Whether I wanted to or not, I forced myself to re-watch Sunday’s game. I did it not for the article or for the research, but purely to quell the frustrations bouncing around my head. I wanted to take something away from the film that I did not initially focus on when watching live.
That one thing turned out to be that Zach Cunningham was utterly picked on by the New York Giants. Whether it was through the air or on the ground, Cunningham was the mismatch the Giants located before the game and executed upon during the course of the contest ad nauseum. I am not saying that Cunningham is the reason for Sunday’s loss, but the sophomore linebacker does have a ton to work on. For example:
- Cunningham’s play recognition during the rush is way too hesitant. He is watching the play develop and bunny-hopping in position in front of his primary gap responsibility. This creates no momentum for him when taking on a block and it allows larger linemen to overwhelm his smaller frame.
On the Giants’ first drive of the game, New York targeted Sterling Shepard over the middle to convert 3rd and 4 from the Texans’ 23. Cunningham was in zone coverage over the middle and whiffed on a tackle that would have forced a fourth down and presumably a field goal.
Instead, the Giants scored on the next play, and that score can also be credited to Cunningham.
Let’s set the stage first before we start pointing fingers. Giants are in a shotgun 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) with all three wide receivers split out to the left. The Texans are in a 3-4 nickel set and have shifted to the right to match the Giants’ alignment. Cunningham is responsible for the A gap and C gap as the strong side linebacker in this situation.
The Giants’ offense runs a zone block scheme to the A Gap, which allows Saquon Barkley’s patience, speed, and difficulty to tackle flourish in a tight space.
At the point of contact, Cunningham (#41) runs straight to the hole but is greeted by a much larger offensive guard who gets below the linebacker’s pads and throws him to the ground.
Look at everyone else on in the picture. Their legs are bent. The low man wins in football; that is just a fact. Patrick Omameh is a 6’5”, 322 pound offensive guard build like a steer. Cunningham is 235 pounds. Almost NINETY POUNDS of difference, and Cunningham approaches him like Flat Stanley? Cunningham simply cannot get away with this technique versus athleticism at this level, even if he put on weight this offseason. What Cunningham needed to do was keep outside leverage on the guard and force Barkley back into the whole where D.J. Reader (#98) could clean the play up.
Although Kareem Jackson whiffed on a tackle at the end of the play, there really is not much he can do when the running back goes untouched through the offensive line.
- Cunningham was not a good blitzer. He ran straight into the blocker and did not have any moves at the point of attach
- He missed what should have been a tackle off the edge of Barkley because Cunningham went too high.
On the Giants’ last drive of the first half, they were stampeding down the field and fully executing a four-minute drive when their offense lined up in an empty set on first and ten at the Texans’ 16 yard line.
This forced the Texans to split Zach Cunningham out in man defense on Giants backup TE Rhett Ellison. Since the Giants line up three wide receivers on the other side of the formation, Tyrann Mathieu (#32) is shaded to the right to help cover the three receiver side. This leaves Cunningham on an island in the middle of the field, and since he is shaded to the outside of the tight end, he is in a very vulnerable position before the ball is even snapped.
Two seconds later, Eli Manning, the Mendoza Line of NFL quarterbacks, has a perfect throwing lane and places the ball squarely into the chest of his target. As you can see from the image above and in the video below, Cunningham pauses for a brief moment as Ellison breaks on his route and into the end zone. Mathieu is too far away to break up the pass and now the Texans are behind 20-3.
Outside of these two plays, I found other issues with Cunningham’s game on Sunday. On the first instance I witnessed Cunningham actively sprinting to the ball on a run, he successfully got into the backfield but would up missing the tackle entirely; Barkley turned a two yard loss into a two yard gain. While we know Cunningham is not an adept at blitzing the quarterback, on the one occasion he was a part of the package rushing the passer, he was incapable of putting any pressure on Eli Manning.
Even with all of these negative findings, Cunningham is a good linebacker with a ton of upside. He is only in his second year in the league and was solid last year for the Texans. His future is bright, but when the team has to take him out because the opponent has found flaws in his game, he becomes a liability more than an asset.
It does not help that Cunningham’s backup, Dylan Cole, was just put on the IR and lost for the season yesterday. Now there is no equivalent replacement on the roster if Cunningham gets picked on again.
Regardless of whether the Texans can help Cunningham out or he begins to work on addressing some of his weaknesses, he’s one of the biggest liabilities on this 0-3 Texans defense as they prepare for the Colts on Sunday.