The New York Giants are prepping for what could well be the biggest game of their season this week. While the playoffs are still a month away, the Giants’ game against the Washington Commanders certainly has a “playoff” feel to it.
The Giants and Commanders share a 7-5-1 record coming into Week 15 and played each other to a stalemate just two weeks ago.
The Giants also have to put the memory of a bad loss to the Philadelphia Eagles behind them, while Washington will play the Giants in consecutive games. The quick turnaround between divisional opponents has the potential to make this feel like an extension of the last game — that the first quarter of Week 15 is more like the sixth quarter of Week 13.
Giants’ defensive coordinator Wink Martindale tries to treat every game as an individual, but he also recognizes how that might not be possible this time.
“I know you’re trying to be 1-0 at the end of this week but that’s what you felt like afterwards coming out of there,” Martindale said. “Matter of fact, I said that to (head coach) Ron (Rivera), I said, ‘see you in two weeks’.”
Each team had the chance to pull away over the course of regulation in Week 13, and they also had their opportunities to win in overtime, but neither was able to pull away from the other. In Martindale’s case, he freely recognizes the talent with which his defense has to contend.
“I have great respect for the team and especially that offense,” he said. “They’re very talented, they’ve got talented skill, they’re talented up front and they’re talented running backs. So, we’ve got out work cut out for us.”
The Giants’ primary concern has to be stopping the Commanders’ rushing attack. They have leaned on their offensive line, Brian Robinson, and Antonio Gibson over the course of their 5-1-1 stretch since Taylor Heinicke took over as starting quarterback. The Giants, meanwhile, have struggled to defend the run this year.
New York has allowed the seventh-most rushing touchdowns, fourth-most rushing yards, third most rushing EPA, and second-most yards per attempt in the NFL.
And even though the Giants have given up some yards up the middle, most of the damage has been done to the edges of their defense on outside zone, counter runs, and toss plays. Martindale doesn’t only want to blame the Giants’ perimeter players for the Giants’ woes in run defense, but he does acknowledge that run defense is a problem as a whole.
“I think we’re going to continue to work on it,” he said. “We understood the process of building a roster of what we needed to do. It’s been a struggle. We’ve played with more DBs than we ever have this year, just to change things up. So, I think that’s part of it.”
“I think there’s a multitude of things that we’re working on to try to remedy that. I don’t think it’s just always on the edges, I think there’s some right up the middle too that we’ve had some issues with. So, it’s like one of those things when you start working on it, you’re plugging the dike. I’m running out of fingers and toes to plug the dike. So, we’re just going to continue to work at it and try to get better and play better defense, coach better defense, and go attack this team just like we do every Sunday.”
Rushing is up league-wide, and it isn’t just a “Giants” problem. Defense are calling more Cover 2 and Cover 4 defenses to account for explosive passing attacks, and some very athletic quarterbacks have entered the NFL in recent years.
“I think teams are just running the ball more and we’ve played three really good mobile quarterbacks,” Martindale said. “What do they call them, “five-tool” players in baseball? They’re five-tool players as quarterbacks. I think that has a lot to do with it.”
While Heinicke is capable of running with the ball, he isn’t nearly as dangerous as, say, Justin Fields or Lamar Jackson. The Giants will likely be more than satisfied if the Commanders’ quarterback is their leading rusher.
If the Giants are able to stop Brian Robinson Jr, Antonio Gibson, and J.D. McKissic, that will open the door to attack Taylor Heinicke in the passing game.
The Giants will be playing their third game since both Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari have returned to health, and that will help the Giants contend with the Commanders’ offensive talent. Martindale consistently tries to scheme different ways of isolating offensive players and put them in favorable match-ups for the defense. He says that getting players of Ojulari and Thibodeaux’s caliber healthy makes that much easier.
“Every time you get a good or great player back, it helps you scheme a lot easier,” Martindale said. Then you can either do more things with them or less things with them because they can just win their one-on-one matchups. So, it does help. You can give them different looks, too, the opponent.”
Pausing briefly to turn the clock back by a decade and a half, one of the legendary stories about the Giants’ 2007 Super Bowl teams is how Steve Spagnuolo decided to hold a chunk of his defensive calls in reserve only to be revealed in the post-season once the Giants clinched their playoff berth.
Skipping back to the present day, Martindale was asked whether he planned to do anything similar in Week 13 — whether he purposefully didn’t show wrinkles or calls with the intention of unveiling them in the Week 15 rematch. He responded that while he always schemes to keep wrinkles up his sleeve for the end of games, he doesn’t plan that way long term.
“No, that would’ve been really smart though, I should’ve said yes. We were just trying to play that game and win that game. You always try to hold something back during a game and bring it out in the fourth quarter, I’m talking about each individual game, not just this game but every game.”
“So, I wish I could tell you yes, but I’m too honest,” he added. “What is it, I’m too dumb to lie?”
Of course, he could also be lying about lying and has a slate of surprises in store for Washington.