After a bye, two of the most surprising teams in the NFL will match up -- surprising for two different reasons. The New York Giants have fallen below expectations while the Los Angeles Rams have exceeded just about everyone’s. Two things we might have been able to see, though, would be some struggles from the Giants’ offense and improvement from the Rams’ defense under Wade Phillips. Both of those have come true, which could lead to a lopsided battle on that side of the ball.
By the numbers
Rushing: 83.3 yards per game (27th), 3.9 yards per carry (22nd)
Passing: 213.1 yards per game (22nd), 6.2 yards per attempt (28th)
Total: 296.4 yards per game (27th), 25.89 yards per drive (26th)
Points: 16.0 points per game (30th), 1.30 points per drive (29th)
Rushing: 123.1 yards per game (26th), 4.6 yards per attempt (27th)
Passing: 205.0 yards per game (ninth), 6.9 yards per attempt (16th)
Total: 328.1 yards per game (15th), 27.26 yards per drive (10th)
Points: 19.7 points per game (11th), 1.69 points per drive (12th)
Stopping Aaron Donald, if that’s possible
Maybe you don’t need to be told this, but Aaron Donald is a monster. But maybe also you don’t exactly understand just how much of a monster Aaron Donald is. Donald held out the first game of the regular season, wasn’t really himself until midway through his second game, just served a bye, and still leads the league in individual pass pressures per Sports Info Solutions charting from Football Outsiders with 29.5, two more than second-place Melvin Ingram. Donald only has three sacks, but he’s consistently in the backfield.
Donald isn’t just dangerous because of his strength or his speed or his instincts, but how he puts them together to win before and after the snap. Take this play from Week 5 against the Seattle Seahawks. Donald is lined up between the right guard Oday Aboushi (75) and right tackle Germain Ifedi (76). As soon as Donald sees Aboushi start to go outside, he quickly swims inside and meets Eddie Lacy deep in the backfield untouched. This is a play where Donald mapped out exactly where it was going and the offense had no chance to stop him once he did.
What also makes Donald so dangerous from the interior is how he can play from that alignment like an edge rusher. Teams also have to block him like one. On the play below, Donald lines up against Jacksonville left guard Patrick Omameh. Omameh isn’t one of the league’s top guards, but he still has a three-inch and 30-pound advantage over Donald. None of that matters, though, because Donald is able to use his speed and size -- his 6’1” frame actually allows him to get low leverage -- to turn the corner like a defensive end and force a strip sack of Blake Bortles.
Most defensive tackles aren’t turning the corner like that. It’s just about impossible to block Donald one-on-one and when he’s double teamed, that leaves the other more than capable defensive linemen to beat one-on-one blocking and there’s no guarantee a double-team is enough to stop Donald anyway.
As the Giants have shifted away from a Beckham-or-nothing offense, defenses have started to take the run more seriously. Opposing defenses haven’t been as scared of the pass since the Beckham injury. Because of that, there’s been another man in the box for the past few games. Early in the season, the Giants saw an 8-man box on less than 10 percent of their rushing attempts. But per the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Orleans Darkwa has seen an 8-man box or more on 53 percent of his rushing attempts, which is the second-highest rate in the league. Against the Denver Broncos, the Giants were able to take advantage of that aggressiveness in the run game, but against the Seattle Seahawks there was little success to be had. The Rams haven’t been as strong against the run -- 17th in DVOA, opposed to third against the pass -- so getting some gains on the ground early could set up some shorter third downs.
Can the Giants throw?
Yes, this is a question that could be asked before every Giants game this year, but like the run game, everyone was shocked when the Giants were able to move the ball through the air against the Broncos. Then against Seattle, the secondary held the passing offense to minimal gains. The Rams’ secondary isn’t as heralded as the Seahawks’ but, they’ve played just as well, or arguably better than their division rival this season.
Under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, there hasn’t really been a weak area to attack the Los Angeles pass defense this season. Per DVOA, the Rams are 10th against No. 1 receivers, fourth against No. 2s, fourth against “other” receivers, fourth against tight ends, and 16th against running backs. Even their bad rankings -- 10th and 16th -- are in the top half of the league and this game probably won’t be won by just Sterling Shepard and passes out of the backfield to running backs.
Trumaine Johnson was the cornerback picked by the Rams over Janoris Jenkins when the two hit free agency, but the standout corner for the Rams this season has been Nickell Robey-Coleman. Robey-Coleman has played just over 71 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and can bounce between the outside in base personnel and the slot in nickel. Among 64 qualified corners (average of at least 3.5 targets per game), Robey-Coleman ranks 13th in yards allowed per pass (5.7) and third in success rate (68 percent).
Offensive line alignment
The play and versatility has been a godsend for the Giants’ offensive line. Pugh hasn’t single-handedly saved the line, but his ability and willingness to move from guard to tackle has certainly stopped it from being worse. Pugh, though, did not practice this week because of a back injury and he’s been ruled out for Sunday’s game.
With Pugh a no go, not only does that take away the best offensive lineman, it again shifts around how the Giants set up their blocking assignments and more focus needs to be put on the outside. With Pugh at right tackle, the Giants’ largely left him alone blocking. If a tight end was needed on the line, he was put over on the left side. But if the Giants don’t have a tackle they can trust to block one-on-one, they’ll have to spread out the help to both sides. That’s even less ideal when that Aaron Donald fella is lurking around the interior.
Setting the pace
Per Football Outsiders, the Giants have the eighth-fastest offense in the league on situation-neutral plays, meaning the game is within one score. Running a fast-paced offense is great way to get the defense on its toes, but that hasn’t really been the case for the Giants. The Giants are also 29th in three-and-outs per drive, so this high-tempo offense has just created a lot of quick three-and-outs, which can hurt the Giants’ defense more than the opponent’s.
The Giants don’t need to “control the clock” or anything like that, but they could be better served slowing down a bit, especially since the offensive plays haven’t been too successful. This was a similar problem for the offense last season, when they were the fastest situation-neutral offense and were 31st in three-and-outs per drive.