The New York Giants, and their fans, are riding high after beating division rival Washington Redskins 40-16.
Moving on from that win, the Giants face an interesting matchup in the Tennessee Titans. In some ways, this is something of a “mirror match” (to borrow a term from fighting games in which the player has to fight the same character as they are playing, only with a different color palate) as the Titans run a similar defensive scheme.
Their defensive coordinator, Dean Pees, has about as an attractive coaching pedigree as you could possibly ask for from a defensive coordinator. In the college ranks he twice coached under Nick Saban (as a position coach and defensive coordinator), and in the NFL he was a defensive line and later linebackers coach, then defensive coordinator for Bill Belichick, and was the defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens.
Pees calls a “multiple” blitzing defense in the same vein as the Giants’ James Bettcher. It is a defense with players and wrinkles for which the Giants will need to be ready, but it is also a defense with matchups the Giants can exploit.
Stats that matter
Get the passing game going early
The talk this week has been that the Giants’ offense now runs through Saquon Barkley, and the rookie has certainly stepped up recently. With Odell Beckham Jr. perhaps missing another game this Sunday, Barkley will again be the focal point. That being said, the Giants need to get their passing game going early.
While the Titans have one of the league’s best pass defenses in terms of raw stats, ranking eighth in passing yards per game, Football Outsiders ranks them as one of the worst teams in the league at covering wide receivers.
Tennessee ranks a poor 25th in the league against “number two” receivers, and 24th against “all other receivers”. However, against “number one” receivers — of which the Giants have one of the very best in the league — they rank dead last at 32nd.
Meanwhile, the Titans rank 13th in the league in run defense, and fourth in the league in covering passes to running backs.
Unfortunately, Beckham’s presence on the field is in serious question with him seeking a second opinion on his bruised quad. If Beckham doesn’t play, we can expect some combination of Sterling Shepard, Evan Engram, Saquon Barkley, and Corey Coleman to try and pick up the slack. As mentioned before, Tennessee is not great at covering secondary receivers, which bodes well for Shepard and Coleman (as well as Bennie Fowler and whoever else the Giants line up at receiver).
The Titans are good at covering tight ends and running backs, but neither Engram nor Barkley are anything like the usual breed of player at those positions. Both players can line up and run routes from anywhere in the offensive formation, and in doing so present the kind of match-up problems which keep defensive coordinators up at night. Pat Shurmur just needs to make use of them.
All season long the Giants have neglected to take advantage of favorable positional matchups. However, with the Giants potentially clinging to the hope of a spot in the post-season after an absolutely atrocious start to their regular season, they can’t afford to keep passing up favorable matchups when faced with quality opponents.
Keep Eli Manning upright
This subhead has been evergreen this year, and it’s also something the Giants haven’t done a great job of.
The Giants are tied for third-worst in the NFL with Manning being sacked 43 times this season, and he has been hit 81 times through 14 games. Even with improvement along the offensive line, Manning was still pressured on nearly 30 percent of his passing attempts against the Washington Redskins.
This week they face a defense which seemingly revels in sending pressure from unpredictable sources. The Titans’ top sack artist is DT Jurrell Casey with 7.0 on the season. Casey, rookie EDGE Harold Landry (2.5), and 2018 addition Kamalei Correa (2.5) are the only defensive linemen or EDGE rushers with more than two sacks.
By contrast, they have four interior linemen or defensive backs who have at least 2.0 sacks (three of whom have 3.0 or more), and two more defensive backs with at least one sack.
As you might expect from a defense coordinated by a coach with Dean Pees’ pedigree, the Titans love to mix and match alignments and coverages, and the Giants’ offensive line not only has to win its battles up front, but the linemen, tight ends, and running backs need to keep their heads on a swivel. There will be pressure coming from unexpected sources, as well as pressure apparently vanishing after the snap.
Spotlighting Jayon Brown
If there is one player, other than Casey, worth spotlighting in this defense, it is second-year linebacker Jayon Brown. Drafted in the fifth round out of UCLA, Brown came in to the league as an unheralded “tweener” — an inside linebacker with the size of a safety.
He showed some upside in his rookie year but has truly blossomed under Dean Pees. Already this season he has 76 tackles, 8 tackles for a loss, 3 passes defensed, 6.0 sacks, and 10 quarterback hits. As you would expect from a linebacker who is all of 6 feet, 220 pounds, he is fluid in coverage and a bit part of why the Titans are seventh against tight ends and fourth against running backs in the passing game.
Brown might not be a game wrecker like Aaron Donald, Khalil Mack, or J.J. Watt, but he is an ascending player who offenses need to recognize and account for. If the Giants are able to diagnose whether he is in man or zone coverage (as well as the defense as a whole), they can use concepts designed to target the weaknesses of those defenses. If they choose to go after Brown and try to take one of the defense’s best players out of the game, making him the read player in RPOs (that is, the player who is forced into conflict between covering a pass or playing the run), could put more stress on the rest of the defense, as well as make sure Brown can’t be “right.”