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Giants vs. Texans, Week 10: What to expect when Houston has the ball

What can we expect from the Giants’ defense this week?

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Houston Texans Maria Lysaker-USA TODAY Sports

The 6-2 New York Giants return from their bye week to take on the 1-6-1 Houston Texans at home on Sunday.

The Giants are obviously the favorites to win this game, and the Texans look to be in line for the first pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. However, they aren’t exactly a pushover, either. The Texans are a team that’s let games get away from them in the second halves of games this year. They’re a team that’s still figuring out how to close out games, and have been plagued by defensive breakdowns and mental mistakes.

The Texans should be getting a bit healthier for this game after the “mini-bye” that accompanies a Thursday night game. The Texans hope to get receivers Brandon Cooks and Nico Collins back, as well as iOL Justin McCray.

What can we expect from the Giants’ defense when the Texans have the ball?

Replacing Xavier McKinney

Week 10 started on a sour note for the Giants as safety Xavier McKinney revealed that he suffered a hand injury during the bye week.

The Giants have dealt with injuries all year long, dating back to the beginning of training camp, but losing McKinney could be a significant blow to the defense. The third-year safety has become an integral piece of Wink Martindale’s defense. He was named a defensive captain before the season started as a sign of his leadership on and off the field. McKinney has also been serving as the defensive quarterback this year, getting the green dot and tasked with the responsibility to relay the defensive play call from the sideline to the rest of the defense.

McKinney has been a great player for the Giants’ defense this season and his play will be missed on the back end — both in coverage and as a run defender.

Julian Love will be stepping in to fulfill McKinney’s role in the defense. He’s a very good player in his own right and (arguably) the most versatile player on the defense. Love is experienced, has played just about every position in the secondary, and was voted a defensive captain in his own right.

However, he’ll be a different voice in the communication chain between Martindale and the rest of the defense.

The loss of McKinney will also force the Giants to look down their depth chart to replace Julian Love. Dane Belton has played well, but the Giants might not have any one player who can do what Love has done for the defense. Given how important DB-heavy sub-packages are to the Giants’ defensive scheme, the loss of McKinney could be significant. The Giants rely heavily on DBs to cover behind their blitz schemes, as well as to compensate for the Giants’ medicore (or downright poor) linebacker play.

The Texans have a weak offense, but they do have players like Brandin Cooks or Dameon Pierce who are capable of being explosive. Losing McKinney shouldn’t cripple the Giants’ defense, but his loss could create opportunities for the Texans to create big plays.

Who’s in, who’s out?

The Giants aren’t the only team with questions about important players. The Texans were forced to play the Philadelphia Eagles last week without their top two receivers and both Brandin Cooks and Collins missed last week’s game.

Collins missed the previous two games with a groin injury suffered back in Week 7 against the Las Vegas Raiders. Head coach Lovie Smith has stated that he hopes Collins will practice this week, although the receiver hasn’t practiced since the injury.

There was rampant speculation that the Texans would deal wide receiver Brandon Cooks at last week’s trade deadline. As such, he was held out of practice last week, with Smith holding him out of Thursday’s game as well in a “coach’s decision”. The relationship between Cooks and the Texans is obviously strained and it remains to be seen what his role with the team will be when he returns to the field. Cooks had a pair of 1,000-yard seasons since being traded from the Los Angeles Rams to the Texans in 2020, but is on pace for just over 800 yards.

Cooks is the Texans’ leading receiver despite having just 32 receptions for 354 yards and a touchdown. Collins is second on the team with 18 catches for 305 yards (no touchdowns). While their presence wouldn’t suddenly transform the Texans into an offensive dynamo, having Cooks and Collins would give Houston a deeper and more versatile offensive unit.

Other players to know

The Texans have one of the worst offenses in the NFL. They rank 27th in yards per play and 28th in points scored, passing yards, and net yards per attempt. Even in stats like completion percentage, passing touchdown rate, and sack rate, they top out at “roughly average”. However, the Giants can’t afford to be complacent on defense. The Texans have given better teams — such as the Raiders and Eagles — tough fights for much of their respective games. Assuming Brandon Cooks returns, there’s enough talent on this offense to eke out an “Any Given Sunday” type of upset.

We pretty much have to start with Davis Mills and the quarterback position. It was widely assumed that the Texans would select a quarterback at some point in the 2022 NFL Draft to at least provide competition for Mills. The Texans, however, seemed confident in Mills as their quarterback for the 2022 season after a tumultuous 2021.

Mills is capable of crisp, efficient play — as well as stunningly poor decisions and throws.

The second-year passer is at his best when he’s able to operate in rhythm. He has a quick, crisp release and is able to accurately deliver the ball on time. He lacks great arm strength (in the grand scheme of things), but has enough arm strength to challenge tight windows and drive the ball down the field. Mills is also athletic enough to scramble and extend plays, as well as pick up yards with his legs if the defense turns its back on him. That said, he is a pass-first quarterback who keeps his eyes downfield.

But as promising as Mills is capable of looking within the structure of the Texans’ offense, he can look that bad when things break down. Mills seems very prone to suffering catastrophic breakdowns in high-leverage moments. He has 8 interceptions on the season and has a tendency toward making bad snap decisions when under pressure.

The Texans’ offense should appear fairly familiar to Giants’ fans. Much like the Giants (and the Seattle Seahawks), the Texans’ want to build their offense off of the running game. Much like the Seahawks and Giants, the Texans have a young and dangerous running back to carry the load.

Fourth-round rookie running back Dameon Pierce has (quietly) been one of the best offensive players to come out of this year’s draft class. Pierce has a compact, powerful build with great vision, agility, and contact balance. The Texans primarily use zone runs, which fit Pierce’s skillset well. He’s a decisive back who’s balance and 5-foot-9, 217-pound frame makes him very difficult to bring down. Pierce is currently sixth in total rushing yardage, as well as fourth in rushing first downs. He’s also a big reason why the Texans are second in yards after contact (per attempt) on the ground despite being 30th in yards before contact.

Stopping Pierce and putting the ball in Mills’ hands must be the Giants’ first priority on defense. Fortunately, the Giants have been more successful against zone blocking schemes than man-gap schemes.

The Texans want to build their passing game off of their running game. They use a high number of short, quick passes that focus on getting the ball to their athletic receivers in space. They also frequently use play-action or jet motion as misdirection to facilitate their passing game.

As mentioned above, Cooks and Collins are the Texans’ top receiving targets. They do, however, have some intriguing depth at the position as well. The Texans had hoped to have speedy rookie WR John Metchie III for this season after getting a perceived steal in the second round. However, Metchie was diagnosed with a form of cancer this summer and is missing his rookie season for a much more important battle.

Without Metchie, the Texans also have Phillip Dorsett and Chris Moore backing up Cooks and Collins. Dorsett remains a speedy option with the ability to stretch the field as well as pick up yards after the catch on screen plays. Moore has better size at 6-foot-1, 200 pounds and is more of a possession receiver than Cooks and Dorsett. He lacks great speed, but is reliable and can lengthen his stride in the open field.

The potential combination of Cooks and Dorsett could prove problematic for a Giants’ secondary that’s lacking Aaron Robinson and Xavier McKinney, particularly on deep play-action passes. The Texans primarily run a short-range offense, but they’re also 12th in deep passing attempts.

The Giants can’t afford to overlook the Texans’ offense. They still have enough talent to exploit breakdowns or mistakes by the Giants’ defense. That said, New York’s roster and Wink Martindale’s aggressive schemes should let them control this match-up.