Dec 022016
 
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Rashad Jennings, New York Giants (August 9, 2014)

Rashad Jennings – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Game Preview: New York Giants at Pittsburgh Steelers, December 4, 2016

THE STORYLINE:
I get the sense that many Giants fans are not enjoying this season. They see the Giants as a flawed team and that the roof will eventually collapse. These fans are disappointed that the offense has fallen from top 10 in 2015 to now 21st in the NFL. The running game is 31st in the NFL. Every game is a nail-biter. The Giants have fattened their win total against weak teams. All of these facts or impressions are correct.

But every team has its flaws. And the Giants are a legitimate 8-3 team with a franchise quarterback who is playing decently but has yet to hit his stride, arguably the best wide receiver in football, and a physical defense that can stop the run and the pass and is continuing to improve. The Giants are capable of losing to any team but they are also very capable of beating any team. The Giants are about to enter the toughest part of their schedule – the part that will ultimately define their season – but they should not fear anyone who they are about to play.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a perennial tough out. They have their own franchise QB, arguably the best wide receiver in football, a two-way threat at running back, and a tough, prideful defense. And the Steelers become all that much more difficult to defeat when they are playing at home. That said, the Giants should be insulted that the Steelers are a solid touchdown favorite in this game.

This is a big game for the Giants. Win and their division title/#1 seed hopes are still alive and well. Lose and the Giants will be relegated to fighting for a Wild Card spot.

THE INJURY REPORT:

  • WR/Returner Dwayne Harris (wrist) – probable
  • OG Justin Pugh (knee) – out
  • OL Brett Jones (calf) – questionable
  • OL Marshall Newhouse (knee) – questionable
  • DE Owamagbe Odighizuwa (knee) – out
  • LB Mark Herzlich (concussion) – out
  • S Nat Berhe (concussion) – out

NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE:
It seems like the Steelers have been playing their trademark 3-4 defense forever. However, while Pittsburgh’s defense has played better in recent weeks against offensively-challenged opponents, they have fallen to 19th in the NFL this season (9th against the run, 23rd against the pass). The Steelers are middle-of-the pack in sacks (24) with no premiere pass-rushing threats. The heart and soul of the defensive team remains the linebacking corps. These are the run stoppers and pass-rushers on the team. You have to be ready for any of them to come after the quarterback. They are fundamentally sound, tough, physical players who play with a lot of pride. This is what makes their defense tough.

Inside, Lawrence Timmons is in his 10th season, but is still leading the team in tackles. Next to him in the middle is Ryan Shazier – the pup in his third year – who is coming on. Outside linebackers Arthur Moats (3.5 sacks), Jarvis Jones, and James Harrison (4 sacks – yes he’s still around) will challenge the Giants offensive tackles.

While the Steelers defense has given up yardage this year, they toughen up near the goal line and are currently the toughest red zone defense in the league. The Giants are 13th in red zone offense and have been hit or miss in this area, though better in recent weeks. Obviously, finishing drives will be important but don’t be surprised if the Giants bog down offensively as they get closer to the end zone.

The game plan seems fairly obvious. While the Giants don’t want to become too one-dimensional in order to keep the Steelers honest, the Giants 31st-ranked running game versus the Steelers 9th-ranked run defense suggests the Giants should attack primarily through the air. Keep in mind the short passing game – a trademark of the West Coast Offense – is often considered equivalent to a running play. That’s how you can view a 4- or 5-yard pass to Rashad Jennings or Paul Perkins.

On the flip side is New York’s 12th-ranked passing game versus Pittsburgh’s 23rd-ranked pass defense. The Steelers can be exposed through the air and they only have seven interceptions as a team. I feel the key to this game is composure. Pittsburgh is a tough place to play. Some teams get intimidated by mystique and crowd noise. Eli Manning has to keep his teammates calm. Don’t make stupid penalties (i.e., false starts) or force the issue and turn the ball over. Again, the Steelers are 19th in defense. The Giants can move the ball against these guys. If New York finishes their drives, the Giants will win this game.

NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE:
While the Giants and Steelers may not currently have top-10 offenses, what makes both so dangerous are they both have 2-time Super Bowl winning quarterbacks who can carry their team, and also bring their teams from behind in the clutch. Both offenses have a superb wide receiver. But the added plus for Pittsburgh is their running game. The Steelers have the NFL’s 12th-ranked offense (18th in rushing, 8th in passing). While 18th is middle-of-the-pack, running back Le’Veon Bell, who missed the first three games of the season, has exploded the last two weeks with 266 yards rushing. He also is a featured target in the Pittsburgh passing game with an astonishing 57 receptions. So as much attention as wide receiver Antonio Brown rightly receives, I feel the key to this game defensively is controlling Bell as a rusher and receiver.

Led by center Maurkice Pouney and right guard David DeCastro, the Steelers are capable of controlling the line of scrimmage. This is going to be out-right war at the line of scrimmage between the tackles. Here is where we truly find out how good defensive tackles Damon Harrison and Johnathan Hankins are. Ends Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon are also going to have to hold their ground on the edge. The linebackers have to get off of blocks and gang-tackle the big, powerful Bell.

In many ways, it is the Giants linebackers who will be on the spot in this game. The bulk of the Steelers offense runs through their three-headed monster of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Brown, and Bell. Not only do the linebackers have to be physical against the run, but they will have to keep Bell in check as a receiver. The Steelers don’t feature the tight end, but when they get close to the end zone, they do have four TDs on the year. Kelvin Sheppard, Jonathan Casillas, Devon Kennard, and Keenan Robinson must come to play.

Then there is Antonio Brown. If there is anyone better than Beckham, it may be Brown. He has 82 catches for almost 1,000 yards and 10 TDs through 11 games despite being the focal point of everyone’s pass defense. The good news for the Giants is that the man covering him in this game – Janoris Jenkins – practiced against Beckham on a daily basis in training camp. That level of competition will help Jenkins against a receiver with a similar skill set. Obviously, as much as the Giants don’t want Bell to nickel-and-dime the Giants to death, New York doesn’t want Brown to blow the game wide open on cheap plays either.

Teams are not getting to Roethlisberger. The Steelers have given up only 14 sacks all year (just over one per game). Part of that is the blocking up front, but Roethlisberger gets rid of the ball quickly and he is a big guy who is hard to tackle and capable of running with the football when in trouble. TACKLING – tackling Roethlisberger, Bell, and Brown – will be HUGE in this game.

NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
Do the Giants have a place kicking problem? Robbie Gould has now missed three extra points in two weeks. It’s unnerving to be entering the final stretch, and the toughest stretch, with a big question mark at kicker.

The Steelers use Antonio Brown as their primary punt returner. He has only 14 returns all year because teams try to kick away from him. He obviously is a threat every time he touches the football (four career TDs as a punt returner). Brad Wing’s placement will be key as will be the work of the gunners. And the Giants will be a bit short-handed on special teams this week with Mark Herzlich out.

FROM THE COACH’S MOUTH:
Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo on the Steelers offense: “You try to take one thing away and they will open up a hole somewhere else. But they have been good for a long time. The quarterback makes it all go and when you have a skill guy like Antonio Brown outside and a back like (Le’Veon) Bell that can do the things that he can do inside, it is going to make it difficult for our guys. Everybody just has to do their job, is what it comes down to. Hopefully we will have enough things to change it up to take away what they do really well. Ben (Roethlisberger) is good enough that he is going to figure out what you are taking away and then go use his other tools, so it will be that kind of game all day long. We are going to need a couple of breaks here and there and need some turnovers and our guys need to play fast and relentless and hopefully something good happens.”

THE FINAL WORD:
Football is often a game about match-ups and I like the match-ups in the game for the Giants. I think Janoris Jenkins can handle Antonio Brown. I think the Giants defense can hold Le’Veon Bell under 100 yards rushing. Pittsburgh does not have the dynamic tight end. I do worry about Bell as a pass receiver. And the Giants need to be careful of the gadget play involving Brown. On the flip side, the Giants can attack through the air and the Steelers have issues stopping the pass. Obviously, the offensive tackles need to do a reasonable job of keeping blitzing linebackers off of Eli. Much of the pass protection will be mental – picking up stunts, late dogs, etc. Red zone offense versus red zone defense is another key. What I don’t want to see is this game coming down to Robbie Gould.

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Eric Kennedy

Eric Kennedy is Editor-in-Chief of BigBlueInteractive.com, a publication of Big Blue Interactive, LLC. Follow @BigBlueInteract on Twitter.

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