8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Detroit -6.5
A wild an crazy opening weekend to the 2014 Regular Season comes to a close tonight with a pair of teams that have specialized in those categories over the past few years as the Detroit Lions host the New York Giants. In an attempt to wash away the memories of a most disappointing campaign in 2013, both teams have undergone sweeping changes both on the field and on the sideline. Perhaps no team embodies that sentiment more so than the New York Giants, who plummeted to a 0-6 record out of the gate courtesy of a myriad of turnovers; Tom Coughlin’s club was dreadful, scoring just 18.4 points per game (28th overall) and committing a league-worst 44 turnovers. Even though they were able to finish the season with a 7-9 record, they missed the postseason for the second consecutive year, leading to sweeping changes across the roster.
No team in the NFL had seen more players come and go during the offseason, as the new-look Giants could have as many as thirteen new starters on both sides of the ball. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond are expected to bolster a Secondary that has been ravaged by injuries over the past few seasons, yet still managed to to rank tenth in the league in passing yards allowed (223.3), eighth in net yards allowed per pass (5.6), and twelfth in interceptions (17). Antrel Rolle is one of the few returning starters at Safety, after leading the defense in tackles (98) and interceptions (6), while Prince Amukamara and his team-high 14 pass break-ups should turn this unit into a strength. However, when talking about the Giants, particularly on defense, you have start up front, and there is a great deal of uncertainty in the trenches. Gone are Justin Tuck (11.0 sacks) and Linval Joseph (3.0 sacks), and Jason Pierre-Paul managed to start and finish a mere six games in 2013. A lot of pressure will be on the shoulders of the latter to recapture the form that made him such a dominant force during their 2011 Super Bowl run (16.5 sacks).
Speaking of recapturing form, that is what is being asked of Eli Manning. The former No. One Overall Pick was downright dreadful in 2013, embodying the sloppiness that marred the Giants’ offense. Manning tossed a career-high and NFL-worst 27 interceptions last season and was also sacked 39 times, the most he has endured in his ten-year career. Coughlin and Co. hired Ben McAdoo as the new Offensive Coordinator; McAdoo comes over from Green Bay looking to install the Packers’ quick-hit, West Coast Offense. It remains to be seen how Manning takes to the new system, but he won’t be alone, for there are a number of new faces that will be joining the transition. Tailbacks Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams were acquired to improve upon the third-worst rushing attack in the league (83.3), particularly in light of David Wilson’s career abruptly ending due to neck surgery. Geoff Schwartz was brought over from Kansas City to strengthen the interior of the Offensive Line, but will reportedly miss at least the first seven games of the season with a dislocated toe, a major concern on a unit that is expected to feature three new starters. First Round Pick Odell Beckham Jr. should help alleviate some of those problems, but the promising Wide Receiver is coming off an injury-riddled preseason and will be inactive for tonight’s contest.
Meanwhile, the 2013 Detroit Lions were no better off than their counterparts tonight, succumbing to a 7-9 record that was plagued by turnovers and all-around poor decision-making. Jim Schwartz took the bullet after failing to qualify for the Playoffs for the second consecutive season, replaced by former Colts’ Head Coach Jim Caldwell, who spent the last two years serving as the Baltimore Ravens’ Quarterbacks’ Coach and Offensive Coordinator. His main charge will be cleaning up a supremely talented offense that ranked sixth in the league in Total Offense (402.6), third in Passing Offense (290.6), eighth in both Passing Touchdowns (29) and Net Yards Per Pass (6.8), and tenth in Rushing Touchdowns (15), but third-worst with a staggering 34 turnovers. The Lions were once again one of the most heavily penalized teams in the NFL, a glaring issue under the previous regime, and you can get that correcting it will be a point of emphasis in 2014.
Few teams in the league possess the kind of firepower on the offensive side of the ball as Detroit, making it very interesting to see just how Caldwell utilizes so many weapons. Matthew Stafford is nothing if not prolific, throwing for 4,650 yards and 29 touchdowns, his third consecutive 4,000-yard, 20-touchdown campaign. However, while sporting a cannon-like arm, his mechanics and footwork are flawed, evidenced by his 58.5% completion percentage, which has dipped in each of the past three seasons. Caldwell was credited with the improvement in Joe Flacco’s game when he took over play-calling duties during Baltimore’s Super Bowl run in 2012, so if he can fine-tune Stafford’s issues than the former No. One Overall Pick could be in for a career year. Surrounding him, is an assortment of weapons led by Calvin Johnson, the league’s top receiver. The 6-5, 240 lbs Johnson is a nightmare for opposing defenses, but his recent 84-catch, 1,492-yard, 12-touchdown campaign was viewed as a down year. Yes, he played through a lingering knee injury, but that is indeed a high standard, folks. Reggie Bush enjoyed a stellar season after coming over from Miami, and the dynamic Tailback should be even more productive with Caldwell pulling the strings; Bush rushed for 1,006 yards and 4 scores on 223 carries, while racking up another 506 yards and 3 touchdowns on 54 catches.
Defensively, the Lions also boast quite a bit of talent, particularly on the Defensive Line where the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, and Ezekiel Ansah harass opposing passers with reckless abandon. Those three players alone combined for 19.5 sacks, and could really cause problems tonight for Manning behind a rebuilt Offensive Line. Last season, Detroit allowed a respectable 346.7 yards per game (16th overall), including 99.8 versus the run (8th overall) on 4.2 yards per carry (20th overall). However, as good as the Front Four has been, the Secondary still struggled; the Lions yielded 246.9 yards through the air (23rd overall) on 6.5 Net Yards per Pass (20th overall), and 24 such touchdowns (13th overall) and 15 interceptions (17th overall). Despite all of Schwartz’s considerable acumen on defense, he was never able to field a consistent Secondary, and that could continue to be a problem under the new regime. Glover Quinn (3 INT, 9 PD) returns at Safety, while James Ihedigbo (3 INT, 11 PD) joins him after a solid campaign in Baltimore, but Cornerback remains largely unsettled; Rashean Mathis (34) is on the downside of his career, while Darius Slay steps into a starting spot after the departure of Chris Houston, with neither accumulating an interception in 2013.