Things aren’t great for the New York Giants as they enter Week 14 of the 2021 NFL season.
As it stands right now, starting quarterback Daniel Jones will miss his second game in a row with a neck injury. Backup quarterback Mike Glennon is in the concussion protocol and also uncertain to suit up this week. That leaves untested third string quarterback Jake Fromm — who was just signed last week — as the Giants’ potential starter.
Likewise, the status of receivers Kadarius Toney (oblique/quad), Sterling Shepard (quad), and Kenny Golladay (ribs) is up in the air as the team prepares for its road game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
These two teams also seem to be headed in opposite directions. The Chargers are in the heat of the AFC’s playoff race with a 7-5 record and are the AFC’s the No. 5 seed. The Giants, meanwhile, are drifting toward another lost season.
Whoever takes the field for the Giants on offense will have their work cut out for themselves against the Chargers’ defense. Will the Giants be able to play spoilers? Or will the Los Angeles defense take care of business ahead of their big Thursday Night match-up against the Kansas City Chiefs?
Joey Bosa — and friends
For a minute it looked as though Bosa would miss this game when he was taken out of the Chargers 41-22 rout of the Cincinnati Bengals after just nine snaps to be evaluated for a concussion. Chargers’ head coach Brandon Staley confirmed after the game that Bosa was cleared medically but he (Staley) held Bosa out of the remainder of the game out of concern regarding Bosa’s history of concussions.
While the star EDGE is considered “day to day,” he’s expected to play this weekend, and that’s bad news for the Giants. Bosa is a menace coming off the edge. He leads the Chargers in both sacks (7.5) and QB hits (15), as well as forced fumbles (4). Bosa can win in just about any way available for an edge rusher, playing with great technique as well as power and quickness.
It would be nice if Bosa were the only player in the Chargers’ front seven that the Giants had to worry about, but that just isn’t the world we live in. Out here in the world of the Giants’ 2021 schedule, of course the Chargers have another dangerous pass rusher to pair with Bosa.
Across from Bosa is fourth-year EDGE Uchenna Nwosu. Nwosu isn’t nearly as big a name as Bosa is, but he is a capable player in his own right. He ranks eighth in ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate metric with a win rate of 24 percent, placing just behind Maxx Crosby and Nick Bosa. Uwoso is second on the Chargers’ defense with 4.0 sacks and 13 quarterback hits to go with 4 tackles for a loss and 2 forced fumbles. He stepped up in Bosa’s absence against the Bengals and wrecked havoc, to the tune of 2.0 sacks, 2 tackles for a loss, and a forced fumble.
Complicating matters further is the presence of reserve EDGE Kyler Fackrell, who played with the Giants in 2020. Fackrell plays roughly 40 percent of the Chargers’ defensive snaps but is third on the team in sacks.
The Chargers primarily play a 2-4 or 3-4 front, which allows them to use their athletic and versatile EDGE defenders to attack from a variety of angles and spacings. Similar to the Giants’ game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that can make life difficult for the offensive tackles.
The Giants can’t allow themselves to get into situations where the Chargers’ defense can swarm. If they do, players like Bosa and Uwosu are capable of taking over a game and causing a snowball effect. To that end, we’ll likely see the Giants continue to make use of the quick passing game, likely with heavy use of bootleg rollouts if Fromm is the starting quarterback. That would have the twin advantages of moving Fromm away from the pass rush as well as cutting the field in half and limiting his mental load.
About that run defense
The Giants will also likely want to lean on their running game and take the ball out of the quarterback’s hands. That could be a viable strategy against a Chargers’ defense which has proven to be one of the worst run defending units in the NFL this year.
This might be the Giants’ best chance to find traction on the ground this year. The Chargers have given up the fifth-most yards per attempt on the ground and the second-most rushing yards per game this year.
There is some context to bear in mind when it comes to the Chargers’ poor run defense. Perhaps the most important thing to note is just how many great rushing teams the Chargers have faced this season.
So far the Chargers have faced:
- Washington Football Team (No. 10 in rushing yardage, No. 1 Run Block Win Rate, 126 yards allowed)
- Dallas Cowboys ( No. 7rushing yardage, No. 6 RBWR, 198 yards allowed)
- Kansas City Chiefs (No. 19 rushing yardage, No. 2 RBWR, 251 yards allowed)
- Cleveland Browns (No. 3 rushing yardage, No. 11 RBWR, 230 yards allowed)
- Baltimore Ravens (No. 4 rushing yardage, No. 4 RBWR, 187 yards allowed)
- New England Patriots (No. 6 rushing yardage, No. 24 RBWR, 142 yards allowed)
- Philadelphia Eagles (No. 1 rushing yardage, No. 3 RBWR, 176 yards allowed)
That’s a daunting gauntlet of rushing attacks to face. And while the Chargers certainly gave up a LOT of yards on the ground, each of those teams is used to racking up rushing yardage. Of those teams, the Patriots are the weakest running team and average “just” 123.5 rushing yards per game.
That isn’t to say that if the Giants are able to get a ground game going that it’s meaningless. But rather, we shouldn’t be surprised if the Chargers’ run defense is more stout than their raw stats would make it appear.
There’s another factor in play as well, with the likely return of former Giants’ nose tackle Linval Joseph to the Chargers’ starting lineup. “Anvil” made a name for himself as a dual-threat defensive tackle as the Giants’ second-round pick back in 2010. Not only has he been next to impossible to move out of A-gaps, but his power and agility can make him a disruptive player on the defensive interior. The Giants’ interior offensive line has struggled when faced with powerful defenders, and while Joseph is returning from a 3-game hiatus due to a shoulder injury and a stint on the reserve/COVID-19 list, he remains powerful.
Joseph isn’t the same player Giants’ fans remember at 33 years old, and isn’t as productive as he was even a couple years ago. However, he is still capable of being disruptive and will likely command a double-team on the interior. That double-team could force the Giants to keep a tight end or (and) running back in to help their offensive tackles deal with Bosa and Nwosu on the outside.
Don’t let Derwin James take over the game
For the most part, drafting a safety at 17th overall would almost seem a bit high. Generally speaking, safety is one of those positions that just seems to slide on draft day. While every team needs good safeties, they rarely seem to invest heavily in the position.
But when its a safety like Derwin James, I just have to wonder how the rest of the NFL let him fall as far as he did in the 2018 NFL draft. While James does have some durability questions (he suffered a torn left meniscus in 2016, a stress fracture in 2019, and a right meniscus injury in 2020), he has one of the rarest athletic profiles in the NFL.
And it isn’t just that James is a rare athlete, but he is really good when he’s on the field. So far this year James has been contributing all over the field, with 2 interceptions, 5 passes defensed, 3 forced fumbles, 2.0 sacks, 5 QB hits, 5 tackles for a loss, and 100 total tackles.
Most of the NFL has struggled to figure out how to use players like James. His size, athleticism, and versatility. It might seem obvious to make use of that versatility as an asset, being a “tweener” has long been viewed as pejorative. But as we can tell from James’ stat line after 12 games, Staley hasn’t been shy about using his versatile safety all over the defense.
This leads us to the actual structure of the Chargers’ secondary, and “versatility” certainly seems to be the watchword.
The Chargers play a wide variety of coverages, with higher-than-average rates of both man coverage (Cover 0 and 2-man) and hybrid coverages (Cover 6).
Players like James, Nasir Adderly (who can play both safety and cornerback) and safety-turned-linebacker Kyzir White give the Chargers the ability to mix and disguise coverages freely, without needing to substitute defenders. All of this allows the Chargers to execute similar post-snap coverage rotations to what Patrick Graham likes to do, as well as force quarterbacks to sort through a ton of moving pieces while making their reads.
While the Chargers make relatively heavy use of Cover 0 and 2-Man (man coverage with 2 deep zones from the safeties), they don’t make nearly as heavy use of man coverage as the Miami Dolphins did a week ago.
Chargers’ cornerbacks Michael Davis and Tevaughn Campbell don’t have the pure man coverage traits that the Dolphins’ corners do, but Brandon Staley has done a solid job of tailoring his defense around their skill sets. Campbell is primarily used in zone coverages, particularly when the Chargers are playing a hybrid scheme. As such, his completion percentage allowed is a bit high at 71.4 percent, but he also hasn’t allowed a touchdown yet this season.
Davis, on the other hand, is having a much-deserved career year. Davis was originally an undrafted free agent out of BYU, as the 6-foot-2, speedster (he ran a 4.34 at his Pro Day) bounced between wide receiver and cornerback. Davis was cut as a rookie before coming back as a practice squad and special teams player over the course of his professional career. He kept working and took advantage of the opportunities that have come his way and seized his starting job. This season, Staley’s defense is allowing Davis to play both man and zone coverages and he is proving sticky. So far, Davis is averaging career-lows in completion percentage (57.1 percent), yards per completion (10.7), yards per target (6.1), and depth of target (8.8).
The Giants should expect to see plenty of Davis on whoever happens to be their top receiver this week.
The X-factor in all of this could be, fittingly, Asante Samuel Jr.
The Chargers’ second-round pick has already suffered two concussions this season. His first concussion came against the Patriots back in Week 8, and while he returned for Week 10, he suffered another concussion in Week 11. Head coach Brandon Staley has commented that Samuel is close to clearing the concussion protocol, but also that the team is committed to being safe. As of this writing, we don’t know whether or not Samuel Jr. will play against the Giants.
If he does, he will almost certainly start, as he has done whenever healthy this year. Samuel is a talented rookie with quick feet, fluid hips, and the ability to match up in both man and zone coverage — as well as both outside and in the slot. While he doesn’t have the reputation for being a ballhawk at this point in his career, Samuel does have a knack for slamming receiving windows shut and batting balls away. In nine games this year he has 7 passes defensed and 2 interceptions while allowing 62.5 percent completion. He had 20 passes defensed and 4 interceptions in 20 games as a sophomore and junior in college.
Samuel’s presence on the field will give the Chargers another solid coverage option and that much more flexibility in their defensive secondary. That said, Staley is right to be cautious with his players that suffer concussions. Yes, it’s good for the Giants if Samuel doesn’t play, but beyond football, kudos to Staley for putting his players’ health first.
We should expect the Giants to make heavy use of pre-snap motion in their offense to try and force the Chargers to commit to a coverage before the snap. The Chargers’ coverages can also lead to voids in zone defenses which the Giants can try to exploit for relatively safe yardage. However, we should also note that the speed of their defenders allows them to swarm to the ball and those voids can close quickly.
Given the state of the Giants’ receiving corps and how well he played last week, I would expect to see a lot of passes go Evan Engram’s way this week. The Giants first added Engram’s skill set to give them an option to attack the seams between coverage zones, and those have proven vulnerable for the Chargers. We should also expect to see plenty of passes to Saquon Barkley and Devontae Booker. Not only is that an opportunity to get the ball out quickly, but angle routes, wheel routes, and screens are generally safe and effective plays.
Don’t take the pass rush lightly
In some ways, the Chargers’ defense is similar to the one fielded by the Las Vegas Raiders. It generally comes off as an “average” defense at first blush. The secondary is good, but not great. And while there’s talent at the EDGE positions, the run defense looks to be an issue.
But like the Raiders, the Chargers’ defense is more than the sum of its parts. For instance, while they only have one defender to crack ESPN’s Top 10 in Pass Rush Win Rate at either EDGE or interior defensive line (Nwosu), their defense as a whole ranks sixth in team pass rush win rate.
That is, in part, due to the fact that the Chargers are willing to send a variety of defenders on blitzes. The Chargers have a solid 25.5 percent blitz rate, which is tied for 13th in the NFL. The Chargers’ blitz packages tend to be effective too, with a pretty good rate of winning rushes or at least generating pressure.
And with Justin Herbert manning the Chargers’ offense, creating pressure on the opposing offense is the name of the game.
While the Chargers’ rushing defense has been a definite problem for them, their pass rush and blitz packages have been good for disrupting opposing offenses. Not only do they rank sixth in Team Pass Rush Win Rate, they’re fifth in quarterback hurries, fifth in pressure rate, and 11th in quarterback knockdown rate (all per Pro Football Reference).
There are certainly more fearsome defenses against whom the Giants could be playing a young quarterback in his first NFL action, but the Chargers’ defense isn’t a great situation.
We should completely expect the Giants to plan for a very run-heavy attack. Not only will they want to (try to) take advantage of the Chargers’ run defense, but they’ll want to limit the load on their passer. But at some point the Giants will have to throw the ball, and there will be a lot on their quarterback’s mental plate (whoever that eventually is). Between the pressure exerted by Bosa and Nwosu, the coverage schemes on the back end, and the Chargers’ blitz packages, this is not a game in which the Giants want to find themselves playing catch-up.