The Giants started out their game against the Houston Texans slowly. They moved the ball down the field, and held the Texans offense in check, but could seem to get out of their own way. Then the Giants won their critical match-up against themselves and played a clean game to come away with a convincing win.
So, what match-up do the Giants have to win to win Thursday's game against the Washington Redskins? In my view they have to win the battle in the trenches. While that's true on both sides of the ball, I want to focus on the Giants' defensive line.
Coming in to the 2014 season there were a few questions on the defensive line. Could Jason Pierre-Paul return to his 2011-2012 form following a largely lost 2013? Could Johnathan Hankins build on some solid play in 2013 to replace the loss of Linval Joseph to free agency? Could Robert Ayers replace Justin Tuck? Would DaMontre Moore continue to grow and develop?
So far, those answers have been decidedly positive. JPP appears to be back to his "old" self and has been a force this season. Hankins has been half man, half monster ... A "Manster" if you will. He has turned into one of the best two-way defensive tackles in the league. Ayers has been a very pleasant surprise as a free agent, playing with power and discipline in the run game, and been a very efficient pass rusher. And finally, while Moore still has bouts of youthful enthusiasm, he is also giving fans good reason to want to see a growing role for him.
Jason Pierre-Paul vs. Trent Williams
This is the marquee match-up between the two lines. Trent Williams is without a doubt the best player on the Washington line, and one of the best left tackles in the NFL. He's very similar to the Giants' Will Beatty as a left tackle who is a great pass protector as well as a good run blocker. Those guys are pretty rare.
JPP is a rare breed for his position himself. Historically, most defensive ends who play the right side are the pass rush specialists. Pierre-Paul isn't just a pass rusher, though, he is also one of the best defensive ends in the league against the run. What has changed this year -- other than a return to health -- is that JPP is no longer just relying on instincts and athleticism, he has raised his football IQ and is playing with awareness. He is recognizing throwing lanes and getting his hands up, and is recognizing play fakes and screens.
The match-up between Williams and JPP should be one of the "must watch" battles Thursday night
Mathias Kiwanuka, Robert Ayers, DaMontre Moore vs. Tyler Polumbus
No, the Giants won't be triple-teaming Polumbus. However, considering how the Giants rotate their defensive line, all three of those defensive ends could be lining up over Polumbus at some point during the game. Polumbus is having an underwhelming season so far this year, and is currently the lowest-ranked member of either offensive line by Pro Football Focus
All three of the Giants defensive linemen are coming off strong performances. Kiwanuka has been the target of many fans' ire this year and last. Last week, however, Kiwi put forth a complete game, playing well in run defense and rushing the passer. Ayers is quietly looking like one of the best defensive ends in football. Despite coming in with the reputation of a run-stuffing specialist, Ayers is becoming one of the most efficient pass rushers in the league, averaging a pressure every six snaps. Moore has been quietly generating pressure as well, but really flashed his rushing ability with a blocked punt against the Texans.
While the battle over on the other side might be better to watch, if it winds up being a draw, the match-up between Polumbus and the Giants platoon of DEs might have a huge impact on the game.
Shawn Lauvao (LG), Kory Lichtensteiger (C), Chris Chester (RG) vs. Johnathan Hankins, Cullen Jenkins, Mike Patterson
On the depth chart, Hankins is listed as the starting right defensive tackle, while Jenkins is listed as the starter on the left side. That would, theoretically, line them up with Lauvao and Chester respectively, with Chester likely lending a double team where the play dictates.
In practice, the Giants like to move their defensive tackles around and keep up a healthy rotation to keep them fresh throughout the game. Likewise, they also routinely line up four defensive ends, so the guards and center will also need to prepare for the addition of Ayers and Kiwanuka to the mix.
In base sets, the double team will likely be commanded by Hankins, who's combination of power and quickness has proved to be difficult for any offensive lineman to handle by himself.
There are going to be a lot of match-ups to watch this game. As we saw Sunday, Kirk Cousins and the Washington offense can put points on the board. And while I very well could have listed the match-up between the Garcon, Jackson, and company against the Giants' secondary, I decided to get back to basics. Stop the run, rush the passer. If Alfred Morris and Roy Helu can be kept in check, that should allow the Giants' pass rushers to get after Kirk Cousins, and force rushed throws and help to keep the pressure off the secondary.
If the Giants can win the battle in the trenches, their path to victory gets a lot smoother.