Having reached crunch time in the playoff race, Giants coach Tom Coughlin pulled out all the available stops by making two more changes to the starting lineup against NFC East rival Philadelphia last night at Giants Stadium. A week after shaking up the defensive line in a win over Dallas, Coughlin promoted wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and safety Aaron Ross.
The moves produced mixed results in the first half, and they certainly didn't have the same emotional impact on the Giants, who trailed 30-17 at halftime. Nicks, who moved ahead of Mario Manningham, produced the Giants' biggest play, a 68-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown that cut the Giants' deficit to 14-10 early in the second quarter. But he also had three drops, including one potential TD pass.
Ross stepped in at free safety for Michael Johnson, who has been bothered by a groin injury but was active. That move was anticipated. On Friday, Ross said he was told in practice to play deep and not let anyone get behind him the way the Eagles did in a 40-17 win over the Giants earlier this season. Ross didn't get beat deep in the first half, but the Eagles moved up and down at will, and the safety failed to stop tight end Brent Celek at the goal line on Philadelphia's opening touchdown.
There was no indication during the week that Nicks would start, but before the opener, offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride more or less predicted it would happen sometime this season. Nicks has shown repeated big-play ability, and he did so again last night.
After falling behind 14-0, Giants quarterback Eli Manning was forced into catch-up mode. Nicks caught one pass for 18 yards on a drive for a field goal. The Giants' defense finally got a stop, and Manning went for the home-run ball to Nicks on third-and-11 from his 16. Nicks was behind everyone when he dropped a perfect pass at the Eagles' 44, but a penalty for illegal contact gave the Giants an automatic first down.
Three plays later, Manning hit Nicks behind Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel, and then the rookie put on a beautiful spin move to elude a tackle attempt by Quintin Mikell at the Giants' 44 before speeding away to the end zone to make it 14-10.
The Giants trailed 17-10 when they got the ball back, but Nicks dropped a pass that would have gone for an 18-yard gain to the Giants' 48. They punted three plays later and Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson returned it 72 yards for a touchdown and a 24-10 lead.
As for Ross, this was only his third game since returning from a serious hamstring injury, and the coaches moved him to safety in place of starter C.C. Brown. Describing his role against the Eagles, Ross said, "In their type of offense, they like to get big plays. Coach has been telling me all week to just stay deep and don't give up the big plays. That's my job."
The Eagles still found plenty of room to complete passes in the middle of the field, gaining yardage in large chunks against a Giants secondary playing soft.