The 2-6 New York Giants begin a three-game road trip on Sunday when they face the 3-5 Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nev. Can the Giants get the figurative second half of their 2023-24 season off to a good start?
Here are some of the storylines to watch this week.
Jones-ing for some offense
The Giants are last in the league with an average of 11.8 points per game. They have scored a pitiful three offensive touchdowns in the past six games.
Quarterback Daniel Jones returns to the lineup this Sunday after missing 3+ games with a neck injury suffered Week 5 against the Miami Dolphins. Jones has not been good this season, but the last time he and Saquon Barkley were on the field together the Giants scored 31 second-half points to defeat the Arizona Cardinals.
The Giants need to find out if — with Jones and Barkley, an offensive line that appears to be settling down to at least a functional level and the development of young wide receivers Wan’Dale Robinson and Jalin Hyatt — they can be functional or better on offense over the season’s final nine games.
What they see the rest of the way, beginning Sunday in Las Vegas, has to impact how they proceed in the 2024 NFL Draft. It will help, of course, if tight end Darren Waller, who leads the team with 36 receptions, is able to play. Waller left Sunday’s loss to the New York Jets due to his troublesome hamstring.
Who’s protecting the quarterback?
It will also help Jones and the offense if the offensive line is whole. Rookie center John Michael Schmitz returned to the lineup against the Jets after missing three games with a shoulder injury. Right tackle Evan Neal has missed two games with an ankle injury. Star left ackle Andrew Thomas has missed seven games and played much of Week 1 with a hamstring injury.
As of now we don’t know for certain, but Thomas and Neal could be back this week. That would allow the Giants to move Justin Pugh, who was not in the lineup before Jones was injured, to slide to his natural guard spot and would give the Giants the most complete offensive line they have had all season.
Now, we just wait for the practice reports to find out if it is going to happen.
Standing on his own
Leonard Williams joined the Giants midway through Dexter Lawrence’s rookie season. since that time, the duo has formed one of the best defensive tackle tandems in the NFL. Williams, of course, is now a member of the Seattle Seahawks after Monday’s trade.
Will that have any impact on Lawrence’s performance? It really didn’t last season, when Lawrence had his best season despite Williams missing nine games with a neck injury. Per ESPN’s pass rush win rate stats, Lawrence was already drawing double teams on 67% of plays to 48% for Williams.
It is going to be interesting to see how defensive coordinator Wink Martindale divvies up playing time among the other defensive tackles. The Giants have veterans Rakeem Nunez-Roches and A’Shawn Robinson, second-year player D.J. Davidson and rookie seventh-round pick Jordon Riley. They also have second-year man Ryder Anderson on the practice squad. Perhaps Riley, who has appeared in only two games and played just 24 defensive snaps, will get increased opportunities. Defensive line coach Andre Patterson promised earlier in the season that Riley’s time would come. Maybe it’s here.
Going back in time
Wink Martindale got the Giants’ defensive coordinator job in 2022 after Patrick Graham, defensive coordinator during the Joe Judge era, decided to move on from the Giants.
Graham landed with the Raiders and has been their defensive coordinator the past two seasons. Giants fans know that Graham and Martindale could not be more different stylistically.
Graham likes to build his defensive schemes from back to front, figuring out the most appropriate coverages schemes each week and going from there. He likes to play bend but don’t break defenses with zone coverage at the core and minimal blitzing. The Raiders are 28th in the NFL in blitz rate (21.2%) this season. They have 16 sacks, but have caused quarterback hurries just 5.4% of the time.
Martindale is a pedal to the metal coordinator with a “pressure breaks pipes” philosophy. Rather than try to fool quarterbacks with exotic, disguised coverages like Graham, he tries to break them by overwhelming offensive lines with exotic, disguised blitz packages. The Giants have blitzed 43.1% of the time this season, second-most behind the Minnesota Vikings. They have 15 sacks (one less than the Raiders), but have caused hurries twice as often (11% of the time). After a slow start, the Giants have 10 quarterback sacks over the past two weeks.
The contrast in styles should be evident on Sunday.
Antonio Pierce debuts as head coach
The Raiders fired head coach Josh McDaniel and general manager Dave Ziegler late Tuesday night. The new head coach is former Giants linebacker Antonio Pierce. That is a development that adds intrigue and uncertainty to Sunday’s game.
As the middle linebacker and defensive leader of the Giants teams he played on from 2005-2009, Pierce was known for his leadership, football acumen and passion more than for his athletic skills.
Pierce will bring all of those things to Las Vegas. I’m sure that Giants fans hope Pierce succeeds with the Raiders, but that his success begins after Sunday’s game.