After a long, long offseason the New York Giants finally took the football field. Perhaps fittingly, were were made to wait until the second-to-last game of Week 1, but we finally got to see the Giants play when they hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The result of the game was, unsurprisingly, a 26-16 loss for the Giants, but considering we haven’t seen them in action before Monday night, there was still plenty to learn.
So what are some initial takeaways from the Giants’ first game of the season?
The defensive front came to play
If there is one main takeaway for Giants fans from the opening game, it is that the defensive line has the potential to be really good. While we should keep in mind that the Steelers had to work to overcome an injured and shuffled offensive line, the Giants stalemated them for most of the game.
The Giants’ front did a good job of maintaining its gap integrity for most of the game, which frustrated the Steelers’ running game for most of the first three quarters. Dalvin Tomlinson, Leornard Williams, Dexter Lawrence II, and B.J. Hill all flashed behind the line of scrimmage, and that’s the kind of disruption the Giants need to see from their front.
The Steelers got going towards the end of the game, and Benny Snell (who’s mouth guard almost made this list by itself. Yes, I am easily amused,) finished with an impressive 113 yards on just 19 carries. Ben Roethlisberger also got more time in the second half and was able to find his rhythm following the two-minute drill to end the first half.
There is going to be a process as the Giants find their groove on both sides of the ball, but if the defensive line can keep playing hard, it will be a solid foundation.
Patrick Graham kept his promise
When Patrick Graham spoke to the media during training camp, he was asked whether he would run a 3-4, 4-3, or some other type of defense, and his answer was “Yes.”
While Big Ben got his groove back on the last drive of the first half, the Steelers’ offense looked horribly out of sync for the first 28 minutes of the game. Part of that was surely due to the time missed by Roethlisberger, compounded by the unique nature of the 2020 off-season.
But another part of it was the lengths to which Graham went to confuse the Steelers’ offense. We saw 2, 3, and 4-man defensive fronts, we saw stunts and games along the defensive line. We saw a variety of coverages, with free agent addition James Bradberry being moved all around the secondary, at times even lining up in the slot.
And perhaps most the most glaring addition to the scheme, the Giants made use of a “radar” defense on some third down passing situations. Radar defenses see all 11 defenders standing up before the snap, often milling around to hide evidence of their intentions. The Steelers were eventually able to pick up on some of the Giants tells and picked up some completions against the radar defense, but it was very effective early in the game.
The Steelers’ blockers frequently looked confused and a few times found themselves blocking air as the Giants pass rushers pressured Roethlisberger.
No running room to be found
The Giants’ defensive front was impressive, the Steelers’ front was downright scary.
At the very least they were a nightmare for Saquon Barkley. The Giants’ star running back was a non-factor on the ground, as the Steelers were behind the line of scrimmage on nearly every play. Whether they were shooting gaps, beating blockers to their spots, or simply bulling the Giants’ linemen backward, it was rare that the Giants had a running play that wasn’t disrupted before it could even get going. Daniel Jones was the Giants’ leading rusher with 22 yards on 4 carries, while Barkley had just 6 yards on 15 carries and had negative yardage for most of the night — though he did finish with 6 receptions for 61 yards and a long of 38.
This was always going to be a tough match-up for an offensive line featuring three new starters who had never played a game together. And we should recognize that the line played tough throughout the game. They seemed to start to get some traction on the Giants’ long 19-play drive which took most of the third quarter, but the Steelers’ defense was able to rebound after a rest.
Keep it quick
That Pittsburgh defense was all over the Giants’ offense in the first quarter and much of the first half. Their defense lived in the Giants’ backfield in the running game, and they had no answers for the Steelers’ pass rushers early on. Bud Dupree had 8 quarterback pressure by himself (19.4 percent pressure rate per NextGenStats) while T.J. Watt and Stephon Tuitt added 5 pressures each (15.2 percent and 14.3 percent pressure rates, respectively).
And Pittsburgh was not shy about being “Blitzburgh”, either.
Per NFL NextGenStats, they called, by far, the most blitzes of any defense so far this weekend, blitzing on 61 percent of Daniel Jones’ dropbacks. Those blitzes were effective, too, with Jones completing 58 percent of his passes for just 177 yards and throwing a pair of interceptions.
As the game wore on, it became clear that Jason Garrett had to make an adjustment. Deep dropbacks and multi-read passes put too much on the offensive line and Daniel Jones. So the Giants adopted a more-familiar spread offense to ease the pressure on their young players. The Giants helped Jones play faster by limiting him to quick, one and two-read throws, as well as using more formations with an empty backfield. That allowed them to spread the Steelers’ defense out and create quick, easy completions.
Once those completions started coming, the Giants were then able to push the tempo of their offense. It was most apparent on that long third quarter drive, when the Steelers just couldn’t get off the field. By the time Jones threw the interception in the end zone, the Steelers were dripping with sweat and clearly gassed.
It wasn’t enough to turn the tide of the game, but kudos to Garrett for adapting on the fly and moving away from his preferred scheme when he had to.
The NFC East is lead by ... Football Team?
The Giants falling to the Steelers isn’t a surprising outcome for week one. Pittsburgh was heavily favored and pretty much everyone expected them to walk away with the victory.
What is surprising is that neither the Philadelphia Eagles nor the Dallas Cowboys came away with a win. The Eagles coughed up a 17-point lead while the Cowboys lost to the Los Angeles Rams while suffering a trio of significant injuries.
And with the Giants losing as well, that leaves the Washington Football Team as the division leaders. They managed to overcome a that big deficit against the Eagles and for a big victory against a heavily favored foe. What should be concerning for the Giants — based on how the Steelers’ front disrupted the Giants’ gameplan — is that Washington pulled off the upset on the back of a fearsome pass rush.
Washington finished the game with 8 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 interceptions. Long-time veteran Ryan Kerrigan had two of those sacks, while rookie Chase Young and DT Matt Ioannidis were close behind with 1.5 of their own. Second year EDGE Montez Sweat and linebacker Jon Bostic added another sack each to the total.
This was only the first week and Washington certainly has serious flaws around its roster, but that defensive front has to be respected.