After an unprecedented type of year, football is back and we’re ready to roll here at Big Blue View. The Joe Judge-led New York Giants square off against one of the best defenses in the NFL on Monday night when they face the Pittsburgh Steelers. The game will be nationally televised as the first contest of Monday Night Football to kick the season off. There’s a bunch of storylines to this game, but let’s dive into how the Giants could possibly attack this vaunted Steelers’ defense.
The days of Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, and L.C. Greenwood are a fond memory in the hearts of Steelers’ faithful, but their current defense is comprised of many talented players. Pittsburgh just rewarded DE Cameron Heyward with a four-year, $75.1 million contract extension to be the lynchpin of their talented 3-4 base defensive line that also possess Stephon Tuitt.
On the edges, the Steelers rush T.J. Watt, who is coming off a 14.5 sack season, and Bud Dupree, who had 11.5 sacks in 2019. The Steelers led the league with 54 sacks, averaging about 3.4 sacks a game. Second-year linebacker Devin Bush Jr. mans the middle of the defense and does an excellent job. Last season, the Steelers traded their 2020 first-round selection for star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who immediately had an impact on his new team. Fitzpatrick had 5 interceptions and helped solidify what would become a top 3 defense in the league.
The Steelers are also equipped at the cornerback position. Veteran Joe Haden has been playing well and Steven Nelson Sr. was a very good complimentary piece who outperformed his expectations last season. It’s hard to find holes or vulnerabilities in the defense. Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler took over Dick LeBeau’s heavy zone scheme in 2015, but the Steelers had to adapt to more man because quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots routinely took advantage of the zone system. Now the defense runs a bit more man coverage.
The 2019 Steelers had one of the most abysmal offenses in the league after Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season ending elbow injury in Week 2. The fact that Pittsburgh just missed the playoffs with a guy named Duck and Mason Rudolph throwing the football is an incredible testament to their coaching staff and their ridiculously talented defense. Now that Roethlisberger is healthy, the Steelers’ defense should be off the field more, which means they’ll have more energy, which isn’t great for the opposing offense.
The Giants offense is going to attempt to establish the run, control the clock, and keep their own defense off the field. This is going to be difficult, but Jason Garrett has to limit the Steelers’ opportunities to pin their ears back and rush quarterback Daniel Jones in obvious passing situations.
The Giants will be starting rookie Andrew Thomas at left tackle and Cameron Fleming on the right side. It could be a long night for the pair against the Steelers’ pass rushing duo of Watt and Dupree. Garrett has to utilize quick-game concepts to get the ball out of Jones’ hand and mitigate the risk of strip sacks. I expect running back Saquon Barkley to be used a lot out of the backfield on slip-screens, flare outs, and possibly on Texas concepts with Evan Engram inline splitting the seam to allow open space and a one on one matchup with Barkley and linebacker Devin Bush, who is a good athlete ... but ... good luck covering Barkley in that situation.
Concepts against zone need to force high-low situations and make the reads easier/quicker for Jones, who struggled at times against zone coverage last season (see Cardinals game especially). Jones needs to know where Fitzpatrick is at all times. As for protections, the Giants should attempt to use five-man protection if the tackles are being exposed. This can be run out of 12 personnel with tight ends Levine Toilolo and Evan Engram, along with WRs Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton, or 11 personnel with Engram chipping hard on one side, or Barkley/Dion Lewis staying in for pass protection. The Giants may be forced to slide protection (depending on the defensive alignment) to the left side (T.J. Watt’s side) which will leave Thomas on an island against Bud Dupree. The rookie is getting thrown to the fire, so Garrett/Colombo must monitor that matchup and adjust if necessary.
While ball control, establishing the run, and quick simple passing concepts could be effective, I still think deep play action shots must be in the game plan out of bigger personnel packages. 22 personnel with Barkley, Elijhaa Penny, Toilolo, Engram, and Slayton with a Yankee concept on second-and-short situations. The speed of Engram as the deep horizontal crosser in possible man coverage situations with the separation quickness/release of Slayton on the deep post/9 route may give Jones an easier, deep, one-on-one contested catch situation. The utilization of Engram’s athletic ability last season was puzzling. In no world should a player with the talent of Engram receive roughly the same aDot (average depth of target) as someone like Ravens’ third tight end Nick Boyle. For those wondering, Engram’s aDot was 6.46 yards downfield last season - unacceptable. Jones proved he was capable of making good throws against one on one man coverage in his rookie season, so let’s hope that success carries over to year two.
As for the red zone offense, the Giants will have to look at putting a specific defender in conflict, against zone coverage, or using Engram or Shepard to take advantage of a defender. Tight bunch formations or 2x2 tight stacks can create traffic against man coverage and this can allow a player like Shepard or Engram to break away with leverage. Obviously, Barkley should be a focal point in the red zone as well, and New York should attempt to pound the rock in these short yardage situations. Let’s hope it’s more effective than last year.
This is going to be a tough matchup in primetime for the young quarterback learning his third system in as many seasons. Joe Judge has routinely preached about mitigating penalties and mistakes. New York will have to do just that on Monday Night Football. They’ll have to execute on both sides of the ball and the offense must attempt to control the clock, maximize Engram and Barkley, while also taking deep shots when the opportunity presents itself to lighten the box for Barkley, and potentially hit a big play. The Giants must also attenuate the Steelers’ pressure with quick game concepts, draws, and screens to keep the pass rush somewhat honest.