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Giants at Browns: Five things to watch Sunday

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Our look at keys to Sunday’s game for the Giants

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NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Giants
The Giants need more production from Odell Beckham Jr.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Can the New York Giants, 7-3 and riding a five-game winning streak, keep a bad team down this weekend? They get the opportunity to do that Sunday when they travel to Ohio to face the 0-11 Cleveland Browns. Here is a look at five things to watch Sunday.

A quick start, please

The Giants made last week’s game against the struggling Bears much more difficult than it had to be, giving up scores on Chicago’s first three possessions and falling behind, 16-6 in the second quarter.

A quick start on Sunday is paramount. The last thing the Giants want to do is give the winless Browns hope.

Can somebody cover the tight end?

The Giants are in the upper half of the NFL in covering every potential receiver on opposing teams — except for the tight end. Even with Landon Collins playing at an All-Pro level and improved coverage ability at linebacker with Jonathan Casillas and Keenan Robinson, the Giants’ long-running inability to cover athletic tight ends still exists. Per Football Outsiders, the Giants are 24th in the NFL covering tight ends.

Last Sunday, Zach Miller of the Chicago Bears caught three passes for 61 yards, including a 34-yarder and a 19-yard touchdown pass, before leaving before halftime with a season-ending injury.

The Browns have a good tight end in veteran Gary Barnidge. After catching no more than 13 passes in any of his first six seasons, Barnidge caught 79 for Cleveland last season. He has 39 receptions so far this season. Since the beginning of 2015 he has exactly 1,500 receiving yards, fourth-most among tight ends during that time.

It might be a good idea if the Giants figure out a way to keep the ball out of Barnidge’s hands.

How well will Giants’ fans travel?

Cleveland is roughly a seven-hour drive East Rutherford, N.J., home of the Giants. That means Cleveland is within driving distance for Giants’ fans from the New York-New Jersey area.

Want to check out the Giants in person and don’t mind the drive, and a potential overnight hotel stay? Well, Browns-Giants might be the best and cheapest opportunity you will ever get. Check the Big Blue View tickets page sponsored by Stub Hub and you will find that there are reams of tickets available at FirstEnergy Stadium beginning at the ridiculously low price of $7. Yes, $7! For an NFL game!

So, how well will Big Blue travel this weekend? I suspect there will be an awful lot of Giants’ jerseys in the stands at FirstEnergy.

Can the defense dominate?

The Giants spent more than $200 million and then used three of their first four draft picks in an effort to rebuild a defense that was awful a season ago. That group has been getting better and better, intercepting passes, getting to the quarterback with increasing frequency and closing out games with critical stops.

The Browns have struggled at quarterback with three different starters this season. They have one of the league’s worst offenses in terms of yardage and point production. They have given up a league-worst 38 sacks, including eight last week to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

On paper, the Giants’ defense should handle the Cleveland offense with relative ease. Will they?

Big-play Beckham?

One of the biggest problems for the under-performing Giants’ offense is that they haven’t gotten enough big plays from their best player, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Here is how I summarized the situation earlier in the week:

Beckham has been held under 100 receiving yards in four straight games, three of those with yardage totals in the 40s. Going back further, 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.

Beckham does have three touchdowns over that four-game span, but his longest reception is 26 yards.

The Giants, of course, don’t want to force the ball to Beckham. With opposing defenses generally playing a safety over the top of Beckham, the Giants have been throwing him short routes or looking toward their other receivers.

Beckham is on pace for 94 receptions, 1,310 receiving yards, 9.6 touchdowns and 13.9 yards per reception. All of those numbers are outstanding, until you realize they would all fall well below his production from 12- and 15-game seasons in his first two years.

“It’s unfortunate to be on the offense and have that feeling that the defense is saving us every game, which they are. They’re playing at a high level. It’s about time for us to just put one away. Let them sit on the bench with the warmers and their jackets. Not even let them worry about coming back on the field,” Beckham said this week.

“We know that we haven’t played to our full potential. We’re still coming away with wins. We just need to step it up in each and every way. Put games away when they need to be put away.”

The Giants can’t expect to get 200+ yards out of Beckham consistently. They do, however, need to find ways to exploit defenses and get more plays from their best play-maker. Until they do that, the offense will generally under-achieve.