At this time, with the New York Giants having continued their futility on offense and suddenly collapsed on defense, it’s hard not to turn our thoughts to the 2024 draft. (I spent my Saturday flipping the dial from J.J. McCarthy to Drake Maye to Michael Penix Jr. for a little while to Jayden Daniels.) This week, though, the Giants faced their favorite whipping boys, the Washington Commanders. In a sea of miserable play most of the past five seasons, the Commanders have usually been a life raft, with the Giants having managed a 7-2-1 record against them, including their most recent victory this season. Could the Giants snag another one? Would their fans be happy or mad if they did?
The Giants amazingly came away with a 31-19 victory. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons this game played out the way it did.
NFL higher math: 3 INTs + 3 fumble recoveries > 9 sacks
If you didn’t watch the game, asked someone who did how it went, and was told, “DeVito was sacked 9 times,” you’d surely roll your eyes and imagine another Giants blowout loss. You would be wrong. There are a couple of things to be learned from that.
First, give third-string quarterback Tommy DeVito a massive amount of credit. I, like many people, joke about him because of his background and improbable ascent to QB1 in this injury-plagued season. Give him this, though: He’s a tough sonofagun, and he’s a pretty good passer. DeVito does not process quickly; that’s probably too much to expect from most inexperienced NFL QBs, much less an undrafted free agent thrust into action behind a Swiss cheese offensive line. DeVito held the ball too often on many dropbacks, occasionally not seeing an open receiver, and at other times refusing to just throw it away. He took shots from the still-formidable Washington interior defensive linemen, nine of which resulted in sacks that killed potential scoring drives.
He didn’t care. That’s “Joisy” tough. He took shots downfield whenever he had the chance. The results were 18 completions in 26 attempts, (69% completion rate), 246 yards (9.5 yards per attempt), 3 TD passes, 0 interceptions, and a 137.7 passer rating. That is incredible. DeVito now has 5 TD passes in two starts. He was an explosive passing play machine today:
The reason it all worked is because the Giants took the ball away from the Commanders six times, with three interceptions and three fumble recoveries. Give the defensive backfield credit - they were more aggressive, playing the ball today, than they have been in many games. Give the Giants’ pass rush the bulk of the credit, though. As deflating as sacks are, and as much as they get into the head of a QB, there’s nothing like turning the opponent over to help you win a game.
More NFL math (that I don’t understand): NYG > WAS, WAS ~ PHI, PHI >> NYG
The NFL used to promote the slogan, “On any given Sunday,” to convey how unpredictable and exciting any game can be. The NFC East, however, is almost entirely predictable, but in ways that seem to defy the laws of physics. The Giants for some reason own Washington - today makes 8 victories and 1 tie in their past 11 meetings.
The Commanders, though, are every bit the thorn in the side of the Philadelphia Eagles. Philly is 5-3 vs. Washington the past four years, but the Commanders almost always play them tough. Last year they gave the Eagles their only loss until late in the season. This year they lost to Philly by one score and lost the other one in overtime. Meanwhile the Giants are 0-4 in their last four games against the Eagles, and other than the Davis Webb swan song at the end of last season, all the others were absolute blowouts by the Eagles. This year’s Giants have yet to face the Eagles, but I fully expect the grinch to steal Giants’ fans Christmas in Philadephia and for the snowballs to be flying at MetLife during the final game against the Eagles this season.
How can this happen? They say that the NFL is a game of matchups, and clearly the Giants do not match up well with the Eagles in two very important ways: The Giants’ putrid offensive line is always dominated by the Eagles’ fearsome pass rush, and the Giants’ pass rushers are always stuffed by the Eagles’ generationally good offensive line. Add in the great Eagles’ wide receivers, and I get it.
So why doesn’t the same thing happen to Washington when they play the Eagles? The Commanders do not have a good offensive line either, so how come they can move the ball against Philly? Washington has a defensive line about as good as the Giants’, yet they get consistent pressure on Jalen Hurts while the Giants do not.
And why do the Giants dominate Washington? The Commanders can hold off the the Eagles’ rush but not the Giants? The Commanders can’t stop the Giants’ league-worst offense but they can neutralize the Eagles’ playmakers? It defies the laws of physics.
The Giants feel the loss of Leonard Williams in the run game
The last time the Giants played the Commanders, they made life miserable for Washington QB Sam Howell all day, sacking him eight times (yes, almost as bad as what Washington did to Tommy DeVito today) hitting him four times, and hurrying him 16 other times. They still had Leonard Williams then, and although Williams himself only had one of those sacks, the attention given to him was a help for Dexter Lawrence, who had a monster game that day.
With Williams gone, the IDL is clearly weaker. Today the Commanders had 174 yards rushing, much of it against the Giants’ soft middle. A’Shawn Robinson makes some run stops (actually his 15.4% stop rate leads the Giants) and he generally plays well, but Rakeem Nunez-Roches has been a big disappointment (4.0% stop rate in almost the same number of run snaps as Robinson), and D.J Davidson (5.9% stop rate) has hardly been better.
I liked the Williams trade, and Giants fans will be very happy to have that extra second round pick come draft day, but in the meantime it has taken its toll. Late in the game you could see Dexter Lawrence sucking air as the Commanders went on several long drives. Lawrence is arguably the best interior defensive lineman in the NFL this year (certainly he is the best 0-technique). He was a monster again today, with one sack and more importantly the pressure that forced Howell’s errant pass that was pick-6ed by Isaiah Simmons to clinch the victory, but he can’t do it alone.
Williams mostly disappointed as pass rusher as a Giant except in his contract year, but he was always rock-solid in the middle vs. the run game. Fortunately the Giants are getting mostly good, and sometimes great, play from linebackers Bobby Okereke (six tackles, eight assists, two forced fumbles today) and Micah McFadden (five tackles, three assists, and a fumble recovery), which blunts the run defense problem a bit, but the Giants need to shore up the middle next offseason.
Kayvon Thibodeaux needs help
Speaking of sucking air, edge defender Kayvon Thibodeaux was another Giants’ defensive lineman who looked spent in the final minutes of the game. We’ll have to wait for tomorrow morning to have the numbers on pressures, but Thibodeaux had 2 sacks and was in Howell’s face all day. Yes, the Commanders do not have a great offensive line. Thibodeaux abused offensive tackle Charles Leno all day.
Still, Thibodeaux now has 10.5 sacks on the season, among the top 10 in the NFL. It’s time to end the discussion about him. He has good weeks and mediocre weeks. Every edge defender does, because sometimes they face elite offensive tackles, and sometimes offenses help their tackle with a tight end to chip the edge defender. When they do that against the Giants, it’s always on Thibodeaux’s side. It was not a mistake for Joe Schoen to use the No. 5 draft pick on him.
He and Dexy are doing most of the work, though, in putting pressure on the quarterback. The Giants are getting very little from the other side. Neither Jihad Ward nor Azeez Ojulari made the stat sheet today. Imagine the problems the Giants’ defense would cause for opposing offenses if they had another elite pass rusher on the other side to combine with what Dexy and Kayvon give them in many games.