All is not well in New York.
The Giants are 0-3, and the angst level is high. Head coach Joe Judge is facing questions about his approach after a few conservative decisions in a three-point loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett is facing questions yet again after the offense struggled, managing just 14 points a week ago. With a brutal stretch of games coming up including the Cowboys, the Rams, the Panthers, the Chiefs and the Raiders, New York has to somehow avoid an 0-4 start, and build some momentum.
Standing in their way, and no longer squinting when doing so, is Jameis Winston.
Sean Payton tabbed the veteran passer as the Saints’ starting quarterback near the end of training camp, and the results were immediate, and they were impressive. Winston went out and hung five touchdown passes on the Green Bay Packers in Week 1, and we will get to that game in a moment. After getting shut down by Phil Snow and the fascinating Panthers defense in Week 2 (again, we’ll get to that in a moment) Winston went on the road and helped New Orleans topple the Patriots a week ago.
On the season, Winston has completed 38 of 63 passes (60.3 percent) for 387 yards, seven touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. He might not be on track to eclipse his incredible 5,109 passing yards from the last year he was a starter, 2019 in Tampa Bay, but he is also not on track to match the 30 interceptions he threw that season either.
So let’s dive into Winston a bit, highlighting the good things he has done as well as how Snow’s defense, and the Patriots a few times a week ago, got him into trouble. We can start with this video breakdown from the pre-season, highlighting how his decisiveness won him the job to begin with:
The quarterback we saw in this game against Jacksonville was decisive, with a command of the offense, the concepts and confident in his reading of the defense. Yes, it was against the Jaguars and yes, it was in the pre-season, but it was an impressive performance and apparently it was enough to convince Payton that Winston was the right man for the job.
But something, at least from my viewing, was missing.
The question with Winston was never about if he was a good passer, or if he could execute when he was confident in his first read. The question with Winston — dating back to the days when he was forcing throws into Nick O’Leary when triple-covered — was how Winston would fare if he was forced to adjust in the pocket, to react to his initial read not being there for him, particularly when pressured.
Which is why his Week 1 performance was impressive. Take this touchdown to Chris Hogan from the third quarter:
Down in the red zone, Payton calls for a Flat-7/Smash concept to the left side, and that is where Winston’s eyes go after the snap. But a combination of coverage downfield, and pressure in the pocket, forces the quarterback to adjust. Winston is able to climb the pocket and evade the pressure, then bring his eyes to the middle of the field to find Hogan open for six.
Or take this decision from Winston against the Patriots. The Saints run a three-level Sail concept to the right, with Ty Montgomery running a vertical route, running back Tony Jones Jr. releasing to the flat, and Alvin Kamara running the Sail, or out route, as the intermediate read:
The Saints catch the Patriots in a Cover-3 coverage here, which is almost ideal for this concept. The hope is that the vertical route from Montgomery will pull the outside cornerback deep, and with the route to the flat from Jones pulling the curl/flat defender towards the line of scrimmage, there will be a big window to hit Kamara on the Sail route. But the Patriots play this well in the secondary. Cornerback J.C. Jackson starts over Montgomery and sticks on the vertical route, but when he sees Kamara breaking to the outside, he passes Montgomery to safety Devin McCourty and breaks on Kamara.
Winston, seeing this, pulls the football down and hits Jones, and the Saints pick up the first down.
The Winston of a few years ago? He might throw this right between the 2 and the 7 on Jackson’s jersey.
Which is why in all honesty, my favorite throw of Winston’s from this season is this one:
The Saints call for the Leak concept, with Taysom Hill washing down the line of scrimmage from right-to-left, before getting vertical along the numbers on the left side of the field. But the Packers were ready for this, and the play is covered. After having all day to decide in the pocket, Winston simply throws the ball away.
Again, I’m not 100 percent sure the 2019 version of Winston does this.
Still, even with Winston making smarter decisions with the football, even when pressured or forced to go to a secondary read, there have been mistakes. The Panthers, under Snow, have been one of the NFL’s more fascinating defenses this season. In Week 2 before halftime, the Panthers ran the same exact blitz on three-straight plays, perhaps taking advantage of some shuffling along the offensive line. The results of those plays? Incompletion, incompletion and this interception:
As they did on the previous two plays, the Panthers show pressure with both Shaq Thompson and Jeremy Chinn mugging the A-Gaps. Each time, Thompson would drop and Chinn would blitz, along with Brian Burns and Derrick Brown outside of him. On this play, the Panthers nearly get home, with first Chinn and then Yetur Gross-Matos getting their hands on the QB. Under duress, Winston attempts a throw downfield into coverage while spinning away from Gross-Matos, and the pass is underthrown, and intercepted.
Winston made a similarly-risky throw this past week, albeit with different results:
On this third-and-goal play, Winston is nearly sacked by Kyle Dugger, who comes on a safety blitz. The QB attempts a rather ill-advised throw in the vicinity of wide receiver Marquez Callaway, but the WR somehow manages to get to the football before Jonathan Jones, completing the play for a touchdown.
So, while Winston might have grown up a bit, there is still that risk-taker inside of him.
The job of defensive coordinator Patrick Graham this week? Make that risk-taker come out as much as possible. Try and get pressure, perhaps unexpected pressure like we saw on these two plays, on Winston and hope he makes throws like these two. Sure, one of them resulted in a touchdown, but I think Giants fans right now would be happy to see Winston try some of these riskier throws on Sunday.
Because if we see the comfortable and in-control version of Winston Sunday, that 0-4 start could be in the making.