Aug 082018
 
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Eli Manning, New York Giants (August 1, 2018)

Eli Manning – © USA TODAY Sports

Preseason Game Preview: Cleveland Browns at New York Giants, August 9, 2018

THE STORYLINE:

Hope springs eternal with the advent of each and every NFL season. But make no mistake about it, the NFL and the New York Football Giants appear to be at a crossroads. Both have been terribly mismanaged in recent years and the product has suffered. One thing that would help the NFL as a whole right now is to have a star-studded (Odell Beckham, Saquon Barkley) Giants team regain its footing in the nation’s #1 media market.

The 2017 New York Giants were an abysmal football team. Before we close the book on last year, let us remember that the Giants were so bad that conservative ownership fired both the general manager and head coach before the season was over. The offense, defense, and special teams were train wrecks and by year’s end, the team was arguably the worst in the league. The Giants were not just losing, they were getting embarrassed. It was so bad that diehard Giants fans did something they rarely do: they stopped watching.

Thus the immediate goal is not the playoffs, but to simply field a competitive football team. Baby steps. Don’t be soft; be physical. Focus on fundamentals. Move the football and pick up first downs. Put points on the board. Stop the opponent from moving the ball. Create turnovers. Field a special teams unit that is an asset rather than a liability. Don’t get blown out. Baby steps.

Most importantly, the team’s new leadership has to create a culture/atmosphere of a winner rather than a loser. Old Giants fans who grew up in the 1970s have intimate knowledge about how losing breeds losing. When you expect to lose, you usually do. When you expect to win, you usually do. Team culture is a fragile thing. And the Giants were blessed with coaches like Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin who knew how to create a winning culture.

Many fans have already made the assumption that the team is in better hands with Dave Gettleman and Pat Shurmur. We won’t know if this is true until we see the product on the field over the course of the next few seasons. Both are hindered by and must deal with the mess Jerry Reese, Marc Ross, and Ben McAdoo left. The team’s draft record over the course of the past decade (exacerbated by bad injury luck) has directly led to a shitty product. Look no further than the offensive line as just one example. So as much as we watch and judge the players during this 2018 preseason, we must also consider the big picture. Did ownership make the right choices at the all-important GM and HC positions?

THE INJURY REPORT:

  • TE Ryan O’Malley (protective boot on right foot/ankle)
  • DE R.J. McIntosh (unknown – Active/Non-Football Illness list)
  • LB Thurston Armbrister (hamstring)
  • CB Donte Deayon (hamstring)

Also, cornerback/safety William Gay (hamstring) and cornerback/safety Curtis Riley (hamstring) who have returned to practice recently could be held out.

NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE:

The New York Giants were 31st in scoring in 2017. The team averaged 15.4 points per game. This is the size of the hole the Giants must climb out of.

For the third time in his 15-year NFL career, the 37-year old Eli Manning must learn a new system. The first time was in 2004 as a rookie. The second time came in 2014 when Ben McAdoo was hired as offensive coordinator. Now Pat Shurmur brings his own offense. As much attention as Odell Beckham, Saquon Barkley, Evan Engram, etc. receive, the offense will ultimately thrive or fail on the ability of Eli Manning to adapt to the new system and hold off Father Time. Fans being honest with themselves see it… regardless of the reasons, Eli has lost his mojo in recent years. He’s looked jumpy in the pocket and has missed too many throws. For many quarterbacks, once they become gun-shy, it’s over. If Eli doesn’t get his mojo back this season, we may be seeing Davis Webb or Kyle Lauletta or someone else leading the team in 2019. That’s why the performance of all three quarterbacks this preseason will be so important to watch. There is a lot more at stake than is normally the case.

The other main area of concern is obviously the offensive line. This unit began to deteriorate even during the team’s last championship season in 2011. Over the course of the next six years, the Giants used both the draft and free agency to attempt to fix the line, but failed miserably. So here we are in 2018 with new starters at each of the five positions: Nate Solder at left tackle, Will Hernandez at left guard, Jon Halapio at center, Patrick Omameh at right guard, and Ereck Flowers now shifting to right tackle from the left side. I think most of us still see this as a two-year rebuilding project. Hopefully, the left side is set, but there are still serious question marks at center and right tackle. Not to mention that it will take time to build chemistry and cohesion. Depth will be an area of focus too. In most recent preseasons, the #2 offensive line for the Giants has been a sieve. Are there any quality back-ups at all in this group? In particular, the Giants need to identify a swing tackle who can play if Solder or Flowers get hurt.

OK, enough gloom. It is quite possible that no team in the NFL fields a more dangerous trio at WR-TE-RB than the New York Giants with Odell Beckham, Jr., Evan Engram, and Saquon Barkley. Throw in Sterling Shepard and this group is going to be a match-up nightmare for other teams. We probably won’t see these four play much on Thursday, and their absence from the line-up dramatically changes the nature of the offense. The Giants are a very top-heavy team, meaning they have a good amount of Pro Bowl-quality players but that quality level drops off rapidly. There is no better example of this than the wide receiver position. After Beckham and Shepard, the next three receivers on the depth chart are Denver Bronco castoffs, including two guys who were street pick-ups who played for the Giants last year. It will be interesting to see if the coaches and Eli can turn around the careers of Cody Latimer, Hunter Sharp, and Kalif Raymond. Are any of these three viable NFL receivers? What happens if Beckham or Shepard get hurt?

Finally, on a personal note, I can’t wait to see Saquon Barkley. Some fans will boo when he doesn’t turn every touch into a 40-gain, but this guy has the tools to become the best running back in franchise history. People will be tuning into the Giants just to see him play.

NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE:

The Giants were 31st in yards allowed in 2017 and 27th in points allowed. Again, this is the size of the hole they must climb out of.

The still under-reported change this offseason is the Giants are shifting back to the 3-4 defense for the first time in 25 years. While it may not be the old 2-gap defense of the 1980s and there will be plenty of hybrid looks, this is a very big deal. It means the linebackers will become the focus of the defense in terms of play-makers. So while the Giants have 1,000 pounds of beef up front with the on-paper imposing wall of Dalvin Tomlinson, Damon Harrison, and B.J. Hill, pressure will be on the likes of Olivier Vernon, Kareem Martin, B.J. Goodson, Alec Ogletree, Connor Barwin, and Lorenzo Carter to make game-changing plays.

What we do know is that this will be a blitz-heavy defense, perhaps the most blitz-oriented defense in recent memory, and perhaps team history. James Bettcher will bring it from all angles. Based on his comments earlier this week, we may even see that in the preseason as he claims they must practice what they intend to employ during the regular season.

Fans love it when they hear a defense blitzes and attacks. The mindset is one where the defense dictates rather than reacts. But with aggressiveness does come risk. A secondary that has arguably gotten weaker on paper will be under tremendous pressure. One mistake could result in a 70-yard score. Because of that, much attention will be on the starting unit and reserves in the secondary. We know Janoris Jenkins and Landon Collins are quality football players. But Eli Apple is coming off a dreadful season and the Giants desperately need him to be at least a so-so NFL corner. And Bettcher freely admits four players are competing for the free safety spot with no one yet pulling ahead in the competition. The nickel corner spot is a de facto starting spot in today’s NFL and who that guy will be also remains unknown at this point. We may see a variety of players being in a variety of roles on a game-to-game basis this year. The good news? At least on the surface, Bettcher doesn’t seemed worried at all. In fact, he appears to be relishing the challenge.

Again, on a personal note, my focus is going to be on Tomlinson, Harrison, and Hill up front. I think this group has a chance to be REALLY good and help set up the linebackers.

NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS:

In 2017, the Giants were dead last or near dead last in field goal percentage, extra point percentage, net punting, kickoff returns, punt returns, and punt coverage. Besides that, every thing was hunky dory. Again, the size of the hole…

I am very uneasy about this spot on the team still. Tom Quinn has more lives than a cat and is still somehow still around. Aldrick Rosas is too. If he falters this preseason, the Giants will have to pick up a kicker quickly. The team has a new punter that the Broncos discarded after two years. And there are no obvious standouts for kick and punt returner. It looks like the ex-Bronco wide receivers will have the first shot there.

FROM THE COACH’S MOUTH:

Head Coach Pat Shurmur on goals this preseason: “I think it’s important that we operate as a staff and getting in and out of the huddle, making sure we’ve got the right people on the field, and there’s a lot to be learned especially between the first and the second preseason game when you’re a new staff working together. We have a blueprint for how we want to do it, and games are uncontrolled settings, and there’s things that happen. So, the more uncontrolled things that happen in the game, the more opportunity you have to learn, and I think that’s what we’re looking for. So, we’re trying to balance getting our team ready to play Jacksonville with doing the final evaluations on the guys that’ll be on our initial 53.”

THE FINAL WORD:

Let’s see physical, fundamentally-sound football first and then move forward from there.

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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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