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Giants at Steelers: Can the Giants’ defense keep rolling?

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The Giants have ridden their defense to a six-game winning streak. Can they make it seven against the Steelers?

Chicago Bears v New York Giants Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

The New York Giants have rediscovered their identity as a defensive football team. Led by Jason Pierre-Paul, Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, Johnathan Hankins, Landon Collins, and Janoris Jenkins, the Giants have stifled opposing offenses this season. Opponents might have been able to generate yards, but the Giants have been excellent at defending the run and preventing yards from translating into points.

This week the defense faces what might just be its toughest test of the season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers boast the best wide receiver and running back in the NFL, a stout offensive line, a tight end who can run like a deer, and a veteran, Super Bowl winning franchise quarterback.

Stats at a glance

Steelers’ Offense

Rushing Yards - 100.9 (18th)

Passing Yards - 263.9 (8th)

Total Yards - 364.8 (12th)

Points - 24.2 (13th)

Giants’ Defense

Rushing Yards - 89.1 (5th)

Passing Yards - 264.7 (24th)

Total Yards - 353.8 (16th)

Points - 19.4 (6th)

Score some points!

George Washington once wrote “... make them believe, that offensive operations, often times, is the surest, if not the only (in some cases) means of defense"

In context, he probably meant that the best defense is an attack, to counter attack and (hopefully) take away the enemy’s ability to attack you.

But for now, I’m going to go with the superficial explanation: The Giants absolutely NEED their offense to show up this week.

We’ve seen them flash pristine execution and impressive creativity. Their opening drives against the Philadelphia Eagles and both halves against the Cincinnati Bengals were simply beautiful. They featured play design and formations that we rarely see, and they had the opposing defenses utterly off-balance. So we know those things are in the offense, but we don’t see them all the time, or even most of the time.

If coach Ben McAdoo has been hiding his playbook from the defensive coordinators of the NFL, is probably a good time to crack it open just a bit. The Steelers are too talented on offense to lean on the defense without the offense scoring points of their own. This might well be a low-scoring game, but the Giants still need their offense to come through and keep pressure on the Steelers’ offense while giving their own defense some time to rest.

Contain the two-headed monster

The Steelers have dangerous secondary options. Tight ends Ladarius Green and Jesse James can attack the middle of the field — Green in particular can stretch the seam with his long speed. Receiver Eli Rogers shouldn’t be ignored either.

But the Giants’ main concern absolutely has to be Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. They are arguably the best players at their respective positions in the NFL. Brown dominates the Steelers’ receiving statistics with 25 more receptions and 525 more yards than the next closest receiver — Bell. He also is their main touchdown producer with 10 touchdowns on the season (Bell is next with four).

I don’t expect the defense to accept this, but we need to accept that Brown is going to get his. He is as uncoverable as Odell Beckham Jr., and the Steelers make a concerted effort to get him the ball as often as possible.

Working in the Giants’ favor there is that Jenkins, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Eli Apple all practice against Beckham on a daily basis. Beckham is probably the most similar receiver in the league to Brown, so if anyone can prepare them he will.

But then there’s Bell. Le’Veon Bell isn’t just an excellent running back, but an excellent receiver as well. He came into the league a 230-pound power back who happened to have great feet. Since then he’s remade his body into a leaner, quicker, complete running back. The Giants will absolutely need to play with complete discipline when it comes to slowing down Bell. His feet and vision will allow him to run through shoelace or arm tackles, or bounce a run if a gap is vacated or contain not kept.

In all likelihood the Giants won’t be able to stop either of the Steelers’ primary weapons, but if they can slow them down, they’ll be doing well.

Pick their spots ... but HIT!

The Giants’ success has come with their resurgent pass rush. A big part of that has been the defensive line gelling and playing better as a unit. But also Steve Spagnuolo has called some well-timed and well-crafted blitzes to keep offenses off balance and quarterbacks under duress.

The problem with blitzing the Steelers is two-fold.

First, blitzing, by its very nature, weakens your pass coverage. You are taking a player out of coverage and rushing him. Against players like Brown and Bell, with a quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger, blitzing too often will create opportunities for big plays. If the Giants aren’t careful with their blitz disguise and design, Big Ben will find those weaknesses and attack them.

Second is Roethlisberger himself. The Giants need to ignore the fact that he is coming back from a knee injury and might not have his full mobility. If they lose contain on him, his size and legs will allow him to keep the play alive, and no secondary can cover the Steelers’ weapons for long.

But ... the Giants can’t just rely on their four-man rush to get pressure. They need to stay aggressive and attack the offense, it’s in their DNA and vital to their success so far. They just need to pick their spots, blitz when it matters most, and when they get pressure, they need to get home. They can’t let Roethlisberger break tackles like he so often has.

Their best bet might be to get pressure up the middle while having their defensive ends play disciplined contain, though against Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro that might be easier said than done.