I try not to refer to them as “keys to the game,” because the ultimate key to any game is to simply somehow score more points than the team on the other side. Here, though, are some of the things to watch Sunday when the New York Giants host the New Orleans Saints.
That’s how many passing yards Brees (71,523) needs to surpass Peyton Manning (71,940) for most all-time. Brees is currently third behind Manning and Brett Favre (71,838). Can he break the mark on Sunday? He has already thrown for 439 and 396 yards in games this season, so it’s absolutely possible.
Will OV play?
Defensive coordinator James Bettcher said earlier this week that linebacker Olivier Vernon, yet to play this season due to a high ankle sprain, was “trending.” Vernon has practiced twice this week on a limited basis, the first times he has done so since being injured, and said Thursday that he is “making progress.”
The Giants, 29th in the league in Adjusted Sack Rate (4.1 percent) could use anything they can get from Vernon as they face the high-flying Saints, third in the league in scoring at 34.7 points per game.
Can Odell hit that extra gear?
By standard measures, Odell Beckham Jr. has come back successfully from last season’s broken ankle. By his own lofty and historic standards, though, Beckham might not consider himself all the way back.
That’s because the one thing missing in the first three games has been the spectacular catch or the explosive turn a 7-yard pass into a 70-yard play kind of thing he has done so frequently in his career.
Old-fashioned quarterback matchup
There aren’t a whole lot of pure, drop-back pocket passing quarterbacks left in the league. Guys who stay in the pocket as much as possible and win with their arms and their brains rather than their legs and their athleticism. Brees. Tom Brady. Eli Manning. Maybe Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers. A handful of other guys.
Manning and Brees have dueled six times since Brees landed in New Orleans in 2006, with the Giants 2-4 in those games. Many of them have been offensive shootouts.
This might be the last time we see these two quarterbacks, one of whom (Brees) is going to the Hall of Fame and the other (Manning) who could well join him, face off.
The Saints are averaging the aforementioned 34.7 points per game. They had already hit the 40-point mark twice this season. The Giants haven’t scored 30 points in a game since the final game of Tom Coughlin’s tenure, a streak of 38 games without hitting that mark.
The Giants’ performance against the Houston Texans, though, 20 first-half points, a big fourth-quarter touchdown drive when they needed points hinted at good things to come.
The Giants are going to hit 30 a few times this season. To beat the Saints, Sunday might have to be the first one.
Jackrabbit vs. Michael Thomas?
Thomas is New Orleans’ best wide receiver. He has caught an unconscionable 38 of the 40 passes Brees has tossed in his direction this season. He is, at least physically, the type of player Janoris Jenkins has matched up well with in the past [think Dez Bryant]. Eli Apple [groin] is likely to miss a second straight game as he did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. Jenkins is clearly the Giants’ best option against Thomas, so it will be interesting to see if he follows him wherever he lines up on Sunday.
Defending Alvin Kamara
Kamara is for the Saints what Saquon Barkley is for the Giants — a do-everything back who can not only run the ball but may well be more valuable, and dangerous, as a pass receiver. Last season, he had 1,554 yards from scrimmage (728 rushing, 826 receiving). He scored 13 touchdowns. This season, Kamara has 141 rushing yards and 289 receiving yards that puts him on pace for 2,293 yards from scrimmage. Kamara’s 30 receptions leads NFL running backs.
Bettcher said Thursday there is no magic elixir for defending a running back in the passing game. No way to assign a specific player to cover him on each pass route he runs.
“At the end of the day we have to play fundamentally sound football,” Bettcher said. “There‘s no perfect call to get one guy on him every snap of the game.”
The good news? Through three games, Football Outsiders has the Giants ranked No. 5 in the league in covering running backs. The bad news? Of course, it is that none of the backs they have had to handle have the receiving skills or quality of quarterback delivering the ball that Kamara has.
Chad Wheeler vs. Cameron Jordan
Wheeler’s second start at right tackle isn’t going to get any easier. A week after surrendering three sacks and two quarterback hits to future Hall of Famer J.J. Watt, Wheeler will generally line up against New Orleans defensive end Cameron Jordan. After earning All-Pro honors during a 13-sack 2017 season, Jordan is tied for the league lead this season with four sacks.
“He (Jordan) will be on the (offensive) right side most of the game, so he’ll be over there with Chad and Pat (Omameh) and on the edges with the tight ends,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “It’s going to be a challenge to get him blocked, and I think it’s important that we battle him through the game much like we did J.J. Watt.”
Shurmur said that last week vs. Watt he felt Wheeler had been left one-on-one too often, and that “I can’t put him in those situations as much as I did.”
So, expect help on that side much of the day from tights ends Rhett Ellison and Scott Simonson, along with whoever is in the game at running back.
Adventures in the return game
The Giants are 25th in the league in kickoff return yardage, averaging just 19.3 yards. They are 30th in the league in punt returns, averaging just 3.0 yards per return with a long return of 6 yards.
Kaelin Clay, acquired at the beginning of the season to do that job, had a key fumble Week 1 and has already been waived. Stacy Coley, signed to replace Clay, muffed the first punt return of his career and ran back his first kickoff as a Giant for only 6 yards.
Cody Latimer (22.3 yards on four returns) did not practice Wednesday or Thursday due to a knee issue. That means Coley might be the primary kick and punt returner Sunday. The Giants will need more than they got a week ago.
“When you get a young guy in there, the first punt return of his career, you’ve just got to relax, let the plays come to you, and just do what you know how to do,” special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said. “It’s just again, young players. They’re going to make mistakes, they’ve got to learn, and eventually we’ll get them to where we want to be.”