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Game Preview: New York Giants at Indianapolis Colts, December 23, 2018

THE STORYLINE:
A few steps forward, one Giant step backwards. Last weekend’s loss to the Tennessee Titans was a real eye-opener. The Giants were 4-1 in their last five contests heading into that game with momentum building. While still immensely flawed, they were still playing hard and showing some signs of becoming a more physical football team. Then a slightly-above-.500 Tennessee Titans team bitch-slapped them back to reality. The Titans dominated both lines of scrimmage and the score never felt as close as the 17-0 end result. The defeat also officially ended any faint hopes of a playoff spot.

I think the final two games of the 2018 season are fairly important for this franchise. What direction is this team heading? Is the arrow pointed up, down, stuck in neutral? How do the Giants respond this week? With another dud? Do they rebound?

The glass-half-empty crowd will lament Pat Shurmur and Eli Manning have done just enough to encourage ownership to mistakenly keep both around another year. The question remains is this team better or worse off bringing both back in 2019, or is the team merely postponing their inevitable departure in January 2020?

The glass-half-full crowd will argue that this was a team clearly in transition that played better in the second half of the season than it did in the first half. They will argue that you need to give Shurmur and his staff more than one season, and that firing the coaching staff will simply lead to more chaos. They also will argue that there is no clear better alternative to Eli Manning in 2019.

What we don’t want is the team being stuck in neutral, ensconced in the basement of a bad division for the foreseeable future.

THE INJURY REPORT:

  • WR Odell Beckham (quad – out)
  • WR Russell Shepard (ankle – out)
  • WR Jawill Davis (hamstring – probable)
  • OC Spencer Pulley (calf – out)
  • DE Kerry Wynn (thumb – questionable)
  • LB Alec Ogletree (concussion – out)

NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE:

Though not all of the points were generated by the offense, there was a clear belief and feeling that the offense was finally turning the corner based on point production. During the 1-7 start, the Giants had averaged less than 19 points per game. During the 4-1 turnaround, the team averaged over 31 points per game. Then the Giants had their worst day of the season last Sunday, not even reaching the red zone until the end of the game.

It was no coincidence that the offense line regressed terribly in the game, both run and pass blocking. Or that receivers dropped a lot of passes. Or that Eli Manning once again showed a still-too-frequent tendency to make really bad decisions/turnovers. When you can’t block up front, you are going to have major issues on offense. If you can’t handle the basics, like catching the football, your punter is going to have a busy day. If your quarterback makes a bone-headed play in a still-tight game, you’re going to lose.

Offensively, the most alarming red flags were the offensive line and Manning seriously regressing again. Once again, we are now left with the questions: (1) how many starters do the Giants need to replace on the OL, and (2) is Eli Manning capable of being a consistent game-manager at this stage of his career? Nate Solder is up and down. Spencer Pulley, who is now hurt and may not play the final two games, looks like a clear liability. Jamon Brown flashes in the run game but also is too inconsistent, especially in pass protection. Chad Wheeler tries hard, but he’s just not getting it done.

Manning hasn’t thrown for a lot of touchdowns this year (18). He’s immobile. And he no longer appears to be able to elevate the level of play by those around him. But he is completing the highest percentage of passes in his career (66 percent), hasn’t turned the ball over much (just nine interceptions; though he does have six fumbles), and has played five games this year with a QBR over 100. With the Giants relying more on Saquon Barkley in recent games, Manning and – not coincidentally – the entire offense were playing better. Then came last Sunday. Still in a one-score game late in the 3rd quarter, Manning’s two boneheaded turnovers proved to be the back-breakers. If you are going to become a “game manager”, you can’t kill your team like that.

The prevailing opinion is that – for better or worse – the Giants are “stuck” with Manning for one more year. He has a no-trade clause. It is difficult to see him walking away from the $17 million dollars (salary, roster bonus, workout bonus) he is due in 2019. Ownership/management appears excessively loyal to him, perhaps out of guilt knowing that they never really gave him a reasonable offensive line in the last third of his career. Fans will feel better if Eli plays well in these last two games. But if he doesn’t, it could be a long and very grumpy offseason.

One last comment. Last week should put to rest that this team is “better off without Odell Beckham.” Now, one can argue that the team may be better off with a draft bonanza by trading him away. But you don’t take one of the NFL’s best players off of your active roster and become a better team.

NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE:

As much criticism as the offense has received this year, the long-term outlook on the defense is equally alarming. Teams are running over the Giants. And if you can’t stop the run, you can’t win. The Giants don’t maintain their gaps well and they don’t tackle well. And when the other team does pass the football, though there have been some signs of life in recent games, the Giants still have serious issues rushing the passer and covering the middle of the football field. The Giants desperate personnel needs on defense in addition to their huge needs list on offense.

My biased view is that the team’s best pass rusher, Olivier Vernon, is a loser. He’s a guy who will tease but never be a winning football player. The linebacking corps as a unit is still so devoid of talent that I now question the strategic decision to shift this team from the 4-3 to the 3-4. Simply put, outside of Alec Ogletree’s recent interception fest, the linebackers are not making plays. They aren’t getting the quarterback. They aren’t stopping the run. They aren’t covering. The Giants may have one keeper in Lorenzo Carter, but he’s a guy who could also play at DE in a 4-3.

The secondary is also close to being a mess. Landon Collins being voted to the Pro Bowl is a joke, and will only contribute to his desire for a big pay day. Janoris Jenkins is a top-notch cover guy, but I get the feeling that he’s one of those guys who Bill Parcells or Bill Belichick would immediately get rid of. Whether you want to call it a “business decision” or a lack of physicality, his lack of willingness to “stick his head in there” leaves one with a bad taste in their mouth. The Giants have no free safety and no up-and-coming players at corner unless Sam Beal turns out to be good player.

And I can’t get a good read on James Bettcher. Is he worse, better, or the same as the disappointing Steve Spagnuolo? He doesn’t have a lot to work with, but at the same time, declining fundamentals such as tackling and gap responsibility are very concerning.

NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS:

Believe it or not, the strong part of the 2018 New York Giants ended up being their special teams unit, including both kickers, kick and punt coverage, and the return game.

THE FINAL WORD:
Most NFL teams have bad days like the Giants did last Sunday. Even the 2007 and 2011 New York Giants did. Was that a blip on the radar or a real sign that the 4-1 “turnaround” was a mirage? We’ll know more by the end of the game on Sunday.

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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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