The 2-2 New York Giants will host the 2-2 Minnesota Vikings this week as both teams try to claw their way above .500 on the season.
The Giants are coming off a pair of feel-good wins, first by coming from behind to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 32-31, then by capitalizing on the Washington Redskins (many) mistakes and win by three touchdowns.
This week they will play the Vikings, a team currently fighting to stay in a very competitive NFC North division. The Vikings are currently in last place and coming off of a 16-6 loss to the Chicago Bears in which their offense struggled mightily. However, the Giants do not have the same defensive personnel the Bears boast and this promises to be a good test of the Giants’ rebuilt and injured defense.
Stats at a glance
Keys to the game
Don’t Let Kyle Rudolph Get Healthy
Once considered one of the better tight ends in the NFL, Kyle Rudolph has been a non-factor for the Vikings this year. However the Giants’ can’t afford to take any tight end lightly, not after 107-year old former broadcaster Jason Witten burn them in Week 1.
Making matters more difficult, the Giants are awfully thin at the linebacker position with Ryan Connelly’s season over, Alec Ogletree dealing with a hamstring injury, and Tae Davis in the concussion protocol. David Mayo played surprisingly well alongside Connelly against the Washington Redskins, showing quick processing, good range, and a hot-running motor.
The answer might be to lean on their secondary to fill the gaps at the second level. The Giants played a base nickel defense against Washington, with Grant Haley playing nearly every snap. They played a large number of snaps in their dime packages as well, with Michael Thomas playing nearly half of the defensive snaps. The Giants’ best option might be to use that dime package with Jabrill Peppers and Thomas playing psuedo-linebacker positions. This could be an opportunity for Julian Love to (finally) get on the field on defense. In that case the Giants could play Antoine Bethea closer to the line of scrimmage while Love plays the free safety role.
Another option being talked about on the outside is for Lorenzo Carter to play inside linebacker. The Giants clearly want Carter to be an EDGE, but necessity is the mother of invention, and playing Carter as a WILL or ILB would allow him to maximize his ability to play in space.
Contain Diggs and Thielen
The Vikings boast one of the most dangerous receiving duos in the NFL in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen, or at least they were up until this year.
The Vikings have largely struggled to throw the ball with any consistency this year. In part because of Kirk Cousins’ inconsistency, but also because of an effort to feature RB Dalvin Cook (more on him in the next section). However that doesn’t mean that the Vikings’ receivers are to be taken lightly.
Both have the ability to create separation with their route running, which makes them very consistent receiving threats, as well as the ability to create yards with the ball in their hands with run after catch opportunities. The Vikings also have a tendency to try and create match-ups by lining Diggs or Thielen as the X, Slot, or Flanker on any given play. Both receivers also have the ability to make quick catches on timing routes or stretch a defense vertically. Taken as a whole, the duo give Minnesota the ability to to play a balanced offense and force a defense to defend the whole field.
The Giants’ best bet against them will be to continue to play tight man coverage with their cornerbacks. Not only do Janoris Jenkins and DeAndre Baker play better in tight coverage, but neither Diggs nor Thielen are particularly scary athletes. So while they might not run away from coverage, their quickness and detailed route running will let them dissect off or zone coverage.
As mentioned above, Kirk Cousins has not played well this season, and he has shown a propensity for holding the ball. Per NFL NextGenStats he has the longest time to throw of any quarterback in the NFL so far this year at an average of 3.06 seconds. However, he doesn’t look particularly far down the field (7 air yards per pass, 5.4 air yards on completions), and has been sacked 8 times so far this year. If the Giants can disrupt Diggs’ and Thielen’s routes, it should give them the opportunity to pressure Cousins.
Don’t let Dalvin Cook beat them
Defending the pass is important. After all, we’ve seen Kirk Cousins play winning football while Thielen, Diggs, and Rudolph are all capable of gashing a defense.
But where Rudolph, Diggs, and Thielen have had down years so far, Dalvin Cook has emerged as one of the most productive running backs in the NFL. With 410 yards on just 71 carries, Cook is averaging an impressive 5.8 yards per carry to go with five rushing touchdowns. Cook is also leading the Vikings in receptions with 15 for 114 yards.
Cook benefits from one of the best run blocking offensive lines in the league, ranking 4th in the league with 4.91 adjusted line yards per Football Outsiders. But Cook has also been excellent in his own right as well, with 1.68 open field yards. Open field yards are the average yardage a running back picks up on his own, and to put Cook’s production into perspective, the Giants finished first in open field yardage last year with Saquon Barkley averaging 1.60.
With all of that in mind, the natural answer would be to play Cover 1 (man) and Cover 3 (zone) coverage shells, allowing the defense to put 8 players in the tackle box as often as possible.
Well, as it so happens, it isn’t that simple.
Cook has faced stacked boxes, 8 or more defenders, on 28.7 percent of his carries — 7th most in the league. Despite that he is still second in the league in rushing yards, trailing Christian McCaffery by one yard, 411 to 410.
The sheer number of stacked boxes Cook sees is likely due to how much heavy personnel Minnesota plays. Per Sharp Football Stats, they play the highest percentage of 12 (two tight end) personnel in the NFL at 30 percent of their snaps, and the second highest rate of 21 (two running back) personnel as well at 21 percent. By contrast, they only play 11 personnel (three receiver) sets on just 41 percent of their snaps, the second lowest in the league behind the Arizona Cardinals, who only use it on 23 percent, favoring 10 personnel on 64 percent of their plays*.
*This has nothing to do with this game, I just thought it was interesting. Though the Giants DO play Arizona later in the season.
This presents a serious conundrum for the Giants. The natural tendency of a defense when faced with heavy offensive personnel is to go heavy to match out of fear of being run on. However, given the Giants’ injuries at linebacker and their struggles covering even while healthy, they have some decisions to make. Do they follow established wisdom and play “base” defenses against Minnesota and potentially open themselves up to being particularly vulnerable to the pass, or do they play a lighter defense and put their best players on the field?
James Bettcher’s best bet might be to trust his massive defensive tackles to do their jobs against Minnesota’s offensive line and play for greater speed in the back seven.
The chess match on the defensive side of the ball could wind up being absolutely fascinating.