There are a number of different and somewhat competing storylines to this game, and to be honest, to this season. Last season, the New York Giants shocked everyone by finishing the regular-season 9-7-1. At the same time, they somewhat predictably finished 1-4-1 in the NFC East. Even the Washington Commanders did something the Giants could not do, that is, beat the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys.
Everyone knows the deal. The Eagles and Cowboys have absolutely owned the Giants for the past decade. It’s beyond embarrassing at this point. And it’s the primary reason that most pundits don’t expect the Giants to be serious contenders in 2023. Teams that don’t have a winning record in their own division have a hard time competing for a playoff spot. If you go back through my game previews for the past 10 years, they probably pretty much say the same thing. To be honest, I’m bored and tired of writing about it.
On paper, the 2023 New York Giants are a vastly different team than the superbly-coached, talent-starved, injury-riddled, over-achieving squad of 2022. And not many pundits seem to be grasping that reality. Yes, every team experiences change each and every season in today’s NFL. But the year-over-year changes are startling for a team that won a playoff game in January. In Week 3, the Cooper Rush led Cowboys embarrassingly defeated the Giants at MetLife 23-16. On offense that day, aside from Sterling Shepard (who tore his ACL in the game), the other starting receivers were David Sills and Richie James. Rookie Daniel Bellinger was the starting tight end. Two months later on Thanksgiving, in the second game that Dallas also won (28-20), Lawrence Cager was starting at tight end with Bellinger out with an eye injury. The offensive line was also a mess with Tyre Phillips starting at right tackle, 4th-string Jack Anderson starting at left guard, starting center Jon Feliciano out, and Andrew Thomas playing sick and with a bad foot.
Fast forward to Week 1 of this season, on opening night, Daniel Jones will now be surrounded by Saquon Barkley, Darren Waller, Daniel Bellinger, Parris Campbell, Isaiah Hodgins, Darius Slayton, Jalin Hyatt, and Sterling Shepard at the skill positions. Aside from the obvious qualitative and quantitative upgrade in overall talent, the one noticeable factor is the offensive team is much faster.
The changes on defense are even more obvious. Injuries ravaged all three levels of a defensive team that already had talent issues. In Week 3, Leonard Williams was out. Both Kayvon Thibodeaux (knee) and Azeez Ojulari (calf) were playing hurt. Justin Ellis and Nick Williams started on the defensive line. Austin Calitro and Tae Crowder were the inside linebackers. Starting corner Aaron Robinson was out with an appendicitis and Cor’Dale Flott started outside. On Thanksgiving, both starting cornerbacks Adoree’ Jackson and Fabian Moreau were out, as was safety Xavier McKinney. Jaylon Smith started at inside linebacker, with Oshane Ximines playing outside. Flott started again outside along with Nick McCloud.
Fast forward to Sunday night. Finally, Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Azeez Ojulari, Adoree’ Jackson, and Xavier McKinney will all be on the field together healthy. More than that, they will now be joined by A’Shawn Robinson, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Bobby Okereke, Isaiah Simmons, Deonte Banks, Tre Hawkins, and emerging Jason Pinnock and Daniel Belton. Quality, quantity, and speed.
But here’s the crux…
While there is a core of returning building blocks, this team has vastly changed. And on paper, it has done so for the better. But there are so many new and important component parts that we don’t know they will react TOGETHER under the crucible of NFC East warfare. The Cowboys know who they are. The Giants don’t. And since the starters rarely played in the preseason, we simply don’t know what the final product will look like. And how it looks in September will likely be much different than what it looks like in November and December as the new component parts cohesively come together. This is a very young football team (second youngest in the NFL according to Joe Schoen). And we must remember they are still trying to catch up with the Cowboys and Eagles.
If you’ve noticed, Joe Schoen, Brian Daboll, and the coordinators have talked about how this is a new season and the past doesn’t matter. I think this is more than coach speak. There is quiet confidence about the 2023 New York Giants. But there is also the fear of the great unknown. We’re all about to discover what this team is made of.
THE INJURY REPORT:
- RB Gary Brightwell (knee – probable)
- TE Darren Waller (hamstring – questionable)
- WR Wan’Dale Robinson (knee – doubtful)
- TE Lawrence Cager (ankle – probable)
- DL D.J. Davidson (knee – questionable)
- LB Cam Brown (ankle – questionable)
- CB Cor’Dale Flott (hamstring – doubtful)
- S Gervarrius Owens (hamstring – doubtful)
NEW YORK GIANTS ON OFFENSE:
There are so many storylines here… too many to adequately elaborate on without frightening the reader away due to article length. But here are some of my more pressing thoughts:
- Daniel Jones seems like a different guy this offseason. Confident and sure of himself. He’s in the second year of this offense, a rarity for him. He has the faith of a franchise that gave him $160 million in the offseason. He is surrounded with the most talented team he has had in his life, most notably the ultimate security blanket in Darren Waller. While he dramatically cut down on turnovers in 2022 and became a serious threat as a rusher, Jones must start making more plays down the field and throwing more touchdown passes.
- It is undeniable that the quality and quantity of receiving weapons has dramatically improved since last season. Darren Waller is one of the top tight ends in football. Daniel Bellinger will be even better than his surprising rookie season. Along with Waller, Parris Campbell and Jalin Hyatt significantly make this a faster team. They can go the distance anytime they touch the football. So can Saquon Barkley and Darius Slayton. This is a big deal for a team that was dead last in passing plays 20 yards or over with just 28. However, we as fans don’t know how this will all flesh out. “I’d say each week’s going to get a little bit different,” said Offensive Coordinator Mike Kafka. “This week’s kind of in that same boat, kind of mix in our guys and make sure we’re giving them the stuff that they’re good at and then we’ll try to maximize on their strengths as much as we possibly can.”
- While the obvious choice for the biggest beneficiary of this talent upgrade is Daniel Jones, a close second has to be Saquon Barkley, who has been somewhat of the forgotten man this summer. Indeed, much respect for Saquon for being the team player and not raising a big stink this summer by avoiding the holdout and keeping his head down and just doing his job. That’s what you want in a player and teammate. That all said, Saquon must have a burning passion inside of him right now. He feels disrespected. Combine that desire with the inability of teams now to focus completely on stopping Barkley as a runner and receiver. They now have to contend with Waller, Campbell, Hyatt, etc. Barkley in space is a dangerous thing. And the spaces should be there in 2023.
- Finally, the elephant in the room is the state of the offensive line. For 10 years, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Washington has been better up front. Andrew Thomas is a stud. There will be growing pains with John Michael Schmitz, but he looks to have the goods. The other three spots are still question marks. And this division is loaded with some of the best defensive fronts in the game.
Enter a very talented and well-coached Dallas Cowboys defensive team. I believe I saw it stated that no team in the NFL faces a tougher schedule in terms of the defenses it faces than the Giants. Last season, the Cowboys were 12th in yards allowed and 5th in points allowed. They were 8th against the pass and 22nd against the run. Dallas’ pass defense got even stingier with the offseason acquisition of cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Their defensive coordinator has been in high demand as a head-coaching prospect the past couple of seasons, including interest from the Giants.
If you look back at the two games against Dallas last season, the one stat that sticks out is this: the Cowboys sacked Daniel Jones eight times. Equally damning is they officially hit Jones 19 times. The Giants were far more successful running the football in the earlier game, gaining 167 yards with both Saquon Barkley and Daniel Jones doing the bulk of the damage. However, on Thanksgiving, Barkley and Jones were held to a paltry 53 yards on the ground. Tellingly, in both games, the Giants were only 3-of-11 on 3rd down. Turnovers were not an issue as the only one came at the very end of the second game. In the passing game, in Week 3, starting wideouts David Sills and Richie James combined for six catches for 56 yards. Shepard had 49 yards on five catches before he collapsed with an ACL injury. Jones didn’t throw a touchdown pass in the game. In Week 12, Darius Slayton demonstrated his frustrating inconsistency. He came down with a superb 44-yard catch but only caught two more passes on five other targets. James was the “leading” receiver with five catches for 41 yards.
I review all of that to identify the difficulties as well as present the new opportunities. Yes, the Cowboys are loaded with defensive talent at all three levels. They controlled the line of scrimmage against the Giants and never felt threatened by the New York’s passing game. However, the Giants protected the football and stayed in both games. Now Dallas has to contend with both Darren Waller and Daniel Bellinger at tight end; Saquon Barkley at running back; and Parris Campbell, Isaiah Hodgins, Darius Slayton, Jalin Hyatt, and Sterling Shepard at wide receiver.
It’s time to take the training wheels off of Daniel Jones. Recent history suggests the Giants should run more than they should pass against this Dallas defense, especially given their fierce pass rush and excellent defensive backfield. However, I think this Giants team has been built to take what the opposing defense gives them. If Dallas loads up against Barkley, throw the football. If they back off, run the football. Daboll and Kafka will keep Dallas guessing with play-action, misdirection, RPOs, gadget plays, etc. I would not call for many deep drops, not with their rush against our offensive line. Move Jones around. Quick passes to the tight ends, Barkley, and the wideouts. Bing, bing, bing. Similar to how we saw the Giants’ first team offense play on their one drive in the preseason. Don’t let them breathe. Stay out of 3rd-and-long. There are different ways to create space and big plays without throwing bombs. My spidey sense says the deep shots to Hyatt against the Jets was a feint, but hey, if they want to play with fire and crowd the line against him, good luck.
Up front, this issue is not just physical, but mental. The Cowboys love to run stunts and games to confuse offensive lines. This has been the Achilles’ heel for the New York offensive line. Evan Neal’s lone bad snap in the preseason came on a stunt. And inside, the constant experimentation at both guard spots obviously came at the expense of developing OL cohesion and chemistry. Dallas knows this.
I do hope Andrew Thomas remembers Micah Parsons taunting him on Twitter after the game last season. I do hope Neal remembers how DeMarcus Lawrence humiliated him for three sacks. I hope the guys up front have pride and are looking for some payback.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON DEFENSE:
I still suspect the majority of the Giants’ fanbase doesn’t recognize the many issues Wink Martindale had to deal with last year. Injuries on the defensive line, at edge, at inside linebacker, at corner, and at safety ravaged his defense. He only had one corner who he could fully trust, Adoree’ Jackson, and he was lost for much of the second half of the season. Same with his best safety, Xavier McKinney. His best outside pass rusher, Azeez Ojulari, hardly played at all. Kayvon Thibodeaux was slowed by a preseason knee injury. Leonard Williams was hurt much of the year and it showed. There were revolving doors at corner and inside linebacker all season. The point here is the defense was never a fully intact unit and Martindale had the feel of a guy trying to plug multiple leaks in a decaying dam.
That all said, the pressure is on Martindale to elevate New York’s 25th ranked defense that was also 27th against the run. To be blunt, the Giants had the worst defense in the NFC East. He knows how to do it. His defenses in Baltimore were always top notch in run defense. And Joe Schoen gave him a lot of new toys to play with, including Bobby Okereke, Isaiah Simmons, Boogie Basham, A’Shawn Robinson, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Jordon Riley, Deonte Banks, Tre Hawkins, Bobby McCain, and Gervarrius Owens. Combine these newcomers with now healthy Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Azeez Ojulari, Adoree’ Jackson, Xavier McKinney, and Jason Pinnock.
“I like where we are at defensively and I am excited where we are going,” said Martindale this week. “It’s going to be fun to watch… I think that the biggest thing you will see is the difference in our speed and as soon as we can catch the execution up with the speed, like I said, it’s going to be fun for you guys to watch and for our city to watch.”
Their opponent has a lot of familiar faces, but the style may be changing in a noticeable fashion. Gone is offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, who was made a scapegoat despite Dallas’ #1 ranked offense two years ago (and 11th last in 2022). Head Coach Mike McCarthy now takes over play-calling duties. If history is any guide, the Cowboys are about to become more pass happy with a West Coast offensive feel. That could be good news for a Giants’ defense that gave up roughly 170 yards on the ground in both games (345 total) to Dallas last season.
In the offensive review above, I highlighted how the Giants allowed eight sacks and 19 quarterback hits on Daniel Jones. On the flips side, the Giants did not sack either Cooper Rush or Dak Prescott once. Rush was only hit twice while Prescott was hit nine times. The main target for both quarterbacks was CeeDee Lamb, who caught a total of 14 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown. In the first game, Adoree’ Jackson had issues covering him, and it’s likely that the Jackson-Lamb match-up will continue with both playing in the slot much of the game (Lamb also plays outside). Tony Pollard rushed for 8.1 yards per carry in the first game with Ezekiel Elliott (who is now with the Patriots) leading the way in the second game, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Those are simply embarrassing numbers.
Weird stat… Giants only had six interceptions as a team in 2022. However, they got two of them in one game on Thanksgiving against Prescott. Cowboys’ tight ends continued to haunt the Giants as Dalton Schultz had two touchdowns on Thanksgiving. He’s now with the Houston Texans.
Why have the Cowboys owned the Giants for a decade? Same reason the Eagles have. Both teams have owned the trenches. To turn that around, Leonard Williams, Dexter Lawrence, A’Shawn Robinson, Rakeem Nunez-Roches, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Azeez Ojulari, Bobby Okereke, and Micah McFadden/Isaiah Simmons have to live up to expectations. Getting no sacks and allowing 170 rushing yards per game won’t get it done. Possibly helping New York is that left guard Tyler Smith (hamstring) and left tackle Tyron Smith (ankle) are both dealing with injuries.
With McCarthy calling the plays now, don’t automatically assume Dallas will begin the game running the football. Any head coach will want to test a rookie cornerback. And the Giants have two starting. Look for both to be tested early and often. Wink loves both Deonte Banks and Tre Hawkins but even he admits, “You know there is going to be hiccups, we all know. That’s being a rookie.” So look for Dak to take some shots with Lamb, Michael Gallup, and Brandin Cooks (offseason addition) early. How well the rookies weather the storm could determine the fate of the game.
To help them out, the Giants’ pass rush has to be better than it was against the Cowboys last season. Thibodeaux did have a big game on Thanksgiving, abusing Tyler Smith with nine pressures and forcing him to hold. Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams need to translate their strong summer into the the real games. The two new inside linebackers – Bobby Okereke and Isaiah Simmons – need to be factors against the run and the pass. Both should do better in coverage against those pesky Dallas tight ends.
Wink feels like he has his guys now. He freely admits that they will better down the road with more experience playing together. They have to survive the early hiccups, but Wink is still going to bring it. “Pressure breaks pipes.” Hopefully guys like Xavier McKinney and Jason Pinnock can be the beneficiaries of that pressure. Six interceptions in one season is pathetic. It’s time to rectify that.
NEW YORK GIANTS ON SPECIAL TEAMS:
The fanbase doesn’t have a lot of faith in New York’s special teams. Part of the reason has been the absolute refusal of a number of coaching staffs to acquire a dedicated punt and kickoff returner. “Coach of the Year” Brian Daboll’s lone blemish was his curious decision to have his best corner return punts last year, and it cost the team. Now a rookie who only returned nine punts in college, Eric Gray, has unofficially been designated as the primary punt and kickoff returner. Will this end up hurting the franchise once again?
FROM THE GENERAL MANAGER:
Joe Schoen on the 2023 season: “We haven’t played a game yet. So, we’ll see. Again, we’re going to continue to prepare for Dallas and get ready for the season. I think I said it last year at the same press conference: it takes a few weeks into the regular season to figure out who the team is, how we’re going to react when adversity strikes, and how we’re going to handle if there’s success, or if you’re down at halftime.
“I think that showed last year against Tennessee in the second half. I didn’t know how the team was going to react coming out of halftime or if you’re playing Green Bay in London and you’re down in the second quarter, 17-3. We still have a lot to learn about this team. We’ll see when it comes to Sunday against the Cowboys, how they’re going to come together as a team and gel and how they’re going to react in those situations.”
THE FINAL WORD:
Mike Kafka’s media sessions are usually pretty boring. But he did drop one nugget this week that I think was spot on. “There’s things that you look at on tape that they did last year and not really 100% sure of what they’re going to this year so you put in your base rules, and you put in your schemes you think you’re going to attack, then at the end of the day, it’s how fast can we adjust when they present it.” (Emphasis mine).
I’ve harped on this for years. There are only so many drives per game. Often times, there are games where teams will only have four possessions per half. Mike McCarthy and Dan Quinn are going to present things to surprise the Giants. Brian Daboll, Mike Kafka, and Wink Martindale are going do the same. How well and how quickly each coaching staff adjusts will be decisive. I have a ton of respect for Dan Quinn. Not so much for McCarthy. I like our coaches in this situation. I’m also not sure if Dallas truly recognizes how much faster the Giants got on offense and defense this offseason. The Giants are a far different animal.