The start of the 2021 NFL season is finally here for the New York Giants. The Giants will be taking on the Denver Broncos at 4:25 p.m. this Sunday, and we’ll finally get a look at the 2021 version of the Giants’ offense.
The Broncos made heavy investments in their defense this past offseason, adding a trio of cornerbacks as well as getting All-Pro EDGE Von Miller back from an ankle injury suffered before the 2020 season.
Indications currently are that the Giants will have Saquon Barkley and Kenny Golladay on the field for the first time in a game situation. However, this game also has the makings of a stiff test for an offense which hopes to overcome the struggles that lead to it being the 31st ranked unit in the NFL in 2020.
Note: This is where I would normally be including some relevant box and advanced stats. However, as this is the first month of the season, those don’t really exist yet. They’ll be included once we get a dependable sample size.
Right now talking about the New York Giants’ offense reminds me a bit of a scene from Mel Brooks’ classic “Robin Hood: Men In Tights”. In the scene Robin comes upon his family’s faithful servant Blinkin keeping watch from a stand at the edge of their camp. The only problem? Blinkin is Robin’s faithful blind servant. So of course Robin asks what Blinkin is doing up there in the outpost.
“Guessing, sir. I guess no one is coming?”
Robin then tells Blinkin to come down from there before he continues on into the Merry Men’s camp. The scene ends with Blinkin knocking the ladder down without realizing it and promptly falling flat on his face.
Much like Blinkin, those of us on the outside are pretty much in the dark. We're also pretty likely to wind up falling on our faces.
Thanks to a few factors we don’t have a great idea of what the Giants’ offense is going to look like, who will be on the field, how much anyone will play, or how they’ll be used.
As of this writing we know Barkley, Golladay, and Kyle Rudolph are trending toward playing in this game, though we don’t know how much. Evan Engram has been called a “long shot” to play, Kaden Smith is suddenly injured, and nobody seems to know what’s up with Kadarius Toney. [Toney said Thursday that he expects to play Sunday]
We assumed that the Giants would try to push the ball further down the field in their passing offense. But when we finally got to see Daniel Jones in the preseason, fully half of his 22 pass attempts were for 5 yards or less. Was that because Golladay and Toney were out? Was it the offensive line’s woes (more on that in a bit), or is this just what the Giants’ passing game will be? It’s possible that the Giants’ primary goal is to get the ball out quickly and safely, with more aggressive shots only coming when they present themselves.
The good news for the Giants is that if we don’t know what to expect, neither do the Denver Broncos. However, it makes previewing match-ups difficult when we don’t actually know for sure what the match-ups will be. One of the big storylines I’ll be watching on offense against the Broncos is just what the offense looks like from an X’s and O’s perspective.
The battle in the trenches
Right. About the offensive line.
The Giants’ offensive line was a source of questions heading into training camp and the few snaps we got to see of the starters in preseason did little to assuage those fears.
As it stands now, it appears as though the Giants have opted to start veteran Nate Solder at right tackle. Meanwhile, Shane Lemieux reportedly has a partially torn patellar tendon and the current plan is to try and play through the injury without surgery. While that might be possible, we don’t know how the injury — or resulting pain — will affect Lemieux’s play. Lemieux could be the Giants’ starting left guard, or it could be Billy Price or Ben Bredeson.
The Giants’ starters struggled mightily against the Patriots’ defense, even when New England began rotating second string players onto the field. And while Joshua Uche — or Bryce Huff on the New York Jets — are solid pass rushers, the Broncos have one of the better pass rushing defensive fronts in the NFL.
EDGE Bradley Chubb, and defensive ends Shelby Harris and Dre’Mont Jones each boasted above-average pass rush win rates in 2020. The presence of a young and ascending EDGE rusher is a concern for a team which has questions at both offensive tackle positions. The presence of two good pass rushers at interior defensive line compounds the issue by limiting how the Giants will be able to structure their double teams.
The return of Von Miller from a dislocated tendon gives the Broncos another pass rushing weapon. While Miller’s sack numbers took a step back in 2019 (to 8.0 sacks from 14.5 in 2018), he saw his quarterback hits only decline slightly (20 from 26) while his knock downs and total pressures rose. If Miller’s pressure rate suggests that he was getting to quarterbacks but they were able to get rid of the ball before he got the sack, he could return to a double-digit sack total in 2021. Improved pass coverage and pressure from elsewhere in the front could take some of the pressure off Miller and give him better matchups.
As mentioned above, we saw the Giants use primarily quick passes against the Patriots, which continues a trend we saw a year ago. Even if the team wants to push the ball further downfield, they might have to use a quick passing game to deal with Denver’s pass rush. We could also see the Giants make increased use of misdirection plays and schemed touches to take advantage of Denver’s aggression.
We could also see the Giants make heavier use of bootlegs and rollouts. By getting Daniel Jones out of the pocket, it will help buy him more time and space from the Bronco’s pass rushers. Likewise, cutting the field in half could help speed up Jones’ process and lead to more efficient decision making.
Few teams have done as much to improve their secondary as the Broncos have since the end of the 2020 season.
In December of 2021, their secondary looked like this:
CB: A.J. Bouye, Bryce Callahan, Michael Ojemudia, Nate Hairston
SS: Kareem Jackson
FS: Justin Simmons
Heading into Week 1 of 2021, the Broncos completely renovated their cornerback position, moving on from Bouye and Hairston. In addition to moving Callahan back to his natural slot position, they added a trio outside corners.
LCB: Kyle Fuller, Michael Ojemudia
Slot: Bryce Callahan
RCB: Ronald Darby, Patrick Surtain II
The Broncos added Kyle Fuller (who had played for Vic Fangio with the Chicago Bears) and Ronald Darby in free agency, while selecting star Alabama cornerback Patrick Surtain II with the ninth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. While Surtain is currently listed as the third outside corner on the Bronco’s depth chart, we should expect to see plenty of the big, athletic, versatile corner.
Behind them are safeties Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons, who could well be the best safety duo in the NFL.
With his newfound depth and versatility, Fangio has the ability to deploy his defenders in a wide variety of ways to stifle offenses.
Interestingly, Fangio has used an unusually high volume of snaps in a Cover 6 defense. This is a trend that I was able to trace back to his time as the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator, when Fangio had to marry the skill sets of Kyle Fuller (who excels in zone coverage) and Prince Amukamara (who excelled in man coverage). The answer seems to be the Cover 6 defense, which is essentially a hybrid defense in which half the secondary plays Cover 2, while the other half plays Cover 4 (get it? 2+4=6. This is one of those times when football naming conventions make sense). The Cover 6, and some individual rules and calls within the scheme, allowed Fuller to play zone coverage, Amukamara to play man coverage, and for the rest of the defense to easily disguise its intentions.
For a fantastic in-depth look at Cover 6, check out Nick Falato’s breakdown of the coverage scheme from the 2020 Summer School series.
With the additions of Fuller, Darby, and Surtain to Callahan, Simmons, and Jackson, Fangio will have the ability to call just about any coverage, or combination of coverages, that he wants.
Along with his use of Cover 6 schemes, Fangio likes to initially show two-deep coverage shells before the snap. And while a safety might rotate down to an underneath coverage after the snap, the two-deep look serves to convince offenses to throw short passes, as well as run toward what appears to be a light box.
We won’t get into the mechanics of how Fangio accounts for the run with a “light” box, but I encourage anyone who wants to dive into the nuts and bolts there to give this article by Cody Alexander a read.
The two-deep coverage shells allow the secondary to keep the play in front of them, and play down toward the ball, as opposed to trying to run with receivers. And despite being beset by injuries last year, the Broncos’ defense was still solid and was rarely challenged deep.
As we can see, the vast majority of the pass attempts against the Broncos came in the 0-7 yard range. It didn’t seem to matter what coverage Denver played, most of the pass attempts against them were around five yards downfield.
It’s difficult to know just what to expect from the Giants on offense this week. It’s difficult to know what to expect from a team any time a season is starting, but this year it’s particularly difficult to predict what the Giants’ offense will look like. Between the Giants’ injury issues and just how little we saw of their starting offense in the preseason, there are a lot more questions than data points.
That being said, while the Broncos’ offense was bad last year, their defense remained competitive despite being beat up by injury. Fangio has a long track record of being one of the best defensive minds in the NFL, and his scheming helped give his defense a chance. The team also made sure to get its starters reps throughout the pre-season, which we could see lead to a quick start early in the season.