UPDATE (1:15 EST): Added "long" and "TD" column to spreadsheet. - TMVT
As many experts, fans, and bloggers like myself have mentioned, the Giants not only feature the monstrous power running of Brandon Jacobs, but have two other excellent complementary backs, Derrick Ward, and Ahmad Bradshaw. Both are the quicker, shiftier type of back, and both have the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and make a play. It seems the Giants favor Ward in this particular area, so we will focus on him. (Bradshaw has only 3 receptions this year, versus 13 for Ward). Ward is averaging 8.9 yards per catch out of the backfield, a pretty healthy number, so our defense will need to wrap up upon first chance with Ward.
As we all remember from the early 2000s with Kevin Faulk of NE shredding us, running backs who can catch the ball in the flat and make people miss can be a true game-changer. In fact if you asked me before the '04 AFC champ game who I feared most, I would have said Kevin Faulk. So let's take a look at the Steelers defense this year (and a few examples from previous years) on how we've done against receptions out of the backfield, and what that might tell us about the chances we face against Derrick Ward.
|Correll Buckhalter/Lorenzo Booker '08||8||49||6.12||20||1|
|Steve Slaton/Ahman Greene '08||7||9||1.28||6||0|
|Maurice Jones-Drew '08||6||23||3.83||15||0|
|Maurice Jones-Drew '07 (Reg. Season)||5||30||6||8||0|
|Browns '08 (Lewis, Harrison, Vickers)||5||54||10.8||23||0|
As you can see, RBs have caught the ball against us with varying degrees of success. It seems for the most part that we do a pretty good job of either keeping these catches bottled up, or even limiting them from happening (alot of the box scores I checked had only one or two catches for opposing RBs). However, it also seems that every couple games we give up a 20+ yard gain to an RB catch out of the backfield. Buckhalter had one for a TD against us, and Harrison had a 20 yarder for the Browns against us. Those are two of the longer pass plays against us all year.
I think a big factor in why an RB will get a big gain off of us is that we play to keep deep passes in front of us with our secondary. This leaves them downfield, and if the RB catches the ball in the flat with space and makes one LB miss, he'll most likely have plenty of room for a big gain before a CB or Safety can get to the ball to help. Again, more often than not our LBs make the tackle, but when they do miss, we get gashed. Furthermore, my memory tells me alot of RB dump-offs are in 3rd and (usually) impossible long situations, with the RB picking up a big chunk of yardage, but not the first down. Further research would be necessary to examine this.
A healthy Troy Polamalu and the increased playing time of Lawrence Timmons would go a long way towards helping in this respect. Both are players who are typically in or around the box, and feature outrageous closing speed. That is exactly what is needed to stop an RB out in the flat, particularly if our OLBs blow the assignment or don't get there in time. Look for the Giants to test us on this early in the game, as it is also an effective weapon against our outside pass rush, and various blitzes. If they hit a couple of those passes for big gains early, look for LeBeau to adjust by using Timmons alot more in base downs (especially with Derrick Ward in the game). Then of course the issue becomes, does Timmons have the run stopping ability to take on Brandon Jacobs....ah the chess match of football. One thing is for sure, we are going to find out alot about our team come Sunday. Limiting Derrick Ward, without compromising our effectiveness against the power running game, would go a long way towards a Pittsburgh victory.