Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A with Giants writer James Kratch

ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 11: Cole Beasley #11 of the Dallas Cowboys is tackled by Eli Apple #24 of the New York Giants after catching a pass at AT&T Stadium on September 11, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, TX - SEPTEMBER 11: Cole Beasley #11 of the Dallas Cowboys is tackled by Eli Apple #24 of the New York Giants after catching a pass at AT&T Stadium on September 11, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Cincinnati Bengals beat writer Jay Morrison caught up with James Kratch, who covers the New York Giants for The Star Ledger/ , for a Q&A to preview Monday's game.

Kratch is in his second season covvering the Giants, and you can follow him on Twitter @jameskratch .

Q: How has former Ohio State cornerback and first-round pick Eli Apple performed in the first half of his rookie season?

A: Up and down. Apple had his worst game of the season by far against the Eagles, and he was benched in the second half. But the Giants will have him right back out there against the Bengals. It's been hard to get a really good read on Apple because he has been banged-up most of the season. Apple missed two games with injuries, and played fewer than 10 snaps in two other games.

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On the whole, I think Apple has exceeded expectations this year. Most folks (myself included) thought he would only play in the slot as a rookie, and might not play much at all. But he was much more polished than expected in training camp, and he’s been one of the Giants’ starting outside corners when healthy, with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie moving into the slot. He has his moments where he struggles, but Apple has also made some plays. He’s a work-in-progress.

Q: What kind of influence has former Bengals cornerback Leon Hall had on a fairly young secondary, and in the locker room in general?

A: I think Leon has had a positive impact. He's been good with us reporters, and he appears to be a consummate professional from everything I've seen. On the field though, the Giants appear to be phasing him out. Hall was inactive against the Eagles last week coming out of the bye after seeing his snaps reduced in Week 7 against the Rams. He still has value because he can play safety (and the Giants are thin there), but Trevin Wade and Coty Sensabaugh have moved past him.

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Q: How big of a distraction was the Josh Brown situation, and does it continue to be one?

A: I think it depends on who you ask, and what period of the whole saga you are referring to. On the whole, I don't think it had a major impact on the players until everything hit the fan late last month. It was a big story during camp for a few days when his suspension was announced, and then the reasons and details why came to light. But then it petered out, with a brief resurfacing when Brown returned from his suspension. I think it had to have been a major distraction for the front office, though.

When the final police documents came out revealing he had admitted to abusing his wife, everything blew up. The locker room was a zoo the day after, and the fact the team was about to travel to London added to the circus atmosphere. It was definitely a distraction then, and the Giants did the players no favors by staying silent as an organization why the locker room had to speak on a subject they weren’t fully informed of, while being unsure if Brown was going to remain their teammate. Once they made the decision to hold him off the London trip, I think that likely alleviated any distractions for players. Because the end game was a foregone conclusion by then.

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Q: What has been the biggest reason for the struggles in the running game, and how big of a concern is it for the Giants that they have the lowest-ranked rush offense given that they are winning in spite of it?

A: It's a major concern. And while they will occasionally point to their short passing game as an effective alternative for the run, for the most part they admit they have to get the run game going. Blocking has been an issue, especially at tight end, and the Giants don't have a fullback. But at the same time, the running backs have not done all that much to create when the line does provide ample blocking.

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The Giants are trying to figure out a balancing act that is a bit tricky in the backfield. Rookie Paul Perkins is the most elusive back on the roster and can make something out of nothing on occasion. Many are calling for him to be the featured back. But the Giants feel he’s a bit of a liability as a pass rusher. Veteran Rashad Jennings is Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 back in pass protection, but he’s a plodder who doesn’t have the wiggle Perkins brings to the table.

Believe it or not, the Giants ran the ball effectively early this season. They had 100-yard games against the Cowboys and Redskins, and they had a respectable showing against the Vikings. But it’s been downhill ever since. They have to get things fixed fast.

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Q: The Giants are one of two teams in the NFL to have a winning record despite owning a negative turnover margin. How have they been able to overcome 16 turnovers and a minus-7 differential to be in the thick of the playoff race?

A: It sounds cliche, but it's true: They've made big plays when they've had to, especially on defense. Game-winning drives against Dallas and New Orleans, followed by defensive holds. A goal line stand followed by Odell Beckham's heroics against the Ravens, and sensational defensive outings in the second half against the Rams and Eagles. Last season, the Giants never made the play they needed down the stretch to win a game. This year, they are making them. Now they just have to hope things even out in those key stats, or else it will bounce back at them.

The biggest reason the Giants are 5-3 is their defense. After having the league’s worst in 2015, they spent over $200 million in the offseason to fix it. They still have soft spots (covering tight ends is one, I think Tyler Eifert could be in for a monster game) but they’ve been worlds better, and an incredibly resilient group. The hope is the offense will pick it up in the second half, and they can begin to round into a pretty tough playoff out.

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