The Patriots play the Giants in East Rutherford, N.J., Sunday, and if you can’t sleep this week, waking up in a cold sweat with repetitive nightmares about facing Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin, we won’t blame you.
The Giants reside in the NFC East, on the other side of the NFL, but are the Patriots’ true nemesis over the past decade. The Giants twice ruined the Patriots’ dreams in the Super Bowl, and are the only NFL team the Patriots haven’t defeated since the start of the 2008 season. Of course, that only includes one regular-season game and one Super Bowl (both in the 2011 season), but Manning, Coughlin, and the Giants are the one team that haunts the Patriots.
It has been four years since the teams last battled, and these aren’t your father’s Giants. Manning now runs an efficient, short-passing based offense under second-year coordinator Ben McAdoo, and the defense doesn’t have the vaunted pass rush anymore, with an NFL-low nine sacks in nine games this season. Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Mathias Kiwanuka, and Chris Canty are long gone, and Jason Pierre-Paul is rusty after missing the first eight games because he maimed his right hand in a fireworks accident over the summer.
The Giants’ 5-4 record belies their inconsistent season — they have alternated wins and losses over the last five weeks, and have mixed some big wins with bad losses and huge offensive performances with some bafflingly poor ones.
So to get a better read on the Giants, we flipped on the film from their 32-18 win over the Bucs in Tampa Bay on Sunday:
The Patriots are fifth in the NFL in points allowed, but they haven’t faced a murderer’s row of quarterbacks, either, taking down the likes of Blake Bortles, Brandon Weeden, and Kirk Cousins. To their credit, they held Ben Roethlisberger in check in Week 1, but otherwise Manning is by far the best quarterback they will face this season, and he will be a good test for the defense.
Manning appears to be thriving in his second season under McAdoo. He’s averaging 259.9 passing yards per game, with 19 touchdowns and just six interceptions. His 65.9 completion percentage is a career-best by almost 3 percent, and his 1.8 interception percentage is also a career-low.
Pardon the blasphemy, but watching Manning run the offense feels somewhat like watching Brady run the Patriots’ offense. Manning does a lot of pre-snap adjustments to sniff out the defensive coverages and manipulate the pieces.
Manning will not be confused with Cam Newton, but he shows surprising athleticism in his ability to slip and duck away from the pass rush, find the passing angles, and make throws on the run.
He doesn’t take too many deep shots, instead preferring a steady diet of slants, 12-yard in-cuts, and curl routes over the middle to Odell Beckham, Rueben Randle, and Shane Vereen, who had 10 touches for 43 yards and a touchdown against the Bucs.
But Manning still has a few plays where he takes too much of a gamble — tries to squeeze a pass into too tight of a window, or blindly throws one up in the face of a pass rush.
The Giants’ personnel is top heavy. Beckham is a bona-fide star and the clear No. 1 option, earning 17 of Manning’s 40 targets last week. He is fearless over the middle, has tremendous ball skills on deep passes (as we’ve all seen), and is dangerous after the catch. He likes to play in the slot, but they’ll move him around the formation and occasionally put him in the backfield.
But the Giants don’t have a ton in the passing game after Beckham. Randle is a solid possession receiver, with 36 catches for 424 yards and three touchdowns, but he’s not going to beat you. Dwayne Harris has 222 yards and three touchdowns this year, and Vereen is active in the passing game, with 34 catches for 309 yards. The Giants like to run draw plays to Vereen as well.
The Giants are thin at tight end, especially with Larry Donnell missing time with an injured neck, and their top three receivers all played at least 84 percent of the snaps last week. They will go I-formation with a fullback 15-25 plays per game, but the Giants are primarily a three-receiver offense.
They also use a committee at the running back position. Rashad Jennings is the primary back with 364 yards this year, but Andre Williams (177 yards) and Orleans Darkwa (94 yards) also get carries, while Vereen is used in passing downs.
The Giants have invested a lot into the offensive line in recent years — first-round picks on left tackle Ereck Flowers (2015) and left guard Justin Pugh, (2013) a second-round pick on center Weston Richburg (2014), and right guard Geoff Schwartz was added in free agency. The Giants are only averaging 3.8 yards on the ground, but Manning has only taken 12 sacks, sixth fewest in the NFL.
The Patriots had a more balanced defensive approach Sunday against Washington, but should sell out to stop Beckham and force the Giants’ other weapons to beat them. Put Malcolm Butler and Devin McCourty on Beckham, let Logan Ryan handle Randle, and use safeties Duron Harmon and Jordan Richards to patrol the middle of the field.
The Patriots also should send the house at Manning to prevent him from moving around the pocket and buy time to find a receiver, because Manning can be dangerous when he gets in a rhythm. The Patriots really could use the return of Jabaal Sheard this week, as well as a healthy Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower, both of whom were sick Sunday (Hightower played, Collins didn’t). A Collins-Vereen matchup in coverage will be fun, like watching Patriots training camp all over again.
Again, this isn’t the Giants’ defensive line you remember. Yes, Steve Spagnuolo coaches the defense again, but this unit has a measly nine sacks, though to be fair, JPP’s unexpected injury has hurt the team. Damontre Moore leads the Giants with three sacks, and Cullen Jenkins is the only other player with multiple sacks (two).
Pierre-Paul returned last week and played 45 of 63 snaps, all at right defensive end, and he was noticeably rusty. Playing with a giant oven mitt-like club on his right hand, Pierre-Paul was credited with two tackles and two quarterback hits, but had a tough time getting to the quarterback.
And defensive end Robert Ayers has been a bust with just one sack.
The Giants play the same 4-3 defense we’ve seen for years, and it can look like a five-man line because the strongside linebacker often plays up on the line of scrimmage. We’ll see if Spagnuolo blitzes Tom Brady as much as he did Jameis Winston last week, because Brady is usually so good against the blitz. Spagnuolo blitzed Winston a lot, perhaps to compensate for a lack of a natural pass rush, sending all three of his linebackers plus safety Landon Collins and cornerback Trevin Wade. Spagnuolo even blitzed seven on a third and 5, and Winston burned him with a big pass for the conversion.
But the Giants’ defense has been fairly terrible of late, and the Patriots should not have much of a problem moving the football. On the season, the Giants’ defense is No. 32 in total yards, 31st in pass defense, and 32d in sacks. Over their last five games, the Giants have allowed an average of 150.8 rushing yards, 452.2 passing yards, and 28.8 points per game, including 52 points and 608 yards in a loss to the Saints.
Their linebackers are not great in pass coverage and can be fairly terrible at diagnosing running plays, particularly starting weakside linebacker Jonathan Casillas, who was a backup on the Patriots last season.
On top of it, they just lost Johnathan Hankins (torn pectoral), their top pass stuffer, to a season-ending injury.
Spagnuolo also will liberally switch off between man coverage, Cover 1, Cover 2 and Cover 3, and disguises it pretty well pre-snap. They didn’t move their cornerbacks — Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie played the right side and Jayron Hosley the left side — but they could choose to match up with the Patriots. The Giants also are pretty weak on the back end, starting a rookie at free safety (Collins) and former Patriot Brandon Meriweather at strong safety.
The Patriots just lost Dion Lewis, and their offensive line is still sorting through injuries, but I don’t see the Patriots having any problem with the Giants’ defense this time around.
They should be able to pound the ball with LeGarrette Blount, Rob Gronkowski should have a huge day against the Giants’ linebackers and safeties, and Brady should have more than enough time to scan the field and hit his receivers.