Pittsburgh Steelers 26 – New York Giants 16
An offseason like no other. A training camp like no other. And now, a regular season like no other. The Covid-19 pandemic has led to empty or near-empty stadiums, a lot of awkward silence, and a bunch of never-heard-before F-Bombs on live television. At one point, or several points, the idea of the NFL playing this year was cloudy at best. However, here we sit, looking back on a full slate of Week 1 games. Excellent job by the NFL and everyone involved. Now onto the good stuff.
The Giants kicked off Monday Night football with a home game against Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Big Ben, in his 17th season, was on the game field in pads for the first time in 364 days following an elbow injury that created the question if he was done, both mentally and physically. He has discussed retirement in the past and not many players are still wearing the helmet at the age 38. He did come back, he is paired with an elite defense, he is behind an elite offensive line, and he is throwing the ball to some of the more exciting young receivers in the league. This was a tall order for the New York Giants and their new Head Coach, Joe Judge, a first time Head Coach on any level.
Judge’s history revolves around special teams and that is exactly where NYG got their first break. A muffed punt by PIT receiver Diontae Johnson gave the Giants the ball on the PIT 3-yard line. However, after 3 plays that derived 1 total yard, they had to settle for a 21-yard chip shot by newly signed kicker Graham Gano. Giants held the initial 3-0 lead. After trading three-and-outs, PIT got on the board with a 41-yard field goal by Chris Boswell at the end of a 13-play drive.
The Giants opened the second quarter with their first touchdown-scoring drive of the season. They were stopped after three plays but they were given new life by a Joe Haden pass interference call on third down. On the very next play, Jones hit Darius Slayton deep down the middle on a post route for a 41-yard score. The Giants’ passing game looked crisp on all levels early on and they had a 10-3 lead. Following another three-and-out by PIT, Jones’s first pass of the ensuing drive resulted in an interception to Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt. It was a zone blitz that caught Jones off guard. This gave PIT the ball on the NYG 36-yard to line to start and that resulted in PIT’s first touchdown of the year, a 3rd down, 10-yard loft as NYG tried to bring the heat via a heavy blitz. Boswell missed the extra point, thus NYG still held the lead at 10-9.
From this point, NYG showed their current true color. The true color that has netted them the worst record in the NFL over the past three seasons. The Giants had momentum on their side after a 38-yard gain on a screen pass to Barkley where his elite level burst and speed were on display in space, the place he is most lethal. Evan Engram, who had a game to forget, caught a pass up the seam for a 24-yard gain that put NYG on the PIT 20-yard line. Unfortunately, he was flagged for offensive pass interference. Two plays later, Jones was sacked. They went from 1st-and10 on the PIT 20 to 3rd-and-27 on the NYG 39.
The two offenses traded three-and-outs before the Big Ben and the PIT offense started a 2-minute offense from their own 22. Eight plays, 68 yards later PIT had put up another 7 points stemming from a rub route that put James Washington in the end zone with the ball in his hands. PIT held a 16-10 lead at the half.
Since the start of 2016, there have been 23,518 offensive drives in the NFL. Only 2 of them had more plays (21) than the opening NYG drive of the second half (19). On 2nd-and-3 from the PIT 4-yard line, Jones evaded pressure and foolishly tried to throw against his body’s momentum into what would have been a ton of traffic. He was hit by Bud Dupree, who had a monster night, sending the ball tumbling into the air and into the waiting arms of defensive lineman Cam Heyward, the first of his 10-year career. This was the second time NYG had the ball inside the 5-yard line and it netted them a grand total of 3 points.
The Steelers then scored a combined 10 points on the next two drives, the touchdown being another pitch-and-catch between Roethlisberger to Juju Smith-Schuster via a rub route where James Bradberry got bumped out of position. Down 16 with 5:23 left, Jones and the Giants offense pieced together another long drive, 16 plays, that this time ended with points on the board. Jones hit Slayton for a 7-yard touchdown as the two have clearly brought the connection we saw in 2019 to the table here in their respective sophomore seasons. They failed the two-point attempt, leaving it a two-possession game with just 2:00 left. PIT ran out the clock and that was it.
Giants lose 26-16.
-Daniel Jones: 26-41 / 279 yards / 2 TD-2 INT / 79.2 Rating
Jones added 22 yards on the ground via 4 carries. In his first ever season opener, Jones was matched up against one of the top 5 defenses in the NFL playing behind an offensive line that was playing with two new tackles and a new center. That led to him being pressured more than any quarterback in the NFL week 1. As is the case with most young quarterbacks, Jones was inconsistent. On one hand, he looked poised and tough, something we saw plenty of last year. He made accurate downfield throws, he stayed aggressive, he knew when to pull down and run, and most importantly he did not fumble (although there was a close call). However, the way this position works in this game, he had two major mistakes and that really cost the team. His first interception was against a zone blitz that he did not recognize and the second one, on just second down, was a rookie-level mistake throwing against his body into heavy traffic. One was a lack of recognition; one was a lack of sound decision making. His game wasn’t a bad one, but if he is THE guy, he needs to make sure they walk away with at least 10 points when they are inside the PIT 5 two times, not 3 points.
-Saquon Barkley: 15 att – 6 yards / 6 rec – 60 yards
This was the third time in his 30-game career that Barkley has been held to 10 or less rushing yards, one of the other times being an injury-shortened game in Tampa Bay last year. It was a horrific way to start off the year. Barkley rarely made it two steps with the ball before he had a PIT defender (or several) on top of him. The inside running lanes rarely existed and the PIT defense was too fast for them to handle when they went outside. His lone bright spot was a 38-yard gain on a screen pass where we saw the explosion, speed, and make-you-miss ability on full display. New Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett needs to fully understand this is a completely different back than Ezekiel Elliot in Dallas. Barkley needs to the ball in space as much as possible, that is where he does damage. This performance is solely on the offensive line, zero question. With that said, Barkley did allow a pressure and a sack. His blocking remains subpar at best.
-Darius Slayton: 6 rec – 102 yards / 2 TD
Before the season, I said Slayton was going to end up being the team’s number one receiver this year. That was partially an indictment on the lack of upside Sterling Shepard and Golden Tate bring to the table, but also a level of confidence in Slayton. His routes and long speed looked crisp, he played through contact, and he finished. Excellent start for him. He looks like the real deal and a true keeper.
-Sterling Shepard: 6 rec – 47 yards
It was a “quiet” night for Shepard. He didn’t really factor as much until the second half. He caught all 6 of his targets (not including the 2-point conversion attempt), as he just ran into some bad luck. From my view, it looked like he was the main target three times on plays where the pass protection pressured Jones away from the read. This could have easily been a bigger game for Shepard.
-Evan Engram: 2 rec / 9 yards
Jason Garrett and Joe Judge may end up having a short leash on the athletic Engram. Neither have used a tight end like this much before and I think they both lean toward a sturdier presence. Engram was tossed around like a rag doll by the Steelers front seven. Simply put, he just does not belong in there trying to block edge defenders. He can hold his own against defensive backs and some inside linebackers, but his lack of blocking had a significant impact on the team mightily struggling on the ground. He allowed a pressure, a TFL, and dropped a pass in the first quarter to boot. Lastly, his offensive pass interference was an absolute killer to the team’s momentum. There are 15 games left, but Engram needs to know he is on the hot seat.
-Kaden Smith and Levine Toilolo played 43% and 35% of the offensive snaps respectively. Having one tight end play that much is expected, but two? I do like the concept of having these three on the field together (NYG played with 13 personnel – 3 TEs – more than every team Week 1), but they have to do what they are supposed to do. Having them on the field allows more support for the running game, at least theoretically. However, they both struggled against the PIT physical front seven, allowing a combined 3 pressures and 1 TFL. They also combined for 3 catches / 30 yards. Hopefully some of the blocking shortcomings had more to do with lack of chemistry than anything, because that is why these guys are on the team.
-Perhaps the brightest, or second brightest part of NYG’s week 1 game was the play of rookie Andrew Thomas. He did allow 3 pressures on the night, a number we want to be lower, but it doesn’t get much tougher than Bud Dupree (on an island nonetheless) for a rookie tackle. Thomas was the top graded Giants lineman by far and two of his pressures could be argued against (they are a tad subjective). He played with a wide and strong base, he played patient, and his hands were heavy. I would like to see more running attempts right behind him.
-Cameron Fleming has not produced any confidence that the massacre right tackle has been to this offense in recent years will be any different. He allowed 2 pressures and a sack in pass protection, he allowed 2 TFL, and he was pushed backward multiple times as a run blocker. He was flagged for a false start. I think Matt Peart will be starting by mid-season.
-The guiltiest culprit of the inside running woes was center Nick Gates. He was toyed with by Tyson Alualu, a solid but unspectacular nose tackle. This is where the lack of offseason may have hurt the Giants the most. Gates was very late with his hands. When you’re late with your hands, especially inside against a powerful player, you’re going to abruptly lose ground. That happened over and over and understandably so, as Gates really doesn’t have a lot of experience snapping the ball and getting his hands up quickly enough. NYG can only hope for improvement here in the coming weeks, but it could easily take longer.
-Kevin Zeitler had a surprisingly awful game. He was the lowest graded blocker of the bunch. He allowed 2 pressures, 2 TFL, and a sack (although one could argue it wasn’t his fault). More than the weak grade, Zeitler looked stiff. Is there something wrong? Is he on the sharp decline? He will be one I watch closely next week in Chicago, another team with really good interior defensive linemen.
-Will Hernandez was quietly solid. He allowed one pressure and was oddly left alone by the PIT defense several times. He was late to help a few times, but not a bad game by him. Again, I want to see more NYG runs to the left side next week.
-Lorenzo Carter is going to be a key factor for this team in 2020 and whether or not this defense can take a true step forward. He looks the part, as he always has. He seems to be more powerful than we’ve seen, and he still has the elite speed and burst. I made a couple different notes of physical play and he finished with 7 tackles and 2 pressures including 1 hit on the QB. He is what I call an every-down defender in that he can have a role in any situation. He has the tools but his issues have revolved around consistency and mental quickness. We saw some positives in this game, but he needs to more of a finisher.
-Markus Golden, the team’s leading pass rusher from 2019 and a guy that pretty much nobody in the NFL wanted to bring in, was limited to just 34% of the snaps as he continues to work back into game shape. He was a non-factor.
-Leonard Williams was the most disruptive and consistent player along the NYG front. He finished with 5 tackles / 1 sack / 2 TFL / 1 pressure. A lot of eyes are going to be on the franchised player who some are still looking down on because he was traded for. If he plays like this, we can seal the deal as a win for the NYG organization.
-Dalvin Tomlinson had a quiet game, not in a good or bad way. He just didn’t impact the defense much in either direction. Dexter Lawrence had a pressure and a sack. In addition, he once again flashed surprisingly solid athletic ability on a couple of nice hustle plays away from his starting point.
-Blake Martinez showed quality inside play after receiving a hefty contract from NYG in the offseason. I can easily say this: it was the best true ILB play we have seen in awhile. He led the team with 12 tackles including 1 TFL. There wasn’t anything eye-popping here, but it was notable how fast he reacted to the offense. In addition, he was rarely fooled or caught out of position. This is a legit inside presence at the second level that this defense sorely lacked in recent years.
-Kyler Fackrell and Devante Downs were on the field for less than a half and quarter of the plays respectively. Fackrell brings inside-out versatility, which is nice, but he didn’t show much as a pass rusher in week 1. Downs recovered a fumble on special teams in the first quarter. I am pulling for this kid, great story of perseverance.
–The newly signed James Bradberry had a really up-and-down inaugural game in blue. The high-priced corner “allowed” two touchdowns but on both plays, he was the victim of “rub routes”. Basically, the plays were designed to combat man coverage in that two receivers crisscrossed each other close enough that Bradberry collided with his own teammate. He also allowed a big downfield gain to Chase Claypool (who got away with a push off). Overall, Bradberry finished with 4 tackles, 2 pass deflections, and a forced fumble that nearly turned the game around. A second look from the All-22 angle showed quality coverage throughout.
-Rookie Darnay Holmes started at the nickel spot and played 73% of the snaps. If nothing else, he played fast, physical, and aggressive out there. He did miss two tackles on the same drive early in the game, but he can’t be looked down on for that too badly. He just isn’t a very big kid and his first NFL action was against a formidable passing offense. He showed several encouraging signs.
-Corey Ballentine started at the other outside corner spot and I have to say, he may be the key weaknesses to this defense besides the lack of pass rush that stems from four guys. He allowed so much separation, most notably to the smaller/quicker Diontae Johnson. This was something we saw last year when they tried him at nickel, a spot he just couldn’t hang. He doesn’t forecast well and the speed just isn’t there to make up for it.
-Isaac Yiadom was on the field for 5 plays and allowed a touchdown.
-Jabrill Peppers shined as a punt returner, but mightily struggled as a safety. He had 3 tackles and a pass deflection but was beat on 3rd down by Eric Ebron and missed 2 tackles. Every year, Peppers will impress with some workout videos during the offseason. His talent is obvious. He plays hard and physical. But when it comes to reading the game situation and playing with instincts, it just isn’t there. The downhill angle he took on a 4th quarter run was abysmal. It led to 30-yard gain that should have easily been stopped at the 5-yard mark. He needs to step it up, no more fluff.
-Logan Ryan and Julian Love were on the field a lot in respective safety/nickel roles. I like how they can interchange roles on a dime, as it makes things tougher for the opposing quarterback to read and diagnose. They were both solid in coverage, but Ryan offers more as a tackler and physical presence. Love got knocked back a few times on contact with the ball carrier and I considered it a missed tackle on James Washington’s touchdown.
-K Graham Gano: 1/1 (Made 21) / 1/1 XP.
-P Riley Dixon: 5 Punts – 38.6 avg / 36.0 net / 3 inside 20
-WR Darius Slayton, OT Andrew Thomas, LB Blake Martinez
-OC Nick Gates, OG Kevin Zeitler, TE Evan Engram
3 THOUGHTS ON PIT
- How do you build an elite defense? Continuity, chemistry, scheme, draft quality players. The Steelers have, for pretty much 17 years, made their defense a main priority when it comes to coaching and drafting. In that span, they’ve ranked top 10 in points allowed 12 times and top 5 in points allowed 7 times. It is in their blood. When it comes to personnel, they they rarely miss in the 1st round. Devin Bush, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier, Cam Heyward…all those guys have been drafted since 2011 in round 1 and they all (minus the injured Shazier) are still making an impact on this team in a big way. Add in the trade for Minkah Fitzpatrick and you are looking at 5 elite players at their respective positions and I would say 4 of 20 the league’s Defensive Player of the Year candidates.
- Speaking of drafting, I did a team study on the Steelers and their success at drafting skill position players in the middle rounds. In rounds 2-4 since 2017, take a look at these names: JuJu Smith-Schuster (round 2), James Conner (round 4), James Washington (round 2), Diontae Johnson (round 2), Benny Snell (round 4), Chase Claypool (round 2), and a name you will hear about soon enough in Anthony McFarland (round 2). You will have a hard time finding more homegrown skill position talent in the league.
- Lastly, this offensive line is likely going to be a make or break for PIT. They were solid against NYG in week 1, yes. However, there are going to be much tougher pass rushers on the schedule coming up and now they are without Zach Banner in addition to David DeCastro. When these guys are at full strength, they are a top-5 group. They have a ton of chemistry in addition to multiple top 10 guys at their respective positions. If they stay healthy enough, this PIT team has final 4 potential in the AFC.
3 CLOSING THOUGHTS
- The Giants were one of four teams with a new coaching staff during the most difficult offseason any team has ever dealt with from a logistical perspective. Those teams went a combined 1-3 and the other team with a first timer at the Head Coach spot (Cleveland) lost 38-6. I’m not a moral victory guy at all, but I do think that these teams with new coaching staffs and schemes will see more margin between week 1 and week 2 compared to the rest of the league. Not having these guys in a real live situation throughout the preseason does leave a lot of question marks that are only answered via gameplay. NYG has multiple areas to improve and whether or not this coaching staff can make the needed changes will dictate a lot.
- When looking at “how to win a game”, you can go down several rabbit holes. I try to keep it as simple as possible. Here is what gets it done more often than not: Win the turnover battle. Win the penalty battle. Win the sack battle. If you can walk away with two of those micro-level wins, the odds of ending up on top are well over 90%. The Giants lost the turnover battle by one, they lost the penalty battle, and they lost the sack battle. Trifecta.
- The Giants did impress me in one specific area, and that was on defense. They played really fast and really physical and really smart (minus Peppers). We listened to Joe Judge talk about those three traits the entire offseason and we mostly just swept it under the rug, but that was one thing that stood out to me. The Giants have a defense that plays fast based on both the athletic ability and sureness of their assignments. That, more than anything, is encouraging as we move forward. Now, somebody needs to step up and make plays/create turnovers.