The wakeup call came quite early for the New York Giants.
Still basking in the intoxicating glow of another Super Bowl victory, they kicked off the 2012 season 11 days ago against Dallas ... and promptly got smacked in the proverbial face. The Cowboys, in somewhat methodical ease, triumphed 24-17 at MetLife Stadium.
The score hardly reflects what occurred, as the visitors racked up a 433-269 advantage in total yards and, generally, controlled things from start to finish as their defending champion hosts seemed a little slow to shake off the cobwebs from celebrating their most recent success.
Though hardly cause for panic, Giants fans can only hope the hangover has ceased by this afternoon as an apparently improved Tampa Bay travels to East Rutherford. Not that the Buccaneers possess the firepower of Dallas, but they're solid and seem to have taken to the tough, hard-nosed playing style favored by the new head coach, Greg Schiano.
Without further ado, here is a peek at keys to this matchup:
The Bucs' commitment to the ground game: They ran the ball 36 times (for 130 yards) in last week's 16-10 season-opening win against Carolina and threw it just 24 times. That's 60-40 ratio in direct contrast to the typical breakdown in today's NFL. But, if anything, Schiano showed his belief in grinding out yards as a college coach and that doesn't seem to have changed with his transition to the pros. So, expect much the same, especially if it works. In beating the Panthers, it did to near-perfection, keeping Cam Newton in check to some degree. Rookie Doug Martin (24 carries, 95 yards vs. Carolina), whose fire-hydrant frame just screams "durable," is a nice fit for the attack.
The Giants' pressure on Josh Freeman: If the above holds true, New York needs to take advantage of every opportunity it gets to chase down the Bucs QB, either for sacks, to create havoc or force turnovers. It certainly has the players to do so in DEs Jason Pierre-Paul, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka. However, those four only managed a single tackle for loss between them against Dallas. Freeman had a safe, almost boring, effort against Carolina, completing 16 of 24 attempts for 138 yards. He had one TD and no picks. But he has shown a tendency to get a bit, well, loose with the ball. For his career, the fourth-year pro has almost as many INTs (46) as TDs (52).
Eli Manning's respect for Ronde Barber: Seen more as the "aw, shucks" younger brother of Peyton, Manning, really, has attacked defenses with the cold-blooded cool of an assassin ever since arriving in the Big Apple. He has no fear with letting it fly, especially deep. But he has to be careful with Barber in the Bucs' secondary. Now in his 16th season, Barber (five tackles, two passes defenses, two tackles for loss, a pick and a sack vs. Carolina) shows no signs of slowing down - despite a move from cornerback to free safety this season. Indeed, that position switch actually puts him in position to deal more directly with Manning, to match wits with the Giants QB, if you will, instead of having to focus solely on a receiver.
Just a thought, but it might be wise for the Giants to consider using first-round pick David Wilson as their main kick returner. With the rookie running back likely to see little action behind workhorse Ahmad Bradshaw, his home-run abilities at least could be utilized on special teams. Against Dallas, he ripped off a 32-yard return. However, he isn't slated for return duty, according to the latest depth charts ... Bucs MLB Mason Foster had three tackles for loss last week. He's only a second-year player, which is quite indicative of Tampa's youth movement on that side of the ball. Weakside 'backer David Lavonte and strong safety Mark Barron are both rookies.
Prediction: Giants, 23-14.