GREEN BAY—When the New York Giants put up 72 points on the Green Bay Packers in two meetings last season, they did it in a big-play way.
They gashed the defense, plain and simple.
It started with the third snap of the regular-season meeting, when tight end Travis Beckum ran free for a 67-yard touchdown, and it continued all the way through running back Ahmad Bradshaw’s 24-yard run late in the fourth quarter of the playoff game to set up the Giants’ clinching score.
In between featured a whole lot of receiver Hakeem Nicks – a 51-yard catch on the opening snap of the second half in December, plus a 66-yard TD and 37-yard Hail Mary score in January.
In all, the Giants had eight gains of at least 22 yards in those games that accounted for 332 total yards. That’s nearly 40 percent of the Giants’ yardage (332 of 867) from less than 7 percent of the snaps (eight of 122), and those eight plays helped produce six touchdowns and a field goal in the two games.
Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers has said repeatedly this season that the Packers are difficult to score upon when they don’t give up the big play. Preventing the gashes that occurred against the Giants last season may be the key to beating them on Sunday night.
“Those guys have big playmaking ability,” safety Morgan Burnett said, referring specifically to New York receivers Nicks and Victor Cruz. “If you get a little lackadaisical, or have any mental errors in your technique or the certain play that’s called, those guys can make you pay for it.”
The banged-up Nicks hasn’t been as explosive this season, with just two receptions longer than 30 yards, and both came back in Week 2. But Cruz is another story. He has TD catches this season of 80, 77 and 28 yards, and his biggest plays have come in the fourth quarter with games in the balance.
“We’ve all seen what he can do with the football once he gets it in his hands,” said Mike McCarthy, who called Cruz the Giants’ primary target in their passing offense. “We need to obviously know where he is.”
The Giants also have added tight end Martellus Bennett to their big-play mix this season. He has posted a catch of 29 yards or more in four different games.
The Packers defense, of course, is much-improved this season in terms of both reducing the number of big plays allowed and limiting their impact when they occur. The stingier work has been particularly evident during the current five-game winning streak.
Against Houston in Week 6, the Packers allowed just one reception of 20-plus. Two weeks later against Jacksonville, three long receptions of 24, 35 and 36 yards led to only field goals. Then last week, Calvin Johnson’s 53-yard catch in Detroit also produced just a field goal.
“The biggest difference is we’re making teams work,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “This is the NFL and guys are going to make plays, but the more you make teams work, the more stress you put on the offense, the more they’re going to struggle.”
Another crucial factor has been the Packers’ tackling. Whether it was Beckum shedding two safeties deep down the field to score, Nicks bouncing off a tackler at midfield and going the distance or Bradshaw slipping defenders to turn a short plunge into a long scamper, the Giants last year highlighted the Packers’ shoddy tackling as much as any opponent.
Larry Fitzgerald’s bulldozing, 31-yard catch-and-run for a TD against the Packers two games ago shows it’s a constant struggle to stay sound at all times, but breakdowns like that have been far less frequent in 2012.
“Coming into the season, that was one of our focal points, tackling better, and each and every week we’re trying to improve with our tackling,” Burnett said. “Are we there yet? No, but we’re striving to get better each and every day.”
That has kept the defense on the upswing all season, and there’s no better way to test the unit’s trajectory than to take on the Giants once again.
“I feel very good about the continuity, the efficiency. We’re tackling well, doing the little things well,” McCarthy said. “We’ve really been improving for the last four weeks. Our statistics tell us that, and with that our confidence is growing.” Additional coverage - Nov. 22