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Giants vs. Commanders, Week 15: What to expect when Washington has the ball

What can the Giants’ defense improve on in their second game vs. the Commanders in three weeks?

NFL: Washington Commanders at New York Giants Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants will take on the Washington Commanders in Week 15. This game marks the second time in three weeks the two teams have played, and the second time in two games the Commanders have faced the Giants.

Considering these two teams faced off just two weeks ago, we’re already pretty familiar with what the Commanders look like on offense and defense. So for a change we’re going to take a look at some things the Giants will need to pay attention to in particular on the defensive side of the ball.

Defend the perimeter run

For the most part, the Giants have been reasonably stout against interior runs — which makes sense. They play a lot of TITE (tackle inside tight end) fronts, they have very good interior defensive tackles, and their linebackers are at their best when crashing downhill.

However, the Giants have repeatedly been gashed on perimeter runs this year. Whether they on outside zone, counter runs, or toss plays, athletic running backs have been able to find success against the Giants’ defense outside the hashmarks.

NFL NextGenStats

(Note: It got cut off, but Sanders had four carries for 87 yards and a touchdown to the offensive right)

We saw last time around that, much like the Giants’ offense, the Commanders want to run the ball first. They’d rather move the ball on the ground and build their passing game off of that. Washington has a lot of trust in Taylor Heinicke and his rapport with their receivers, but they’d still rather field a methodical rushing offense than a big-play passing offense.

While TITE fronts excel at defending the interior runs that are commonly paired with spread offenses. They typically clog interior gaps, but also frequently force runs to spill toward the boundaries. The Giants’ off-ball linebackers and defensive backs have struggled when the ball comes their way, which has been one of the leading causes for the Giants’ poor run defense.

Brian Robinson carried the ball far more times against the Giants than Antonio Gibson, but we could see that inverted if the Commanders want to use Gibson’s speed as a weapon on off-tackle runs or toss plays.

Changing to an even front look — either an Under or Over front — would change the looks presented to the Commanders’ offensive line, as well as the angles for their blocks. A slightly wider defensive front could help take some of the pressure off the off-ball linebackers and defensive backs to hold up on perimeter runs. The Giants might be less able to effectively clog interior gaps, which could invite more runs between the tackles. However, Jaylon Smith, Tae Crowder, and Micah McFadden have been better filling gaps downhill than scraping laterally.

Take (the right) notes from Week 14

The Eagles didn’t have much issue moving the ball on the Giants’ defense last week. They were able to execute methodical drives using a quick-hitting passing attack, run the ball almost at will, and create explosive plays through the air.

That said, the Giants defense did some good things they can carry with them into Week 15. Obviously the Giants need Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari to continue to play well. They were a force in the Giants’ Week 13 tie with the Commanders and played well against the Eagles’ formidable offensive line. Defensive coordinator Wink Martindale needs to continue to scheme ways — whether it’s through blitz calls or pre-snap alignment — to get either Thibodeaux or Ojulari one-on-one matchups to exploit.

The Giants also made some changes to their coverage calls that managed to affect Jalen Hurts — at least to a point. As I noted in my analytic breakdown of the Giants’ game against the Eagles, Hurts’ average completion traveled half a yard less in the air than his season average despite his average target being a yard and a half further downfield. The Giants played a bit more zone and middle of field open coverage shells (such as Cover 2 and Cover 4) against the Eagles than they had throughout the season. Heinicke lacks Hurts’ arm strength, but he’s perfectly willing to take shots downfield and give Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, Jahan Dotson, and Logan Thomas an opportunity.

The Giants could employ more varied coverage schemes, incorporating more Cover 2 or Quarters (Cover 4). That could help limit Heinicke’s opportunities to target his receivers in one-on-one match-ups and keep the ball in his hands.

Of course, one of the reasons why rushing averages are up league-wide this year is that defenses have called more Middle of Field Open coverages than in previous years. Overall that’s contributed to a down year for offense as a whole, but it has also made it easier for teams to run the ball. This presents a potentially risky decision for the Giants, given how they’ve struggled to defend the run, but it might be one they need to make.

We absolutely should not expect the Giants to fundamentally change their defensive philosophy. Martindale is who he is, and radically changing defenses would likely spell disaster for the Giants. That said, adding in more four-man fronts and zone coverages could throw unexpected wrinkles at the Washington offense.

Stay disciplined

Discipline was the Giants’ calling card over the first half of the season. Not only did the Giants generally do a good job of executing their assignments, they played (relatively) penalty-free football.

Put another way, they did their jobs and let the other team screw up.

But lately we’ve seen that discipline wane.

The Giants had coverage breakdowns against the Dallas Cowboys, played on the ragged edge of penalty in Week 13 against the Commanders, and were caught out of position at times against the Eagles.

Both of these teams are playing under similar circumstances. They have the same record and have (basically) the same stakes on the line in this game. However, Washington is coming off of a bye week that has capped a 5-1-1 run since changing quarterbacks, while the Giants are coming off of a bad loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, are beat up, and on a 1-4-1 slide dating back to Week 7.

The Giants had their chances to win in Week 13, but sloppy play let the Commanders stay in the game after New York had seized the momentum. The Giants will likely be at a talent deficit against Washington, and they can’t afford to let the game get any more lopsided than playing 11-on-11. If the Giants have coverage breakdowns, bite on misdirection or over-pursue plays, or draw penalties, this game could quickly snowball.

If the Giants want to win, they’re going to need to play with urgency on defense. But they also need to do so without pressing or slipping into undisciplined play.