When the New York Giants face the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday Night Football, there will be a lot on the line.
Despite being 1-4 on the season, and currently possessing the top overall pick in the 2019 draft, the Giants also have the opportunity to catapult themselves in to the thick of the hunt for the division crown. No team is the NFC East has more than two victories.
The Giants’ defense has done enough for the team to win each of their five games so far, and it is on the offense to take the next step.
Can they do it against division rival Philadelphia on a short week?
Stats at a glance
Rushing yards: 75.6 per game (28th overall)
Passing yards: 262.2 per game (17th overall)
Total yards: 337.8 per game (25th overall)
Points: 20.8 per game (23rd overall)
*Note: Amazingly, the Giants have scored the most points in the NFC East.
Rushing yards: 66.4 per game (2nd overall)
Passing yards: 276.8 per game (22nd overall)
Total yards: 343.2 per game (10th overall)
Points: 20.8 per game (7th overall)
Play in spite of the offensive line
The Giants’ rebuilt offensive line has been bad this season, shockingly bad, and it has gotten worse over the last two weeks.
Over the last two weeks, against the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers with Saquon Barkley carrying the ball, the Giants have run the ball 25 times. Four of those rushes went for more than 5 yards, with carries of 7, 20, 28, and 30 yards (85 total). The other 21 carries went for a grand total of 7 yards (.33 yards per carry). This despite the fact that Barkley has seen eight (or more) defenders in the box on less than a quarter of his carries.
In 2017, Manning was sacked 31 times. So far, through the first five games, Manning has been sacked 16 times and is on pace for 51 sacks this season. Though his sack totals have gone down over the last two weeks, he remains under consistent pressure with Saints and Panthers’ rushers consistently coming closer than league-average to Manning.
All of this means that, faced with a talented Eagles’ defensive front, if the Giants want to have any offensive success, they will need to find it in spite of their offensive line.
Barkley’s big runs have largely come when he has used his incredible athleticism to escape would-be tacklers at (or behind) the line of scrimmage and gone off script. It isn’t sustainable, but if the Giants want any production on the ground, the trend says that they will have to hope for Barkley to keep his super hero cape on and get it done himself.
Likewise, though Eli Manning is about as graceful as a newborn giraffe, against the Panthers he managed to navigate the pocket, avoid rushers, and give his receivers time to work open down the field.
It might not be sustainable, but the Giants, Manning and Barkley in particular, need to sustain it for one more week against a tough Eagles’ defensive front.
Can the Giants’ find a balance?
So far we have seen two bad performances from the Giants (against the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints), two good ones (against the Houston Texans and Carolina Panthers), and one that was promising at the time (against the Jacksonville Jaguars). Five games in we have data points about what works and what doesn’t with regards to the Giants’ offense.
When the Giants’ offense stagnates, it is generally because Manning isn’t looking down the field. Against the Cowboys and Saints, Most of Manning’s passes were five yards or shorter, with many of them going at or behind the line of scrimmage. Against the Texans, most of Manning’s passes were between 5 and 7 yards, and against the Panthers his average completion traveled nearly 10 yards in the air.
The common thread is that when Manning plays it safe, taking check downs rather than letting routes open up downfield, the offense stagnates. But when he looks downfield more, giving Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, and Saquon Barkley the chance to make plays in space, the offense is much better.
Of course, Manning’s two interceptions against the Panthers reveals the problem with the aggression with which he played against Carolina. Almost completely eschewing check-dows and throws to Barkley, the high-risk approach didn’t always pay off and cost the Giants points.
They need to find a balance between the game plan the Giants used against Carolina, which caters to the strengths of the Giants’ skill position players and Manning’s tendencies as a gunslinger, and the more methodical, conservative game plan they used against Houston.
The Eagles’ secondary is their defensive weakness, the cornerback duo of Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills in particular. The duo has given up a combined 55 receptions for 565 yards and a touchdown apiece. However, attacking them will put a strain on the pass protection. It is a risk the Giants will have to accept and deal with, but there might be a safer option they could make use of.
As Dan Pizzuta and I pointed out in the Big Blue reView podcast after the Panthers game, using Barkley as a receiving weapon — not just a check down option — could be the answer. Barkley is capable of running a full route tree out of the backfield, and would likely be matched up on a linebacker. Jordan Hicks is a good coverage linebacker, but Barkley is a mismatch for nearly any safety or linebacker in the NFL. The Giants should make use of that mismatch down the field and put him in position to use his prodigious athleticism without being constrained by the offensive line.
Play with passion
Perhaps the single biggest difference between the Giants’ offense in Week 5 and the four games that preceded it was the passion with which they played.
Odell Beckham Jr. was widely criticized for calling his team out for not matching his passion and energy on offense before Sunday’s game. However, it was also clear from watching the games that the scheme, which hovered somewhere between patient and methodical and frightened of risk, just was not working.
The team did what Beckham asked against Houston, particularly in the second half, after a futile quarter and a half to open the game. The result was Manning’s first 300+ yard passing performance, and the team’s first 30+ point performance since 2015. The Giants played a team that was widely considered to be vastly superior down to the wire. The offense finally showed a spark and an energy that it hadn’t shown in years.
The Giants are, somehow, only a game and a half out of the lead in their division. They can still accomplish what they set out to do when they threw their support behind Eli Manning, but if they want to get it done, they will need to build on that spark. They be well served to be more judicious going forward than they were against Houston, but they can’t go back to the passive, risk averse offense which played to not lose that they ran against Jacksonville, Dallas, and New Orleans.
The Eagles, and the rest of the NFC East, have left the door open. The Giants need to walk their own selves through it, and they’ve seen the way forward.