When the New York Giants defeated the Washington Commanders to improve to 2-5, it seemed that maybe, just maybe, they could find their way back to respectability. Tyrod Taylor played well, and the Giants’ defense made Sam Howell miserable all game.
Taylor’s injury against the New York Jets ended that chance pretty quickly. Instead, that victory over the Commanders can now be seen as an obstacle to the Giants’ chances at one of the top quarterbacks in the 2024 draft.
Still, it’s not just the Giants’ offense that has struggled over the past two weeks. The defense has allowed 79 points over the past two games. They gave up an almost unfathomable 640 yards to the Dallas Cowboys. No matter how bad an offense is, 39.5 points per game and 640 yards in one contest means the defense has significant holes.
If the Giants have any shot of winning another game this season, they’ll need their defense to carry them. In the first Commanders game, they showed that they could possibly be capable of that.
Is there any way the Giants’ defense can go 2-for-2 against Washington?
Pray for the pass
One of the reasons the Giants won the first matchup with Washington was the Commanders’ poor offensive game plan. To that point, the Giants had allowed 5.7 yards per carry on all first-half runs, including 7.1 YPC on first down. Rather than taking advantage of that, Washington ran the ball just seven times the entire first half.
Fortunately for the Giants, Washington has followed this trend the entire season. They rank last in the NFL in first-half run rate at just 28.4%. The three teams directly above them are Cincinnati, Miami, and Kansas City — three teams with elite passing offenses and/or quarterbacks. Though Sam Howell has played well recently, the Commanders’ inability to mix it up earlier in the game makes their team more predictable.
Through 10 games, the Giants have allowed the most rushing yards (729), the highest YPC average (5.5), the most rushing touchdowns (11), and the fifth-highest EPA per rush (0.0863) in the first half. If the Commanders avoid the ground game early, their loss is the Giants’ gain. This is particularly important because Washington has PFF’s 12th-rated run-blocking offensive line.
Howell picks up steam
Speaking of Howell, he’s had three strong games since his sack meltdown against the Giants four weeks ago. Among 34 qualified quarterbacks (min. 30 pass attempts during that time period), he ranked 11th in completion percentage (68.8%), second in passing yards (984), second in touchdown passes (8), and 11th in EPA per pass play (0.137). His 4.7% sack rate was actually the eighth-lowest during that span.
Therefore, despite his reputation for taking too many sacks, Howell has managed to cull together quite a bit of success while also minimizing those takedowns in recent weeks. As much as the Giants would prefer the Commanders to pass the ball, Howell can do quite a bit of damage through the air.
Pressure, pressure, pressure
Howell’s numbers when he’s under pressure compared to when he’s kept clean are interesting. He actually has the third-highest completion percentage among 35 qualified passers when under pressure at 56.2%, and his 7.1 yards per attempt rank sixth. However, his 5:6 TD:INT ratio indicates that while he can make big plays when the heat is on, he’s also very prone to mistakes while under duress. In fact, he ranks seventh in big-time throw rate under pressure at 6.9%, but he’s also ninth-worst in turnover-worthy play rate at 5.6%.
One thing to bear in mind is that when Howell is under pressure, he takes a sack at a higher rate than virtually any other quarterback. His 25.7% pressure-to-sack ratio ranks 32nd. For a passer who’s been pressured the 12th-most, that may explain why he’s been sacked 47 times, which would translate to 80 sacks over a full season.
In the first matchup, the Giants bullied the Commanders’ offensive line, sacking Howell six times and pressuring him on over 40% of dropbacks. Howell went 4-for-14 with an interception and three turnover-worthy plays when under pressure.
In this game, Lawrence’s ability to apply consistent pressure is the X-factor for the Giants. In the first matchup, Lawrence had eight pressures and was credited with two sacks. With Kayvon Thibodeaux in concussion protocol and likely to miss this game, Lawrence is the only consistent pressure threat. Thibodeaux contributed five pressures in the first matchup, and his absence could make a big difference.
In the first matchup, Lawrence faced Commanders center Nick Gates, who had a 4.5% pressure rate. After that game, Ron Rivera benched Gates and inserted Tyler Larsen into the lineup. In three games, Larsen has allowed 13 pressures on 157 pass-blocking snaps, an 8.3% pressure rate, resulting in a 26.2 Pro Football Focus pass-blocking grade. The primary difference is that those pressures haven’t resulted in as many sacks; while Gates was charged with five sacks (1.5% sack rate), Larsen has allowed one (0.6%).
Lawrence has another opportunity to feast in this game against an inferior opponent. He’s been quiet the last two games, recording just two pressures. The Giants need more of a direct impact from him.
The Commanders use the sixth-most 11 personnel in the NFL, doing so 75% of the time. They rank 20th in 12 personnel at 16.7% and use no other formation more than 3.6% of the time.
Though Washington passes a lot out of 11 personnel, they’re not all that efficient at it. Despite a ninth-ranked 67.2% completion percentage, they rank 19th in yards per pass attempt (6.2), the seventh-highest in interceptions (7), 20th in EPA per dropback (-0.097), and 24th in passing success rate (40%).
This is where the Giants can potentially take advantage, as well. Wink Martindale is still a big blitzer, and with only one tight end on the field, the Giants can attempt to overload and overwhelm the Commanders’ blockers. Howell has been sacked on 12.4% of his dropbacks out of 12 personnel, the third-highest rate in the NFL. It’s something the Giants should try to take advantage of.
Terry McLaurin is Howell’s most targeted receiver with 77. After that, he has spread the ball around between Jahan Dotson (55), Logan Thomas (50), and Curtis Samuel (38). Running back Antonio Gibson has gotten more involved in the passing game recently, catching 16 balls for 169 yards over the past three weeks.
With the ball spread around so much, it’s hard to prioritize coverage over one particular target. Still, McLaurin is undoubtedly the biggest receiving threat the Commanders have. The bigger problem is that no Giants cornerback has been playing particularly well of late.
Deonte Banks’ miserable stretch continued against Dallas, as he allowed five receptions for 87 yards. He’s now given up 25 catches for 393 yards over his past four contests, an average of six catches and 98 yards per game. The first of those performances was against the Commanders when McLaurin caught four of six targets for 70 yards against him, coupled with another 26-yard reception allowed.
Adoree’ Jackson is in concussion protocol and has had a miserable season. Cor’Dale Flott has played pretty well (although he allowed a touchdown against Dallas), but he plays almost exclusively in the slot, while McLaurin plays almost exclusively out wide. Tre Hawkins has his moments but allowed a 41-yard touchdown against the Cowboys. Darnay Holmes was cooked to the tune of 128 yards in that game, and Nick McCloud allowed five receptions for 54 yards.
Considering how often the Commanders pass, coverage is going to be a big factor. The main way to stop the passing game will be by applying pressure.