We pretty much know who the New York Giants are this season: a bad football team. The Washington Commanders are harder to figure out; sitting at 3-3, they’ve been obliterated by the Bills and Bears but nearly beat the Eagles and just pulled out a win against the Falcons. Will the real Commanders please stand up?
This holds particularly true of their defense, which has been a sieve in four games this season but quite stingy in the other two. The Giants present an opportunity for them to add a third game to the stingy column, but they’re going to try to take advantage of a team that has allowed 33 points or more four times in six games.
How can the Giants attack this Washington unit?
Win through the air
The Commanders rank 14th in run defense DVOA and 27th in pass defense DVOA. That immediately points toward a pass-first game plan.
The problem for the Giants is that they don’t yet know who will be under center — or at least they’re acting like they don’t know. Daniel Jones still hasn’t been cleared for contact, though he is practicing on a limited basis. Most of the time, when a quarterback (or any player) still hasn’t been cleared by Wednesday, they don’t end up playing on Sunday. If I had to bet, I’d lean toward Tyrod Taylor starting this game.
Taylor performed a lot better than expected against the Bills, showing why the Giants retained him as a backup. He went 24-for-36 (66.7%) for 200 yards, which, at 5.6 yards per attempt, is not that impressive but is still serviceable. He had three big-time throws, per Pro Football Focus, against one turnover-worthy play.
Compared to Jones, Taylor did a better job of avoiding pressure. He was under duress on 19 of his 44 dropbacks (43.2%), which is not that much less than Jones (91 out of 197, 46.2%). Still, Taylor’s average time to throw was 2.61 seconds compared to Jones’ season-long average of 2.84; he also had a 15.8% pressure-to-sack ratio, as opposed to Jones’ 30.8%. Taylor had four throwaways against the Bills, while Jones has six the whole season.
Part of this may have been the game plan, though. The Giants knew that their backup quarterback would have little chance if he hung in the pocket, so they designed quick throws, much like they did with Jones in 2022. For some reason, Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka have refused to revert back toward that plan with Jones at the helm. Taylor’s performance against the Bills may have exposed some of Jones’ deficiencies — or it may have exposed the coaching staff’s.
Whichever quarterback plays in this game, the Giants should be utilizing a similar philosophy against the Commanders. Get the ball out quickly. Give Wan’Dale Robinson the opportunity to keep the team ahead of the sticks, and scheme up ways for Saquon Barkley to maneuver in space, which is where he’s at his best.
The Commanders have shuffled around their secondary significantly over the first six weeks due to both injury and poor performance. Emmanuel Forbes, their first-round cornerback, began the year as one of their starting outside cornerbacks but did not play a single snap against Atlanta last week.
It appears that Washington chose to move Benjamin St. Juste from the slot to outside cornerback and use Danny Johnson as their slot cornerback. Kendall Fuller is their stud on the other side, as his 82.9 PFF coverage grade ranks third among all cornerbacks. Still, he has given up three touchdowns, which means the Giants don’t need to completely stay away from him.
St. Juste may be the one to target as an outside cornerback, though. He allowed 8 of 10 receptions for 80 yards and a touchdown against Atlanta and was also called for two penalties, though he did nab an interception. All 80 of those yards came against Drake London. That may be a good matchup for Jalin Hyatt and Darius Slayton.
Washington’s two best defensive backs in coverage have been Fuller and Kamren Curl (73.2 PFF coverage grade). Beyond that, most of their other DBs have been beatable in coverage, especially now that St. Juste is out of the slot.
The Commanders have allowed 12 passing touchdowns this season, the third-most in the NFL. This is a secondary that can be had.
Washington’s pass rush
Still, the Giants will be able to throw the ball only if they neutralize Washington’s pass rush. According to Pro Football Reference, the Commanders’ defense ranks 13th in the NFL with a 24.8% pressure rate and a 9.7% quarterback knockdown rate. They’re tied for sixth with 19 sacks. Giants quarterbacks have been pressured over 45% of the time this year and have taken 32 sacks.
Still, it’s worth noting that the Bills’ defense has the highest pressure rate in the NFL at 31.1%, and they’re tied for the league lead in sacks with 24. It’s not that Taylor wasn’t pressured or sacked last week, but he still managed to be productive. Two big parts of it were his quicker time to throw and his willingness to throw it away.
Chase Young is off to an incredible start this year, as he has a whopping 17.3% pressure rate and is fifth among edge rushers with 31 total pressures. Young has lined up almost exclusively on the right side of the defensive front (over the left tackle), mostly as a five-technique or seven-technique. With Andrew Thomas still not practicing and Joshua Ezeudu on injured reserve, the Giants will likely need to give Justin Pugh some help against Young.
In Week 6, the Giants had tremendous success out of 11 personnel. They ranked fifth in the league with 0.210 Expected Points Added (EPA) per play out of 11, and that’s without having scored any touchdowns (which usually boosts EPA significantly, as you would expect). Their 57.9% success rate out of the package ranked second, and their 6.18 yards per play ranked seventh.
This is quite a shift from the rest of the season. From Weeks 1-5, the Giants ranked 30th in EPA, 29th in success rate, and last in yards per play out of 11 personnel. What caused such a drastic change?
You’d think Saquon Barkley’s return had something to do with it. To a certain extent, perhaps it did. Barkley had nine carries out of 11 personnel and averaged 7.44 yards per carry at a 55.6% success rate and 0.235 EPA per play. Still, he also had five targets out of 11 personnel and had one yard per play, a 20% success rate, and -0.353 EPA. It would appear that Barkley helped the Giants’ 11 personnel production on the ground but not through the air.
Still, it wasn’t just in the run game where the Giants were successful out of 11 personnel. On passing downs, they ranked 10th in yards per play, second in success rate, and fifth in EPA on 27 pass plays out of 11. How did that happen?
In part, it’s because Taylor threw only five of those 26 passes more than 10 yards downfield. The rest were no more than six yards downfield, yet they generated a positive EPA at a very high rate.
Surprised? We shouldn’t be, because this is exactly how the Giants moved the ball in 2022. They used a lot of dinking and dunking. Yes, they didn’t score as many points as they should have, in part due to a terrible miscue by Taylor and a late-game failure near the end zone. But they moved the football, something that they failed to do for the most part over the first five weeks.
Whether it’s Jones or Taylor under center this week, the Giants need to go with this plan out of 11 personnel. The hopes for a high-flying offense are gone. Taylor hit one deep shot to Darius Slayton and almost completed another, and it’s okay to go for the occasional deep throw if it’s there. But overall, the Giants should follow their offensive blueprint from 2022 due to the dilapidated state of their offensive line.
Waller, as usual
The Commanders rank 20th in the NFL in defensive DVOA when covering tight ends. Both Kyle Pitts and Jonnu Smith got in the end zone against them last week, as did Cole Kmet the week before. While five catches for 42 yards isn’t exciting, if 8.4 yards per catch helps the Giants keep ahead of the sticks as it did against Buffalo, the offense will gladly take it. Of course, they want the opportunity to hit some over routes, but taking what the defense gives them with Waller is the smartest route to go.
Taylor also shouldn’t give up on throwing to Waller in the end zone because of what happened last week. That was pass interference. (And there goes my objectivity.)
Use gap runs rather than zone
Through the first five weeks of the season, the Giants ran more zone run plays than gap. It appeared that their offensive linemen blocked better in zone, as Marcus McKethan, John Michael Schmitz, and Mark Glowinski all had significantly better PFF grades as zone blockers than gap.
In Week 6, though, the Giants kept using the same trap handoff, and it seemed to work pretty well. They ran 19 gap handoffs compared to nine zone, and Justin Pugh, Evan Neal, and Marcus McKethan all put up respectable PFF gap-blocking grades. Although Mark Glowinski and Ben Bredeson didn’t, the Giants appeared to find some success with that scheme and should go for it until they see it’s not working.
Every team mixes up their zone and gap running in each game. Still, the Giants should keep using anything that worked from the Buffalo game.