Not a total loss

One rush into his second preseason game and Tiki Barber had matched half his previous game total.

One drive into their second preseason game and the Giants' first-string offense outscored its previous game total by three points.

One half into their second preseason game, and the Giants had their first touchdown of the 2003 season.

"We definitely improved from our play last week," quarterback Kerry Collins said Friday night despite a 20-10 loss to the Carolina Panthers. "Obviously we still have some rough spots, but overall it was a much better performance."

The eight days since the dismal 20-point loss to the Patriots that kicked off the preseason were tumultuous ones for the Giants, filled as they were with off-the-field distractions from Jeremy Shockey and Ron Dixon to on-the-field furor from coach Jim Fassel, not to mention the largest blackout in U.S. history sinking much of the East Coast into darkness.

Finally, Friday night at Giants Stadium, it was back to business for the Giants, who showed marked improvement in some areas, slight improvement in others, and gave a much more palatable performance overall.

"We improved on our play from last week, no question about it," Fassel said.

The offensive line, with rookie David Diehl inserted in place of Tam Hopkins at right guard, looked much better than it did in the opener, forging bigger holes for Barber and providing more protection for Collins. Barber's first carry, a 5-yard gain on the opening play, was half the 10-yard total he managed against the Pats. Five plays later, Collins found time to connect with receiver Amani Toomer for a 36-yard gain.

The Giants didn't make it all the way to the end zone, losing a good opportunity when Shockey dropped a third-down pass near the goal line. Mike Hollis converted a 34-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead, while Shockey sat on the bench with his head hanging.

The second-year tight end had three balls sent his way on the drive, catching none and dropping two. He would leave the game later in the half (with one 8-yard reception to his credit) after taking what the team described as "a shot to the ribs."

Carolina, led by head coach John Fox, the Giants' former defensive coordinator, scored the next 10 points with a good defensive series and a fortuitous turnover. The Giants started their possession at the 1-yard line when Carolina's Deke Cooper downed a punt just inside the goal line. New York compounded the situation, backing itself into its own end zone with a sack and a penalty, leaving Collins to fight out of a third-and-20 situation. The quarterback doesn't have much reputation as a runner, but Collins nimbly avoided a safety and ran for 9 yards.

After a 41-yard Jeff Feagles punt, the Panthers took over at the Giants' 44, scored a field goal six plays later to tie the game, and scored their touchdown almost immediately after. On the Giants' fourth play of the ensuing series, Collins was sacked by Will Witherspoon (tight end Marcellus Rivers missed a block), and the ball flew out. Carolina safety Mike Minter plucked the ball out of the air and scampered 43 yards untouched into the end zone.

The Giants had an answer, their first touchdown of the preseason. With Barber as the catalyst (he gained 26 yards on his first four touches), as well as a 21-yard pass to the second-string tight end Rivers and completions to Toomer and Ike Hilliard, the Giants reached a first-and-goal at the 4-yard line. Barber gained 2 yards on two carries before Collins hit fullback Jim Finn in the right corner of the end zone for a 2-yard score.

"On the touchdown, Kerry had good protection on his backside and that allowed him time to get the ball to the receiver," Fassel said.

Finn, the former Bergen Catholic High School standout whom the Giants signed to a free agent contract this off-season, is battling Charles Stackhouse for the fullback job.

Carolina's final possession of the half resulted in its 13-10 halftime lead, but considering the Panthers had a first-and-goal from the 7 with 40 seconds remaining and managed only the field goal, the Giants' defense looked relatively OK in giving up 100 total yards for the half.

"The defense played pretty well, especially in the red zone area," Fassel said.

By halftime, linebacker Dhani Jones had six tackles, including an impressive stop of running back Stephen Davis on a blitz, cornerbacks Will Peterson and Will Allen each had a pass breakup with a near interception, backup defensive end Keith Washington was active in replacing Michael Strahan, and middle linebacker Mike Barrow broke into the backfield more than once.

"We got better as the game went on," Barrow said.
Aug 16,03