Giants Football Blog. You can check out our interview with Rick right here.

57 early-entry candidates withdraw from 2016 NBA draft

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57 early-entry candidates withdraw from 2016 NBA draft

NBA prospects have been testing the waters and putting out feelers to the gauge interest levels of organizations during the pre-draft process. As a result, 57 early entry-candidates have withdrawn from 2016 draft eligibility. 

Among those are Villanova’s Josh Hart, who worked out for the Sixers and made his decision close to the deadline (see story), and Kris Jenkins. Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame also worked out for the Sixers and will return for his senior year. 

Below is a complete list of entry entry candidates that have withdrawn:

Abdul-Malik Abu, North Carolina State 
BeeJay Anya, North Carolina State 
Ian Baker, New Mexico State 
V.J. Beachem, Notre Dame 
James Blackmon Jr., Indiana 
Antonio Blakeney, LSU 
Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson 
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier 
Amida Brimah, Connecticut 
Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky 
Dillon Brooks, Oregon 
Elijah Brown, New Mexico 
Deonte Burton, Iowa State 
Antonio Campbell, Ohio 
Conor Clifford, Washington State 
Charles Cooke III, Dayton 
Bakari Copeland, Maryland-Eastern Shore 
Moustapha Diagne, Northwest Florida State 
Tyler Dorsey, Oregon 
D’Andre Downey, Stillman College (AL) 
Vince Edwards, Purdue 
Jimmy Hall, Kent State 
Josh Hart, Villanova
Josh Hawkinson, Washington State 
Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin 
Ike Iroegbu, Washington State 
Justin Jackson, North Carolina 
Kris Jenkins, Villanova 
Que Johnson, Washington State 
Peter Jok, Iowa 
Moses Kingsley, Arkansas
Travion Kirkendoll, Centenary College (LA) 
Dedric Lawson, Memphis 
Marcus Lee, Kentucky 
Makai Mason, Yale 
Jahmal McMurray, South Florida 
Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina 
Dallas Moore, North Florida 
Jalen Moore, Utah State 
Tyrell Nelson, Gardner-Webb 
Malik Newman, Mississippi State 
Marc-Eddy Norelia, Florida Gulf Coast 
Cameron Oliver, Nevada 
Alec Peters, Valparaiso 
QJ Peterson,VMI 
Malik Pope, San Diego State 
Rodney Purvis, Connecticut 
Corey Sanders Jr., Rutgers 
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue 
Rakish Taylor, Anderson University (SC) 
Ethan Telfair, Idaho State 
Trevor Thompson, Ohio State 
Melo Trimble, Maryland 
Maurice Watson Jr., Creighton 
Andrew White III, Nebraska 
Alec Wintering, Portland 
Zeek Woodley, Northwestern State 

Phillie Phodder: The Ryan Howard drama, trade chips and bat flips

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Phillie Phodder: The Ryan Howard drama, trade chips and bat flips

CHICAGO — The Phillies are here for what figures to be the toughest test thus far in their surprising break from the starting gate — three games against the Chicago Cubs, a team built to win the World Series and so far looking as if it can do just that. The Cubs were the first team to reach 30 wins this season, are 14-6 at home, and averaging a National League-best 5.69 runs per game, over two more than the 3.3 runs the Phillies are putting on the board per contest.

The series will be interesting even beyond the test the Phillies will receive because we could see another progression in the raging Ryan Howard drama.

In Tommy Joseph, the Phillies have a player worthy of taking away playing time from the struggling Howard. Joseph started at first base the last three games in Detroit, hit in the middle of the lineup and did so with authority. Phillies management is on record as saying it needs an injection of offense to support the good pitching the team has gotten. If it is committed to that idea, then Joseph needs to keep playing. He will start Friday afternoon against lefty Jon Lester. He should start again on Saturday and Sunday when the Phillies face right-handed pitchers.

Will he?

The guess here is that Joseph starts one of the weekend games with Howard getting the other. That right there would be a continuation of the phasing out of Howard from the lineup. If Joseph delivers against right-handed pitching, the Phillies owe it to their fans and the players who have put together this quick and entertaining start to keep playing him.

But this whole drama remains a sticky situation on a lot of levels. Howard is not walking away from the more than $25 million that remains on his contract and he shouldn’t. But there’s no way he’s going to be happy sitting on the bench and it’s difficult to envision him contributing as a reserve player/bat off the bench. He has a tough enough time making contact while getting regular at-bats. How’s he going to hold up as a reserve?

Poorly.

If Joseph continues to emerge, the Phillies will have to consider releasing Howard. Either that or they ride out the final four months of his contract with him sitting on the bench. Neither solution is comfortable. As one of the franchise’s greatest players and a champion, Howard is going to end up on the team’s Wall of Fame someday and it would be nice if he showed up at the induction. Would a release sour his relationship with the organization forever? It’s a factor that the Phillies can consider because they are still in a rebuild and, as well as they’ve played so far, it’s tough to see them staying in contention for the long haul. If this team was projected to win, then it’s a different story. If there was ever a year to suck it up and let Howard leave with dignity, it’s this one. But if carrying Howard as a reserve leads to a cumbersome situation in a young clubhouse, maybe parting is the best solution.

Regardless of the endgame, Joseph needs to keep getting regular at-bats because the baseball still matters.

                                                                      ***

While Odubel Herrera’s three-run home run and subsequent bat flip dominated Wednesday’s win over Detroit, several other players made contributions. Andres Blanco, with his typical booster shot of energy, plus two hits, an RBI, two runs scored and the team’s first steal of home since 2009, was one of them. Jeanmar Gomez, who only out of Pete Mackanin’s desperation got a shot at closer in early April, was another with his 17th save.

If the Phillies’ lack of offense catches up with them and they fall out of the race, Blanco and Gomez could be trade chips for the team. Blanco’s ability to come off the bench and contribute on both sides of the ball could be attractive to a team that is ready to win in October. He won’t bring back a game-breaking talent, but it would be worth taking a chance on a young minor-league arm, a lottery ticket, that could ultimately develop into something.

Gomez’s big season has the feel of lightning in a bottle. He’s done a terrific job getting saves without typical closer’s stuff. He relies on touch, feel, location and pitching savvy. He makes hitters get themselves out. How long can it last? Who knows? But Gomez deserves kudos and very well could ride his unexpected success to a spot in the All-Star Game. Shortly after that, if the Phillies are out of the race, the front office should look to cash in on his unforeseen value, which will never be higher, and deal him to one of the many teams that will be looking for bullpen help. Gomez could help a contender in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning and if he keeps pitching well, might bring back a decent return.

Jeremy Hellickson and Carlos Ruiz could also be trade chips in July — if the Phils fall out of the race. We talked about that recently with Ruiz.

If the Phils stay in the race, the front office would probably have to hang on to at least several of these players. Trading players, even role players, could send a bad message to fans if the team still has a chance at the postseason. The exception would be Hellickson. It could make sense to deal him either way and use his departure as an opportunity to bring up the next young arm from the minors. Hellickson has pitched well lately and it would benefit the team in more ways that one if he continued to do so.

Switching over to the glass-half-full side … there is a chance the Phillies will pursue a bat to boost their anemic offense, but the decision to even make that move is still a ways away. Matt Klentak made it pretty clear that he needs to see more from this club over the next month or so before he goes after a bat in a trade. And Klentak is not about to compromise the rebuild to add a bat for short-term contribution. In other words, he’s not about to trade away prospects for outfield bats that might get in the way of Nick Williams, Roman Quinn or Dylan Cozens rising to the majors in the next year. The Phillies do have money. If an opposing team wants to move an expiring contract — someone like a Jay Bruce — and it would cost the Phillies more on the money side than the prospect side, that could be a fit for the Phillies.

If they stay in the race.

                                                                      ***

Getting to Herrera’s bat flip … it was fun. And this scribe believes the kid when he says it was natural. But there’s risk involved in something like that. Herrera is a kid that loves to play the game and loves to be on the field. But he needs to beware that if he flips his bat on the wrong guy, he’s going to end up with a broken batting helmet or a broken rib. You can talk about new-school ways and making the game fun again — as if it ever stopped being fun — but pitchers are competitors and they don’t like being shown up, be it intentional or not. They didn’t in the old school and they don’t in the new school. This scribe loves players who play with emotion, energy and exuberance, and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating your successes. Heck, Babe Ruth used to tip his hat rounding the bases. But there is a limit. Herrera is the Phillies’ best player and he has a responsibility to stay on the field. He might want to think twice before he goes with a “big air” bat flip on his next home run because if he does it on the wrong pitcher, he might get hurt.

Jim Schwartz's defense path was molded, in part, by Jevon Kearse

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Jim Schwartz's defense path was molded, in part, by Jevon Kearse

Jim Schwartz is famous for his use of the wide-9 alignment and the 4-3 defense in general. That's the scheme he's had success with in the NFL. That's what he brings to the Eagles.

Yet somewhere in an alternate universe, Schwartz is coaching a 3-4 defense right now, all because the Tennessee Titans never drafted Jevon Kearse.

OK, that might be a stretch considering Schwartz learned under coaches such as Marvin Jones and Gregg Williams, who are also known for the 4-3. Then again, the Eagles' defensive coordinator revealed when he was hired by the Titans as an assistant in 1999, the defense was actually using quite a bit of 3-4. Kearse changed everything, and is in part responsible for Schwartz's preference in scheme to this day.

"When I first went to Tennessee, we based out of a lot of 3-4, but it probably came from just the personnel we had," Schwartz recalled.

"We drafted Jevon Kearse. There was a line of thought that Jevon Kearse was gonna be a 3-4 outside linebacker or he was gonna be a defensive end. We decided to try to make it as simple as we could for him, put him at one spot and just let him attack and rush the passer and let him play the edge.

"We had some success with that, then found other guys in the scheme that fit."

Some success is putting it mildly.

Eagles fans might best remember Kearse for four injury-prone seasons between 2004-07 when he failed to live up to a massive free-agent contract, totaling just 22 sacks. As a first-round pick in 1999, however, "The Freak" burst on to the scene with 14½ sacks, earning Defensive Rookie and Player of the Year honors en route to the first of three consecutive invitations to the Pro Bowl. Kearse had accumulated 47½ sacks after five seasons in Tennessee.

Kearse's final trip to the Pro Bowl came under Schwartz, who ascended to defensive coordinator in 2001, a post he held until being named head coach of the Detroit Lions in '09. Afterward, he served one year as defensive coordinator for the Bills. In 14 NFL seasons, Schwartz has coached eight different linemen to double-digit sack seasons.

Some of that production is the result of a system that allows linemen like Kearse to play fast and attack.

"Philosophically, the thing that's guiding that has been try to make it as simple as we can," Schwartz said.

"It's a coach's job to make a complex scheme simple for the players. It's our job to make it so that they can digest it. There's a lot of things that are going on, on the field — offensive tempo, different personnel groups and formations — there's a million different things going on and they have to process all that stuff. Our job is to streamline the information and allow them to play fast, give them confidence."

Through his experiences, Schwartz has come to believe the 4-3 defense — when equipped with the right personnel up front — is the best method to attack offenses in today's NFL.

"I think that the other part of the 4-3 is when you can affect the passer with four guys, you're not forced to blitz to get pressure on the quarterback, you're in a very good position," he said. "I've been there before when you can't get pressure and you have to blitz — it's not a great feeling. You want to blitz on your terms. You want to be able to blitz when you want to, when the situation is right, not, 'We can't get any pass rush unless we do it.'

"So allowing those guys to keep it simple, to be able to pressure with four and not make yourself skinnier so to speak in coverage can also take some big plays away from offenses."

It's difficult to argue with the results. Schwartz has three previous stints as either a defensive coordinator or head coach in the NFL, during which his units have four top-10 finishes in yards allowed as well as a pair of top-five rankings in points surrendered. Perhaps most impressive of all are the three occasions in which Schwartz's defense finished third the league in takeaways.

Schwartz inherits plenty of talent on the Eagles' defense, particularly along the defensive line. Connor Barwin has twice attained doubled-digit sacks in a season, while Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry have both eclipsed nine. Brandon Graham and Marcus Smith are former first-round picks, too.

Don't expect this defense to look identical to what Schwartz has done at previous stops, though. While he may be known for a particular approach or brand of football, Schwartz plans to tailor the Eagles' defense to the personnel he has, just like the Titans did with Kearse in Tennessee all those years ago.

"Every year will be a little bit different," Schwartz said. "Our terminology is a little bit different, cast of characters is a little different, and if we're on the right track, we'll put the players in the best position to best use their talents.

"What we did in Buffalo was a little different than what we did in Detroit, which was a little different from what we did in Tennessee, but it's all designed to try to make the most of what you have."