The New York Giants come in to Week 2 looking for payback.
Their 2015 Week 8 loss to the Saints might be the most heart-wrenching of that season. Eli Manning was stellar, completing 30-of-41 passes for 511 yards and 6 touchdowns, twice leading the Giants back from 14-point deficits.
Eli and the offense didn’t lose the game.
That was on the defense. The Giants’ woebegone defense was utterly unable to pressure Drew Brees or slow the Saints’ offense down in any way, other than Trumaine McBride’s 67-yard pick six.
That defense featured starters Markus Kuhn (DT), Robert Ayers (DE), Kerry Wynn (DE) Jasper Brinkley (LB), Brandon Meriweather (S), and Jayron Hosley (CB)
That defense is gone now. In their place are Damon Harrison (DT), Jason Pierre-Paul (DE), Olivier Vernon (DE), Kelvin Sheppard/Keenan Robinson (LB), Darian Thompson and Nat Berhe (S), and Janoris Jenkins (CB).
Can the Giants’ upgraded personnel redeem the defense’s reputation against the Saints?
Let’s take a look at what they need to do.
Win the line of scrimmage
The Giants’ defensive front did yeoman’s work against the Dallas Cowboys, who were committed to dominating the time of possession and running the ball. The Giants won that battle last Sunday, and need to do so again against the Saints.
The Saints might be known for their up-tempo, high-scoring offense with Drew Brees putting up historic stats, but Sean Payton’s offense is actually built on the run.
Mark Ingram is the star of the Saints’ backfield, but he was one of five running backs active against the Oakland Raiders.
The contrast between the Saints’ rushing attack and the speed of their receivers stresses defenses in the way that few offenses are capable. The Giants will need to have the speed at the second level to deal with the passing attack.
But for the the Giants to be able to have the speed at the second and third levels to deal with the Saints’ passing attack, they will need the defensive line to once again win the line of scrimmage with their defensive line. Complicating matters is the Saints’ use of jumbo sets. Frequently using tackle-eligible alignments that are essentially seven-man offensive lines, the Saints present fronts that force defenses to make tough decisions. They are faced with a choice between a base formation, which may not be fast enough to cover their tight ends or running backs out of the backfield, or a nickel package that may not be stout enough to stand up to a concerted rushing attack.
Working in the Giants’ favor is the fact that while the Saints have an improved offensive line, it isn’t up to par with the unit they stymied — and at times manhandled — in Week 1. In simple 4-on-5 situations the Giants should have the advantage. Any of their starting lineman can win their one on one matchup and command a double team. The question is how many of those situations the Saints will allow.
When it comes to run blocking, the Saints mix man and zone blocking schemes, but their line seemed to fare better against the Raiders when they were running power, using man blocking schemes.
Pressure Drew Brees
Despite being 37 years of age, Drew Brees is still one of the very best quarterbacks in the league when he is at his best. He might be short and not have a cannon arm, but his lightening fast release, accuracy, anticipation, and command of the no-huddle offense make him a dangerous quarterback.
When protected and at home, in the Superdome’s favorable conditions, Brees can put up All-Time great numbers and pick a defense apart.
On the road, in the elements and under pressure, he is a different — and much more human — quarterback entirely.
The Giants’ depleted defense was almost entirely unable to bring any pressure against Brees in the raucous, but ultimately disappointing shootout last year, and as a result Brees had a field day. Against the Raiders, Brees posted a quarterback rating of 142.4 when given time to throw, but that dropped to a measly 63.9 when pressured. With New York's vastly upgraded defensive line and secondary, the Giants should be able to generate pressure.
The trick -- which is related to the first point — is putting Brees in positions where he will be forced to pass.
Much like against the Cowboys, blitzing is a risky proposition against the Saints, though for different reasons. While Dak Prescott is an athletic unknown, Brees is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the NFL. Every blitz comes with risk because it weakens pass coverage, and if they get too reliant on the blitz Brees can — and will — make them pay for it. However, they can’t let themselves be predictable either. The Giants didn’t know how Prescott would react to their defense, but they did know that they needed to keep him in the pocket as much as possible. Keeping contain on Brees is much less critical, freeing Spagnuolo to send pressure from a variety of angles and positions as long as the coverage on the back end is still sound.
Matching up in coverage
The Giants did a tremendous job of dictating Dak Prescott’s options in the passing game, but Brees is just a different animal.
Brees was excellent at attacking the middle of the field in Week 1, completing 17-of-19 passes between the numbers. He will likely go there again, attacking the Giants’ linebackers and young safeties. If the Giants’ defensive line can keep the linebackers clean enough, they might have to use the more athletic Keenan Robinson as the middle linebacker, or even use a nickel package with Eli Apple or a third safety to improve the speed of the defense in coverage.
Not only do the Giants need to worry about the Saints’ running backs as receiving threats out of the backfield — and in the screen game — but they have a trio of receivers who can rotate around the formation.
Not only is third-year receiver Brandon Cooks lightning quick, but he also has speed to burn. Despite being undersized, he has the ability to play inside and outside and is adept at running past defenders who give him a free release and using his quickness to create separation out of his breaks.
Next is Willie Snead. Against the Raiders, Snead went off to the tune of nine catches for 172 yards and a touchdown. He is adept at finding holes in coverage and using smooth footwork to create separation. While he isn’t exciting, his versatility and dependability make him a hazard to ignore.
Finally is rookie Michael Thomas. Thomas was drafted in the second round and boasts an impressive blend of size and speed. He obviously still has developing to do as a receiver, but he has already shown the ability to get open and generate yards after the catch.
Though Janoris Jenkins did a tremendous job of locking down Dez Bryant, he might be better suited to dealing with Snead or Thomas while Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie shadows Cooks. Cooks had difficulties with Sean Smith, another very long corner, in close areas, and DRC’s unique athleticism make him a better match-up down the field as well. A matchup between Apple and Thomas could be fascinating to watch. The two have similar size and speed and were teammates at Ohio State. One of the X-Factors for this game is if, or how, that familiarity plays out on the field or in game-planning.
Regardless, the Giants’ corners will likely need to be physical at the line of scrimmage. While the Raiders were in man coverage for much of the game against New Orleans, it was often off-man coverage, giving the Saints’ receivers free releases at the line of scrimmage. Disrupting the timing with press-man coverage, the Giants could hope to upset the timing and rhythm portions of the Saints’ offense.