Well, it's a New York hometown derby ... sorta. Rex Ryan is no stranger to the Giants and the last time they squared off in the regular season, a 99-yard touchdown became the catalyst for a Big Blue Super Bowl run. Ryan is doing better with the Buffalo Bills, he has them at 2-1, but there's still a few prototypical Ryan mistakes that could let him down -- mainly, the offense.
Ryan is an excellent defensive coach, and a deeply flawed offensive one. His inability to scout quarterbacks, his reliance on gimmicks and a propensity to run the ball regardless of outcome are things he may never shake. Let's take a look at how the Giants defense and Bills offense shape up heading into Sunday's game.
New York Giants (1-2) Defense: 26 points per game, 410.3 yards per game (335.6 passing, 74.6 rushing)
Buffalo Bills (2-1) Offense: 22.7 points per game, 373 yards per game (220.3 passing, 152.7 rushing)
Let's be honest. This is not a defensive line that is likely to be remembered as great or fearsome. The Giants pass rush is nowhere to be found and even manufactured blitzes are struggling to hit home. The absence of Jason Pierre-Paul has hurt this team, but it's nothing compared to how teams have exposed this team in terms of lack of relative depth. Owa Odighizuwa hasn't seen the field due to injury, Damontre Moore has been unproductive and we're still seeing too much of Cullen Jenkins and Kerry Wynn. Who is going to step up and actually hit the quarterback? Robert Ayers maybe, but he's been nicked up, too. Are we really putting all our hope in George Selvie?
The good news is that while the Giants have been running into a brick wall on passing downs, they've held the line well in the ground game. They rank second in the league in fewest rushing yards allowed, though this is likely because the other team simply isn't attempting to run the ball, having seen the opposition attempt this option just 65 times all year (fifth- lowest). It's possible the run defense will scare a Bills offense into submission, though it's also possible that -- with no pass rush and a struggling secondary -- they can simply throw away that half of their playbook and play a nice game of keep away.
If the Bills do run, look for them to run left, behind Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito. With Tyrod Taylor in the shotgun, and a running back flanking his right side, the read-option could be venomous to this defense and it may be the offense's best chance of getting some big plays on the ground.
Uani 'Unga has some good looking box scores, but those are deceiving. His nose for the ball is useful, but he seems to struggle in run defense. This is a little overlooked because the front four are so good at keeping things at bay, but Unga's problems will be highlighted should he get exposed against a mobile quarterback.
Devon Kennard is better, though you don't need me to tell you that. It'll be interesting to see if Steve Spagnuolo has him blitz a lot in this game, because the right side of the Bills' line is its clear weak-point. Seantrel Henderson and John Miller are the Marshall Newhouse and John Jerry of upstate New York. If the Giants need some help with pressure, Kennard versus the right side is how to generate that.
We could talk about the other linebackers; Jon Beason, J.T. Thomas, Jonathan Casillas, but they're pretty interchangeable at this point. Beason is the best of the bunch, but by no means athletically. His mind and knowledge of the game is the only thing keeping him on the field at this point. Thomas, however, gets by on the opposite. If he could harness his raw potential and just stay in the moment a little, he might develop into a starter. Casillas is a little of both, with the upside of neither. He's the safe pick. Probably not going to be the focal point of a big play, one way or another.
"Just being smart and disciplined. Any time you have a quarterback who can run and pass, if you're supposed to be outside -- be outside, if you're supposed to be inside -- be inside, and just don't let them get the running game going, because once they get the running game going, they can play-action us, and boot us, and then we're going to have a big problem."
That's Prince Amukamara talking to the media on Wednesday. He sees what we all see; the Bills are dangerous in all areas of the game and allowing them space in one department, will indeed affect the other. Amukamara is one of the better defensive backs at run defense, so he knows a thing or two about the discipline required to keep a multi-faceted offense in check. His words seem prophetic right now, as we await this weekend's game, but hopefully they won't seem ill-fated on Monday if we have to review yet another loss.
The reality is that the "running game" will -- for all intents and purposes -- also include short passes like screens and check downs. The contain principles are very similar and the secondary needs to keep its focus not only on pass-defense, but keeping those short completions in front of them, shedding blockers, and making clean effective tackles. Amukamara knows that, and I'm not worried about him, or his counterpart Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. No, rather, the problem area looks like it might be the safeties.
Brandon Meriweather has played better than expected and rookie Landon Collins has flashed, but when it comes to clean tackles and gap control, they absolutely cannot afford to be out of place. Both players are already a liability in coverage, and if Buffalo can exploit another area of their play, the Giants will be in trouble.
This unit is light years away from being an Iron Dome, regardless of if they're playing Tony Romo or Kirk Cousins. It doesn't matter. The coaching staff needs to acknowledge that they do not have the capability to shut down an opponent's passing game, and they need to scheme around that. The Patriots make the playoffs every year, not just because of Tom Brady, but because they scheme for their own weaknesses. Don't fit square pegs in round holes, find a place in the playbook for the square pegs to succeed. Let the run-stuffing safeties be good at what they do, and cater for the aspects of the game where they struggle-- whether that's playing them a little deeper than usual or giving the corners more responsibility. The Giants need to adopt a new approach or face the possibility of going down as one of the worst pass-defenses in history.
Do the Giants have enough defensive pieces to shut down Buffalo? Sure. Will they have a game-plan that lets them execute at a high level? No idea. This team is good enough in most places to be able to do a lot of things well, and adjust for areas where they struggle. We have seen players like Meriweather, Kennard and Amukamara play at a high level, but we have also seen play calling that regresses into softer coverages that intends to slow rather than stop an offense. Gotta be smart about this. Gotta make the most out of what they've got. Gotta win.