The New York Giants came as close to falling off the tight rope as one can get last Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals. They may have regained their balance with one of the most memorable games in franchise history, but they are still clearly shaky with some strong wind gusts about to hit them in the face.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. Perhaps the Giants were still reeling from their 40-0 drubbing by the Cowboys. Perhaps the frontline players are still trying to knock the rust off after having hardly played in the preseason. Perhaps the Giants simply are not that good. But getting dominated by the Joshua Dobbs-led Arizona Cardinals in the first half in a must-win game may have been the low point of my NYG fandom. And I’ve seen a lot of horrific moments in the past 40 years. I’ve never been more confused and disappointed as a fan as I was at halftime. How could this be happening? What is going on? To be honest, I still don’t know. And the fact that actually did happen is a huge red flag.
The good is obvious. 31 second half points. Not giving up at 20-0, or probably even more tellingly, at 28-7. Keeping their poise and executing when every single possession had to result in a long scoring drive. That is the type of game that can change the trajectory of an entire season. It was also another indication that maybe, just maybe, Daniel Jones is actually a pretty darn good quarterback.
There is just one “little” problem on the horizon. Having to play a West Coast road game on Thursday night is incredibly tough enough, but to have that team be the San Fransisco 49ers, the most physical team in football, is an almost impossible mountain to climb. Indeed, this couldn’t be a worse opponent for the Giants coming off an emotional win on a short week. Like the Cowboys and Eagles, the 49ers are another team that wins because they are exceptionally strong up front on both sides of the football. The Giants have proven over and over again they can’t compete with those types of teams. Not yet.
And after Thursday, it hardly gets any easier. Long story short, the Giants are going to have to pull off a major upset or two within the next month or they are going to be 1-5 heading into the October 22nd game against the Commanders. The next four opponents? 49ers, Seahawks, Dolphins, and Bills. That’s why 20-0 at halftime against the Cardinals is so alarming.
THE INJURY REPORT:
- RB Saquon Barkley (ankle – out)
- WR Wan’Dale Robinson (knee – questionable)
- LT Andrew Thomas (hamstring – out)
- OG Ben Bredeson (concussion – out)
- ILB Micah McFadden (neck – questionable)
- OLB Azeez Ojulari (hamstring – out)
NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE:
By all accounts, the Giants’ offense had its best training camp in years. That was backed up by the second day of practices against the Detroit Lions and the impressive first offensive series against the Panthers. Then came that absolute disaster against the Dallas Cowboys where the team could do nothing right and only generated 63 passing yards. “But that was the Cowboys, the Giants will get right against the Cardinals!” At halftime in Glendale, the Giants had five first downs and were scoreless for six straight quarters. It was an incomprehensible result given the offseason additions.
Whatever the reasons, the Giants dramatically came out of their mental slump after halftime. The team scored on every offensive possession, including drives of 75, 75, 80, 64, and 56 yards. Daniel Jones and his weapons were a machine. I’m not sure there has ever been such shocking turnaround over the span of eight quarters… historic, embarrassing ineptitude for six quarters immediately followed by near flawless execution.
Why? Obviously the players executed better. Look no further than the play of Daniel Jones. He was on a different level in the second half. The line also gave him more time and Saquon Barkley started to play like Saquon Barkley. But there was more to it than that too. Jalin Hyatt did something that he did all throughout training camp: he blew past both the corner and deep safety for a 58-yard catch that really probably should have been a 75-yard touchdown. That one play put the fear of God into Arizona’s defense. It changed everything. Up until that point, the Cardinals had not really respected the deep threats (even though they were lucky that Jones missed Darius Slayton deep in the first half). The offensive line also enabled Jones to take the shot to Hyatt. Had that been against Dallas, the play would have resulted in a sack.
The offense employed by Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka is all about spacing, both vertically and horizontally. The Hyatt deep shot put the horizontal back into play. Note how players were getting open far easier after that down-the-field completion. Arizona was also still being heavily influenced by the play fakes to Saquon Barkley. In my opinion, the Arizona game plan was to not let Barkley beat them. Jones reached a new level, his receivers now had room to operate, and Arizona paid the ultimate price. Touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, game-winning field goal. It doesn’t get any better than that.
So the Giants got out their funk. Finally. They are ready to rock and roll now. Normally, I’d say yes and be very hopeful and excited. However, there are three big problems: (1) the offensive line is still unsettled given the injury situation to Andrew Thomas and now Ben Bredeson, (2) Saquon Barkley is going to be out at least one game, and most importantly (3) the San Fransisco 49er defense. The schedule makers did the Giants no favors with this one.
Yes, the New York offensive line performed surprisingly well with Joshua Ezeudu playing at left tackle and Marcus McKethan playing at right guard. But that was against an Arizona Cardinals defense that was missing two starters in the front seven. The 49ers are on a completely different level. This is a team that went into Pittsburgh and made the Steelers look soft, holding them to seven points. Josh Ezeudu, who has barely played at left tackle in the pros, now faces right end Nick Bosa, the defensive player of the year who had 18.5 sacks in 2022. Evan Neal, who is still having his issues in pass pro, will face Drake Jackson who already has three sacks this year. The interior defensive linemen – Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave – are two of the best two-way defensive tackles in football. Hargrave had 11 sacks with the Eagles in 2022. They are also deep at the position. Mark Glowinski will have to fill in for Bredeson.
It may start with the defensive line, but it doesn’t end there, aside from Bosa, the 49ers had two more All Pros on defense, linebacker Fred Warner and safety Talanoa Hufanga. Linebacker Dre Greenlaw is an underrated tackling machine. The secondary is solid at corner and very strong at safety. On paper, this is a complete mismatch against the team with the top rated defense in all of football in 2022 (both in terms of yards and points).
To win, the Giants will have to hit some big plays in the passing game. They won’t be able to run ball consistently against this defense, with possible exception of Daniel Jones, who will likely come out of this game pretty battered. They also need to prevent turnovers. The guy who needs to play more is Hyatt. He can help loosen up any defense. Whether the offensive line can give Jones the time he needs to get him the ball is a different matter entirely.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE:
I’m a big fan of Wink Martindale. But I wrote before the opener, “The pressure is on Martindale to elevate New York’s 25th ranked defense that was also 27th against the run. To be blunt, the Giants had the worst defense in the NFC East. He knows how to do it. His defenses in Baltimore were always top notch in run defense. And Joe Schoen gave him a lot of new toys to play with.”
Last week, I wrote, “Wink Martindale and his defensive players are very fortunate that the media and fans are focusing almost exclusively on the Giants’ offensive woes this week. Because the defense laid an egg on Sunday night too. The yardage figures were subdued mainly because Dallas had fewer plays and offensive possessions than the Giants. Nevertheless, the defense allowed five scoring drives, including three rushing touchdowns. Dallas was 6-of-13 (46 percent) on third down and 1-of-2 on fourth down. The Giants had no sacks only hit the quarterback three times. They did not create a turnover.”
Well, with fans now at least temporarily mollified by the 31-point second-half against the Cardinals, Wink is very much in the spotlight this week. The Giants allowed five consecutive scoring drives against Arizona (it could have been six except for a missed field goal). The Giants are the only team in the NFL without a sack or turnover. Somewhat surprisingly, they are a respectable 15th overall in yards allowed, but the run defense is still bottom tier, allowing over 136 yards per game.
Want a key stat? The 49ers have the NFL’s #1 defense against the run in terms of yards per carry (3.4). The Giants are tied for 31st with 5.2. So we have a match-up where the league’s most innovative and third-most productive running team (173.5 yards per game) will face one of the NFL’s worst-rank run defenses for the past two years. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to see where this is going.
Fans will understandably focus on the glamor positions and talk about Cinderella story quarterback Brock Purdy, two-way threat Christian McCaffrey, one of the best tight ends in football in George Kittle, and dynamic receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk for good reason. Say what you want about Purdy, but the rest of those guys are studs. However, to me, the face of this offensive football team is left tackle Trent Williams, a mountain of a man who just obliterates his opponents. On paper, the rest of the line isn’t overly impressive, but they play well together as a unit and are very physical in the running game. They are also helped by the innovative running schemes employed by Shanahan.
The challenge with playing the 49ers is this: you have to stop the run. They won’t abandon it. At the same time, the 49ers have enough explosive weapons at running back, tight end, and wide receiver to make big plays in the passing game. It makes them very tough to defend.
The only shot the Giants have in this game is to do something they haven’t been able to do in years with multiple general managers, head coaches, and defensive coordinators, and that is stop a very good and very physical ground game. The Giants have good depth on the defensive line now. The Giants should play four defensive tackles much of the game up front and keep rotating them. Wink is also going to have to take chances with the young players in the secondary and allow them to sink or swim. Easy touchdowns could be the result. But it’s pick your poison and I don’t want to see the 49ers run for 250 yards against the Giants.
There are a number of players on this defensive roster who have been missing in action. Kayvon Thibodeaux has received the bulk of the criticism for understandable reasons. But there are others including Leonard Williams, Azeez Ojulari (who is hurt again), Bobby Okereke (who was THE big free agent acquisition in the offseason), and Rakeem Nunez-Roches (who was signed to stop the run). Someone has to get to the quarterback. Someone has to force and recover a fumble. Someone needs to make a pick. And based on last Sunday’s performance, everyone, and I mean everyone, needs to tackle. The 49ers saw the film. They have to be licking their chops.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
I said I was going to keep score on Thomas McGaughey. While the Giants didn’t do anything special on special teams, they didn’t lose the game. Eric Gray made some nice plays fielding punts and Graham Gano kicked the game winner. Let’s be generous and tie Tom’s record up at 1-1.
Note that 49ers returner Ray-Ray McCloud has 13 career fumbles.
FROM THE COACHES:
Brian Daboll on Kyle Shanahan: “He’s done this for a long time. He has a ton of experience. He has, I’d say, a number of plays that he’s run throughout his past and he’s always evolving. That’s what I appreciate about Kyle. He’s a heck of a football coach. He creates, I’d say, a lot of issues, whether that’s run force issues, whether that’s making plays look exactly the same and setting things up. He’s a timely play caller. He’s an excellent coach.”
Daboll on the Giants defense: “Run defense is really team defense. It’s controlling the line of scrimmage, it’s making sure we have good run fits and run support. It takes all 11 guys… I’d say we play a lot of fronts. Wink has pretty much every front you can have… Obviously, we want to create some negative plays, whether that’s negative run plays or pass plays. We got to do a good job of getting them to those pass situations, controlling first down so they can’t play the game on their terms.”
THE FINAL WORD:
Fans will think I’m being too pessimistic about this contest, but I go with what I see. Based on last season and the first two games of this season, the 49ers are one of the best teams in the NFL. And much of that success is predicated on the play of their lines. That’s exactly the type of team that gives the Giants trouble. And on top of that, this is a Thursday night road game coming off an emotional win? C’mon.
If this were a normal Sunday game against a different team, I would like the Giants chances. Not in this one.