Game Preview: Pittsburgh Steelers at New York Giants, September 14, 2020
On paper, this game looks like an easy win for the Steelers. The third-longest tenured NFL head coach after Bill Belichick and Sean Payton versus the 38-year old rookie head coach who has never served as a the head man at any level. With that comes the understanding that the Steelers know their schemes and coaching staff inside and out, while the Giants are still at the beginning of the learning curve. Furthermore, the Steelers have been one of the toughest, most physical teams in the NFL since the Chuck Noll era. Indeed, the Steelers haven’t had a losing record since 2003 and only three head coaches since 1969. On the other hand, the Giants are on their fourth head coach since 2016 and are averaging four wins per season in the last three years. The overall consensus is that the Pittsburgh Steelers are a legit Super Bowl contender while the extremely young New York Giants will be fortunate to finish anywhere near a .500 record.
What do the Giants have going for them? The element of the unknown. While the Steelers likely studied Jason Garrett in Dallas and Patrick Graham in Miami, Garrett hasn’t called offensive plays since 2012 and Graham most likely didn’t have full control of the defense in Miami with Brian Flores’ defensive background. The Giants are a very young team who may not know they are supposed to be intimidated by the big bad Steelers. And on top of all of this, the COVID-19 issue has prevented all NFL teams from having a normal offseason… no mini-camps, no OTAs, no preseason. Teams that adjusted the best and were more organized should have an advantage even over more talented teams. Joe Judge ran a very organized, physical training camp.
My advice to the Giants? Go into this game like Michael Keaton did in Batman. “You Wanna Get Nuts? Let’s Get Nuts!”
THE INJURY REPORT
- WR Golden Tate (hamstring – questionable)
- TE Levine Toilolo (hamstring – questionable)
- LB Markus Golden (illness)
- LB Tae Crowder (hamstring – questionable)
- S Adrian Colbert (illness)
NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE
This is a bad opponent for the New York Giants’ offense to begin the season with. The Steelers have one of the toughest defenses in the NFL and will put tremendous mental and physical pressure on the yet-to-gel offensive line and 2nd-year quarterback trying to overcome a fumbling problem.
The Steelers are loaded at all three levels of the defense. DE Cameron Heyward (2x All-Pro, 3x Pro Bowl) is one of the best in the business up front. Outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree are double-digit sack artists, and Watt is a legit “Defensive Player of the Year” candidate. Inside linebacker Devin Bush is a rising star. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is coming off an All-Pro season and CB Joe Haden a Pro Bowl season. These are the headliners but the entire unit is well-coached, tough, and physical. They intimidate their opponents. The Steeler defense is quite capable of winning a game on its own.
Enter a promising New York Giants offensive line that has yet to play an actual game together. Rookie left tackle Andrew Thomas has yet to play against NFL talent at full speed contact, and his first opponent are going to be the Steelers superb outside rushers. This will be Nick Gates’ first real game at center and he is going to have to deal with the Steelers’ complicated blitz schemes. RT Cam Fleming will probably have issues with Pittsburgh’s outside rushers as well.
The game plan seems fairly obvious. Try to establish Saquon Barkley on the ground, thereby protecting the offensive line somewhat until it can get its feet wet. Use the short passing game to backs Barkley and Dion Lewis, and tight ends Evan Engram and Kaden Smith. Get the ball out of Daniel Jones’ hands fast and keep the chains moving. Try not to expose Jones to a lot of hits. The last thing the Giants can afford is for that fumbling issue to continue. You can’t win games that way, and there is a risk to Jones’ long-term confidence.
Don’t expect the Giants’ offense to perform well. This is one of the toughest defenses in the NFL. “Wins” in this game will come from NOT making negative plays, NOT turning the ball over, and flipping field position. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot!
NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE
The expectation by many Giants fans and pundits is that the team’s defense will struggle again in 2020. I’m not so sure. I do have a big worry about the secondary. The Giants were counting on Deandre Baker and Xavier McKinney, and to a lesser extent Sam Beal. But adding Logan Ryan should help. I’m still not convinced that Ryan is going to be used exclusively at safety. It would not shock me to see him lining up at outside cornerback against the Steelers (in fact, this is what I would do…either that or play Darnay Holmes outside and Ryan at inside corner).
The other worry from fans is the pass rush. Call me a naive optimist but I think a big part of the problem with the team’s defense last year was that it was simply poorly coached. I believe Dexter Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Leonard Williams are better-than-average 3-4 pass rushers and potentially more than that. I also think that Patrick Graham and Bret Bielema are going to have a positive influence on Lorenzo Carter, Oshane Ximines, Markus Golden, and Kyler Fackrell. The issue for these guys in this particular game is the Steelers see better every day in practice.
Opinions on the Steelers’ offense varies. But there are a number of question marks, starting with QB Ben Roethlisberger, who is nearing the end and missed most of 2019 with an elbow issue. How much gas does he still have in the tank? Do his teammates still consider him their field general? Pittsburgh’s primary back, James Conner, has been injury-prone. The offensive line has size and experience, but appears to be fraying a bit at the edges and guard David DeCastro is not expected to play against the Giants.
As for the receiving targets, the Steelers two tight ends (Vance McDonald, Eric Ebron) can present match-up problems. Patrick Graham also says the Giants are worried about the Steelers’ backs in the receiving game. WR JuJu Smith-Schuster has been a bit of a frustrating player for Pittsburgh, at times looking like an impact player (monster 2018 season) and at other times not living up to expectations (disappointing 2019 season). But how much was that due to Big Ben being out of the lineup? The Steelers have high hopes for WR Diontae Johnson, and WR James Washington is solid. On paper, the match-up Giants fans worry about is Corey Ballentine against anyone, until proven otherwise. Or do the Giants surprise the Steelers and play Logan Ryan or Darnay Holmes outside?
Cutting to the chase, the defense has to keep this game close for the Giants to have a chance. The Giants’ offense simply is not going to score that much.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Here is a huge wild card the Giants all season. Joe Judge was so impressive as special teams coach that he was hired as an NFL coach despite having no head coaching experience at any level. “I’ve learned more football in the last six months probably than I have learned in the last 10 years,” said long-time NFL and current Giants special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey earlier this week.
The Giants look very solid in the kicking department with Graham Gano, Riley Dixon, and Casey Kreiter. No worries there. Losing gunner Cody Core this summer was a big blow. Someone needs to step up and replace him as much as possible. “We have to put guys out there and see who is going to make plays,” said McGaughey. “The hard part about it is you haven’t been able to cover any live punts (this summer). You won’t know until you get out there and see it done live. That’s the hard part of our situation.”
Pittsburgh changed punters and are going with the old guy, left-footed Dustin Colquitt. Place kicker Chris Boswell was solid in 2019, but had issues in 2018.
It’s not absolutely clear who will be primarily returning punts and kickoffs for both teams. Right now, the Giants list Darnay Holmes as the primary kickoff returner and Golden Tate as the primary punt returner. I would not be surprised if we see other players performing each duty. Note that Jabrill Peppers was name a special teams captain alongside Nate Ebner.
Could Joe Judge have a special teams trick or two up his sleeve for Pittsburgh in this game?
FROM THE COACH’S MOUTH
Head Coach Joe Judge on the Pittsburgh Steelers: “To play the Steelers, it’s important for our players and coaches to understand the tradition and the culture that’s in their DNA. They’re a tough team from a tough city. They have a blue-collar mentality. This defense is very talented, they’re experienced, they play together, they’re tough, they’re opportunistic, they make plays up front and take advantage in the backend on the mistakes you make. This offense is heavily explosive. Obviously, they have one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. They have a tremendous collection of receivers, tight ends and running backs, all of which can change the game on any play. They’re only a few plays away from the end zone at any point in time. We have to respect everything they do. They run the ball very effectively, they throw the ball at will, and they can extend plays. Ben (Roethlisberger) is obviously one of the best in getting the ball out of his hand fast. They give you enough to work on on both sides of the ball. In the kicking game, it all starts with the specialists. They have two big leg guys in (Chris) Boswell and (Dustin) Colquitt. Obviously, that was a big addition bringing Dustin in, a left-footed punter. That’s always kind of a novelty to some people, but this guy has been tremendous throughout the duration of his career. We have a lot of respect for him having gone against him in the past on other teams. Then starting with the returns, love to see what they do on kickoff returns and punt returns. Whether it’s (Ray-Ray) McCloud, whether it’s (Diontae) Johnson, both guys are very explosive with the ball in their hands. We have to do a tremendous job in space of playing with leverage in tackling.”
THE FINAL WORD
It makes no sense to pick the Giants to win this game, just from the impact of the abbreviated offseason alone. The Steelers have an inherent advantage given the long-standing nature of their coaching staff and schemes. Throw on top of that the perceived talent gap, and the Giants will be “lucky” to stay within a touchdown.
That all said, crazy things happen on opening day. The Steelers don’t always start off strong. And the complete lack of a normal offseason could have unforeseen consequences. In other words, some crazy shit could happen. Let’s get nuts!