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Giants-Falcons: 6 things to watch as Giants try to avoid sixth loss

Another offensive line, another return man, more

NFL: New York Giants at Carolina Panthers
Spencer Pulley
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants are 1-5, yet they continue to insist that their season is not over. In an NFC East where the 4-2 Washington Redskins are the only team above .500, and still having to face Washington twice, it’s hard to blame the Giants for holding on to a shred of belief that they still have a chance.

They need, though, to start winning games. Now. As in Monday night against the Atlanta Falcons, a 4.5-point favorite to send the Giants home with a 1-6 record. Here are some of the things to watch tonight as the Giants try to at least give themselves reason for optimism over the season’s remaining nine games.

Another offensive line combo

In Game 7, the Giants will use their third starting offensive line combination of the season. Spencer Pulley, who started 16 games at center for the Los Angeles Chargers a season ago, will slide in at center Monday night, with John Greco moving to right guard — his natural position — and struggling right guard Patrick Omameh out of the lineup. Omameh, in fact, will be inactive due to a knee injury that cropped up late in the practice week.

Omameh, who signed a three-year, $15 million dollar contract as part of the team’s offensive line rebuild, has been a disappointment. Pulley was awarded to the Giants via waivers after the Chargers, who replaced him with Mike Pouncey, let him go.

Per Football Outsiders, the Giants are 24th in the league in pass protection thus far with an Adjusted Sack Rate of 7.9 percent. Worse, they are last in the league in run blocking with an Adjusted Line Yards average of 3.11 yards per attempt. Through six games, the Giants had the league’s third-highest percentage of negative runs.

The Giants will hope this latest combination offers at least some improvement, especially some running room for Saquon Barkley. If they can’t perform against an Atlanta defense that has just 10 sacks and is 31st in points allowed at 32.0 per game, that’s a problem.

Impact of Evan Engram

The second-year tight end has not played since Week 3 when he suffered an MCL sprain against the Houston Texans. Engram’s speed and pass-catching ability are things no other tight end on the Giants’ roster can match, and he creates matchup opportunities for the offense.

In three games, Engram had 10 catches in 13 targets, a 76.9 percent catch rate. Eli Manning has a 125.1 passer rating throwing to him.

The Atlanta secondary, without its two starting safeties, is 29th in passing yards allowed and 28th in quarterback passer rating against. Engram should help the Giants take advantage of that group.

“I think the more of our dynamic players that we have in the lineup, the better chance we have to spread the ball around and play good offense,” coach Pat Shurmur told the team’s official website.

Quadree time!

Kaelin Clay. Stacy Coley. Cody Latimer. Odell Beckham Jr. Jawill Davis. The Giants have spent the first six games of the season searching ... and searching ... and searching for a reliable return man.

Could Quadree Henderson, who figures to get the opportunity to run back kickoffs and perhaps punts Monday vs. the Falcons, finally provide the answer?

A dynamic returner at Pitt who averaged 26.6 yards with four TDs on 73 kickoff returns and 13.4 yards with three touchdowns on 37 punt returns in college, Henderson has been promoted from the practice squad to the active roster with Davis out due to a concussion.

The Giants have been OK on kickoff returns this season, 11th in the league at 24.1 yards per return. Punt return, though, has been a nightmare. The Giants are last in the league at 2.8 yards per return, and the basic act of fielding punts has been an adventure.

They will hope Henderson can solve that.

Saquon’s quest

Saquon Barkley can join Kareem Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs as the only players to have seven straight games of 100 or more scrimmage yards to start their careers should he hit that mark vs. the Falcons.

Barkley is averaging 135.2 yards per game from scrimmage, a pace that would net him 2,163 yards from scrimmage.

As runner, Barkley is averaging 5.2 yards per carry. We discussed above how little help he has gotten from the offensive line. Per Player Profiler, Barkley is fourth in the league in Yards Created Per Carry at 2.11.

As a receiver, his 40 receptions led all running backs entering Week 7. His 373 receiving yards were also No. 1 in the NFL. The truly scary part of that for opposing defenses, and something we discussed recently on Locked on Giants, is that most of that has come on check downs or dump offs rather than plays designed to really maximize Barkley’s abilities as a receiver.

Rushing & Receiving Table
Game Rush Rush Rush Rush Rush Rush Rush Rece Rece Rece Rece Rece Rece Rece Rece Rece Tota Tota Tota
G Rush Yds TD Lng Y/A Y/G A/G Tgt Rec Yds Y/R TD Lng R/G Y/G Ctch% Touch Y/Tch YScm
6 84 438 4 68 5.2 73.0 14.0 51 40 373 9.3 2 57 6.7 62.2 78.4% 124 6.5 811
6 84 438 4 68 5.2 73.0 14.0 51 40 373 9.3 2 57 6.7 62.2 124 6.5 811
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/22/2018.

Can the defense find a way?

The Giants have given up more than 30 points in three straight games. Even in an Arena Football-esque era for the NFL that kind of porous defense is not going to help them win enough games.

The Falcons have Matt Ryan, a former MVP, at quarterback. They have Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley and Mohamed Sanu at wide receiver. They have a top 10 offense in yards and points per game.

Can the Giants slow Atlanta down enough to have a chance? Defensive coordinator James Bettcher belies it’s about his team doing its job, not about what the Giants have to do to match up with the Falcons.

“What do we need to do better? Nothing to do with Atlanta,” Bettcher said. “What do we need to do better at each position group?

“It’s like when sometimes you go to the doctor, you go see him, what do they give you? They give you a prescription for what you need. We look at it that way, it’s a prescription. Here are the things we need to do better at each position group, and some places, it’s individually, then what we focus on in our individual is we focus on those things. To play better defense, that’s what it comes down to.”

Philadelphia Eagles v New York Giants Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

Aggressive Eli or Check Down Eli?

The clock is ticking on Manning’s time as the team’s franchise quarterback. If he is going to delay the inevitability of the time when he is no longer the Giants’ quarterback, the Manning the Giants saw against the Houston Texans (25-of-29) or in the fourth quarter against the Carolina Panthers (engineering a comeback from a 27-16 deficit) needs to show up.

Manning’s play in 2018 has, overall, not been good enough. He has given fodder to those who support him with his games against the Texans and Panthers, and to those who believe he is finished as a top-tier quarterback with his work in the other four games.

ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate, which shows the Giants with the league’s two worst pass blocking tackles in Nate Solder and Chad Wheeler AND the worst overall offensive line in the league, perhaps explains a good deal of why Manning has checked the ball down at such an alarming rate this season.

Still, it has to change somehow. As we have discussed, the Giants are facing an Atlanta defense against which they should be able to have success. The Falcons’ pass rush is nearly as anemic as the Giants’. The secondary is without both starting safeties. The analytics clearly show Atlanta’s defensive deficiencies in a wide variety of categories.

If the Giants are going to win, and Manning is going to hold off Father Time and the naysayers for a while longer, he needs to play well Monday night.