The New York Giants’ season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars is exciting purely for the fact that it is the first game of a new year. It is fascinating for myriad reasons. The return of Odell Beckham Jr. Tom Coughlin being in the building. The Giants play-makers vs. the highly-regarded Jacksonville defense. The debut of Pat Shurmur.
Let’s go through some of the things to watch on Sunday.
That, of course, is Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. vs. Jaguars All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
The Jacksonville corner is known for trash talking, trying to get in the head of his opponent. That leads to memories of Beckham’s meltdown against Josh Norman a few seasons back, one he promised won’t be repeated.
“I think I learned my lesson,’ Beckham said earlier this week.
Ramsey, speaking with Jaguars media, downplayed the matchup.
“A lot of people are going to try to make it about me and him specifically, but that’s not what it’s about,” Ramsey said early in his weekly media availability.
“Football’s a team game. It’s going to be 11 guys out there for us, and 11 guys out there for them. We’re going to have to come together and do what we have to do to try to get a win.
“I’m going to try to do my part.”
The puzzle is finally complete
Speaking of football being a team game, Sunday will mark the first time we see the Giants with all of their offensive pieces on the field. Saquon Barkley played in only one preseason game and Beckham did not play at all. So, this will be the first time we see in live game action what the possibilities are for the Giants’ offense.
Fullback Shane Smith’s excitement at seeing the offense whole for the first time perhaps borders on hyperbole, but it may also reflect the hopes of the fan base.
“There’s just so many weapons all over the place. It’ll be like fireworks out there going off,” Smith said earlier in the week. “Real excited about all those guys getting out there and seeing how the defenses are even going to be able to respond to that.
“There should be a lot of mismatches.”
Early test for Pat Shurmur
No matter how good the Giants are at the skill positions, and I believe they are as good as any team in the league, they can’t simply line up against Jacksonville, go mano-a-mano and expect to win enough one-on-one matchups to be successful. Not against that defense.
That’s where Shurmur comes in.
The head coach earned his shot with the Giants, his second as a head coach, based largely on his ability to call offensive plays, to be multiple and unpredictable on offense, to learn the strengths of his players and use them. He will need all of that acumen against a star-studded Jacksonville defense that was second in the NFL in yardage and points allowed last season.
Shurmur sees the challenge.
“They’re very talented. They play excellent team defense in terms of stopping the run and they have guys in the back end that can cover,” he told Giants.com’s Michael Eisen. “There really aren’t any weaknesses, so that’s why it’s going to be a big challenge for us.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said this week the Giants “want to be versatile” and “use the guys the best way we can.”
I am not going to pretend to know what that “best way” is going to be, or exactly how to scheme to have success against the Jacksonville defense.
Our Dan Pizzuta offered a look at some ideas earlier this week.
NFL analyst Brett Kollmann, whose fantastic film breakdowns on YouTube are a must watch, did an in-depth study of how teams who have had success have attacked Jacksonville and how the Giants could adapt some of that. Here it is:
All I know is Shurmur will have to be at the top of his game to dial up things that will give the Giants advantages during the game. Then, it will be incumbent upon Eli Manning and the team’s play-makers to execute those concepts, to be at their best.
Nothing else is going to be good enough.
Who will win on third down?
Can the Giants offense stay on the field on third down? Conversely, can the defense get off? Per SB Nation’s advanced stats, the Giants were last in the league offensively on third down a year ago. With so much new about the offense, that number is probably not significant. What is significant is that the Jaguars were fourth in the league in defensive efficiency on third down, surrendering first downs just 33.7 percent of the time.
Kollmann addressed this in the video above.
Offensively, the Giants have to stay on schedule. They have to convert manageable third downs and not make major mistakes — like throwing the ball to the wrong team — on third-and-long.
Defensively, they have to put Blake Bortles in down-and-distance situations where he has to try to win with his arm.
Both are easier said than done.
Saquon and Odell on returns?
Shurmur has hinted at willingness to use Barkley and Beckham on kickoff and punt returns, at least occasionally. Special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey is unquestionably in favor of the idea.
“These guys are play makers. Any time you get a chance to put play makers out on the field, give you the best chance to win, that’s what you want to do. You’re trying to win the game,” McGaughey said.
“Both those guys are special athletes. Whenever you get a chance to get the ball in the hands of a special athlete you want to do it.”
My guess is it is pretty likely you will see at least one of them, and probably both, on returns at some point this season. Will that be Sunday? Well, it is one way to put the ball in their hands without having to scheme up ways to make that happen.
Who’s No. 2?
Shurmur hasn’t come right out and announced which of Kyle Lauletta and Alex Tanney will dress Sunday as backup to Manning. He has hinted, however, that he would go with Tanney.
“I’m very fond of a veteran presence backing up Eli,” Shurmur said on Wednesday.
Tanney has only played in one regular season game, completing 10-of-14 passes, but he has been in the league since 2012. That background is what Shurmur finds valuable.
How will the wall hold up?
GM Dave Gettleman walked in the Giants’ door talking about getting back to the three basic tenets of football — running the ball, stopping the run, rushing the passer.
The Giants have focused much of their defensive effort on stopping the run, with rookie defensive lineman B.J. Hill saying back in the spring that the Giants wanted to build a wall against the run along their defensive front.
With Hill, Damon Harrison and Dalvin Tomlinson they have a good start. The Giants believe they are improved at linebacker. Landon Collins, maybe the best run-defending safety in the league, is healthy. Janoris Jenkins, an excellent run-defending cornerback when he is right, is healthy.
The Giants have constructed their wall. Now, how sturdy is it?
There won’t be a better test for the Giants than the one Jacksonville presents. The Jaguars will pound the rock mercilessly with Leonard Fournette and Co., probing for weakness and trying to wear the Giants out. The Jaguars led the NFL in both rushing attempts and yards a season ago.
Shurmur knows the Giants have to control the running game.
“I think it’s very important we play good team defense, and everybody’s got to be where they’re supposed to be to make sure we don’t let them gain lots of yards against us,” he told the team’s official website. “That’s what they like to do, that’s what starts for them and then they have a quarterback (Blake Bortles) that’s playing winning football.”
Where will the pass rush come from?
Whether or not the Giants have enough pass rush was a valid question even before their best pass rusher, Olivier Vernon, suffered an ankle injury that has his playing status for Sunday in serious doubt.
If Vernon can’t play, can veteran Connor Barwin, rookie Lorenzo Cater, and defensive coordinator James Bettcher’s devilish scheming make up for his absence?
Ereck Flowers vs. Calais Campbell
The marquee matchup, which we spoke about above, is Beckham vs. Ramsey. We know a key to Sunday’s game will be the overall play of the revamped offensive line. I will be honed in on the matchup between Flowers, playing right tackle for the first time in an NFL game that counts, vs. defensive end Calais Campbell, a 32-year-old 2017 All-Pro had who had 14.5 sacks last season.
Campbell was 17th among defensive linemen in pressures last season. He was also second in the league in “defeats,” with 32. That’s just one behind Chandler Jones of the Arizona Cardinals [explanation here]. Flowers was “credited” by Football Outsiders with 31 “blown blocks” last season, more than any lineman on the roster.
The over-arching question is can the Giants offensive line do an at least OK job against a really, really good Jacksonville front seven?
For me, that starts with whether or not Flowers has any chance against Campbell.
Tom Coughlin’s return
This, really, is kind of a media thing. I’m curious to see if Coughlin, Jacksonville’s executive vice president, ventures onto the field before the game to say hello to Eli Manning, John Mara, Steve Tisch, Zak DeOssie, Odell Beckham and any other members of the Giants organization who are familiar with him.
Fans won’t see it, unless they quite their tailgate early. You probably won’t see it on TV, unless the broadcast shows a brief highlight. Still, I’m interested.