At this point, discussing the matchups between the New York Giants and their opponents has gotten a bit humdrum. We know the opponent is better; pretty much all of them are, as the Giants are NFL.com’s 31st-ranked team. A brutal schedule hasn’t made anything easier, but getting slaughtered by the Seattle Seahawks in Week 4 pretty much confirmed that the Giants are at the point of no return.
Still, there is a game to be played, and Buffalo will likely have the ball a lot. Josh Allen stresses every level of the defense, and he has been at the top of his game so far this season.
Allen and Diggs: A defense’s nightmare
When you think of a prototypical 2023 quarterback, Allen is the one who comes to mind. A howitzer of an arm and excellent mobility are just what teams covet in their passers. After a rough start in Week 1, Allen is back to an elite level of play. He has the third-best Pro Football Focus passing grade among quarterbacks (86.1) while cutting his turnover-worthy play rate to 2.9% (13th), a far cry from his 4.2% rate a year ago.
Allen also has the perfect weapon to target in Stefon Diggs, perhaps the best route-runner in the NFL. Diggs is in the top 10 among qualified NFL receivers in just about every category, including receptions (third), catch rate (seventh), yards (sixth), touchdowns (first), PFF receiving grade (ninth), yards per route run (seventh), receiving first downs (eighth), and targeted passer rating (10th).
When you couple that with Gabe Davis’ five touchdown receptions, also tied for first among receivers, and 17.8 yards per reception (seventh), trying to stop Diggs is a nearly impossible task.
Multiple tight-end sets
The Bills rank second in the NFL in using 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) 37.5% of the time. They pass out of that formation 62.5% of the time, the third-highest rate in the league. However, neither Dawson Knox nor first-round pick Dalton Kincaid have made much of an impact in the offense thus far. Knox ranks 33rd out of 34 qualified tight ends with a 47.6 PFF receiving grade, while Kincaid ranks 22nd at 58.1.
While Kincaid has managed to catch 17 of his 18 targets, they’ve gone for just 118 yards or 6.9 per catch. Just four of his receptions have gone for first downs. Meanwhile, Knox has just 11 catches for 75 yards all season, but he does have one touchdown.
Buffalo ranks 11th in EPA per play out of 12 personnel at 0.0911. It’s not as high as it could be due to a 25th-ranked -0.243 EPA per carry out of 12. Still, their overall success rate out of that personnel grouping is 49.2%, which ranks eighth.
How did two teams contain Buffalo’s offense?
If you look at Allen’s stat line this year, there’s one game that sticks out like a sore thumb — the team’s Week 1 defeat against the Jets. On national television, Allen laid an egg, turning the ball over four times and managing just one passing touchdown and 5.8 yards per pass attempt. In his other four games, the Bills quarterback has 10 touchdown passes and just two interceptions.
How did the Jets manage to limit Allen? Is there anything the Giants can do to emulate that game plan?
If not, there’s another team that held Buffalo’s offense in check — the Jaguars. Allen’s counting stats were strong: 27-for-40, 359 passing yards, 9.0 yards per attempt, two touchdowns, one interception, and a 102.0 passer rating. Still, Buffalo lost the time of possession battle by nearly a two-to-one margin, managed just 2.1 yards per carry, and were called for 11 penalties.
Can Jacksonville’s approach give the Giants any insight?
Jets: Force him to dink and dunk
Allen is the definition of a gunslinger. His 8.7 average depth of target is the lowest of his career yet ranks 10th among quarterbacks. This is not a passer who is content to move the sticks; he wants the big chunks. It’s worked for him throughout his career, as he has the most touchdown passes of any quarterback since he entered the league in 2018.
Still, that mentality has led to many mistakes. Allen threw three interceptions against the Jets. The first one he threw epitomizes why the Bills, despite dominating the league over the past three seasons, have not managed to make it to the Super Bowl.
The Bills faced a third-and-8 from their own 31-yard line, holding a 3-0 lead. When Allen rolled out of the pocket, he had an easy first down with his legs if he wanted it; he probably could have gained more than that, too. Instead, he lofted the ball more than 60 yards in the air. Yes, from his vantage point, it may have appeared that the safety was looking at the shorter route and his receiver had a one-on-one against the cornerback with a step or two. It was a good play by Jordan Whitehead. Still, Allen overthrew the ball significantly.
Though it was essentially an excellent arm punt that downed the Jets near their own goal line, Allen could have easily moved the sticks. It was third down. His mind, though, is always looking for the home run, even when a single is sufficient and an out kills the inning.
The Jets are the kind of defense that Allen is more likely to struggle against because they play very conservative coverage most of the time. Their approach is to force a team to stack first downs in order to score. The yardage will be there underneath but usually not deep. A patient offense can do so, but Allen just can’t help himself. He had only one play of 20+ yards, and the whole offense stalled as a result.
It’s harder to figure out how the Jaguars managed to contain the Bills’ offense. Allen threw for 359 yards and scored all three of their touchdowns, two through the air and one on the ground. He did throw one interception, but he was not sacked, and the Bills converted 46.2% of their first downs (compared to 38.5% against the Jets). They also had four explosive plays (20+ yards) in the game.
While it may seem that Buffalo’s inability to run the ball played a role, the numbers don’t necessarily back that up. Though the Bills ran the ball just 13 times for 30 yards (2.3 yards per carry), they were successful on 46.2% of them, where the league average is 41.7%. They converted both of their third-and-short situations, too.
The key is that although Buffalo did have those four explosive plays, two of them came when they were down 25-13 with under three minutes to go in the fourth quarter. The longest one, a 48-yard pass play down to Jacksonville’s 42, resulted in a three-and-out on the next series and a punt.
It does seem that containing the Bills’ explosive plays is the way to keep their offense in check.
Giants’ coverage approach
The problem for the Giants is that they’re tied for 28th in the NFL in allowing 24 explosive plays: 15 passing, eight rushing, and one via penalty. The Bills rank ninth in the NFL with 21 explosive plays offensively.
Further hurting New York is that they take the opposite approach to the Jets with heavy man coverage and blitzing. Allen is a master of beating the blitz, ranking third with an 84.3 overall PFF grade against it. He’s also better than most passers under pressure — his 64.9 grade ranks seventh — but it appears that the pressure needs to come with a standard pass rush in order to be effective. All five of Allen’s interceptions have come when he was not blitzed.
It’s easy to point to the Jets’ coverage as the reason they were able to contain Allen, but that’s not necessarily the case. Diggs had 10 receptions on 13 targets for 102 yards and a touchdown in that game. The key was that 10.2 yards per reception number: they were okay with letting him beat them underneath but refused to let him beat them over the top. Allen got frustrated and forced the ball as a result.
The Giants can try to emulate that plan even if their cover players are not nearly of the Jets’ caliber. In this game specifically, it would be wise for Wink Martindale to play more loose zone coverage than usual. Force Allen to beat you with a thousand paper cuts rather than gaining chunks. Additionally, zone could enable the Giants to nab turnovers, as their defenders have eyes on the quarterback rather than on their man. With a quarterback who runs as much as Allen does, playing more zone is a better idea, anyway.
The only issue with playing so much zone is that it could unleash Gabe Davis. The Bills’ No. 2 receiver tends to struggle against man coverage, ranking 43rd out of 65 qualified receivers in PFF grade, while he does much better against zone, where he ranks 24th. Still, on the whole, it makes more sense for the Giants’ defense to go with more zone, especially since Xavier McKinney appears to play his best in that coverage, anyway.
Key matchup: NT Dexter Lawrence vs. C Mitch Morse
According to PFF, the Bills’ pass-blocking has vastly improved from last year. From 22nd in pass-blocking grade (63.0), they’ve vaulted all the way up to sixth (72.7). It’s not going to be easy for the Giants to get to Allen.
The matchup of Dexter Lawrence against center Mitch Morse is the key for the defense, in my opinion. Both the Jets and Jaguars got some pressure from their defensive tackles against Allen. For the Jets, Quinnen Williams and Quinton Jefferson combined for 10 pressures, two sacks, and two quarterback hits. Though Jacksonville’s pass rush was not nearly as effective, their best pass rusher by PFF grade (among those with at least 20 pass-rush snaps) was DT Jeremiah Ledbetter, who had three pressures and two quarterback hits.
Lawrence has the fifth-best pass-rush grade among defensive tackles at 88.8. Although he hasn’t put up any sacks, his five quarterback hits are tied for fourth, his 7.9 pass rush productivity is tied for 10th, and his 19.3% pass rush win rate is sixth. He’s still a disruptive force.
Meanwhile, Morse’s 73.0 pass-blocking grade ranks second out of 32 qualified centers, but he’s allowed a surprisingly high pressure rate considering that grade. The center average for pressure is 3.3%, and Morse’s is 5.3%. Though he hasn’t allowed a sack and has given up just one quarterback hit, that may be a function of Allen’s scrambling ability (15% pressure-to-sack ratio, eighth-best in the NFL) rather than his own blocking aptitude.
Though Allen does well under pressure compared to other quarterbacks, he’s still not nearly as good as when he has time to throw. His mistakes have come under pressure with a standard pass rush. Lawrence is the Giants’ best pass rusher; perhaps he can tilt the game in their favor.
The Bills’ play distribution is very stark based on win probability: they pass more than 60% of the time unless their win probability is above 80%. Here is their ranking in pass rate based on win probability (WP).
- WP > 80%: 49.2% (seventh)
- WP between 55-80%: 63.9% (seventh)
- WP between 45-55%: 66.7% (fifth)
- WP between 20-45%: 64.6% (13th)
- WP < 20%: 86.7% (second, but only 15 plays)
In other words, the Bills pass the ball among the most in the NFL. They rank 12th in overall pass rate, but that’s because they’ve run 120 plays where they had a win probability of greater than 80% — and even in those situations, they still pass a lot more than most other teams do in those same circumstances.
Therefore, the Giants shouldn’t worry about the run in this game, at least not by running backs. James Cook is definitely a talented back, averaging 4.8 yards per carry, but he’s likely not going to get the ball that often if the game is close. The edge rushers need to be careful to maintain their assignments and keep Allen from scrambling, but they don’t need to be as careful in their initial get-off from the line.
Additionally, the Giants’ linebackers should stay very disciplined when it appears a handoff is coming. The Bills don’t run play-action that often compared to other teams, but when they do, Allen is highly effective.
Twenty-three percent of Allen’s dropbacks have come off play-action, which ranks 21st among passers, but he’s posted a 95.5 PFF grade on those plays, the best in the NFL. He has an 82.9% completion percentage (first), 570 yards (first), 13.9 yards per attempt (first), five touchdown passes (T-first), a 9.1% big-time throw rate (third), no turnover-worthy plays, and a perfect 158.3 passer rating on those passes.
Therefore, the Giants need to not only think pass-first, but they need to go against their run instincts. If the Bills gash them on the ground, so be it. But like in the 1990 Super Bowl, when Bill Belichick crafted a defensive game plan that now resides in the Hall of Fame, the Giants cannot let Allen pick them apart with his arm.