The New York Giants' Week 6 trip down I-95 to Philadelphia is the first of two consecutive games that will go a long way to telling the story of the NFC East in 2014. I probably could have gone a lot of ways with this week's Critical Match-Up, because quite frankly, this could be a critical game.
I decided to go with the match-up between the Philly's running backs and the Giants' front seven for a couple reasons. First and foremost, Philly is a running team. Everything they want to do is built off of their running game. Second, while the Giants' defensive line can dominate the line of scrimmage, their linebackers are... Well, we'll go with "inconsistent".
For this piece I took a good, long look at the Philadelphia's game this past week against St. Louis. Not only was that game starting right tackle Lane Johnson's first game back from suspension, but St. Louis has an athletic 4-3 front like the Giants. All defenses start up front, but with the emphasis the 4-3 places on the defensive line, it is especially important.
Philly's running game is primarily a lateral one. That is, they try to stress and stretch defenses along the line of scrimmage. The idea being that the defense either can't set the edge or the movement creates cutback lanes for the running back.
This figures perfectly into the games of LeSean McCoy and Darren Sproles. Both are incredibly agile runners who can get to the edge or make defenders miss and take advantage of cutback lanes.
This past week Philadelphia primarily ran to the right, either off tackle, behind the tackle, or behind the right guard. That means that it falls to the Giants left defensive end -- Mathias Kiwanuka or Robert Ayers -- to win the matchup against Lane Johnson. Winning that battle will prevent Philly from getting the edge, and limiting their ability to create cutback lanes.
The next part of the match-up is in the interior. The best way to frustrate a running game, especially a lateral one like Philadelphia uses, is to get penetration with the defensive tackles. Last season, Johnathan Hankins' ability to blend power with quickness and overwhelm the interior offensive linemen played a huge role in holding LeSean McCoy to less that 100 yards combined in two games. Defensive tackles getting penetration upsets plays' timing and disrupts the cut-back lanes that runners like McCoy and Sproles take advantage of. That is what leads to runs for little to no gain, or losses.
Finally, the linebackers need to be disciplined in coming up to fill their gaps, while also being alert to play fakes. The majority of McCoy's and Sproles' production comes from linebackers either failing to maintain their gap assignments, or from missed tackles. Whoever the Giants have playing linebacker need to tackle soundly, rather than trying to lay big hits. McCoy and Sproles both have an incredible ability to make a guy miss in a phone booth, and then turn upfield for a big game.
Also, communication is going to be vital. Any strong running game automatically leads itself to the play-action pass. The Giants' linebackers need to be alert to play fakes and receivers releasing into the flat while the front seven comes down to stop the run.
Last week McCoy and Sproles were surprisingly under-used in the passing game, only seeing four passes combined go in their direction. That could be because St. Louis has an athletic linebacking corps, something that the Giants -- outside of Jacquian Williams -- largely lack. That could lead to the Giants using more of their "Buffalo Nickel" three-safety set, to increase the overall athleticism of their front seven.
This is an interesting match-up for the New York Giants. Last season it was one the Giants won handily with a rookie Johnathan Hankins and an injured Jason Pierre-Paul going against a healthy Philadelphia offensive line. This year, JPP is healthy and Hankins is experienced, while the Eagles' offensive line is banged up.
However last year McCoy wasn't sharing the backfield with Darren Sproles. Sproles doesn't exactly add a dimension to their backfield, the way he would New York's. Instead, he expands on what McCoy already brings to the field, and allows Chip Kelly to keep both rested without having to change his game plan or play calling.
Ultimately, to win this match-up the Giants need to win their individual battles up front, but still maintain discipline to keep McCoy and Sproles from forcing missed or broken tackles and really hurting the Giants.