The New York Giants have been out of serious contention for so long that many of us forgot how quickly things can change during the roller coaster that is an NFL season. Left for dead, the Giants had scrapped and clawed their way to the top of the NFC East, winning four games in a row, including an impressive beat-down of the then 8-3 Seattle Seahawks. It was assumed that the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers would easily defeat the Washington Football Team on Monday night and the Giants would effectively have a 2-game advantage (owning the tie-breaker) with four to play.
Events began to turn against the Giants on December 7th. Washington came from behind to defeat the Steelers. Then in Week 14, disaster struck. Encumbered by a still clearly gimpy Daniel Jones, the Giants were destroyed by the Arizona Cardinals at home. Making matters much worse, every other team in the NFC East won. With three games left in the season, the Giants now find themselves one game behind Washington and having the much more difficult schedule.
If that wasn’t enough of a kick to the nuts, arguably the Giants best player, James Bradberry, will miss Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns because he came into close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett also tested positive and the team had to skip practice on Thursday because of it. The Giants also revealed that Daniel Jones suffered an ankle injury against the Cardinals. The Giants now find themselves in a must-win game against a 9-4 Cleveland Browns teams that scored 42 points last Monday in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Yikes.
One week ago, Giants fans were dreaming of a division title and a playoff game. Now, once again, they are thinking about the 2021 NFL Draft. What a pisser!
THE INJURY REPORT
- QB Daniel Jones (hamstring/ankle – questionable)
- TE Evan Engram (calf – questionable)
- TE Kaden Smith (knee – questionable)
- OG Kevin Zeitler (shoulder – probable)
- CB Darnay Holmes (knee – out)
NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE
Many fans will say I am excuse-making, but the injuries to Daniel Jones could not have come at a worse time. Before the Seattle game, the Giants had won three games in a row. Jones had not turned the ball over in any of those wins and he was finding his stride and playing better despite the team’s liabilities in the receiving department. Without Jones, a Colt McCoy-led offense did just enough in the second half to pull out a win, relying mostly on the team’s defense. Jones returned in Week 14 against the Cardinals, but it became clear pretty early that the team rushed him back too soon. As I wrote in last week’s game preview, “The big question is will Daniel Jones play? And if he does, how effective will he be and will he not re-aggravate his hamstring injury? It’s not just a matter of the injury limiting his rushing ability, but ability to throw the football forcefully with accuracy and velocity.”
On New York’s first drive, the Giants picked up two first downs, reached mid-field, and then Jones got clobbered by an unblocked Markus Golden. He fumbled the ball in his throwing motion. The tone was set for the day and Jones was ineffective the rest of the contest, being sacked six times and fumbling two more times. Adding injury to insult, Jones now has a bum ankle to go along with his hamstring injury. Just terrible timing for quarterback who was finally coming around in his sophomore season with his team entering the stretch run.
I keep reading comments from Giants’ fans complaining about the offensive coordinator and play-calling. While an argument can be made that the team is not running the ball enough early, for the most part, the Giants’ poor offensive performance (31st in the NFL) is a product of their personnel limitations. I have been yelling this from the roof tops since Saquon Barkley got hurt, but it is still being ignored by those who don’t want to accept reality.
Teams with solid running games and few dynamic threats in the passing game don’t score a lot of points. The Giants were beginning to play much better on offense during their 4-game winning streak, but they were still only averaging 21.5 points per game during those four wins. It was the improved play of the offensive line that was largely responsible for the increased effectiveness of the running game and reduction in turnovers. With the offensive line unfortunately coming up with one of their worst performances of the year against the Cardinals, the result was predictable. The ground game was inconsistent. The quarterbacks got sacked eight times, fumbling four times. And the team scored seven points.
The offensive line is a work in progress. While it has improved dramatically and at times looked like a top unit, it is still peppered with inexperienced players who are learning to play together as a unit. They took a major step backwards last week. Jones can’t move around and as I feared, the bad wheels are also affecting his ability to set up and throw. But most disappointing of all are the receiving targets. It’s pretty clear now that Evan Engram is who he is… an occasional highlight reel player who comes up small in big moments and often disappears for long stretches of games and the season. He’s not a reliable player. And the Giants should have traded him when there was a decent market for his services. He’s a coach killer. And he and Kaden Smith are “questionable” for the game. Wonderful.
But let’s not let the wideouts off of the hook. Darius Slayton is averaging only three catches and 48 yards per game. Worse, his productivity has worsened as the season has progressed. In the last three games, Slayton has four catches and 45 yards. Once again, Sterling Shepard missed a huge chunk of the season with an injury and only has 416 yards receiving and one touchdown on the year. Golden Tate only has 375 yards. In other words, the team’s top three wideouts have a total of 1,420 yards and six touchdowns. That’s terrible. Let’s cut through the BS. Slayton is having a bad sophomore season, Shepard has never been more than JAG, and Tate is done. They will occasionally make a highlight reel catch, but none are consistently reliable. No one scares the defense.
Why am I painting this same sad picture AGAIN?!? I’m trying to reach you guys. This is an intervention. The New York Giants don’t have the offensive personnel to compete with the big boys right now. You can blame the coaches and the quarterback all you want, but it’s a unit-wide issue. When the offensive line is playing its A-game, the Giants have a chance to pound the rock. But they don’t have the skill players to score enough points. And now with the quarterback situation the way it is, the offense is likely to be really ugly the rest of the way. It is what it is.
As for Cleveland’s defense, there is a bit of an ex-Giant angle here. Linebacker B.J. Goodson is leading the team with 84 tackles and two interceptions. Edge rusher Olivier Vernon is second on the team with seven sacks. The Browns can get after the quarterback too with Myles Garrett (10.5 sacks) and Sheldon Richardson (4.5 sacks).
NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE
You want more gloom? I’ve got it for you. One of the team’s best players and one of the major reasons the defense has turned itself around, James Bradberry, is out due to the COVID protocol. (It’s not even clear he has COVID). Just terrible timing again in a must-win situation facing a team that just scored 42 points. Worse, nickel corner Darnay Holmes will miss his second game in a row. Another crucial player, inside linebacker Blake Martinez, is not on the injury report but he did look like himself last week playing with a back injury.
Enter the Cleveland Browns, the NFL’s 12th-ranked offense in terms of yards and 13th-ranked in terms of points scored (27 points per game). The strength of this team is its running game, third in the NFL, averaging 156 yards per game. The Browns have a two-headed monster at running back: Nick Chubb (881 yards, 5.9 yards per carry, 9 touchdowns) and Kareem Hunt (772 yards, 4.4 yards per carry, 5 touchdowns). That’s elite-level productivity. This is a team with a big and effective offensive line and power running game. They will wear you down, old-school style.
Baker Mayfield has his critics. But he’s still has a 23-to-8 TD-to-INT ratio, good enough for a 96.6 QB rating. His favorite target by far is WR Jarvis Landry, with 60 catches but only two touchdowns. Mayfield spreads the ball around with eight players having at least two touchdowns on the roster. Bradberry will be missed in that the Giants could have isolated him on Landry. Now with him and Holmes out, the Giants will have to rely on Isaac Yiadom, Logan Ryan, and Jarren Williams at corner. The Giants may even have to bring up Quincy Wilson. Who? Oh boy.
The Browns run the ball more than they throw it. Stating the obvious, for the Giants to have any chance to win this game, Patrick Graham and his players will have to do what few teams have been able to do this year and that is stop Cleveland from consistently running the football. That’s not just on the defensive line and linebackers, but all 11 players. The defense will have to load up the box and hope the depleted secondary can hold its own.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
I’m simply going to repeat what I wrote last week: “I’m not sure what is going on with the Giants special teams all of the sudden, but a Giants team that is encumbered with an offense that struggles to score 20 points simply cannot afford to have repeated major breakdowns on special teams.”
The Giants have played three subpar special teams games in a row. They have to turn this around NOW. The problem is that Cleveland has excellent, well-coached special teams.
FROM THE COACH’S MOUTH
Defensive Coordinator Patrick Graham on the Browns’ Offense: “Their offensive line, these guys are big, they’re physical. I’m not trying to diminish the merits of the teams we’ve seen before, but arguably one of the best O-lines we’ve seen all year. It’s going to be a challenge. The tight ends are willing to block. The thing that stands out to me with Chad O’Shea the wide receivers coach and pass game coordinator. These receivers are going to block too… From there, you get the quarterback getting them in the right checks. You can see him really maturing as a signal caller back there… Last but not least, are the backs. You’re talking about guys that don’t go down on first contact. Guys that play tough. (Nick) Chubb…I love his demeanor, I love the way he carries himself… (Kareem) Hunt’s a dynamic player in the run and pass game.”
THE FINAL WORD
A week after tremendous optimism, it is easy to be down on the Giants now given everything that has gone wrong the past seven days. One has to guard against that pessimism and realize that things could bounce in the other direction just as quickly. In other words, don’t fall into the same trap that “expert” prognosticators always fall victim to: only paying attention to the last game and not overall trends.
That said, the injuries to Daniel Jones and one-game loss of James Bradberry come at a terrible time. In hindsight, the two wins against the Washington Football Team look more impressive now. The Giants beat-down of the Seahawks was real. But so was the Cardinals beat-down of the Giants. Which version of New York will we see on Sunday night?
The irony of ironies is that Freddie Kitchens will be calling the offensive plays against his own team. Could he have a few surprises up his sleeve? He doesn’t have much to work with.