Glass half full or empty? The optimist will say this is an intriguing contest between two tough, over-achieving, well-coached teams that are playing above expectations. The naysayers will call this a game between two teams that are trying to keep out of last place in the division. It’s all a matter of perspective.
Regardless, this is an absolutely critical game for both franchises. The winner will have the inside track to the 3rd spot in the division and a possible Wild Card spot. The loser is going to be behind the proverbial 8-ball.
The Giants and Commanders are two similar teams. Both are largely carried by their defense. Both like to run the ball more than they throw it. But at the moment, both appear to be heading in opposite directions. The Commanders have won six out of their last seven games, including an impressive win in Philadelphia. The Giants have lost three of their last four and have already been swept by the Dallas Cowboys.
Can the Giants regain their footing and reverse Washington’s surging momentum? That’s the storyline.
THE INJURY REPORT:
- RB Gary Brightwell (illness – questionable)
- WR Darius Slayton (illness – questionable)
- WR Richie James (knee – questionable)
- TE Daniel Bellinger (eye – questionable)
- OC Jon Feliciano (neck – questionable)
- OG Josh Ezeudu (neck – out)
- OG Shane Lemieux (toe – out)
- OT Evan Neal (knee – probable)
- OT Tyre Phillips (neck – probable)
- DL Leonard Williams (neck – probable)
- LB Carter Coughlin (thigh – questionable)
- CB Adoree’ Jackson (knee – out)
- CB Fabian Moreau (oblique – questionable)
- CB Darnay Holmes (shoulder – questionable)
- CB Cor’Dale Flott (concussion – probable)
- S Dane Belton (clavicle – questionable)
NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE:
I’ve outlined the Giants’ passing game issues for the past two months. The cavalry is not going to crest the hill and save the day in 2022. Kadarius Toney was a bust and is gone. 29-year old Kenny Golladay has had one of the greatest career implosions in NFL history. Wan’Dale Robinson is on IR. The Giants will have to get by with Darius Slayton, Isaiah Hodgins, and Richie James, all of whom may not even be on the team in a few months. Making matters worse is James has been nursing a knee issue for the past couple of weeks. It’s not a good situation, but there is little that can be done about it.
More worrisome has been the marked decline in the Giants’ ground game in recent weeks. There is a direct correlation between the team’s last three losses and Saquon Barkley’s lack of productivity. In those games, Barkley rushed for 53, 22, and 39 yards, averaging only 2.5 yards per carry. In the last two games, he only rushed the ball for a total of 26 times. This was after his career-high 35-rush game against the Texans. And it’s not just that the blocking hasn’t been there. Barkley is not running as decisively or physically as he did in September and October. Cutting to the chase, the Giants can’t win unless Barkley gets back on track. They don’t have the weapons in the passing game to compensate.
Relatedly, Daniel Jones’ declining rushing figures are having a negative impact on the offense. Since his 107-yard effort against the Jaguars on October 23rd, Jones has only rushed for 108 yards in the last four games, averaging only 25 yards per game. Some of this has been due to opposing defenses playing more in a more disciplined fashion. But Jones’ number has not been called as much either. He carried the ball only three times against the Cowboys. The Giants need to get back to their old 1-2 punch formula of Barkley and Jones presenting problems on the ground.
The good news is that the team is getting reinforcements up front. Evan Neal and Daniel Bellinger are back. Both were injured against the Jaguars on October 23rd. The Giants have gone 1-3 since they have both been out. Neal not only will help the ground game, but his presence will allow Tyre Phillips to serve as the 6th offensive lineman in heavy packages, another upgrade. Bellinger has been missed not only as a target, but as a viable, point-of-attack blocker at the tight end position. In addition, the return of Nick Gates should help to settle down the interior of the line, be it at left guard or center.
Which brings us to the Commanders, a well-coached defense that is currently 7th in the NFL in yards allowed (one spot below the 6th-ranked Cowboys). Washington is 10th against the pass and 8th against the run. They are also 10th in points allowed. To be blunt, they are playing far better defense than the New York Giants. The strength of Washington is their defensive line, led by defensive tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, as well as end Montez Sweat. They can play the run and all three have over six sacks each. The Commanders also may be getting back #2 overall pick in 2020, Chase Young. Making matters worse is a secondary that has been playing good football. Starting corner Benjamin St. Juste will miss his second game in a row however. The Commanders are excellent in 3rd-down defense, being able to rush the passer as well as cover.
The man on the spot is Daniel Jones. He does not have the weapons that Washington has. He’s also going against a tougher defense than his counterpart in this game. With six critical games left, starting this Sunday, Jones still has the opportunity to make a statement. He must out-play Taylor Heinicke, not only for his team to have a chance but probably for Jones’ own fate with this franchise. Jones was the #6 overall pick. Heinicke was undrafted. Don’t turn the football over. Make plays in crucial situations to keep drives alive and score points. Win the game.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE:
Not only has the Giants’ ground game deteriorated, but so has its defense. It’s pretty easy to connect the dots as to why. The loss of Xavier McKinney caused a domino effect on the entire defense. This was exacerbated by the loss of the team’s #1 cornerback in Adoree’ Jackson. I don’t think it is a coincidence that we have seen a marked decline in 3rd-down defense and red-zone defense since both were lost. The problem for Wink Martindale and the defense is these two are still out as the key stretch run begins.
The defensive key to this game is obvious: run defense. Like the Giants, the ground game is the heart of the Washington attack. Stop their ground attack and stopping the Commanders becomes much easier. Washington is only 22nd in offense in yards, and 24th in points. But they average over 121 yards per game rushing and lead the NFL in time of possession. Rookie Brian Robinson has been impressive and is coming off his best game against the Falcons, averaging almost six yards per carry. Antonio Gibson is the other back, and presents more of an issue as a receiver (47 catches). He’s dealing with a foot injury however.
The problem for New York is that their run defense has been bad this year. The Giants are 26th against the run, allowing almost 139 yards per game. Worse, the Giants are allowing 5.2 yards per rushing attempt, one of the worst figures in the League. The lack of depth on the defensive line, talent issues at inside linebacker, and sporadic tackling by the secondary have all contributed to the disappointing play. But Washington is surely going to approach this game by attacking the New York weakness. Washington’s yards-per-carry is usually not impressive (sub 4.0), but they stick with the run and hope to wear down their opponents in the 4th quarter. It has been working.
The other fly in the ointment is the quality of Washington’s receiving targets is vastly superior to New York’s. Terry McLaurin is one of the best receivers in football. He can beat you deep and he can beat you by keeping the chains moving. With better quarterbacking, he’s be a real star. Curtis Samuel is also a quality slot receiver. These two, plus Gibson and tight end Logan Thomas, are Washington’s main receiving threats.
Which brings us to Heinicke, the 29-year old undrafted quarterback now with his sixth NFL team. He took over for Carson Wentz in Week 7 and has gone 5-1 as a starter. He’s no stud quarterback, but he’s managed games well and made just enough plays when called upon. That said, he lacks a top arm and has gotten lucky with a number of his throws. If the Giants can stop the run and make the Commanders more one dimensional, New York’s pass rush could make things uncomfortable for Henicke and cause turnovers.
The good news for the Giants is that Kayvon Thibodeaux is coming off of his best game. Azeez Ojulari finally is back as well and will help the pass rush. Combine these two with Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence and the Giants finally may have some real horses to rush the quarterback. The Commanders will also be without right guard Trai Turner. Center Tyler Larsen has also been limited with a shoulder injury.
Priority #1 is stopping the run. The inside linebackers will be on the spot, especially with as much motion as Washington employs offensively. But an undermanned New York secondary will also have to deal with McLaurin and Samuel. The return of Fabian Moreau should help, but the Giants will need Darnay Holmes, Nick McCloud, Rodarius Williams, and Cor’Dale Flott to rise to the occasion as well.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
Thomas McGaughey’s special teams units have been a disappointment this year. The return game has been a net negative. Punting has been a problem. Coverage has not stood out. Giants face one of the league’s better punters in Tress Way. Punt/kick returner Dax Milne is out.
FROM THE COACH’S MOUTH:
Defensive Coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale on his run defense: “We’re just going to have to get 11 hats to the football, and right now statistically, our run defense isn’t very good. We need to continue to work on fundamentals and technique and getting everybody to the football. When you start putting in all the other runs, the wide receiver sweeps and all the other plays off of it, I think run averages are up across the league, but I think we need to get better at it.”
THE FINAL WORD:
These are two similar, over-achieving teams that are unfortunately playing in the same division as the Eagles and Cowboys. After Sunday, one will be in far better shape than the other. This contest almost has the feel of a playoff game. If the Giants win, hopes for a real playoff spot continue. If they lose, fan attention will likely increase about the upcoming offseason. This is the biggest December game the Giants have played since 2016.