Aug 092017
 
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Eli Manning, New York Giants (December 4, 2016)

Eli Manning – © USA TODAY Sports Images

Preseason Game Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants, August 11, 2017

THE STORYLINE:
Expectations are high. Many expect the 2017 New York Giants to make a Super Bowl run. However, since 1990, the Giants historically tend to under-perform when expectations are high and over-perform when expectations are low. But Ben McAdoo is not Ray Handley, Dan Reeves, Jim Fassel, or Tom Coughlin. We don’t know yet how HIS teams will respond under the microscope.

Football fans everywhere are dying for football to begin. But the casual fan usually over-reacts to the preseason, and particularly to the first preseason game, which is little more than a controlled scrimmage. Starters usually don’t play long, players are rusty and not yet used to the increased intensity and physicality. Sixty-minute football stamina isn’t there yet. There are often special teams breakdowns as young players are rotated in to see who has the ST chops to make the team. So take things with a grain of salt.

That all said, the Pittsburgh Steelers are a very good opponent for any team to play in the preseason. They are a perennial playoff contender, always well-coached, and always VERY physical and fundamentally sound. The Steelers still play football the way it was meant to be played: hit the other guy in the mouth and make him quit. If the Giants want to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender and be considered a tough, physical team, then they will have to show they can match Pittsburgh’s intensity level.

THE INJURY REPORT:

  • RB Shaun Draughn (ankle – on the PUP)
  • LB J.T. Thomas (knee – on the PUP)
  • WR Sterling Shepard (ankle)
  • WR Tavarres King (ankle)
  • WR Kevin Snead (lower body)
  • DT Robert Thomas (“sore”)
  • LB Keenan Robinson (concussion)
  • LB Mark Herzlich (stinger)
  • CB Mykkele Thompson (quad)
  • S Ryan Murphy (lower body)

NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE:
It’s been discussed ad nauseam. The New York Giants were an incredibly disappointing 25th in total offense in 2016, and an embarrassing 29th in rushing. But even the passing game let the team down, falling to 17th overall. Opposing game plans were easy to predict but effective: take away Odell Beckham and make the running game or someone else in the passing game beat you. The Giants rarely met this challenge. If they didn’t hit the big play, drives usually stalled. Only the 49ers scored less points.

So in the offseason, the Giants said good-bye to players such as Victor Cruz, Rashad Jennings, and Larry Donnell. The team added Brandon Marshall, Evan Engram, and Rhett Ellison. Second-year and largely unproven Paul Perkins has been handed the starting running back job. Shane Vereen is back after missing most of 2016. The offensive line is exactly the same. Eli Manning is a year older and entering the twilight of his career. Now comes the real test: can someone besides Odell Beckham hurt the opponent? On paper, Brandon Marshall, Evan Engram, and Sterling Shepard should. Is Paul Perkins a legitimate starter? Can the oft-criticized offensive line improve its pass and run blocking? Tackles Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart will be in the spotlight. The Steelers 3-4 defense can make you look silly on offense if you are not physically and mentally prepared.

Nevertheless, the starters for both teams are not likely to play long, and the game will quickly turn into auditions for the 53-man roster for lesser-known players. Many fans get bored when the back-ups enter the game. Others love analyzing the prospects behind the starters. These are some key areas to watch:

  • Does Brandon Marshall still have “it”? He had a stellar 2015 campaign and declined in 2016 on a bad Jets team. He’s 33-years old and playing in his second-to-last season. If Marshall can approach anywhere near his 2015 level of play, the Giants passing offense should be deadly.
  • Can Evan Engram really make an impact as a rookie? Engram has been coming on at camp as he develops chemistry with Eli Manning. The TE/WR hybrid should be a tough match-up for defenses that could afford to ignore the Giants’ tight ends in recent years.
  • Can the Giants run the football? As much as it pains me to say this, the Giants have been a finesse offense that has lacked toughness and physicality in the running game in recent years. All are to blame – backs and blockers. Short-yardage and goal-line situations have been particularly painful. Can Paul Perkins be “the man”? How much of an impact will tight end Rhett Ellison have as a blocker? Can an offensive line that failed to get the job done in 2016 redeem itself in 2017? Will the Giants even attempt to use a fullback (Shane Smith or Jacob Huesman) as a lead blocker in the preseason?
  • Battles for back-up positions: Will Geno Smith or Josh Johnson earn the #2 spot this preseason? Is Orleans Darkwa the #3 running back? Who are the #5 and #6 receivers after Odell Beckham, Brandon Marshall, Sterling Shepard, and Dwayne Harris? How will the two rookie tackles (Chad Wheeler and Adam Bisnowaty) perform? After Evan Engram and Rhett Ellison, which tight ends will make the team? (Jerell Adams, Matt LaCosse, and Will Tye may be fighting for only one or two spots).

NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE:
The likelihood that the New York Giants were going to improve from dead-last (and one of the worst in NFL history) on defense in 2015 to a top-10 defense in 2016 was not good at all. But that’s exactly what the Giants did after going on a free agent spending spree that added impact players Damon Harrison, Olivier Vernon, and Janoris Jenkins. Those moves, combined by the breakout season by Landon Collins, changed everything. Now the challenge is to at least remain one of the best defenses in the NFL and, ideally, improve. In terms of personnel, the biggest offseason loss was defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins. He was a very solid player and it is not known yet who will fill that void. The Giants have also handed over the starting middle linebacker position to a very green and unproven second-year player (B.J. Goodson). Here are some key areas to watch against Pittsburgh:

  • Who will start at defensive tackle alongside Damon Harrison and how will he perform? The candidates are Robert Thomas, Jay Bromley, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Corbin Bryant.
  • Will anyone step up at defensive end after Jason Pierre-Paul and Olivier Vernon? JPP and OV played far too many defensive snaps in 2016. And their back-ups could not consistently pressure the passer. Will this once again be an area of weakness?
  • Is B.J. Goodson really ready to take over the middle linebacker position? He better be. There really isn’t a fallback option.
  • Depth is a concern at linebacker after Goodson, Jonathan Casillas, Keenan Robinson, and Devon Kennard. Do the Giants have ANY viable back-ups? The linebacker position was largely ignored during the offseason.
  • Barring injury, the top three corners are as good as anyone in the NFL. But the Giants need depth (see the playoff game). Keep an eye on Michael Hunter, Valentino Blake, Mykkele Thompson, and Donte Deayon.
  • Still green and unproven Darian Thompson has been handed the starting free safety job. He has to prove he can stay healthy and perform in a very talented secondary. Depth is even a bigger concern here as question marks abound with Andrew Adams, Nat Berhe, Eric Pinkins, and others. If Landon Collins were to get hurt, things could get scary back here.

NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
All eyes will be on the place-kicking battle. It’s a classic potential versus stability decision. Aldrick Rosas has the big leg but he is completely unproven. He’s been very good at camp, but now we’re getting closer to when the games really count and come down to made/missed field goals and extra points. Mike Nugent is the reliable, aging veteran, but he did have issues with extra points in his final year in Cincinnati.

The best way for a bubble player to make the 53-man roster? Kick ass on special teams as a blocker for or head hunter against the return game.

FROM THE COACH’S MOUTH:
Ben McAdoo’s advice to those on players on the bubble: “We talked about that the other day. There is a lot of competition in camp, so the more competition, the more guys are on the bubble. If you don’t know if you are on the bubble, then you are on the bubble. We talked about how your fears can lead to your greatness, your greatness lies within your fears, so embrace them and compete your tail off on Friday night.”

THE FINAL WORD:
The #1 concern is always coming out of the preseason healthy. But it’s important that we someone else besides Odell Beckham step up on the offensive side of the football. Steve Spagnuolo and the entire defense needs to prove that 2016 was not an aberration but the start of new era of strong NYG defense. Second-year players B.J. Goodson and Darian Thompson could make a strong unit even better. The Giants need to fill the void left by Johnathan Hankins. Finally, place kicker may be the biggest question mark on the team right now.

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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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