The New York Giants have a "recovery day" on Friday as they prepare for Sunday's home opener against the Atlanta Falcons. Let's look at five things to watch Sunday as the Giants try to avoid an 0-2 start for the third straight season.
The Giants' emotional state
This has been a difficult week for the Giants. Losing a tough game in the final seconds is always difficult, but the way the Giants lost this one, the barrage of criticism they received, the comments by running back Rashad Jennings and even the admission by the NFL that officials missed a couple of critical calls exacerbate the issue.
The Giants' theme all week has been "On to Atlanta," with offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo providing some apt but perhaps unwanted imagery by saying that the Giants need to "flush the game" against the Cowboys.
Can they bounce back? Sunday's game will go a long way toward telling us how the Giants' 2015 season will unfold. If they can use the events of the past week to come together, and play Sunday with resolve and emotion, perhaps some good will come from the fiasco against the Cowboys. If they lay an egg, play flat and fall to 0-2 then we could well be on our way to witnessing another lost season.
Can the Giants hit some deep balls?
The Giants not only did not hit a pass of 20 yards or more Sunday vs. Dallas, Eli Manning had only one attempt of more than 20 yards in 36 throws.
"I would like to see the ball down the field," said head coach Tom Coughlin. "I don't want the ball turned over, but I would like to see the ball down the field, yes."
It isn't, however, as easy as just dropping back and chucking the ball deep downfield. The Cowboys played a safety over the top of Odell Beckham most of Sunday's game. That leaves the Giants looking for other matchups down the field.
"There's no question about what you're seeing defensively out of people today in terms of the number of people involved in underneath coverage, and the single-high coverage primarily," Coughlin said. "I just don't throw that out there. Obviously, there has to be some excellent decision-making on when to do things. But just by general nature, for me, it's always been, at some point, let's get it down the field."
Finding ways to get that done is, of course, the challenge facing offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo.
"Teams are doing a nice job of staying on top of us and that didn't change. That's been the history with the system we played on Sunday night," McAdoo said. "They do a good job staying on top of you and try to minimize your big gains and getting after you with a four-man rush with a bunch of line stunts and they did a nice job there. We need to do a better job pushing down the field and that's my job."
Look for the Giants to continue to try to use formations and movement to try and create matchups that give them downfield opportunities.
With all the chatter about Beckham and the Giants' lack of downfield passing, let's not forget that there is a pretty extraordinary wide receiver playing for the other guys on Sunday. Julio Jones is a two-time Pro Bowler who caught 104 passes and averaged 106.2 receiving yards per game in 2014. He started 2015 off with a huge night against the Philadelphia Eagles, catching nine passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns. He was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week. Jones has missed practice week with a hamstring issue, but is expected to play Sunday.
In last year's game against the Giants, Jones caught 11 passes for 105 yards. Significantly, both Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were healthy at that time.
Steve Spagnuolo, back for a second time as Giants' defensive coordinator, watched the film of that game and said he thought the corners "played pretty well."
They will need to play even better this time.
Atlanta's No. 2 wide receiver, Roddy White, offered some props to the Giants' corners:
"This is a different week, this is a different team," White said of the Giants. "To me, they've got better corners than the guys we played last week. So, it will be different."
They're good players and they can run," White said. "Rodgers-Cromartie has been in the league a long time [eighth season]. He understands stuff. Prince is kind of following behind him. They're going to try and put their hands on you and try to disrupt timings of routes. To me, they're just a better bunch than the guys we just played. So, we'll have to be on our A game."
"[Rodgers-Cromartie], he's got great speed. Really, really good speed. We just have to go out there and play. It's more us than them as far as their DBs. We've got to go out there and compete and do what we do."
The idea is to hit the quarterback
Can the Giants generate a pass rush? They certainly didn't last Sunday against Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys, which might partially be their own fault but likely also has something to do with the quality of the Cowboys' offensive line. The Falcons' offensive line is much more suspect, a big part of the reason Jake Long is now a member of the Falcons. Matt Ryan is also probably not as elusive in the pocket as Romo.
"When the ball hikes, go as fast as you can, do moves, and get to the quarterback," said defensive end Robert Ayers, one of the few players able to do that l;ast week. "Execute our game plan, be on the same page. It's as simple as that, that's what we've got to do.
"We have to be in situations where we can have opportunities to do that. That starts with winning first and second down, to where we can get them in 3rd and long. If teams are in 3rd and 2—Dallas was one of the best teams last year at being in 3rd and short, 3rd and 4, 3rd and 3, because then they can get the ball out quick. Not many true dropback situations. So with that being said, I have full confidence in my guys, my unit, my D-Line, my defense, and being able to get to the quarterback."
Ayers had a 13.6 pass-rush productivity score from Pro Football Focus, which would put him top 10 for 4-3 defensive ends in Week 1. The rest of the Giants' defensive ends did not fare so well. Damontre Moore has a 9.4 PRP in 14 pass-rush snaps, but George Selvie had just a 3.9 PRP and Cullen Jenkins (22 snaps) and Kerry Wynn (six snaps) each registered PRP's of 0.0.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo wouldn't commit to using more blitz packages. Instead, he said the Giants need to do a better job of getting Atlanta's offense into third-and-long situations.
"I'll tell you, one of the things that did happen, and you'll go back, you'll look at it -- it was either 11 or 13 third downs, I can't remember what it was. And nine of them were under five (yards). Those are tough downs," Spagnuolo said. "The other thing that Tony was doing, he was getting the ball out quick. When it's 3rd and 3, 3rd and 4, 3rd and 5, the ball comes out quick because he's just trying to get a first down. I think that had a little bit to do with it.
"So what does that go back to? That goes back to first and second down. The rushing yardage wasn't real high overall, but it was five and six, but it wasn't 10 and 12 and 15. There was one 15-yard run. I think that added to it, the fact that the third downs were very manageable for them. I'm sure that's what they were trying to do, that's what every offense tries to do, and they did a good job of it."
Can the defense get off the field?
This expands a bit on Spagnuolo's comments about handling the early downs. Dallas put together a 10:27 drive to open Sunday's game, and ended up possessing the ball for 37:10. The biggest reason for that? The Giants' inability to handle the short pass on first down.
Tony Romo passed 21 times on first down, averaging 8.19 yards per play. The Giants didn't give up any extraordinarily long passing plays against the Cowboys, but when it is consistently second-and-two your defense is going to have a difficult time getting off the field.
The Giants have to find a way to handle the underneath stuff better on early downs. Perhaps we will see more nickel defense on first downs as the Falcons, on paper, don't appear to be able to run the ball the way the Cowboys can.