The New York Giants' offense will face the toughest test of their young season when they travel to western New York to take on the Buffalo Bills this Sunday. The Bills boast one of the most dangerous defenses in the NFL, one that has only gotten more dangerous now that they are running Rex Ryan's schemes.
Can the Giants' offense follow in the footsteps of the New England Patriots and decipher the Bills' defense? Even if they can, do they have the personnel to win their matchups?
Let's find out.
New York Giants (1-2) Offense: 26 points per game, 346.7 yards per game (253.3 passing, 93.3 rushing)
Buffalo Bills (2-1) Defense: 22.7 points per game, 400.7 yards per game (326.7 passing, 74.0 rushing)
As always, it all starts up front.
The Giants faced one of the stingiest defensive fronts in the NFL when they faced the Washington Redskins on Thursday night football. However, the New York front held up well, keeping Eli Manning clean and mounting enough of a rushing attack to -- eventually -- open up the deep dagger plays to put the game away. Even more impressively, it was a makeshift line that featured the Giants' third-string left tackle (Justin Pugh), second-string left guard (John Jerry), and second-string right tackle (Marshall Newhouse).
But against the Bills, the Giants face a different kind of monster.
While Washington has some of the best per-game averages in the league, Buffalo features some of the most dangerous pass rushers in the league.
If rookie left tackle Ereck Flowers is able to return this week from his sprained ankle -- he assures Tom Coughlin that it is feeling better, but the Giants won't want to rush the promising rookie back -- he will likely face edge rusher Jerry Hughes. Since coming to the Bills in 2013, Hughes has combined 21 sacks and 5 forced fumbles in 35 games. Flowers has had issues, particularly since his ankle injury, dealing with speed off the edge. Flowers' blend of size and power makes him a dominating run blocker, but his developing footwork and technique put him at a disadvantage when dealing with truly explosive rushers.
Elsewhere on the Bills' line is Marcell Dareus, a massive nose tackle who can dominate the interior of an offensive line. If the Giants' offensive line returns to their "normal" lineup, then Darius would be the responsibility of Justin Pugh and Weston Richburg or Geoff Schwartz.
On the other side from Hughes is big-ticket free agent defensive end Mario Williams. Williams is one of the true athletic freaks in the NFL. Despite being 6-foot-6, 290 pounds, and 30 years old, Williams has explosiveness like few edge rushers in the league. Whichever offensive tackle is forced to contend with Williams will need to buckle his chinstrap extra tight and bring his lunch box.
This is the real matchup for Sunday: Manning vs Rex Ryan. Normally we look at offensive schemes and defensive schemes. But we know that Ben McAdoo will scheme an up-tempo offense to help protect the Giants' offensive line, and that pretty much every passing play will have a built-in safety valve to keep the offense moving.
However, it will fall to Manning to quickly and accurately diagnose Ryan's blitz schemes. Ryan is a master of disguising and sending blitzes from all over the field as he seeks to confuse and pressure quarterbacks, forcing them into mistakes if not sacking them outright.
Ryan and the Bills' defense stunned Andrew Luck and the Colts, and embarrassed the normally efficient Ryan Tannehill. However, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots proved that the Bills' defense can be beaten by efficient quarterback play and some experience with Ryan's schemes.
Skill Position Players
The Giants boast the second-best run defense in the NFL. Unfortunately for the Giants' running backs, the Bills have the best, giving up just 74 yards on the ground per game. The Patriots got around this by simply not running the ball. Look for the Giants to use Shane Vereen extensively as a receiver as Eli Manning tries to beat (or avoid) Ryan's blitzes. It will also -- obviously -- be important for the whoever is in at running back to correctly pick up Ryan's blitzes when they are kept in to block. They can, have, and will come from all over the field.
As far as running the ball goes, it is difficult to judge the status of the Giants running game at the moment. Flowers was injured in the season opener, tried -- and failed -- to play through it in the second game, then missed the third game. Not only does that take a mammoth road grader out of the lineup, it forced Justin Pugh from guard, where he was working well with Weston Richburg, to tackle, and put John Jerry -- the Giants' worst run blocker -- on the field.
The Giants CAN have some success running the ball against the Bills, but they will need some things to work in their favor. First, they will need Flowers to be healthy, not just on the field. Then, Manning and McAdoo will have to be patient and call run plays when the numbers are in their favor (seven or fewer players in the tackle box). Finally, the backs will need to be both patient in setting up their blocks, but also decisive in exploiting holes. They won't be big, and they won't be there for long.
Going by the stats, this game is going to be tough sledding for the Giants' tight ends. Throw out the Bills' game against Rob Gronkowski and the Bills have allowed just eight completions for 51 yards against the Colts' and Dolphins' tight ends.
What's more, Daniel Fells, the Giants' most dependable tight end is dealing with an injury and did not practice Wednesday. While Larry Donnell can be a sneaky route runner who is adept at using his 6-6, 270-pound frame to box out defenders, his recent drops and chronically bad blocking are making it difficult for coaches to trust him. Second-year player Jerome Cunningham has been dealing with a knee injury.
The Giants probably shouldn't look for much production from their tight ends this week.
The Giants came into this week hoping that the would be getting Victor Cruz back. However, Cruz will once again be out this week after aggravating his strained calf in the individual portion of Wednesday's practice. The Giants will once again need to find some way to get production out of their slot receiver. They will likely turn to Shane Vereen as a scat-back or going into motion. They Giants could also turn to Dwayne Harris as a slot receiver, or perhaps use rookie receiver Geremy Davis as an outside receiver and move Odell Beckham into the slot.
As for Rueben Randle, going by the last three weeks, it seems like a good idea to get him the ball early and often. Against Washington, Randle was targeted seven times, catching all seven, and averaged 16.6 yards per reception. According to Football Outsiders, the Bills rank 20th in the league when it comes to covering No. 2 receivers.
Then there's Beckham. Again, according to Football Outsiders, the Bills are ranked third in the league against No. 1 receivers. However, they haven't faced a receiver like Beckham. Ben McAdoo will likely continue to move Beckham all around the offensive formation, lining him up at both wide receiver positions, in the slot, in the backfield, putting him in motion ... The Giants have committed to forcing defenses to account for their superstar receiver, and using their efforts to find him on every play to hint at their defensive play.
The Bills have a pair of talented young defensive backs in Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby. Gilmore is a big, long, athletic, and a borderline shutdown corner. When Rex Ryan took over, he pegged Gilmore as his new "Darrelle Revis", the shutdown corner who made his exotic blitz schemes possible. On the other side is rookie Ronald Darby. Darby is an elite athlete who's speed allows him to shadow receivers without drawing interference flags. He is technically raw, but has been on of the most productive defensive backs in the league when it comes to breaking up or intercepting passes.
The Giants' offense has developed as the season has wore on.
In Week 3 they finally had a receiving option other than Odell Beckham and Shane Vereen step up when Rueben Randle exploded back onto the scene. The Giants will need him to keep his level of play elevated going against the Bills' hyper-aggressive defense. Eli Needs as many weapons available as possible to get the ball out quickly.
The Giants will also need Flowers to be as healthy as possible for their running game to have any chance at all, and to reunite their exciting young trio of linemen on the left side.
There is no doubt that the Giants face their most difficult offensive test to date when they go to Buffalo. Not only do the Bills have a talented defense, but it is being orchestrated in one of the keenest defensive minds in the league. That being said, the Giants have talent and sharp minds of their own on offense.
The Bills are heavy favorites -- as of this writing -- but the Giants' offense has a chance of surprising, in a good way.