The New York Giants are favored at home by 5 points this Sunday against the Houston Texans, who had an extended week of rest after a competitive 29-17 loss on Thursday Night Football against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Texans are 1-6-1 and are in line to have the No. 1selection in the 2023 NFL Draft. Lovie Smith is in his first year as head coach for Houston, with general manager Nick Caserio currently in a rebuild after trading quarterback Deshaun Watson for three first-round picks, two fourth-round picks, and a third-round selection.
Smith is on his third professional head coaching stop after a stint in college as the University of Illinois’ coach. Smith is known for his high usage of Cover-2 defense and a 4-3 front. The Texans lead the league in Cover-2 zone shell defense. They will also run Tampa-2 with the MIKE dropping to a deeper depth. as well.
The vulnerabilities in a Cover-2 defense are well-defined; the honey-hole between the underneath cornerback and the deep-half safety is exploitable through high-low concepts (Smash, Flood, etc.), with a No. 2 or No. 3 (if 3x1 set) running a corner route.
For an extensive look at how to exploit a Cover-2 defense, check out this Summer School piece from the summer of 2020.
I expect Giants offensive coordinator Mike Kafka to hold the underneath corner with Saquon Barkley to the flat, with a tight end or slot receiver finding success near the sideline as another adjacent receiver occupies the safety with a deep route.
The Texans’ defense runs its base 4-3 personnel 36.1 percent of the time. They run nickel 63.9 percent of the time, basically the only two personnel packages they employ.
The Texans’ defense ranks 18th in opponents’ points per game (22.9 PPG), and the Giants’ defense allows 19.6, ranking ninth-best in the NFL. Houston ranks 30th in yards allowed per game (398.1 YPG), and the Giants’ defense allows 345.6 YPG, ranking 17th in the NFL.
Houston allows the most rushing yards in the NFL, with an average of 180.6 YPG; the Giants allow 137.3 YPG, ranking 23rd in the league. The Texans allow 217.5 passing yards per game, which puts them at 19th most in the league; the Giants allow 208.4 PYPG - the 16th most.
According to PFF, the Texans rank 12th in pressure rate; the Giants are 24th. The Texans are 28th in defensive EPA on the season.
Houston has allowed 41 plays of 20+ yards, which ranks 30th in the NFL; they have allowed 10 runs of 20+ yards, which also ranks 30th in the NFL. Big plays on the ground can be successful for the Giants. Two weeks ago, Derrick Henry and the Titans ran at will all over the Texans (Henry went for 219 yards); Josh Jacobs did the same in Week 7. Expect a heavy dose of Saquon Barkley against the Texans.
The Texans’ defense is a unique mixture of veteran journeymen and rookies with upside. Arguably, 34-year-old EDGE rusher Jerry Hughes is the team’s best defensive player. The longtime Buffalo Bill, and 2010 Colts’ first-round selection, currently has 28 pressures and seven sacks on the season. Hughes aligns on both the left and right side; I expect Smith to match Hughes up against right tackle Tyre Phillips, still filling in for the injured Evan Neal.
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Rasheem Green join Hughes as edge defenders; the former has eight pressures, and is more situational, whereas the latter has five sacks and 15 pressures alongside Hughes. Veteran pass-rusher Mario Addison adds depth.
The defensive interior is an issue for the Texans. Former Vikings’ defensive linemen Jaleel Johnson and Kurt Hinish are the primary defenders, with Maliek Collins dealing with a chest injury. Roy Lopez - a 2021 sixth-round pick out of Arizona - plays a solid complement of snaps for the Texans, and provides juice as an interior pass rusher.
30-year-old Christian Kirksey is the starting linebacker for Houston, and he plays most of the snaps. Christian Harris - the rookie linebacker out of Alabama - returned to the lineup in Week 7, which led to the release of former starter Kamu Grugier-Hill. Harris has 153 defensive snaps through three games, with 11 tackles and five STOPs, but isn’t in position consistently. Eye-Candy and misdirection could pose an issue for the young, athletic linebacker.
The secondary is interesting for the Texans. Steven Nelson and Desmond King II in the slot are two very effective veterans. Starting opposite Nelson is rookie first-round pick Derek Stingley Jr., who has tons of upside and coverage ability; however, he plays a lot of Cover-2 responsibilities in the flat — not the best use of his talent. Nelson and Stingley play every snap.
Baylor rookie Jalen Pitre almost had an interception against Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts last week - that would have been his third of the year. Pitre is a smart player who adds value in run support despite being slightly undersized. The young combination of Stingley Jr. and Pitre are exciting building blocks for Smith’s defense.
Jonathan Owens plays opposite Pitre. The 5-foot-11, 210-pound, 27-year-old safety allowed two touchdowns against Philadelphia last week.
The Giants’ offensive coaching staff has displayed the ability to adjust to opponents. Lovie Smith’s defensive unit is straightforward; I expect Daboll and Kafka to exploit the critical vulnerabilities of Houston’s defense by establishing the run, and working the play-action passing attack.
The Seattle Seahawks did a great job containing Daniel Jones in Week 8. Bruce Irvin was tasked to run directly at Jones on anything that appeared to be a play-action bootleg. The Giants should attempt to use the bootleg game and force Houston to respect Jones’ ability to run.
If respect is paid, the Giants will have one less defender for Houston on the backside of those runs. New York can bring their diverse rushing attack to Houston and force the Texans to stop the run. If the Giants have early success running the football, the Texans may be forced to drop another player in the box and play Cover-3, which could open up some more explosive opportunities through the air.
As far as traditional passing attacks go, the Giants must establish some rhythm out of the bye week. Other than some deep curls inside the numbers to Slayton, New York did little against Seattle to move the football once the play-action bootleg game was eliminated; some plays were there, but Jones did not throw the football on some of them.
A few of the successful deep curls were against Cover-2, where Slayton found the soft spot between the deep-half safety and around the middle-hook defender. I expect plays similar to that, but many more passing concepts designed to attack Cover-2.
Wan’Dale Robinson split a two-high safety shell last week and was isolated on a linebacker; the ball was not thrown in his direction, but I could see the Giants attempting to attack the defense right up the middle of the field with speed.
The Texans are a tough team that won’t roll over. They were tied with the Eagles heading into halftime last week. The Giants can’t take Houston lightly, but it’s certainly a game where the Giants should be able to move the football; they will just have to be more efficient in the red zone and turn those trips into six rather than just three.