What a long, strange offseason it’s been, but we are finally in Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season.
The Giants’ rebuilt defense will have to find a way to slow down what has been a consistently productive Pittsburgh offense, led by Ben Roethlisberger who is returning from injury. The Giants could benefit from some rust on the veterans game, as well as the news that veteran guard David DeCastro is likely to miss the game due to a knee injury. But that doesn’t mean the Giants should expect an easy victor on Monday night. The have to expect Roethlisberger to be in top form and for this experienced offense to be in stride.
So what can the Giants’ rebuilt defense do to slow them down?
Note: In years past I would include a section of relevant stats to give a general idea of how the two units match up. Due to the nature of this offseason and the fact that the Steelers’ offense was without its starting quarterback for much of last year and the Giants are featuring a number of new players and an entirely new scheme, last year’s stats likely aren’t applicable. That section will return once we get a decent sample size for this year.
Do your job
It is incredibly tempting to theory-craft an innovative defensive scheme to take advantage of the Giants’ versatile secondary and talented defensive line. After all, the Giants have plenty of tape of the Steelers to study, while Pittsburgh has to study tape of the 2019 Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, and Giants to try and piece together an idea of schemes and tendencies.
Instead, I want to hearken back to the basis of Bill Belichick’s success: “Do Your Job.”
It’s fine to be excited about the return of football, but we need to remember that the majority of these players haven’t taken a game snap since Jan. 3, 2020, and are entering the season without a normal offseason or any preseason games. The opening weeks of a normal season usually see more than their share of sloppy football. Rather than try and baffle the Steelers’ veteran coaching staff and thoroughly talented roster with tricks and surprise plays, the Giants need to make sure they execute the fundamentals well.
We know that defensive coordinator Patrick Graham wants to run a multiple defense which mixes and matches fronts and disguises coverages while unleashing exotic blitz designs. But none of that will work if players are out of position, confused, or there are breakdowns in communication. The Giants have a young defense with a number of players never having played together, and all of them are in a new scheme. The Giants shouldn’t run a “vanilla” scheme such as what we would see in the first week of preseason — that would get picked apart with ease by any offense scheming for it.
Instead, the Giants need to lean hard into the basics of their schemes, the plays and concepts they know they can execute quickly and accurately without forcing the players to overthink their assignments and play slowly.
In short, the Giants should try to put their players in position to be able to do their jobs and get traction first before opening the playbook.
Win the line of scrimmage
The defensive matchup along the line of scrimmage figures to pit strength against strength and could be the best matchup of this entire game.
The Steelers field a solid offensive line that was one of the best pass protecting units in the NFL, ranking seventh last year in ESPN’s pass block win rate. The Giants’ defensive line, meanwhile, is the deepest and most thoroughly talented position group on the roster. And the Giants will need to lean on that depth and breadth of talent when they face the Steelers on Monday night.
Given the history of the two teams and the ability of Steelers’ running back James Conner, much of the attention will go to whether or not the Giants can stop the run. While we can’t say that the Giants will shut down Pittsburgh’s running game, they should be able to at least contain it. The real question is whether or not the Giants will be able to get a push up the middle and penetrate into the pocket.
It’s been a long time since Ben Roethlisberger took an NFL snap — he was injured in the second game of 2019 — but he is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the NFL and we should expect him to be at his best.
Between Roethlisberger’s league-leading time to throw (2.55 seconds) and the emergence of Alejandro Villanueva as one of the best pass protecting left tackles in the NFL (seventh at 93 percent PBWR), the Giants are going to have to find a faster, more direct route to Big Ben. And as the saying goes, the shortest path between any two points is a straight line.
We know the Giants can stop the run up the middle, but can they generate an interior pass rush?
Last year saw Dalvin Tomlinson take a step forward as a pass rusher, posting a career-best 3.5 sacks despite frequently being double-teamed and taken off the field in passing situations. We also saw flashes from Dexter Lawerence who used his size and explosiveness to bully blockers. B.J. Hill has also showed upside as an interior rusher as a rookie. And, of course, there is the perennial hope that Leonard Williams will deliver on his athletic promise and translate his quarterback pressures into quarterback sacks. The Giants will need at least some of those players to continue to take steps forward and deliver on their promise.
Standing in the Giants’ way is a good, veteran offensive line anchored by Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro (or Stephen Wisniewski if DeCastro isn’t able to play due to injury).
It won’t be easy, but given Roethlisberger’s quick release, the Giants could find themselves depending on their interior rushers to create opportunities for the rest of the defense.
Find answers in the passing game
It’s a reasonable assumption that the Giants will move their cornerbacks around, letting them travel with the opposing receivers. That’s what the Dolphins did a year ago under Graham, and it gives the defense a measure of agency when the offense tries to dictate match-ups.
But which receivers they travel with is the question. The signing of James Bradberry was hyped up throughout the spring by pointing out the performances of NFC South’s top receivers against the Panthers. And with that in mind, the natural assumption is that Bradberry will get to be good friends with JuJu Smith-Schuster as the Steelers’ top receiver. That, however, might not be a reasonable assumption.
The New England connection is now strong with New York (probably stronger than proponents of the New York/Boston rivalry would prefer), and we might be wise to pay attention to how Bill Belichick tends to use his cornerbacks. Instead of the traditional matchup of “No. 1 Corner No. 1 Receiver,” Belichick has turned convention on its ear. Instead, he tends to match his top corner (when he has a true “best” corner) on the opposing offense’s second-best receiver, while rolling a double-team to the offense’s best receiver. So, we might see a combination of Corey Ballentine and Logan Ryan or Julian Love on Smith-Schuster.
But the Giants are likely to see more than two receivers on a given play. Pittsburgh ran an 11-personnel package on 70 percent of its offensive plays last year, and it might have gotten more dangerous than it was a year ago. The Steelers didn’t have a first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, but the Steelers spent their second-round pick on wide receiver Chase Claypool. Claypool has, reportedly, exceeded expectations with his work ethic and brings a daunting combination of physical traits to the field. If Graham and Judge opt to take a page from the Book Of Belichick, we could see Bradberry matched up on the 6-foot-4, 240-pound rookie.
Even so, the Giants will still have to come up with answers for Diontae Johnson — a shifty and polished route runner — as well as new tight end Eric Ebron, who will be paired with Vance McDonald.
Without having seen the Giants in an actual game situation, we don’t really know how they’ll deploy their personnel. But we do know that the Giants will have to come up with some answers if they want to avoid giving up yards and points like they have in years past.