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Giants at Panthers: 6 things to watch in Sunday’s game

The Giants will be looking for a season-saving upset victory

New York Giants v Houston Texans
Saquon Barkley
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Can the underdog New York Giants pull off an upset of the Carolina Panthers on Sunday? Here are six things to watch as the 1-3 Giants try to get their season turned around.

Barkley’s touches

Coming off a game in which Saquon Barkley ran the ball a season-low 10 times we can likely expect to see a heavy dose of Eli Manning handing the ball to the rookie running back on Sunday. Provided, of course, that the Giants are close enough on the scoreboard for the running game to matter.

Barkley is averaging 14 rushing attempts per game, tied for ninth in the league in rushing attempts. In two games, though (Dallas, 11 and New Orleans, 10) the Giants have seemed to get away from the running game too quickly.

After coach Pat Shurmur admitted during the week that Barkley should have gotten more carries vs. the Saints, don’t expect the same mistake vs. Carolina. The Giants need more big plays, and handing the ball to Barkley is one way to try and get them. Doing so might also help open up some avenues in the passing game.

Big plays in the passing game

Throw ‘em short. Throw ‘em long. Throw ‘em somewhere in between. Doesn’t matter — at least according to coach Pat Shurmur and quarterback Eli Manning. Hit it right and you can generate big plays.

Unfortunately for the Giants, they haven’t generated enough thus far. The Giants are 23rd in the league in passing plays of 20 yards or more, with just nine through four games. They are one of only three teams without a passing play of 40 yards or more. Superstar wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., the game’s highest paid wide receiver doesn’t have a touchdown and is averaging a career-worst 10.7 yards per catch. Thus far, Beckham has been a highly-paid possession receiver. Or even worse, a decoy.

The Giants can talk about picking away at opposing defenses, staying ahead of the chains or on schedule on offense, but this is a team with two of the game’s great play-makers in Beckham and Barkley along with some quality ancillary options.

They need to begin to find ways to get those explosive plays in the passing game.

Defending the zone read

Blake Bortles: 4 carries, 42 yards (a long run of 41 yards)
Dak Prescott: 7 carries, 45 yards (a long run of 15 yards)
Deshaun Watson: 5 carries, 36 yards (a long run of 10 yards)
Taysom Hill: 4 carries, 28 yards (a long run of 19 yards)

That’s 20 carries for 151 yards, an average of 7.55 yards per pop, by quarterbacks running against the Giants this season.

Sunday, the Giants face Cam Newton, who could end his career as the most prolific rushing quarterback of all time. Newton needs 27 yards rushing to surpass Randall Cunningham (4,482) for most rushing yards by a quarterback with a single team. Only Michael Vick (6,109) and Cunningham (4,928) have more rushing yards than Newton (4,456) among quarterbacks.

You can bet that the Panthers will use a heavy dose of the zone read, which has bedeviled the Giants all season, and other designed quarterback runs until — and unless — the Giants finally show they can handle it.

Defensive coordinator James Bettcher knows what’s coming.

“He [Newton] is a very physical, big guy who at times in the zone option scheme, will take the matchup. You will be in the right spot, you’ll have the guy that’s supposed to be on the quarterback on the quarterback, and he will take the matchup at times whether that’s just pulling the ball, or maybe that’s giving the ball and taking the matchup,” Bettcher said. “He’s really smart with those kinds of things and they do a nice job putting him in some of those kinds of situations.”

The Giants really haven’t successfully defended the zone read yet. Can they figure out a way to do it against perhaps the best quarterback who has ever run it? That’s not fun to think about.

Here is part of what Chris wrote about the Carolina offense earlier in the week:

The Panthers are one of the few teams in the NFL to feature the zone read as a fundamental part of their offense. But then, they are the only team in the league to have Cam Newton at quarterback. ...

Defenses in the NFL are too smart, too big, too fast, and quarterbacks far too valuable for any scheme which consistently exposes them to hits to last long. But Newton is unique in his size, athleticism, and natural ability as a runner. The Panthers would be crazy to not feature the zone read with Newton running their offense. Combined with [Christian] McCaffrey, the zone read is especially effective. The two players represent a stark contrast in styles, with McCaffrey’s shifty agility and Newton’s size and power. As well, even when McCaffrey is split out wide as a receiver, Newton’s presence always keeps the threat of a run on the table.

Which brings us to McCaffrey

Back to more of what Chris wrote earlier in the week:

Christian McCaffrey occupies a unique place in the NFL. He is not only his team’s top running back, but also effectively their top receiver.

McCaffrey has three times as many carries (46) as the number two running back (C.J. Anderson, 12). He also has nearly twice as many receptions (22) as the next receiving option (Devin Funchess, 14).

After Newton, the second-year back is clearly Carolina’s most important offensive player.

“One thing about him, when I turn the tape on, I see an explosive guy who’s not afraid. He’s shifty, he can do all those things in space, but he’s not afraid to put his foot down, lower his pads, and he’s going to try and run someone over,” Bettcher said. “Those are the kinds of backs that as a defensive coach you have a lot of respect for, that when it’s time to put your pads down and get those tough two yards, this is a guy who’s going to put his pads down and get the tough two yards.”

Can Olivier Vernon make an impact?

Vernon, who had 6.5 sacks a season ago and has 44 in six NFL seasons, could make his season debut Sunday. The Giants, 30th in the league in sack percentage at 3.65 and facing a prolific running quarterback like Newton, could use Vernon’s help.

Vernon said this week he wants to be certain he can move well enough not to be a liability. Vernon is the team’s most talented EDGE player. His presence vs. the Panthers would be a huge plus.

Oh, those negative plays

Manning, Shurmur and offensive coordinator Mike Shula all talked during the week about the need for the Giants to eliminate negative plays. That seems obvious, of course. Just how many negative plays have the Giants had on offense? Here’s how many:

  • 15 sacks (fourth-most in the league)
  • 14 runs for negative yardage (fifth-most)
  • Four passes for negative yardage (that’s unofficial, by my count having gone through every play)
  • Sixteen accepted offensive penalties

That is 49 negative plays in 279 potential offensive snaps, including the 16 plays that didn’t count because of penalties. That means that 17.5 percent of the time the Giants have gone backwards. You just can’t overcome that high volume of bad plays, especially when you are running an offense that is trying to minimize risk.