With many Giants fans expecting yet another Week 1 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys, the announcement of hosting the Steelers was refreshing.
It marks only the second time since 2007 the Giants will face an AFC opponent in Week 1. It will also be the first time since 2000, a Giants-Steelers meeting won’t feature Eli Manning vs. Ben Roethlisberger. Eli Manning’s retirement following the 2019 season means Daniel Jones will get his first crack at beating Roethlisberger, which was a feat Manning only accomplished once.
Key Losses: TE Nick Vannett, DT Javon Hargrave, CB Artie Burns
Key free agent signings: TE Eric Ebron, FB Derek Watt, OL Stefen Wisniewski
Draft picks: WR Chase Claypool (Notre Dame), LB Alex Highsmith (Charlotte), RB Anthony McFarland Jr. (Maryland), OG Kevin Dotson (Louisiana), S Antoine Brooks Jr. (Maryland), DT Carlton Davis (Nebraska)
Last season, Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending elbow injury, which cost him all but two games. The injury thrust Mason Rudolph into the starting lineup. But poor play ultimately sent Rudolph to the bench in favor of Devlin “Duck” Hodges. Pittsburgh entered its bye week at 2-4, and it looked like the team may be heading for a high draft pick. But then the Steelers rattled off six wins in seven games. The Steelers entered Week 17 with a slim chance to sneak into the playoffs.
Although Pittsburgh’s season concluded with an 8-8 record after falling to the Baltimore Ravens in the season finale, the way the team rallied was impressive.
The Steelers managed to win games despite of less than ideal circumstances at quarterback. They essentially played with a handicap at the position for the majority of the season. The inexperienced duo of Rudolph and Hodges combined for 2,828 passing yards, 18 touchdowns, 17 interceptions and a passer rating of 76.7.
The catalyst for the team’s post-bye week surge was the defense. During their 6-1 stretch, opponents averaged 15 points against the Steelers. Additionally, the Steelers held opposing teams to under 200 passing yards per game, which only four other teams managed to accomplish last year.
That defense remains virtually untouched, with essentially all of the key pieces remaining in place.
Although the Steelers parted with what would have been the 18th pick in this year’s draft to acquire him, Minkah Fitzpatrick thrived at his natural free safety spot. Pittsburgh’s 2019 first-round pick Devin Bush quickly established himself as a difference-maker on defense. T.J. Watt is a menace and has accumulated 27.5 sacks in the past two years. All three of those players will be 25 and under by kickoff.
While Pittsburgh may not be a part of the AFC’s upper echelon, they remain tenacious and routinely well-coached. Under head coach Mike Tomlin, the Steelers have never finished with a losing record, which is a remarkable feat.
In a way, the Steelers will provide the Giants with a relatively fair litmus test.
The two areas where the Giants improved the most in the offseason were the offensive line and secondary. As fate would have it, the Steelers feature a dangerous group of receivers and a vaunted pass rush.
Last year, the Steelers’ receiving corps went through a significant change in the wake of Antonio Brown’s departure. While JuJu Smith-Schuster had a down year, Diontae Johnson and James Washington emerged for the Steelers. The young, unheralded duo combined for 1,415 yards and eight touchdowns.
One of New York’s biggest additions in free agency was cornerback James Bradberry. After a year of more than holding his own against Mike Evans and Michael Thomas in the NFC South, Bradberry has a chance to prove himself once again against Smith-Schuster and company.
Seeing how the Giants decide to implement rookie safety Xavier McKinney will be fascinating, as well. The rookie figures to be a factor early on, as he has the ability to line up and contribute in more spots than just safety.
It will also be a tremendous first test for Giants’ first-round pick Andrew Thomas, one way or another.
If the Giants decide to insert Thomas at the left tackle spot, then he’ll be primarily facing Bud Dupree. Dupree is an extraordinary athlete who relentlessly pursues the quarterback. He racked up 11.5 sacks and forced four fumbles last year. A common knock against Thomas’ college tape was his slower-than-desired recovery time. Seeing how he fares against a player with a seemingly endless motor like Dupree will be a key storyline to follow.
Now, if the Giants opt to slot Thomas in at right tackle, then he’ll be tasked with neutralizing the aforementioned Watt. If Thomas does, in fact, start his career on the right side of the line, then it will be trial by fire against Watt.
Regardless of where Thomas and Nate Solder line up, respectively, the Giants’ offensive line will have its hands full.
Another crucial plot point to watch is Daniel Jones vs. an imposing Steelers pass defense. It has been frequently harped on, but Jones did not play a single game last season with the offense at full strength. Because of injuries (and one suspension), Saquon Barkley, Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, Evan Engram and Golden Tate were never all in the starting lineup with Jones. Hopefully, the Giants’ core of offensive weapons can avoid any injuries or other setbacks during the pre-season.
And finally, Week 1 will allow fans to witness how first-year head coach Joe Judge will handle the flow of the game. 2020 marks the first time the Giants’ head coach won’t also serve as the team’s offensive play-caller. Considering this is Judge’s first time as an NFL coach, his in-game coaching style is unknown.
How will he manage the sideline? What are his philosophies regarding going for it on fourth down instead of punting? How aggressive will he be?
While his first year as the Giants’ head coach will undoubtedly be a learning experience for Judge, his first regular-season game will likely be telling of what fans can come to expect for the remainder of the season.