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Giants-Cardinals: When the Giants have the ball

How the Giants match up with the Arizona defense

Arizona Cardinals v Washington Commanders Photo by Jess Rapfogel/Getty Images

The New York Giants desperately need a bounce-back victory this Sunday against an Arizona Cardinals team in transition. The Cardinals, who just traded Isaiah Simmons to the Giants for pennies on the dollar, are turning over their roster, and many believe they could own the first overall pick when the season is over.

Low expectations aside, the Cardinals played the Washington Commanders down to the wire in Week 1 before losing 20-16. Arizona only had 15 pressures on Sam Howell but sacked the Washington signal caller six times, including a strip-sack fumble for a touchdown.

According to ESPN Analytics, the Cardinals had a 72.3% chance to win the game at the end of the third quarter, but their offense just couldn’t do enough. It’s understandable to be wary of New York’s ability to protect the quarterback after the offensive debacle on Sunday Night Football, but the Cardinals do not have the defensive talent of the Dallas Cowboys.

Cardinals defensive statistics

Jonathan Gannon, the former defensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles, is now the head coach of the Cardinals. His Eagles narrowly set a new single-season high with 70 sacks last year. Due to Philadelphia’s defensive personnel, Gannon was able to earn sacks while only blitzing 22.1% of the time (ranked 18th most in the NFL).

It’s a small sample size, but he blitzed 25.6% of the time in Week 1 (20th most in the NFL). However, Gannon and defensive coordinator Nick Rallis ran Cover-0 on 9.2% of their snaps; when the Cardinals decided to blitz - they blitzed! That also means there were plenty of one-on-one matchups outside against young cornerbacks Kei’Trel Clark and Marco Wilson.

Similar to Tre Hawkins III, Clark is a 2023 sixth-round selection who is starting for the Cardinals. Arizona is young and inexperienced at cornerback outside of the talented Jalen Thompson at nickel. Arguably the best player on their roster is in the secondary, though, and that’s safety Budda Baker. The Giants’ offense must be cognizant of his location at all times.

To little surprise, Gannon ran quarters coverage 41.5% of the time against Washington. He ran Cover-3 at a 16.9% rate and Cover-6 at a 10.8% rate. The 9.2% Cover-0 was surprising. Wink Martindale led the NFL by a wide margin in Cover-0 rate last season. Martindale called the aggressive coverage with no safeties that typically coexist with heavy pressure just more than 10% of the time, which was almost 8.5% more than any other team.

Arizona only allowed 3.3 yards per carry on the ground. The Giants will likely look to establish the run after averaging 5 yards a carry on their first drive (non-quarterback scrambles), and, especially, if Andrew Thomas doesn’t play.

Giants game plan

If Thomas is ruled out, which logic suggests may happen due to the quick turnaround against San Francisco on Thursday night, the Cardinals may be looking at Joshua Ezeudu as the starting left tackle. On Wednesday, Brian Daboll suggested they’ll look at several options, but one of those options will likely not include Evan Neal switching to the left side. He’s struggling enough at right tackle - that’s the wise move.

Matt Peart is on the injury report with an elbow issue, and Ezeudu played 14 snaps against Dallas - 12 were pass blocking, and two were run blocking. He looked solid and capable in garbage time. However, the Cardinals will identify Ezeudu early and attempt to confuse the young player. Gannon employed several simulated pressures against Washington that kept the protection guessing.

The Cardinals’ defense finished Week 1 top-10 in defensive EPA, which was heavily assisted by the strip-sack touchdown from 2018 UDFA Dennis Gardeck. Victor Dimukeje, who is a bit more of a low-leveraged power rusher with some twitch, and BJ Ojulari are other edge rushers who will look to exploit Ezeudu and Evan Neal.

If the Giants go with a more pass-heavy approach, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Gannon ratchet up the pressure and send more blitzes and twists to manipulate the protection. New York will likely go with a slightly more conservative approach with concerns on both sides of the line.

Expect a heavy dose of Saquon Barkley to open up play-action shots from 12 personnel. New York will also put Daniel Jones in a position to make decisions through RPO and option plays. New York is looking to get right, and it was important to Brian Daboll for them to establish a rhythm late in the blow-out loss versus Dallas.

The rushing attack will set up the pass, but I don’t envision this being a 36-touch game for Barkley like it was against the Houston Texans last season. The Giants will try and focus on the quick passing attack that’s optimized - based on the defensive structure/coverage - but presnap motion.

Against the Cowboys, the Giants used shotgun, split-back, and orbit motion to remove defenders from the play side while giving Jones options to throw depending on defensive actions; innovative plays like this should remain in Mike Kafka’s arsenal.

New York has better offensive personnel than the Cardinals have on defense. The Giants should be able to run the ball to set up play-action deep shots. Gannon will continue with quarters, and Kafka has done well to manipulate match principled defenses in the past - ones that have average talent, not the Eagles.

Protecting Daniel Jones and giving him time to throw the football to deep concepts - when the Giants opt to throw deep - is essential. Mills, Drive, Dagger, and Double Post are all concepts that Kafka put on tape last season - Drive and Dagger, specifically - all of these concepts are great quarters beaters if the offensive line can hold its own.

Expect a lot of inside-breaking routes, switch releases, condensed formations with stacked receivers mirrored, and 3x1 sets with both Jalin Hyatt or Darren Waller as the backside X. Waller is a mismatch for anyone on the Cardinals. Thompson is 5-foot-11 and Baker is only 5-9.

Waller may see 6-2 Kyzir White - a player Gannon brought to the valley from Philadelphia. He’s a converted safety playing in the box. However, Kafka can, and will likely, scheme Waller into positions where the defensive rules dictate a switch, giving the tight end a better matchup. Knowing the defensive structure and rules always works to the advantage of the offense, and Gannon only called Cover-1 (strict man coverage with a single high safety) on 7.7% of the plays.

Final thoughts

I expect the Giants to win this football game against an inferior opponent who almost upset Washington on the road. New York must attack early, similar to the Indianapolis Colts win in Week 17 last season. The rushing attack can set up the play-action passing game, and Kafka can call plays tailored to manipulate quarters from the short to deep parts of the field.

None of that matters, though, if the Giants can’t figure out a way to shore up the right side of their offensive line. And, with the possible absence of Thomas on the left side, the Giants could have issues there. This could be a long road trip for New York, who have a short week after the Cardinals game. Still, the Giants are in no position to overlook Arizona, and I expect Daboll to get this team focused and back on track for Week 2.