The New York Giants lead the NFC East despite their 4-4 record. With a Week 10 match-up against the unbeaten New England Patriots looming, Sunday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is a critical one for the Giants. Let's look at five things to watch that could shape Sunday's outcome.
Tom Coughlin, Steve Spagnuolo and Pierre-Paul himself have all downplayed the notion of Pierre-Paul as savior of a defense devoid of pass rushers. Let's face it, though, that is what they hope he will be. Eventually. Assuming, Pierre-Paul plays Sunday -- which seems a pretty safe assumption -- what can he do? He is admittedly rusty, and has many things to adjust to with his damaged hand.
Can he make a play or two? Will he look tentative and out of place as he tries to figure out how to maneuver during real game conditions? Will his presence alone be an inspiration? How will the Giants use him and how many snaps will he play?ons" about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Giants' pass defense
Pierre-Paul can't play safety, cornerback or linebacker. Even if Pierre-Paul plays and the pass rush improves, the Giants are going to have to do a better job in coverage than they did against the Saints. The Giants allowed Drew Brees to throw for 511 yards and a record-tying seven touchdown passes. Watching the film of all of the miscommunications and breakdowns in the secondary disturbed Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie so much that he "went to the bathroom."
"It's hard. Real hard," said Rodgers-Cromartie. "Especially when so much is self-inflicted.
"I don't think you can go no worse than that. In a 16-game season, I think you're going to have a game somewhat like that, I don't know as bad, but I know you're going to have a bad game, so hopefully that was it. You've just got to move on from it. You can't let that game beat you, so you have to get it out of your system real fast."
For much of the season the Giants have played back to front in the secondary, willing to give up underneath throws to keep plays in front of them. The hope there has been to force offense to run more plays and eventually capitalize on a mistake. With 17 takeaways (13 interceptions, four fumble recoveries) and a league-best turnover differential of +10, the Giants have done a good job of that. Or had. Until facing the Saints.
"It's alignment, assignment, technique. Alignment, assignment, technique," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin. "But you have to get yourself in a position to be able to get your job done. And when the play is over, it's the next play. You have to go and get lined up for the next play. Is that going to solve everything? No, of course it isn't, but it's going to help. But that's where it starts, right there."
Whether it was the pace of the Saints' offense, the fact the Brees is the best quarterback they have faced other than Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys, the absence of middle linebacker Jon Beason and cornerback Prince Amukamara or some combination of all of the above isn't really clear. What is clear is that the Giants have to communicate, cover and tackle better in the secondary.
Giants' tight ends
Without Larry Donnell, the Giants tight ends on Sunday will be a pair of undrafted young players with six games of NFL experience and nine receptions between them, all of that coming this year.
Will Tye, an undrafted player from Stony Brook, has played five games with eight receptions for 77 yards (9.6 yards per catch) since replacing Daniel Fells on the active roster. Tye has played 145 snaps, and the 6-foot-2, 262-pound tight end has impressed.
"The game is not too big for him. He seems to play with a calm mind, has some -- plays at a good play speed, soft hands, and when there's a lot of moving and shaking going on out there, it doesn't seem to disrupt him much," said offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.
Giants' quarterback Eli Manning doesn't appear worried about Tye.
"Will has played well for us. He's gotten into games, he's made some plays, made some nice catches, so he'll have a good plan, and good idea of what we're trying to do. He can do some good things and we'll adjust. We'll have some different personnel, different guys in different spots, and we'll go run our offense," Manning said. "He knows what's going on, he's been here the whole time, and has some athletic ability to make some nice catches in the game last week."
Cunningham made the original 53-man roster, played one game, caught one pass, injured a knee, was waived a few weeks later and then brought back to the practice squad. Primarily a pass-catching option at tight end, Cunningham was added tot he active roster this week with Donnell likely unable to play Sunday.
"Jerome is a fast-playing, young guy learning the game," McAdoo said. "It'll be good to have his speed and athleticism out there on the field."
How the Giants deploy their young, unproved tight ends will be interesting to watch.
The kick return game
Bobby Rainey of Tampa Bay is fifth in the league in kickoff returns with an average of 28.2 yards per return and fourth in the league in punt returns with an average of 12.1 yards per return.
Giants' punter Brad Wing is tied for the league lead in punts inside the 20 with 17 and is eighth in the league in percentage of kicks downed inside the 20 (43.6 percent). Last week's 24-yard return by Marcus Murphy of New Orleans was the only real blip in punt coverage all season, with the Giants giving up only 6.8 yards per return.
Giants' placekicker Josh Brown has been inconsistent with his kickoffs, but the Giants are covering them well. They are allowing just 21.0 yards per return, seventh in the league.
The Giants lead the league in kickoff return average at 295 yards per return. Dwayne Harris averages a league-best 34.1 yards on 11 returns, and Shane Vereen averages 25.6 yards on seven returns. Perhaps the Giants can hit a playere, as the Bucs are allowing 25.9 yards per return.
Punt return may be a different story. The Bucs are giving up only 4.7 yards per punt return, so Harris (7.8 yards per return) has his work cut out for him.
"Punt, kickoff return, punt coverage, they're in the top-five in three categories. But Rainey is very good and he's north-south and he's 212 pounds. He certainly is very, very formidable, said Coughlin.
That's a lot of numbers to digest, I know. Point is, though, the return game provides an interesting matchup and could prove critical on Sunday.
Can the offense do it again?
Pretty hard to fathom how an offense can score 42 points and how a quarterback can throw six touchdown passes without an interception in a game and still lose a game. Yet that, of course, is what happened to the Giants and Eli Manning on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints.
What we saw against the Saints was the explosive offense we have been waiting for all season. Can the Giants build on that, or will the Saints' game wind up being just a big tease? The Giants' offense, expected to be the group that carried the team this season, was been underwhelming too often during the season's first seven games, and the Giants got only one offensive touchdown in each of the two games prior to facing New Orleans.
Will the Giants revert to that sort of inconsistency, or will the effort against the Saints be a springboard to becoming the sort of offensive juggernaut many were expecting the Giants to be?