Dec 252020
 
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Joe Judge, New York Giants (January 9, 2020)

Joe Judge – © USA TODAY Sports

THE STORYLINE

2020 has been a very strange year and that strangeness has extended to the NFL and the New York Giants. In a shocking move, the Giants hired a relatively unknown, 38-year old special teams coordinator as the franchise’s new head coach  in January. Although he had no head coaching experience at any level, Joe Judge immediately began to win over skeptical fans during his fiery, introductory press conference. More so than any Giants head coach in memory, Judge took his own sweet time in methodically putting together what appeared to a strong coaching staff. Fans were largely unimpressed with the slew of players added in free agency, headlined by high-priced acquisitions James Bradberry and Blake Martinez. Most of the anticipation and focus centered on the 2020 NFL Draft, with the Giants holding the fourth overall selection.

Then COVID-19 hit.

“15 days to stop the spread” morphed into something far darker. One of the minor casualties appeared to be the 2020 NFL season. From a purely parochial, pro sports viewpoint, it appeared that Joe Judge’s inaugural season was irrevocably sabotaged. Teams were not able to meet with players before the draft. No rookie mini-camp, no OTAs, no veteran mini-camp, zoom calls instead of face-to-face interaction, abbreviated and restricted training camp, no preseason. Would a full season even be possible?

All of this for a team that had won just 12 total games in 2017, 2018, and 2019 and was now on its fourth head coach and second general manager since 2015. There was a sense that the Giants were in perpetual rebuilding mode, merely spinning their wheels. The last thing the franchise and Joe Judge needed was the COVID albatross.

Among fans, the doom-and-gloomers initially ended up being right. The young team with a new coach missed a preseason that it desperately needed. The early schedule was a bitch. And disaster struck when the Giants lost their best player, Saquon Barkley, early in Week 2. The Giants quickly found themselves 0-5. Yet another season appeared over by October. The Giants got embarrassed by a 49er JV team and let two leads against the Cowboys disappear. Fans turned on turnover-machine Daniel Jones and there was talk that the Giants may own the first pick in the 2021 Draft and select Trevor Lawrence.

Then something unexpected happened. The Giants started playing better. The Giants won their annual “feel good” game against Washington. New York lost two heart-breakers against the Eagles and Buccaneers, games in which the Giants held 4th-quarter leads. The Giants then went on a 4-game winning streaking, beating Washington, the Eagles (finally!), the Bengals, and the Seahawks (holy crap!). Unbelievably, the Giants were tied for first place in December. And had they made a play here or there against the Cowboys and Bucs, they could have been in the midst of a 7-game winning streak and a commanding NFC East lead.

What happened? Daniel Jones stopped turning the ball over. And the entire defense and offensive line were coming on. The former under Patrick Graham, who had only just become a defensive coordinator in 2019 in Miami. The latter despite offensive line coach Marc Colombo unexpectedly being fired during the surge.

Giants fans who had become accustomed to losing football were now giddy in December! That all changed when the Cardinals bitch-slapped the Giants 26-7 in mid-December. An offense that had struggled to score all season and already missing Barkley could not also deal with an obviously hobbled Daniel Jones. Worse, the schedule was clearly getting tougher again. The Giants (not unexpectedly) fell to 5-9, one game behind Washington with two games left to play. That’s where we are right now.

Why the recap? Because I think many Giants fans have lost their freaking minds.

Giants fans before the Browns game: “We have no chance! We’re going to get killed!”

Giants fans after the Browns game: “We suck! How could we lose to the Browns?!”

Many (not all, but many) Giants fans are still living in denial. They don’t seem to REALLY understand that this team has won just 17 games in four years. The fact that the Giants are one game out of first place in arguably the worst division in NFL history doesn’t change that fact. The Giants STILL have significant talent issues on offense and defense. The Cardinals and Browns beat the Giants because they are the better teams. The Giants are improving but they have a long way to go.

Now to the good stuff. The Giants can still make the playoffs. The Baltimore Ravens should win this game, but the Giants are certainly capable of pulling off the upset if a few things break their way. Despite all of the shit that has happened this year, the Giants are still only one game out with two games left to play. Not ideal. But if you painted this picture in September, many Giants fans would have been thrilled to be in this position.

THE INJURY REPORT

  • QB Daniel Jones (hamstring/ankle – questionable)
  • WR Golden Tate (calf – out)
  • TE Evan Engram (calf – probable)
  • OT Matt Peart (ankle – probable)
  • LB Blake Martinez (ankle – questionable)
  • CB Darnay Holmes (knee – questionable)

NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE

I love you guys, but you are driving me crazy. Since September, I’ve pointed out the personnel limitations on this side of the ball. I told you all how catastrophic the loss of Saquon Barkley would be to this talent-deprived unit. Where I was wrong is I didn’t fully realize how inept our receiving targets were going to be this year. I foolishly expected more out of Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, Golden Tate, and Evan Engram. These “big four” have just SEVEN touchdown receptions in 14 games. As a team, the Giants only have nine touchdown passes. That’s beyond dreadful.

Jason Garrett has a long history of coaching top-10 offenses in this league. That’s just a fact. “But look at his talent in Dallas!” That’s my point. The New York backfield last week included Colt McCoy (8-22 starting QB) and Alfred Morris (32-year old RB who had one carry in 2019). Shit, that was the Redskins backfield in 2014 (a team that finished 4-12). “Garrett should be able to do the same with McCoy, Morris, and Tate as Cleveland does with Mayfield, Chubb, and Landry!” (See how stupid this sounds?)

I still haven’t given up on Daniel Jones. I may be dead wrong, but I feel he has been sabotaged with poor surrounding talent. He played much better as a rookie, but Barkley only missed three games last year. When a defense focuses all of their attention on Barkley, it opens everything up everyone else. This year, when his protection got better, Jones stopped turning the ball over. The hamstring and ankle injuries obviously affected his play against the Cardinals. It remains to be seen how much they will hinder him against the Ravens and Cowboys. Keep this in mind: Daniel Jones started 12 games in 2019 and 12 games thus far in 2020. He threw 24 touchdown passes last year. He has eight this year. You can draw your own conclusions as you best see fit.

Big picture, here is where the Giants are at: This year, the Giants can be respectable on offense when the offensive line is having one of its “good games” and Daniel Jones is relatively healthy. This is NOT a team that can count on its wide receivers and tight ends to make plays in the passing game. There is no depth at these positions either; none of the young players pushing the non-productive starters (Austin Mack is not going to save the day). Even Wayne Gallman has seen his carries decline from 24 to 16 to 12 to 9 in the past four games. As a group, many if not most of the wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs currently on the roster will not be on this team in 2021 (and a few won’t be in the NFL). The Giants are a bad offensive football team because they have bad offensive personnel at the skill positions. Read that last sentence again.

What about the future? The building blocks on the offensive line appear to be in place. They just have to continue to grow together and gain cohesion and chemistry. Sy’56 strongly argues to add additional pieces to the line in order to turn this into a real strength. He argues a very good offensive line can cover up a multitude of sins. Assuming the Giants move ahead with Daniel Jones, the offensive offseason priorities have to be centered around upgrading the wide receivers and tight ends. No one here scares other teams. Also pray that Saquon Barkley can return near full strength. Long story short, in many ways, this team doesn’t even have major component parts on the roster yet. The rebuild continues.

As for the game against the Ravens, for the Giants to have a chance, they have to play like they did against Seattle. Run, run, run behind a big and physical offensive line that will hopefully be “on”… because if they aren’t, the Giants are toast. Unfortunately, Baltimore has the NFL’s 9th-ranked defense (10th against the run, 14th against the pass, 4th in scoring defense).

NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE

Like the injuries to Daniel Jones, the loss of James Bradberry due to a COVID precaution came at a bad time. His absence, along with nickel corner Darnay Holmes (a de facto starter), was keenly felt against the Browns. The loss of these two players had a trickle-down effect throughout the entire pass defense. It also demonstrated just how thin the Giants are at the corner position thanks to botching the Deandre Baker and Sam Beal picks.

Assuming Holmes plays, the Giants will be near full-strength on defense (late note: LB Blake Martinez was a late addition to the injury report). For the third week in a row, the Giants will be playing a top-four rushing attack. The Cardinals are #4 and the Browns are #3. This weekend, the Giants play the #1 rushing team in the NFL as the Ravens average almost 173 yards per game, or one yard less in what they average throwing the football (31st in the NFL). Usually, run-centric teams can have issues scoring, but that isn’t true for the Cardinals, Browns, and Ravens. Baltimore is 6th in the NFL in scoring, averaging 29 points per game (the Giants have dropped to an embarrassing 17 points per game).

Even more so than the Cardinals, the focal point of the Ravens’ rushing attack is their quarterback, Lamar Jackson (828 yards rushing, 6.1 yards per rush, 7 touchdowns). Running backs Gus Edwards (578 yards, 4.9 yards per rush, 6 touchdowns) and J.K. Dobbins (568 yards, 5.2 yards per carry, 6 touchdowns) contribute another 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns. As a team, the Ravens have 21 rushing touchdowns.

Lamar Jackson has thrown for one yard less than Daniel Jones this year. But while Jones has eight touchdown passes and nine interceptions, Jackson has thrown for 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions on 50 fewer attempts. The efficiency of his game is why he has a QBR 20 points higher than Jones. Only three Ravens have more than 17 receptions on the season: WR Marquise Brown (49 catches, 703 yards, 5 touchdowns), TE Mark Andrews (48 catches, 598 yards, 7 touchdowns), and WR Willie Snead (31 catches, 408 yards, 3 touchdowns).

When Jackson is “on,” he’s truly a difference maker who can dominate a game with his arm and feet. But when he is “off,” the Ravens suffer and can be beaten. The Giants clearly need to focus on defending the run, especially the more “gimmicky” designed QB runs. Kyler Murray was good practice for the Giants. But also keep in mind the Cardinals soundly crushed the Giants 26-7 just two weeks ago.

NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS

The game within a game this week is two former special teams coordinators turned head coaches matching off against each other. New York’s late-season downward spiral on special teams continued last weekend with the odd fake field goal attempt against Cleveland. The Ravens have returned one kickoff for a touchdown this season and their punt returner is averaging a respectable 8.6 yards per punt return. They also have superb kickers.

FROM THE COACH’S MOUTH

Head Coach Joe Judge on the 2020 Baltimore Ravens: “You talk about them as a team, they obviously went through that three-week stretch where they played on kind of not normal weeks. Short schedules, long schedules, guys being pulled out for COVID, whatever the reason is. Obviously, they’re getting guys back now healthy. They’re really hitting their stride. This is a very good team. It’s going to take everything we have to prepare for them. We have to have our best on Sunday.”

THE FINAL WORD

The Baltimore Ravens are arguably the best team the Giants have faced this year. They have top units on offense, defense, and special teams. As Judge pointed out, they had to deal with unbelievable COVID issues, but are now hitting their stride. On paper, this is one of the worst teams for the Giants to be facing in a must-win situation. But it is what it is. The Giants put themselves in this position by losing earlier games to the Cowboys and Eagles. For all intents and purposes, this is a playoff game.

My head says “no way” but my heart says “Go Giants!”

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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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