by Justin Henry (@cynicjrh)
NFC East Beat Writer/Hooker with a Heart of Gold
The sliding puzzle that is the NFC East continues to shuffle arrangements in the early going of this 2012 season.
While the Cowboys all spent the weekend at Tony Romo’s cursed Cabo hideaway, the New York Giants began a win streak anew with a convincing win over who are now the final winless team in the NFL. The reigning world champs achieved victory thanks to a rarely-achieved trifecta from their most popular wide receiver.
Losses would plague the rest of the division, as Philadelphia found themselves on the butt-end of a fourth quarter comeback. The bigger stories involved Michael Vick’s slippery hands, and the defense proving deficient in what was their calling card in 2011.
As for the Redskins, their Sunday proved disastrous, partially due to a loss to one of the NFL’s 2 remaining unbeaten's, but mostly after their quarterback was proven mortal after a frightening moment.
1. Giants Fire Three Cruz Missiles
For only the third time in Eli Manning’s 8+ year tenure with the New York Giants, one of his wide receivers had 3 receiving scores in one game.
Victor Cruz, the man for whom NBC is the personal DJ, joins Plaxico Burress (2007) and Hakeem Nicks (2010) as the only receivers in the Era of Eli to have 3 touchdown catches for the G-Men. Cruz is also only the tenth different Giants receiver since the merger to achieve this feat.
Cruz’s 3 touchdowns mark his third career multi-touchdown game, twice scoring 2 touchdowns last season. One of those games was his breakout against Philadelphia in Week 3.
Cruz also holds another unusual distinction: his 3 touchdowns came on just 5 catches for 50 yards. That makes him the second player this season (the other being Dante Rosario) to score 3 receiving TDs on 5 or less catches. To highlight the rarity of the feat, Cruz is only the seventy-fifth player since the merger to do this.
With 5 touchdowns now on the season, Cruz is over halfway to his 2011 total (9), but still nearly 1100 yards away from the total he posted in his breakout season a year ago.
As Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden continue to battle injuries, Cruz and Dominik Hixon will remain Manning’s primary down-field threats. More multi-score games for the salsa guru would be in order at this rate.
2. How Long Will the Giants D Hold Up?
Although the Giants are 3-2 after their 41-27 win over Cleveland, and hold a share of the NFC East lead with their green-clad nemesis down I-95, their generally aggressive defense is showing some flaws in their armor
Granted, their defense has had their share of injuries. The likes of Prince Amukamara, Kenny Phillips, Michael Coe, and Keith Rivers have struggled to stay healthy. As such, continuity has been disrupted, and the lack of a thoroughly productive pass rush has left those gaps in personnel vulnerable.
In 2011, after 5 games, the Giants defense had racked up 20 team sacks. Jason Pierre-Paul alone had 6.5.
One year later, after 5 games, New York has but 8 sacks, never more than 2 in a game. As for JPP, his current total sits at an ungainly 1.5.
New York’s also giving up 111.4 YPA rushing per game, which is actually an improvement over their 121.3 given up last season. But New York also buckled down in the playoffs, giving up 95, 85, and 114 yards respectively to Green Bay, San Francisco, and New England the rest of the way.
In 3 of the last 4 games, New York’s allowed the opponent to score 5 or more times, with Carolina being the lone exception. Tampa Bay scored 6 times (4 TD/2 FG) in a game that Manning had to string together a Herculean comeback.
Philadelphia (1 TD/4 FG) and Cleveland (3 TD/2 FG) had very different games against New York, but they also managed 422 and 375 yards respectively. Not once has New York held an opponent below 300 this season, and twice have opponents eclipsed 400 (Dallas had 433).
3. Vick Fumbles Opportunities Away
For the fourth time in 5 games this season, the Philadelphia Eagles failed to clear 20 points.
Losing 16-14 to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia would have had 21 (or maybe just 17) had Michael Vick’s recurring ‘fumblitis’ not plagued him in a goal-to-go situation.
Ryan Clark’s expert fumble-forcing on a Vick dive at the 1 yard line kept the Eagles from being the first ones on the board. What’s that about early mistakes can doom you later in the game?
Although Vick hasn’t thrown an interception since Week 2 (No, really; 4 vs. Cleveland, 2 vs. Baltimore, and none since), he’s lost 5 fumbles on the year, including 4 over the last 3 games.
Vick has worked to improve his quarterback rating, getting it up to 77.8 after 5 games (108 for 185, 1321 yards, 6 TD, 6 INT), but over the Eagles’ 2 losses, his red zone fumbles have squandered opportunities against good defenses, and, in the case of the Arizona game, led to a backbreaking touchdown at the end of the first half.
Philadelphia gets Detroit coming off a bye in Week 6. The Lions have no interceptions this season, but their three lone turnovers have come off fumble recoveries. Vick can’t just rely on the Eagle returners to exploit Detroit’s crappy special teams coverage; he has to be efficient in all facets of the game.
He can start by sliding.
4. Eagles Losing Their Sack
The Philadelphia Eagles defense in 2011 sacked the quarterback 50 times. Nightmarish ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole combined for 29 of them (18 and 11 respectively).
In the first five games of 2011, the likes of Eli Manning, Matt Ryan, Alex Smith, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Sam Bradford were dragged, dropped, and drilled into the turf 16 of those 50 times.
Only one time in 2011 did the Eagles fail to record a sack.
That “Wide Nine” installed by curmudgeonly veteran D-Line coach Jim Washburn was one of the few bright spots of the Eagles lackluster 8-8 season.
Fast forward a year later, and where do the Eagles stand in quarterback crushes after 5 games?
For starters, the Eagles have but 7 total sacks. The most they’ve had in a single game was 3, in their loss to Arizona. Twice they’ve recorded 2.
Jason Babin and Trent Cole after 5 games in 2011: 7.0 sacks and 4.0 sacks. After five games in 2012: 2.5 sacks and 1.5 sacks.
That includes 2 games without a single sack, and wouldn’t you know those were their last 2 games?
Only twice in the Andy Reid era in Philly have the Eagles failed to score a single sack in back to back games: Nov-Dec 2008 (vs. Arizona and the Giants, both wins) and Nov-Dec 2006 (a loss to Indianapolis and a win over Carolina)
What lessens the blow of their current drought is their opposition, but only to a certain degree.
Eli Manning has only been sacked 4 times this season, but Ben Roethlisberger had been dropped 9 times in his 3 previous games. Both the Giants and Steelers have struggled with their offensive lines (particularly Pittsburgh when Philly played them in the preseason opener), so this futility has to frustrate Washburn and his gang.
5. Redskins Let Falcons Back In as RG3 Has Brush with Catastrophe
Go figure, Robert Griffin III’s known for his adeptness for making plays with his legs, and he only runs one time.
The result had Redskin Nation holding their collective breath.
Griffin sustained a concussion after a clean hit from Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. It was enough to finish his day guiding the Redskins, who took a 10-7 lead on the 4-0 Falcons in the third quarter.
RG3’s surrogate, fellow rookie Kirk Cousins would throw an uncontested 77-yard touchdown pass to Santana Moss in the fourth, but Cousins also heaved 2 interceptions. The Falcons exploited his inexperience and naiveté to add 17 points in the final stanza, and win 24-17.
To the point of his injury, however, Griffin hadn’t looked like his awe-inspiring self.
Although one could say Alfred Morris was already ripping up the ground game by himself (he’d finish with 115 yards on 18 carries), Griffin only ran the ball 1 time for a 7 yards. That run didn’t come until the third quarter.
Griffin was averaging 12.4 yards-per-completion headed into the game, but Atlanta hemmed him into a mere 9.1 yards a completion, with none of his 10 completions more than 20 yards.
This also marks the first game of his very young career that Griffin didn’t score a touchdown himself, either throwing or running.
As a matter of fact, if you count the field goal that made it 10-7 (since it didn’t occur until after Griffin’s injury, but was still part of the drive), Washington failed to score a single point otherwise with Griffin in charge of the offense (the first touchdown was a pick six by Ryan Kerrigan).
RG3 seems likely to play next week, but it’ll be against a surprisingly good Minnesota Vikings team that has played as proficiently at their best as Griffin and the Skins have been at their very, very best.