The New York Giants are going to be facing a different beast in Week 2 of the 2016 NFL season. The Giants’ opponent in their Week 1 matchup, the Dallas Cowboys, are a run-heavy offense and the Giants defense spent most of the game focused on stopping Ezekiel Elliott, with a pretty impressive success rate as the defensive line was able to hold strong against what’s probably the best offensive line in the league.
But the Week 2 opponent, the New Orleans Saints, are the exact opposite. Behind Drew Brees, the Saints have been one of the most pass-happy offenses in the league. Some of that is because the New Orleans defense gives up a ton of points, but also the Saints are just really good at throwing the ball. Last season the Saints had the sixth-highest pass to run ratio in the league and that was their most run-heavy offense since 2009. The Giants, of course, are no strangers to the power of the New Orleans offense -- in three of the last four meetings between these two teams, the Saints have scored at least 48 points in three of them.
Brees and the Saints don’t just throw a lot, either, they throw efficiently. New Orleans’ passing offense rank by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, which measures per play efficiency — has been no worse than ninth over the past five seasons.
New Orleans can attack opposing defenses in a myriad of ways, but one particular aspect should be of high importance to the Giants on Sunday -- the danger of the slot receiver.
For years the Giants have struggled covering opposing tight ends and as the league shifts to 11 personnel (3 WRs) as its base offense, that can extend to receivers coming out of the slot. Slot receivers now aren’t just the small, shifty players like Wes Welker or Julian Edelman. Teams are placing bigger receivers on the inside to exploit mismatches against the defense and the Saints are one of the best teams at doing this.
Willie Snead played just under 20 percent of his snaps last season in the slot and was featured there quite prominently in New Orleans’ Week 1 matchup with the Oakland Raiders. Snead had nine receptions on nine targets in the season’s opening week and only three of those plays came with Snead as the outside receiver. Six catches and 111 yards from Snead came lined up inside.
Of course with this being New Orleans, defending this isn’t quite as simple as throwing a nickel corner on a receiver in the slot. The Saints use different formations and route combinations to create even more mismatches in coverage.
Late in the game, the Saints ran a bunch formation with 11 personnel to the left with Snead, Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas as the three receivers in the bunch. Thomas ran a wheel route from the outside to take his cornerback to the boundary. Cooks ran a dig that took safety Reggie Nelson to the middle of the field, allowing Snead to have the middle of the field open as he ran up the seam. The Raiders were also playing zone, so once that middle defender in the trio passes Snead off, he has a clear path downfield.
Earlier in the first quarter, the Saints -- again in 11 personnel -- lined up with an empty backfield. While it was a five-wide look, keeping a running back -- in this case Travaris Cadet -- on the field keeps the Raiders in a nickel package. Cadet lined up on the outside and was covered at the line by a corner. Meanwhile, Snead lined up in the slot across from linebacker Malcolm Smith, a matchup the Saints will exploit and win every time.
In Week 1 the Giants encountered some issues defending receivers from the slot. Cole Beasley had nine receptions on 12 targets, and all but two came with Beasley lined up in the slot. These were mostly on shorter routes in the middle of the field, but the Giants did face a similar situation to the play above, but it came with Dez Bryant as the slot receiver for a could-have-been touchdown.
Midway through the second quarter, the Cowboys showed a similar spread look with three receivers, a tight end and running back. Like Cadet for the Saints, Lance Dunbar was out wide, which kept Janoris Jenkins covering him. Jenkins did shadow Bryant for much of the game, but that did not apply for the limited snaps Bryant moved inside. The Giants didn’t get stuck with a linebacker on Bryant, instead it was Landon Collins, which down the field in coverage is close enough. Even with Collins at a considerable depth from the line of scrimmage, Bryant was able to get behind him and get a hand on the ball. Everything about the play screams touchdown -- and the play was initially called as such -- but Bryant didn’t actually catch the ball.
The Giants are going to be prepared on Sunday, at least from a personnel perspective. Per the Football Outsiders Almanac, the Giants ran their nickel defense on 51 percent of the snaps last season. Against the Cowboys, it was almost 75 percent. Jenkins was on the field for all 78 of the defensive snaps and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie missed just one. No. 3 corner Eli Apple was on the field for 53 defensive snaps, which was 72 percent of the Giants’ defensive plays.
Snead, of course, isn’t the only issue in the New Orleans passing game. Brandin Cooks had a big day against the Raiders even if you take out his 98-yard touchdown catch. Then there’s rookie Michael Thomas, who was impressive in the preseason and tight end Coby Fleener, who only had one catch on four targets against Oakland, but is a receiving threat. There’s also the running backs, who saw a combined 148 targets last season. When facing the Saints, there no one thing that needs to be stopped, but there are places the can really do damage to an opponent.
Last week against the Cowboys, the Giants showed some impressive improvement on the defensive side of the ball. But this week against the many weapons of the Saints will be a real test about how good this defense can be.
[NOTE: Dan Pizzuta joins the BBV staff today. Dan has previously written for Bleacher Report and currently writes for numberFire. Follow Dan on Twitter @DanPizzuta. Give him a Big Blue View welcome!]