Could the Cleveland Browns’ defense by the elixir for a New York Giants’ offense that, despite the team’s five-game winning streak and 7-3 overall record, still has not performed up to its 2015 standards? Let’s take a look at how the teams match up.
By the numbers
Points per game: 20.4 (23rd)
Yards per game: 339.9 (20th)
Passing yards per game: 262.9 (9th)
Rushing yards per game: 77.0 (31st)
Points per game: 29.5 (31st)
Yards per game: 409.5 (31st)
Passing yards per game: 265.5 (22nd)
Rushing yards per game: 143.9 (31st)
The Eli factor
Sunday will mark the 194th consecutive regular-season start for Eli Manning since he became the Giants’ quarterback in 2004. In that same time period, the Browns have had 23 different starting quarterbacks. This season alone, Cleveland has had three starting quarterbacks — Cody Kessler (eight games), Josh McCown (two games), Robert Griffin III (one game). Six different players have taken snaps at quarterback for the Browns this season.
This one statistic (sorry, Coach McAdoo) tells you virtually everything about why the Giants have two Super Bowl titles during that time while Cleveland has just one winning season and no playoff appearances.
Cleveland does have some good players
The Browns are bad. 0-11 with 21 losses in their last 22 regular-season games tells us that much. They do, however, have some good players on the defensive side of the ball.
Nose tackle Danny Shelton is to Cleveland what Damon Harrison is to the Giants. He is a run-stuffing nose tackle who mans the middle of Cleveland’s 3-4 front. Pro Football Focus ranks Shelton No. 13 among 106 graded interior defensive linemen. The 6-foot-2, 343-pound Shelton was Cleveland’s first-round pick (12th overall) in 2015.
Cornerback Joe Haden is a two-time Pro Bowler in his seventh season with Cleveland. Haden has three interceptions, but is not having a great season. Pro Football Focus ranks him No. 83 among 118 graded corners.
Linebacker Jamie Collins, acquired in a splashy trade deadline swap with the New England Patriots, is ranked 12th overall by PFF among 102 edge defenders graded. A Pro Bowl player in 2015, Collins has 26 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in three games with the Browns.
Cleveland’s leading tackler is third-year inside linebacker Christian Kirksey, who has 103 tackles, 66 of them solo, and 1.5 sacks.
The Browns also have a pair of rookie edge defenders who we looked at extensively as potential Giants prior to the 2016 NFL Draft. Carl Nassib has 1.5 sacks and four passes defensed while starting at right defensive end. Emmanuel Ogbah is the right outside linebacker, and he has three sacks thus far.
When the Giants run
The Giants have run the ball more consistently the past two weeks than at any other time this season, surpassing 100 yards rushing in both games (102 Week 11 vs. the Chicago Bears, 122 vs. the Cincinnati Bengals). The only other 100-yard rushing game for the Giants was Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys, when they gained 101 yards.
Le’Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers had a huge day against the Browns last Sunday, carrying 28 times for 146 yards, 5.2 yards per attempt. The Giants, though, don’t have Bell. Their leading rusher is Rashad Jennings, averaging 3.4 yards per carry (100 carries, 340 yards).
Can the Giants continue to make positive strides with their run game? The answer to that will probably begin with handling Shelton, a task that will fall primarily to center Weston Richburg. As Chris pointed out a few weeks ago, Richburg has sometimes struggled with power. He will be facing a powerful, athletic behemoth on Sunday.
Since benching Larry Donnell and splitting tight end reps between Will Tye and Jerell Adams the Giants have gotten better blocking from that position.
The Giants have also survived the loss of left guard Justin Pugh to a knee injury, first with Brett Jones and now with a combination of Marshall Newhouse and Adam Gettis. We should know more about the status of both Pugh and Jones after Wednesday’s practice.
When the Giants pass
The biggest issue for the Giants in the passing attack seems to be an inability to consistently get big plays from their biggest play maker, Odell Beckham Jr. Beckham has been held under 100 receiving yards in four straight games, three of those with yardage totals in the 40s. Going back further, only Beckham’s record-setting 222-yard receiving game against the Baltimore Ravens is the only time in the last seven games he has topped 100 yards receiving.
As a rookie in 2014, Beckham had seven 100-yard games in the 12 he played. Last season, he had eight in 15 games.
Why have the Giants, with the most talent at wide receiver at any time during Beckham’s three seasons, struggled to get big plays from him? The Giants have continually pointed out that defenses are playing a significant amount of two-high safeties and almost always double-teaming Beckham.
The Giants do have other quality receivers like rookie Sterling Shepard (44 catches), Will Tye (29 catches) and Victor Cruz (26 catches). Still, they are well behind last season’s offensive production and that doesn’t figure to pick up until the Giants find a way to get more big plays from Beckham.
Cleveland’s Haden figures to get the task of following Beckham on Sunday.
The one sure way to give a down-trodden team hope is to give them extra chances by turning the ball over. The Giants managed to avoid that Sunday against the Chicago Bears, ending their NFL-long streak of 18 games with at least one turnover.
That, though doesn’t mean the Giants were completely clean. There was a muffed punt by Dwayne Harris the Giants were fortunate to recover. There was a risky throw by Manning to Rashad Jennings that could easily have turned into a Pick 6 for Chicago.
The Giants are still 26th in the NFL with 18 giveaways and 29th with a -7 takeaway/giveaway ratio. A clean game on Sunday would go a long way toward making sure that zero in the Cleveland win column doesn’t turn into a one.