Game Preview: New York Giants at Washington Redskins, December 9, 2018
Some fans won’t agree with my premise that Pat Shurmur’s job was in jeopardy. His pre-bye week 1-7 start was a disaster and included two double-digit losses. The so-called offensive guru “quarterback whisperer” had two of league’s premium players (Saquon Barkley and Odell Beckham), but his offense had only cracked the 20-point mark twice in eight games. Factoring in the last year of Ben McAdoo, the team did not seem to be improving with a combined 2017-18 record of 4-20.
An uptick occurred when the Giants beat two of the other dregs in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers and and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, scoring 65 points in the process (or just seven fewer than the 72 scored in five losses). Then disaster struck. Having dominated the despised Philadelphia Eagles for almost two quarters, and leading 19-3, Pat Shurmur made a number of highly-questionable coaching decisions en route to a devastating 25-22 loss. This ended any realistic chance of a late-season playoff push in a terrible division.
Which brings us to last Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears. I will argue this will end up being one of the most important games in franchise history, for better or worse. Consider this:
- Had the Giants lost another game in catastrophic fashion: The Giants led by 10 points with 1:49 left in the game. Encumbered by more questionable coaching decisions combined with poor execution, fans watched another late-game meltdown reminiscent of the 1997 playoff loss to the Minnesota Vikings. If the Giants had lost this game, combined with the previous week’s nightmare, the ENTIRE fan base would have been calling for Shurmur’s head.
- With the Giants winning the game in dramatic fashion: Ownership can now legitimately point to the fact that the team is 3-1 in its last four games (and darn close to 4-0). The Redskins are now reeling and the other final three teams (Titans, Colts, and Cowboys) are not world-beaters. It’s not so far-fetched to believe the Giants could now end up closer to .500 than .250.
My point? If you agree with my premise that Shurmur was on shaky ground, then last week’s game has all but officially ensured that he will be the team’s head coach moving forward. I wrote in last week’s preview:
If the Giants play hard and keep it close, Pat Shurmur will gain respect in my eyes. But if this team starts to tank, John Mara had better reconsider all of his options.
The Giants could have easily tanked after the Eagles’ fiasco. And they could have easily tanked after watching their 10-point lead evaporate in 109 seconds. But they didn’t. That doesn’t mean that Shurmur is the right guy for the job. His game-management issues reared their ugly head again against the Bears. But a still-undermanned team is still listening to him, and playing hard for him.
Assuming Shurmur survives, he ought to send a huge Christmas gift to Saquon Barkley. It was Barkley who turned a 3rd-and-23 into a 57-yard field goal attempt. It was Barkley who ripped off a 29-yard run on the first play of overtime to set up the 44-yard game winner. It reminded me of the end of the 2006 season, when an embattled Tom Coughlin may have been saved by the 234-yard rushing effort by Tiki Barber. Coughlin had watched his 6-2 Giants fall to 7-8. Everyone was calling for Tom’s head (including me). But Tiki saved his ass by practically single-handily destroying the Redskins, and putting the Giants into the playoffs at 8-8.
The storyline(s)? This is Pat Shurmur’s team for another season. And because the team appears to be improving, it would seem that Kyle Lauletta will remain on the bench and Eli Manning will return in 2019 as the starting quarterback. Like I said, the outcome of the game against the Bears had huge implications.
THE INJURY REPORT:
- WR Sterling Shepard (rib – probable)
- TE Evan Engram (hamstring – probable)
- LB Lorenzo Carter (hip – probable)
- LB B.J. Goodson (neck/foot – questionable)
- LB Tae Davis (ankle – questionable)
NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE:
Lost in the dramatics of last week’s game was the Jekyll and Hyde performance of the offense against a very good Chicago Bears’ defense. Aside from Barkley’s 22-yard run at the end of the half, the offense was a disaster. Up until that point, there were only three first downs, with the results being five punts and one turnover. In the second half, the Giants scored two touchdowns on their first two drives, came close to scoring on their fourth drive, and moved into game-winning field goal position in overtime on their sixth drive.
Why the dramatic improvement? The team was able to consistently run the football. Including his 22-yarder right before halftime, Barkley had carried the football seven times for 43 yards in the first half. In the second half, he carried the ball 17 times for 82 yards. These are not earth-shattering numbers, but the Giants kept the down-and-distance situations manageable and the Bears were not able to tee off on Manning. Just as importantly, in the second half, the Giants looked and felt like the more physical football team. I am going to say this again because this is something that has been lacking since the days of Tom Coughlin: The Giants looked and felt like the more physical football team.
Moving forward, the direction this team should take is obvious: build the offense around the running game. Bring in additional big, strong, physical offensive linemen who can maul defenders. Be the more physical football team. Barkley has the ability to dominate. Give him the supporting cast to do so.
With all that in mind, there are a few offensive guys on this team who I am going to watch very closely the last four games:
- Evan Engram: One of the biggest disappointments of the season. He is a liability in the running game and has only 23 catches for 257 yards and two touchdowns all season. Is he the right fit for this offense? At the very least, turn him into more of an H-Back/move tight end than traditional 3-point stance, hand-in-the-dirt tight end. The latter isn’t working.
- Scott Simonson: Talk about Jekyll and Hyde. Last week, his three penalties stood out like a sore thumb. But so did his blocking at the point of attack against Khalil Mack.
- Elijhaa Penny: Again, I saw some really solid, physical lead blocks from the fullback… something I had not seen in a long time.
- Both tackles: After a dreadful first half of the season, Nate Solder has dramatically improved. The final four games are huge in order to determine if he is an asset or liability moving forward. On the other hand, Chad Wheeler gives the appearance of a try-hard guy who simply may not be big and strong enough to start in the NFL. I won’t write him off yet. But the clock is ticking.
- Jamon Brown: He looks the part. Big, powerful, strong. And he can abuse people in the running game. But can he become a consistently solid pass protector? Keep watching.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE:
We all saw and felt it last week. The defense (with an assist from the special teams) had let a 10-point lead evaporate. They had already let the Bears convert on a 4th-and-7 in overtime. At this point, James Bettcher had had enough. He brought the kitchen sink on 4th-and-8 and left the defensive backs in 0 coverage (no safety support). Janoris Jenkins saved the day. It was risky as you could get, but Bettcher had had enough.
Moving forward, the defense may need more help than the offense. We’ve discussed the issues ad nauseam: the Giants can’t rush the passer, they can’t cover the middle of the field, and now they are having issues stopping the run.
We should not lose sight on one critical piece of information: during the Giants’ 3-1 uptick, they have played against a series of underwhelming back-up quarterbacks: Nick Mullens, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Chase Daniels. Now comes Mark Sanchez. This is not murderer’s row… and yet the Giants still have had issues with this group. That’s not a good sign.
Again, here are some players who I will be watching closely down the stretch:
- B.W. Webb: I’m glad Sy’56 had the courage to bring this up, but Webb has been playing very well. He’s looked like an NFL starter. Flash in the pan or is this a career renaissance moment for him?
- Grant Haley: He has had some down moments, but there is a lot to like his game. Can he become a quality nickel corner on a winning defense?
- Sean Chandler: The injury to Landon Collins opens the door for a this rookie longshot from Temple. And with Collins’ pending free agent status, who knows?
- Olivier Vernon: The injury-prone tease drew praise from James Bettcher this week: “I’ll tell you what, when I’m watching him play – number one he’s getting healthier. Came off a tough injury, played well in that first game then was working through all that stuff and I think he’s getting healthier, number one, and number two the guy I saw rushing – he was rushing as the reckless OV that I think we saw in OTAs and preseason. Just staying with his rush plan throughout the game then in the run game just getting off the ball and being physical at the point and I think those are probably the two things. I think he feels better and I’m watching him practice and he’s practicing better during the week these last couple of weeks and I think that’s leading him to play better on Sunday.”
- B.J. Hill and Dalvin Tomlinson: So much of the defense’s immediate and long-term future depends on these two. Both flashed against the Bears. But their run defense needs to improve.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
As I mentioned in the YES Network-BBI podcast this week, what we had not seen from Aldrick Rosas thus far was his performance under immense pressure. While the 57 yarder will be remembered as a team record, his 44 yarder in overtime was probably the more impressive kick due to the pressure of the moment. The Giants have a kicker.
THE FINAL WORD:
This is a winnable game. But keep in mind that the offense only scored SIX points against the Redskins until garbage time in the previous game (it was 20-6 with three minutes left). For the Giants to win this game, the offense will have to demonstrate that it is making REAL progress against a defensive unit that had recently shut it down.