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Giants at Broncos: When the Broncos have the ball

The Giants’ wounded offense will need to lean on their defense, but can they?

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at New York Giants Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants travel west this weekend to take on the Denver Broncos. While the Giants’ offense has been a disappointment, it has been their defense that has been shocking — and not in a good way.

The unquestioned strength of the team a year ago, the Giants fielded one of the very best defenses in the league, pairing a dangerous pass defense with a suffocating run defense.

This year they are anything but that, which is bad news as they prepare to take on one of the top rushing teams in the NFL. With an offense that was devastated by injury this past week, can the defense rally?

By the numbers

Broncos’ offense

Rushing Yards - 143.0 yards per game(3rd)

Passing Yards - 198.2 (24th)

Total Yards - 341.2 (13th)

Points - 24.5 (11th)

Giants’ defense

Rushing Yards - 139.0 (29th)

Passing Yards - 224.8 (16th)

Total Yards - 363.8 (26th)

Points - 24.4 (24th)

Eli Apple

Eyebrows were raised when 2016 first-round pick Eli Apple was benched for the start of the Giants’ week five match-up against the San Diego Chargers. Apple has been picked on by opposing quarterbacks, giving up big plays.

He has also rebounded from those poor plays to make plays to help his team — such as against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers when he failed to locate the ball and gave up a touchdown to Mike Evans, but later batted a touchdown away and prevented a successful two-point conversion to DeSean Jackson.

One of the major questions facing the Giants’ defense this week will be whether or not Apple is able to put his benching behind him and step up his play against Denver. He has all the requisite tools to be a top-flight corner in the NFL: size, length, fluidity, and speed to stick with any receiver he is matched up against. Apple is still one of the Giants’ top three cornerbacks and, as a recent first round pick, needs to contribute. With Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie suspended in what has become a messy week for the Giants, the need for Apple to step up and play at the level of which is is capable is that much greater.

More concerning is Apple’s allusion to a “culture” problem in the Giants’ locker room. Was that just a careless phrase from a frustrated young player, or is there something deeper to be concerned about?

Speaking of the secondary, there was a bright spot in the play of Darian Thompson. With a pass defensed, an interception, and much improved tackling, he had a game to build on.

Can the Giants (finally) defend the run?

C.J. Anderson has been something of a revelation for the Broncos this year, and is the engine that makes their offense go. Making matters worse is that he is backed up by Jamaal Charles, and while he isn’t the player he used to be, he is still Jamaal Charles.

The Giants defense, and rush defense in particular, has fallen off precipitously from the dominant unit of 2016. While Damon Harrison remains a force in the middle, and rookie Dalvin Tomlinson has certainly picked up the slack from the departed Johnathan Hankins, the Giants have fielded one of the worst run defenses in the NFL.

All around Harrison and Tomlinson the Giants have had issues with discipline in their run fits as well as in their tackling. The result has been far too much “leaky yardage” in the words of Steve Spagnuolo. More frustrating is that this is a defense that is largely unchanged from the dominant unit of a year ago. They have the talent to stifle run games, but they have thus far shown an inability to do so. If the Giants want to have any hope of pulling off the road upset, it will have to start with the defense doing the dirty work of stopping the run and forcing Trevor Siemian to beat them with his arm.

What pass rush?

After three sacks against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Giants’ pass rush was dormant against Tampa Bay, and failed to get home against the Chargers despite generating pressure on Philip Rivers. The Giants’ stagnant pass rush is the other side of the coin to their struggling run defense. When they can sack, pressure, or otherwise affect opposing quarterbacks, they have shown that they can get off the field. However, they have had a nasty tendency to give up just enough yardage on third downs to keep the chains moving.

Part of the problem has been inconsistency in the secondary limiting the pressure packages Spagnuolo can bring, while another has been the injury to Olivier Vernon. Kerry Wynn is a high-effort player, and Romeo Okwara has intriguing physical tools, but neither is anything close to a dangerous pass rusher. Devon Kennard showed some of the pass rushing skills he flashed early in his career, and the Giants will need him to continue to do so.

More frustrating is Steve Spagnuolo’s tendency to use three-man rushes on third and long situations. The idea is obviously to flood the the secondary with coverage players and constrict window, however the time allowed to passers by the decreased pressure makes the job of coverage players that much more difficult. To his credit he has mixed things up, bringing pressure out of looks that saw players drop in coverage earlier in the game. The Giants might not get many opportunities to rush the passer — Denver has the second fewest passing attempts in the NFL through five games — but when they do, they need to make them count and get the Broncos behind the chains. Whether they can or not is another story. The Giants’ defense is tied for third-fewest sacks in the league with eight through five games.