The St. Louis Rams will be making their first appearance on the Monday night stage in five years with their upcoming clash with the New York Giants from MetLife Stadium, though the team will be doing so at considerably less than full strength.
It's a problem their opponent can certainly relate to.
The Rams and Giants have each been hit exceptionally hard by injuries during the early stages of this 2011 season, with both participants of Monday's Week 2 matchup set to take the field minus several key contributors.
St. Louis was without three of its top offensive weapons by the conclusion of last weekend's 31-13 loss to Philadelphia, with franchise quarterback Sam Bradford exiting in the fourth quarter with a bruised right index finger, star running back Steven Jackson straining his quadriceps on his second carry of the game and valued slot receiver Danny Amendola suffering a dislocated elbow in the second half.
Their absences proved to be way to much for the up-and-coming Rams to overcome against the high-powered Eagles, who rolled up 236 rushing yards and 403 total while pulling away in the second half.
Bradford is still expected to be under center for this week's contest, the Rams' first on Monday Night Football since a home date against Chicago on Dec. 11, 2006. Jackson, who ripped off a 47-yard touchdown run on the team's initial play from scrimmage against Philadelphia, is considered a longshot to suit up, however, while Amendola has all but been ruled out.
The St. Louis defense hasn't been immune to the injury bug either, with cornerback Ron Bartell sustaining a season-ending neck injury last week and counterpart Bradley Fletcher not at 100 percent due to a sprained toe. All those depletions will provide quite a challenge for head coach Steve Spagnuolo, the onetime Giants' defensive coordinator who will be facing his former employers for the first time since leaving that post to take his present position.
"In this league, nobody feels sorry for you, and the next game comes and is scheduled and you have to go play it," said Spagnuolo about his team's injury situation. "That is the way it is. We will get out here and practice this week and get guys up to snuff and go out there and do the best we can on Monday."
Spagnuolo has been able to achieve success amidst seemingly long odds before, however. In 2007, his New York defense stymied Tom Brady and the then-unbeaten New England Patriots to help Big Blue to a 17-14 upset victory in Super Bowl XLII.
The current Giants are dealing with some rather extensive health issues of their own at the moment. Two defensive starters, cornerback Terrell Thomas and middle linebacker Jonathan Goff, went down with season-ending ACL tears during the preseason, while the team played without pass-rushing bookends Justin Tuck (neck) and Osi Umenyiora (knee surgery) in last week's season-opening showdown at Washington.
The short-handed defense had its problems against the Redskins, with quarterback Rex Grossman burning New York's secondary for 305 yards and two scores to lead Washington to a 28-14 victory.
Tuck does appear to be on track to return this week, though Umenyiora remains sidelined and the offense could be without top receiver Hakeem Nicks, who incurred a bone bruise to his knee in last week's loss and is considered a game-time decision.
The Giants will be attempting to avoid their first 0-2 start since that historic 2007 season, a year in which three present St. Louis defenders (tackle Fred Robbins and safeties Craig Dahl and James Butler) were on the New York payroll in addition to Spagnuolo.
Though the Rams own a 25-13 overall advantage over the Giants in regular-season play, New York has won the last four matchups between the teams. The last two of those victories were one-sided, with the Giants cruising to a 41-13 rout at the Edward Jones Dome in 2008 and handling the Rams by a 44-24 count at the Meadowlands in 2005. St. Louis hasn't defeated the Giants since 2001, when the eventual NFC champions rallied for a 15-14 home victory.
These two clubs have also squared off twice in the postseason, with the then- Los Angeles Rams posting a 19-13 overtime win at Giants Stadium in the 1989 NFC Divisional Playoffs and New York earning a 16-13 decision in Anaheim in a 1984 NFC Wild Card tilt.
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin is 2-1 in his career against the Rams, with the lone loss coming in 1996 while the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. As previously mentioned, Spagnuolo will be facing both the Giants and his former boss Coughlin for the first time in a head coach's capacity.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Bradford put forth a terrific debut season that culminated in the 2010 No. 1 overall draft pick taking home NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, but his sophomore campaign didn't exactly start with a splash. Prior to getting hurt, the 23-year-old completed just 17-of-30 passes for 188 yards and no touchdowns against the Eagles, while also losing a fumble that was returned for a score. To be fair, Bradford did have to deal with a persistent Philadelphia pass rush that produced four sacks, and he's still learning all the nuances of a new offense now coordinated by ex-Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels. Losing the sure-handed Amendola, who amassed 85 receptions out of the slot a year ago, is a big blow, with unproven rookie Greg Salas now stepping into that spot alongside the inconsistent wideout tandem of Brandon Gibson (3 receptions, 50 yards last week) and offseason pickup Mike Sims-Walker (1 reception). Jackson's shoes may be a little easier to fill, as backup Cadillac Williams is a capable veteran who rushed for 91 yards on 19 attempts in a substitute role last week. The oft-injured former Buccaneer is also an asset as a receiver, as evidenced by his five-catch, 49-yard output against the Eagles.
A New York secondary that's without both Thomas and promising rookie cornerback Prince Amukamara (broken foot) had its lack of depth exposed in the opener, with Grossman completing nearly 62 percent of his throws and surpassing the 300-yard plateau in a noticeably-sharp effort. Mounting a steady pass rush is therefore critical to the Giants' chances of success, and getting Tuck -- who's posted double-digit sack totals in three of the past four years -- back alongside emerging young end Jason Pierre-Paul (6 tackles) should bring a boost to that area. The latter had two sacks of Grossman this past week and has compiled 6 1/2 over his last seven games dating back to last season. The defense did a better job in containing the run in Week 1, holding the Redskins' Tim Hightower to a pedestrian 72 yards on 25 attempts, with rookie Greg Jones (4 tackles) doing an admirable job stepping in for the injured Goff at middle linebacker and active safety Kenny Phillips contributing a team-high nine tackles from his backfield spot. The Giants also registered four sacks on the afternoon and placed fifth in the NFL (46) in that category in 2010.
WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
The Giants' offense is at its best when the running game is operating at maximum efficiency, which wasn't the case against the Redskins. The backfield duo of slasher Ahmad Bradshaw (44 rushing yards, 1 TD) and 264-pound beast Brandon Jacobs (29 rushing yards) managed just 73 yards on 19 carries in the opener, which combined with the on-and-off effectiveness of quarterback Eli Manning (268 passing yards, 1 INT), resulted in a poor 1-of-10 conversion rate on third downs. Manning did come up with a few big plays, with the physical Nicks on the receiving end of most of them in a seven-catch, 122-yard outburst, but also threw a costly interception that was returned for a Washington touchdown early in the second half that changed the momentum of the game. Turning the ball over was a problem for the veteran triggerman last year as well, with Manning picked off a league-high 25 times and losing five fumbles over the course of the season. If Nicks can't play, big-play threat Mario Manningham (4 receptions, 49 yards) then takes over as the No. 1 receiver and return specialist Domenik Hixon (2 catches, 21 yards) would move into a starting role, and the Giants added a tested option in the slot with Thursday's signing of veteran Brandon Stokley, owner of 338 career catches over a 12-year career with four teams.
St. Louis will be entering the Meadowlands with some serious concerns on the defensive end. The team was gashed for 236 rushing yards by Michael Vick and the Eagles' collection of speed merchants, while Bartell's injury and the possible unavailability of Fletcher (4 tackles) could leave career underachiever Justin King (7 tackles, 1 sack) and the aging Al Harris as the Rams' top two cornerbacks on Monday. Fortunately, Spagnuolo does have a formidable pass rush to fall back on, as the combo of ends Chris Long (2 tackles, 1 sack) and James Hall accounted for 19 of the club's solid total of 43 sacks (7th overall) in 2010 and the ex-Giants coordinator is highly skilled at devising creative ways to apply pressure. With New York expected to test the Rams on the ground, it'll be up to middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (6 tackles) and St. Louis' two new veteran outside additions, ex-Viking Ben Leber and former Packer Brady Poppinga, to perform better in their containment responsibilities than they did a week ago.
KEYS TO THE GAME
This is a quarterback-driven league, and generally how Manning goes, so go the Giants. The durable veteran threw 19 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions in New York's 10 victories last year, but had a lackluster 12-to-13 touchdown-to- interception ratio in the team's six 2010 losses. If he can keep those mistakes to a minimum, the Giants should stand a good chance of coming out on top.
The Rams are pretty good at pressuring the passer, so watch for the Giants to try to neutralize that strength by throwing a healthy dose of Bradshaw and Jacobs at the defense. St. Louis had better be ready for the two backs, as it'll be hard-pressed to come up with a win if the defense struggles to stop the run for a second straight week.
Stepping up. A number of reserves on both sides will be called into extended duty due to the injury situations, and how they carry out their assignments may be vital to each team's chances. Williams should be a fine fill-in for Jackson, but someone among St. Louis' corps of receivers must answer the call and help replace Amendola's lost production. If Nicks is out, the Giants may be asking Stokley to play a key role immediately off the street.
Obviously, the Rams would have a better chance of pulling off what would be considered an upset if they weren't so banged up, but the injury list is heavy for a team that doesn't have a whole lot of proven depth. With an offense that doesn't yet seem to be in sync, St. Louis may have been up against it anyway in a matchup with a New York outfit that's in need of a win. Look for the Giants to return to their old tried-and-true formula under Coughlin, riding a potent running game and an aggressive defense to a successful outcome.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Giants 28, Rams 13