New England Patriots at New York Giants, November 15, 2015
The diehard optimistic fan can wax poetic about why the Patriots are overrated and why the Giants will beat them on Sunday. But the facts are that the defending Super Bowl Champs, a team that hasn’t won fewer than 12 regular-season games in the last five years, and which has a legitimate shot at going undefeated in 2015 is playing a Giants team that has cumulatively hovered around .500 during the same time period, including this season.
The Patriots have the top-scoring offense in the NFL and a top-5 scoring defense. They have arguably the best coaching staff and quarterback in football. The Giants have the 21st-ranked offense and 32nd-ranked defense. While the Giants have a very good quarterback and solid coaching staff, they are clearly a club in transition with yet another injury-depleted and thin roster.
In all likelihood, the Giants are going to get spanked on Sunday.
That all said, any outstanding NFL team is beatable if you catch them on an off day while you are playing good football. The Giants don’t have to be perfect to beat the Patriots. That’s a mindset that too many of their opponents take and they psyche themselves out by doing so. Play sound, fundamental football and keep mistakes to a minimum. But you don’t have to be perfect. And don’t be something that you are not.
“The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it.” – Ronald Spiers, Band of Brothers
THE INJURY REPORT:
- WR Victor Cruz (calf – out)
- TE Larry Donnell (neck – out)
- LG Justin Pugh (illness – probable)
- RG Geoff Schwartz (ankle – probable)
- LB J.T. Thomas (ankle – out)
- LB Uani ‘Unga (neck – out)
- CB Prince Amukamara (pectoral – out)
- CB Leon McFadden (groin – questionable)
NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE:
There are two basic and probably overly-simplistic schools of thought on how to approach this game offensively. The traditional mindset would be to play ball control, eat up the clock, and keep the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands for as long as possible. At the other end of the spectrum is the acceptance that it will be a shootout and you need to be aggressive and score as many points as you can as quickly as you can.
On Wednesday, Coughlin hinted that you can do both. “No, we will do what we do,” said Coughlin. “(Keeping the ball away is) always a consideration but the thing you have to realize, again, is that although we do have a relatively fast pace (offense) as the league goes percentage-wise, we are out over the ball quite extensively. And the reason for that is obvious, the quarterback has an opportunity to evaluate what the defense is doing and that’s important to us.”
My interpretation of that statement is that while the Giants are a no-huddle offense, that doesn’t mean they snap the ball quickly. They get up to the line, force the defense to set, and then Eli takes his time to read what the defense is doing. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. And the Giants’ West Coast Offense has not been predicated on the quick-strike, deep ball this season. The focus has been on Eli getting rid of the ball quickly, out of the shotgun or with 3-step drops, easing the burden on the offensive line, with an emphasis on short- to medium-range passes. My guess is that most of the Giants’ long scoring drives this season have been 8-12 play affairs. Even in the offensive “explosion” against the Saints, the plays per touchdown drive were: 10, 9, 10, 4, 11, and 3.
So my expectation for the Giants’ offense against the Patriots? Don’t do anything different. Be what you are and focus on what you do well. Don’t try to become a heavy ball-control, smash-mouth running attack. It’s not the Giants’ style and it most likely won’t generate enough points. You can move the football, control the clock, and still score with a short-to-intermediate passing game. The Giants have the offense do do all three.
Giants’ fans know all about Bill Belichick’s prowess as a defensive coach. The Patriots are currently 8th in total defense based on yards and 5th in scoring defense. They are 3rd in run defense and 16th in pass defense. While the pass defense is middle-of-the-pack, the Patriots have gotten after the quarterback, being tied for 2nd in the NFL in sacks with 27. The main sack men have been DE Chandler Jones (9.5 sacks), reserve specialist DE Jabaal Sheard (4 sacks), LB Jamie Collins (4.5 sacks), and LB Dont’a Hightower (3.5 sacks). “They do mix pressures in, but primarily they get after it with their rush group,” said Tom Coughlin.
Jones is a major disrupter and the Patriots will move him around the line. He will likely test both Ereck Flowers and Marshall Newhouse. Collins has been bothered by serious illness for two weeks and may not play. He’s a super-athletic talent who will be missed by the Patriots if he can’t go. Sheard has also been bothered by an ankle issue.
The Patriots’ secondary really hasn’t been tested much this season as New England hasn’t played many of the game’s better quarterbacks. Gone is Darrelle Revis at corner. Super Bowl hero Malcom Butler is listed as the left corner but will often stick with the opponent’s best receiver. Logan Ryan starts opposite of him. Both are steady, but not really standouts. The third corner – Justin Coleman – is a rookie. New England does have a very strong safety duo in Devin McCourty (who the Giants heavily pursued in free agency) and Patrick Chung.
The Patriots’ 3rd-rated run defense is probably a bit overrated as most of their opponents feel the need to abandon the running game. The Patriots do give up 4.1 yards per rush (tied for 15th in the NFL). So I would expect Tom Coughlin and Ben McAdoo to still mix in the run with the pass. But you also have to figure that they know they have to score points out of the passing game. You can just hear Belichick now, “This is still a Beckham and Vereen game. Make them throw it to Randle, Harris, and Tye.”
So the questions are can Coughlin and McAdoo out-scheme Belichick to get Odell Beckham and Shane Vereen viable opportunities in space? And if not, can Rueben Randle, Dwayne Harris, and Will Tye make the Patriots pay on a consistent basis throughout the game? If Collins is out, it may open up things for Vereen although you have to figure Belichick will scheme for him, perhaps with a third corner or safety.
As is the case with any game, but particularly against an elite team like the Patriots, ball security is crucial. Don’t turn the football over. Don’t beat yourself.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE:
The problem is that, on paper, the Patriots’ offense versus the Giants’ defense is a huge mismatch. Not just statistically, #2 offense (#1 scoring offense) verus the #32 defense, but the strength of the Patriots’ passing attack is the way they attack the short-to-medium parts of the field against the nickel corner, the safeties, and the linebackers – all areas of weakness on the Giants. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have undoubtedly seen the struggles of free safety Landon Collins. They know middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley is really a run-down player. And Belichick let strong safety Brandon Meriweather and outside linebacker Jonathan Casillas depart New England – he knows their strengths and weaknesses. Throw in Brady versus Jayron Hosley and Trevin Wade, combined with a pass rush that has generated nine sacks in nine games, and this one looks ugly, ugly, ugly.
Brady has been in the same system for 16 years. He knows how to read a defense and he is as good as it gets in terms of getting rid of the ball quickly to the right man in an accurate fashion. “He knows exactly where he wants to go with the ball for each different look that a defense gives him,” said defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins.
While the Patriots will take an occasional deep shot, they really are not a vertical offense. They dink and dunk you to death, and are the NFL’s top offense in converting on 3rd down (almost 50 percent of the time). Opponents that count on them to make a mistake to sabotage drives are usually left disappointed. Brady has a TD-to-INT ratio of 22-to-2 and the Patriots have only lost three fumbles all year. They are tops in the NFL with only five giveaways. They also don’t shoot themselves in the foot with dumb penalties.
The bizarre but amazing element of their offense is they don’t hang their hat on one thing. One week, the will put the ball up 50 times in the air and ignore the ground game, the next they will pound the ball between the tackles. NFL analyst Greg Cosell said it best, “The Patriots don’t have a system, really. They’ll just figure out what you don’t do well, and win by attacking it.”
While there is no one go-to guy, Brady certainly has his favorites, this year being WR Julian Edelman (who is very dangerous out of the slot, especially on 3rd down), All-World TE Rob Gronkowski, and pesky WR Danny Amendola. Edelman and Amendola beat you with quickness while Gronkowski’s combination of size and overall athleticism is a match-up problem. The big loss was RB Dion Lewis (Shane Vereen’s replacement) who was lost last week for the season. He was a big factor in the Patriots’ passing and running game with his speed and quickness. WR Brandon LaFell has a big game against the Redskins with over 100 receiving yards.
The other issue for the Patriots is that their offensive line is a mess due to various injuries. Thus far, it hasn’t hurt them as Brady is able to get rid of the ball in about two seconds on passing plays. And teams more geared up to defend the pass and all of Brady’s weapons have made themselves more vulnerable to the run. You saw that last week when the Patriots’ big power back, LeGarrette Blount, ran for 129 yards against the Redskins despite a patchwork offensive line that at one point had a tight end playing right tackle. Their top three tackles are either out or ailing and they also have issues inside at guard. The Patriots really have done it up front with smoke and mirrors. That all said, no one has really feared the Giants’ defensive line this year. Jason Pierre-Paul may be back, but Johnathan Hankins is now done for the season.
Can Steve Spagnuolo really switch things up enough to confuse Tom Brady in his 16th season? And does he want to do too much of that with a rookie at free safety and a relative newbie at middle linebacker? In other words, it may backfire. And do you really want to blitz Brady – a QB adept as anyone at reading what defenses are doing – all that much? Keep in mind that two of your top corners are Trevin Wade and Jayron Hosley.
“With any quarterback that gets it out that quick, the best way to defend is to affect the guys he’s throwing to,” said Spagnuolo. “So we’ve got to find ways to cover better and maybe mix and change things up a little bit. But if you’re an offensive lineman, you probably want to play – I mean everybody wants to play with Tom Brady, right? But if you’re an offensive lineman, he can really make you look good.”
Contrary to what I said about the offense not breaking away from who and what they are, I might do some things differently in this game against this opponent on the defensive side of the ball. As crazy as it sounds, I would give Nikita Whitlock more snaps at defensive tackle. I would really vary my fronts, employing my ends more often at tackle too. Now Blount and the other reserve backs may exploit this, but I’ll take my chances with a better pass rush and hits on Brady than the Patriots’ ground game. I would not blitz much…only an occasional linebacker or safety blitz. The important thing is to get pressure on Brady up the gut, in his face. And when he does complete those short passes, run to the football and gang tackle. The Patriots do a lot of damage with yards after the catch.
Ultimately, I’m not sure the Giants have an answer to Edelman in the slot and Gronkowski at tight end. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie seems wasted trying to cover the outside guys while all of the damage is being done between the hashmarks. Might Spagnuolo employ DRC in some sort of unique capacity?
“We have to cover better,” said Spagnuolo. “We’ll mix the coverages up a little bit, and maybe get a couple of knockdowns. There’s no secret to it. He’s back there in the gun and he’s going to throw it. We have to find a way on the back end to play a little bit tighter.”
NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
The Giants have played against a number of quality special teams units this season and New England is no exception. The Patriots are 3rd in the NFL in covering punts and 10th in the NFL in covering kickoffs so the blockers and returners (Dwayne Harris and possibly Shane Vereen) will have their work cut out for them. Place kicker Stephen Gostkowski hasn’t missed a field goal or PAT all year, and leads the NFL in touchbacks with 42 (another problem for the NYG return game). Danny Amendola is the primary kickoff and punt returner. He’s steady, but usually does not break one. Julian Edelman will sometimes return punts, however, and he has four career punt returns for touchdowns.
The Giants’ special teams will likely have to make an impact play for the team to upset the Patriots, either with a return or blocked kick. Keep in mind that Patriots will run trick plays on special teams at unusual times. For example, they successfully kicked an onside kick after scoring on their opening possession against the Redskins.
FROM THE COACH’S MOUTH:
Tom Coughlin on getting pressure on QB Tom Brady: “Oh, it’s difficult. He’s the quickest in the league getting rid of the ball, that’s a fact. But you have to try. Whether you try with four, five, six, whatever…at certain points of the game you got to try. ”
THE FINAL WORD:
No one except some diehard Giants’ fans expect the Giants to win this game. And because this is an out-of-conference opponent, you’d pick to lose this game instead of one of the four NFC games the Giants have remaining on their schedule. That all said, the problem is the Philadelphia Eagles, who are 4-4 and favored to win against the Miami Dolphins at home on Sunday. The odds are that the Eagles will be 5-4 and the Giants 5-5 at the end of the day.
If the Giants can somehow pull off the upset, it would be a huge boost for their chances to win the division. Hopefully, they play loose but also play smart, physical football. New England’s offensive line is really beat up. And losing Dion Lewis was a big loss. If the Giants somehow catch Brady on a bit of an off day, they have a shot.