When did the outcome of a New York Giants game last seem as inevitable before it was actually played than Sunday’s matchup with the Miami Dolphins? The team that can’t score vs. the team that can’t help but score. The team with the quarterback from the 2019 draft whose stock is dropping as fast as the FTX exchange in 2022 vs. the forgotten quarterback from the loaded 2020 class whose stock is rising in 2023 almost every week. The team whose genius veteran coaching staff went from Bono to Bozo in the blink of an eye vs. the team whose nerdy head coach is now hotter than Florida in July.
Well, the final result was as expected. The final score wasn’t as awful as many of us may have anticipated it would be, though. What did we learn from the Giants’ 31-16 defeat at the hands of the Dolphins?
The offensive line didn’t magically get fixed in one week
The operating word to describe the 2023 Giants offense in three and a half of their first four games was ineptitude. Nothing changed over the past six days (not that we expected it to). The Dolphins’ defensive front is good, not great, much as Seattle’s is. They looked like the 49ers or the Eagles, though, against the Giants’ non-NFL-caliber offensive line.
Once again, Mike Kafka and Brian Daboll ran a very conservative offense. Once again, it didn’t matter much as the offensive line consistently gave up pressures on Daniel Jones. Early on, Miami took a play out of the Seattle playbook and lined up a free rusher on Evan Neal’s side. Once again, Neal said sorry, my responsibility is inside, and Jones was a sitting duck. Should Jones have changed the protection? Should he have dumped off to a hot read? Should Neal have switched to take on the free rusher? Whatever the answer, the Giants haven’t learned how to deal with these situations.
Neal continued to play matador pass blocking throughout the game. On the other side, Josh Ezeudu had a different answer - either hold or jump before the snap. He had three penalties and was eventually replaced by Matt Peart, who was called for a false start. Marcus McKethan got hurt and was replaced by Jalen Mayfield, who had a holding penalty, as did starting center Ben Bredeson. Maybe I forgot other penalties.
When they weren’t being penalized, the line was giving up pressures on probably a majority of plays. Jones was sacked six times, and took one hit that gave him a neck injury. A recurrence of his never-explained 2021 problem? Or something new? Whatever, Tyrod Taylor replaced him and took a sack himself. It would have been more were it not for Tyrod’s amazing escapability. Giants’ quaterbacks were hit 14 times and scrambled away from pressure probably a half-dozen more times. For the record, Jones played better than he did against Seattle. He even had a couple of deep passes, one that should have been a touchdown to Darren Waller that Waller dropped, and another on which Darius Slayton couldn’t come down with his feet in bounds. There was another occasion on which Jones may have been looking to go deep to Jalin Hyatt but was unable to because of the pressure.
Less discussed is the offensive line’s performance on running plays. The Giants had 85 yards rushing. They haven’t been awful, but neither have they opened gaping holes for the running backs. This is a problem for a team that has to be run-first to move the ball and whose best running back, the on-the-shelf-again Saquon Barkley, is the only one with a 10+ yard run this season (he has three).
The Giants’ run defense is its Achilles heel...still
Against most teams, giving up 308 passing yards and two passing TDs would not be considered a good day by the defense. Against Miami, that’s not bad. The Dolphins were averaging 343 passing yards over their first four games. The combination of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle have been unstoppable, and today was no exception, with Hill alone racking up 181 yards on eight receptions in nine targets. For the most part the Giants’ pass defense was competitive. The one big exception was when Wink Martindale sent Tre Hawkins III over to Tyreek Hill’s side to play press man. Really? Xavier McKinney was so surprised he forgot to provide any deep help, and Hawkins was toast. Welcome to the NFL.
The real story about the Giants’ D, though, is their run defense. It was awful in 2022. Teams would run up the middle with abandon. The IDLs weren’t doing much when Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams weren’t on the field, and the linebackers were always drawn out of position and vulnerable to counters. On runs outside the Giants’ edge defenders were poor at setting the edge, and again the linebackers were of little help.
It was supposed to be different this year, but it’s not. Entering the game the Giants’ run defense was ranked sixth worst in the NFL by Pro Football Focus. Sunday’s game won’t improve their standing. Granted, the Dolphins’ tandem of rookie De’Von Achane and Raheem Mostert may be the most formidable 1-2 punch in the NFL, especially when opposing defenses have to focus on Miami’s dangerous passing game. Achane and Mostert ran at will on the Giants, though, especially Achane, who had 151 yards rushing on only 11 carries. The Dolphins found a soft middle to run against when they went inside. But it was the outside rushes that killed the Giants all game. There were always blockers out front giving them openings to run through, unlike Giants’ rushers, who are usually on their own when they get outside. Kayvon Thibodeaux did set the edge a couple of times, but Azeez Ojulari, who exited with yet another injury (ankle); Jihad Ward, who is still an NFL player only because Wink Martindale is still an NFL defensive coordinator; and Isaiah Simmons (who did have one or two successful plays), mostly laid down the welcome mat for Achane and Mostert, who need no help.
Eric Gray does indeed exist
For the first time in five games, fifth-round draft pick Eric Gray saw the field on offense, even though Saquon Barkley has been out for the previous two games and the Giants don’t have a Mostert on the roster to replace him.
Gray only got 26 yards on 12 carries, but that was largely a function of the OL’s inability to open holes for their running backs. Gray had several nice runs and showed good change of direction and the ability to keep going after the first hit. Of his 25 yards, 18 were after first contact. He did fumble once but the Giants recovered.
Gray supposedly hasn’t played because of his deficiencies in pass blocking. He only had to pass block once today and didn’t give up a pressure, so there’s that. Given how badly the Giants need some offense, perhaps he should see the field more from here out to get a better feel for what he can give the Giants in the future. With Barkley now missing his third straight game and having the injury history he’s had, it’s becoming less and less likely that he’s back in 2024.
The Giants do know the rules allow you to take the ball away
Finally, today, the Giants’ defense erased their big zero in turnovers for the season. Kayvon Thibodeaux (who also had another sack and seems to have emerged from his early season stupor) recovered a fumble by De’Von Achane.
Then Bobby Okereke, who finally looks like he’s settling into Martindale’s defense, tipped a Tua Tagovailoa pass at the goal line as the Dolphins were trying to break the game open. Jason Pinnock intercepted the ball and ran 102 yards for a touchdown. Suddenly, a game that was being dominated by the Dolphins and was about to become 21-3 was only 14-10. (Props to Okereke, who accompanied Pinnock all the way down the field to block for him if needed.) Later on, Okereke himself got his first interception of the season. He is starting to show why Joe Schoen gave him a $10M per year contract.
Turnovers are such an important part of defense in today’s offense-dominated NFL. The Giants had no business still being in this game by the third quarter, given the futility of their offense. Yet they were, down only 11 until almost the end of the third quarter. If the Giants are to win again anytime soon, turnovers will have to be part of the story.