Their best game.
The is what the New York Giants say they are hoping to produce on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys in a matchup that could win them the NFC East title.
Question is, what does that look like?
The Giants are an obviously flawed 5-10 team. They have played good offense at times, but are 31st in the league in scoring and yards, have not scored 20 points in a game since Week 10 and have only crossed the 30-point threshold once in 15 games.
On defense, the Giants are 10th in the league in points allowed. Overall, they have played quality, winning defense. They held a good Rams team to 17 points and an excellent Seattle team to 12, two of which came on a punt block safety. Still, the Giants have relied heavily on bend but don’t break zone defenses that have been exposed at times — in particular in recent weeks when the pass rush has been virtually non-existent.
Special teams have been a mixed bag. Placekicker Graham Gano has been outstanding. Punter Riley Dixon has been inconsistent and the kick coverage groups, particularly the punt coverage group, have given up too much yardage. Dixon has a ridiculous five tackles in the last seven games. Returners Dion Lewis and Jabrill Peppers have largely been unable to flip field position to help the team’s scuffling offense. Since Week 10, Peppers’ longest punt return is 12 yards.
Let’s try to paint a picture of what the “best game” from each of these three groups might look like.
“We’re just looking ahead to Sunday vs. Dallas and hoping that we can put our best offensive performance on the field and our best quarterback performance. If we’re ever going to do it now would be the best time.”
That was Giants quarterbacks coach Jerry Schuplinski speaking to media this week.
So, how do the Giants accomplish that?
“Playing winning football”: That’s part of a quote from Giants offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. Here is the full quote:
“I think the biggest area that we tried to emphasize with your players is playing winning football. You can’t do the things that cause losing. A lot of that has to do with the ball and taking care of the football, and not doing the things that put your team in a bad situation, a situation that you can’t overcome and you lose the game. Ultimately, your job on offense, defense and the kicking game is to try to contribute to winning. One of the ways that we believe as a coaching staff to do that is prevent yourself from losing first. That’s where it starts, taking care of the football.”
The Giants are +1 in takeaway/giveaway ratio this season, with 21 takeaways to 20 turnovers.
That starts with quarterback Daniel Jones, who has thrown 21 interceptions and fumbled 28 times, losing 16, in 26 career games. Jones has not thrown an interception in the last five games, and aside from a three-fumble blip in the Arizona game has been better at securing the ball in the pocket.
Penalties, like the drive-killing back-to-back false starts on veteran offensive linemen Kevin Zeitler and Cameron Fleming in last Sunday’s first Giants’ possession, also have to be avoided.
Run the football: the Giants had a stretch this season where they ran for 100 or more yards in eight of nine games. In their monumental upset of the Seattle Seahawks, the Giants ran for a season-high 190 yards. They haven’t run for more than 78 yards in any of the three games since, all of which they lost handily. Whether Jones can be part of the ground game or not, the Giants have to run the ball effectively on Sunday.
Get some explosive plays: Sharp Football ranks the Giants 27th in the NFL in Explosive Play Rate. The Giants are 21st in explosive run plays, but a dismal 31st in explosive pass plays. Giants’ receivers have both struggled to separate and to create yards after catch this season. The Giants are 31st in the league in yards after catch and seventh in total number of passes dropped (21).
“There’s only so many chances you get in the NFL as a receiver to make plays,” wide receivers coach Tyke Tolbert said this week. “Any chance you get you have to take advantage of ‘em.”
“We need our best game on Sunday. We need our best game on Sunday, our most physical game. Our most sound execution. We have to start fast. We can’t be worried about anything other than the Cowboys and trying to execute.”
That’s defensive coordinator Patrick Graham on Thursday during his weekly videoconference.
The strengths and weakness of the Giants’ defense are pretty well established at this point. Despite giving 249 yards rushing to the Baltimore Ravens last week, the Giants are a top 10 run defense. They are heavily zone reliant in coverage. They are not a dynamic pass-rushing team, often reliant on schemes or stunts and good coverage to allow them to get to opposing quarterbacks.
Pass rush: In their best game this season, the Giants have five sacks and 15 hurries against Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks. In the last three weeks, the Giants have had only a pair of sacks and 6 quarterback hits. Obviously, they need pressure.
Coverage issues: Perhaps it is as simple as the idea that if there is no pass rush, quarterbacks will find holes in the zone defenses the Giants employ. Still, it seems as though in recent weeks quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson have exploited those zones for easy completions.
Takeaways: From Week 4 to Week 13, the Giants’ defense created takeaways in eight of nine games, with 17 in all. Over the past three weeks, the defense has had just one takeaway. The defense needs to get back to its disruptive ways.
“We just have to go out and be who we are, and we have to make plays. We have to be our best when our best is needed. That’s going to be this Sunday. We have to play our best game, period.”
That’s special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey talking about what his groups need to do vs. Dallas.
Placekicker Graham Gano has been outstanding. He is 30 of 31 on field-goal attempts and 19 of 20 on extra-point tries. The Giants just need Gano to be on Sunday what he has been all season long.
Punter Riley Dixon and the punt coverage unit have struggled over the second half of the season. In the first nine games, the Giants gave up 59 yards on 11 punt returns (5.4 yards per return). In the last five games, the Giants have given up 175 yards on 13 returns (13.5 yards per return). Dixon has perhaps not been as consistent directionally, but the Giants have missed tackles and been out of position too often. C.J. Board and Levine Toilolo have each been charged with four missed tackles, tied for third-most among special teams players. David Mayo has three missed tackles.
Obviously, the Giants best game in this category would look much more like the work they did early in the season covering kicks.
In the return game, the Giants haven’t gotten enough of the field-position changing plays they would like to get. Dion Lewis (22.6 yards per attempt) is 24th among 47 qualifying returners in yards and his Pro Football Focus return grade is 42nd. Peppers is averaging an excellent 11.4 yards per return, but did most of that before suffering an ankle injury. In the last five games, he has had only three returns for 26 yards (8.7 yards per return) with a long return of 12 yards.
The Giants’ best game would include at least one or two field-position switching plays in the return game.