Manning needs no introduction as the primary villain of two crushing Super Bowl defeats
Each week, I'll be doing an in-depth scouting report on the Patriots opponent, going over their tendencies, strengths and weaknesses in all three phases of the game. This week, the Pats will take the trek down I-95 to New York to visit their old nemesis in the New York Giants. Most of the faces surrounding Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin have changed since 2011, let alone since 2007, but the fact remains that it's still the quarterback/coach combination that defeated your Patriots twice in the Super Bowl. This year's Giants come in leading the NFC East and, despite some obvious flaws, also come in with some major strengths that will put the Patriots undefeated record to the test. Lets take a deeper look at the matchups that will determine this game.
New York offense
It speaks volumes about the offseason expectations for this offense that a unit that ranks fifth in the league in scoring (27.4 ppg) could be considered a disappointment by some. The running game has failed to generate consistent production, the passing game has become overly reliant on Odell Beckham Jr thanks to Victor Cruz's ongoing absence, and they actually rank just 20th in the league in total yards gained (3,147). Despite this, they've managed to consistently put points on the board, giving themselves a chance every week.
The Patriots run defense has been on fire recently, but they've also prioritized stopping the run in recent weeks due to their opponents tendencies. With the strength of the Giants offense being their passing attack, it will be interesting to see if the Pats can keep up that trend this week out of the nickel. They should, as the Giants rank in the bottom third of the league in nearly every major rushing statistic, including yards per carry (3.8, 25th).
The Giants inability to get their ground game going has to be disappointing given the investments they've made at running back. Rashad Jennings has had his moments since signing as a free agent before last season, and the veteran leads the running back committee in carries. However, despite his all-around skillset, Jennings is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry for the season, which has opened up opportunities for others to cut into his workload. The primary beneficiary of that has been Andre Williams, last year's fourth round pick, but the former BC Heisman candidate has struggled in his young career so far. At 5'11" and 230 pounds, Williams is a thick, powerful runner who can be a load to tackle, but he hasn't shown enough explosion to consistently channel that power into production. He's averaged a dismal 2.9 yards per carry this season, which is only a slight downtick from the plodding 3.3 ypc he put up as a rookie last year. His struggles have opened up some recent opportunities for Orleans Darkwa, who has been the most productive back of the committee in his limited snaps. A decisive, downhill runner, Darkwa took advantage of his first carries of the season back in Week 7 against Dallas, gaining 48 yards on just 8 attempts with a touchdown. He was on his way to another productive day the following week before a back injury forced him out of Week 8's shootout with New Orleans. Darkwa was able to give it a go last week, but received just six carries, as the Giants went with a true committee approach.
That lack of consistent production is especially concerning because the backs have hardly suffered from poor blocking. In fact, ProFootballFocus ranked the G-Men as the 8th best run blocking line in the league, thanks largely to the terrific interior trio of Justin Pugh, Geoff Schwartz and Weston Richburg. A first round pick back in 2013, Pugh had some early-career struggles at right tackle, but he's thrived since moving to guard this season, earning excellent marks in both the running game and pass protection. Right guard is manned by Schwartz, who was widely considered the best guard on the free agent market when the Giants signed him prior to the 2014 season. Schwartz has had some issues in pass protection this year, but has been one of the best run blocking guards in football. Finally, the pivot is manned by Richburg, a 2014 second round pick who has blossomed into one of the league's best centers in his sophomore season. Richburg is currently tied with the Cowboys Travis Frederick for second on PFF's center rankings, trailing only the Panthers Ryan Kalil.
Despite that trio, the Giants O-line also ranks 22nd in the league in pass protection. They've really struggled at tackle, where a season-ending injury to left tackle Will Beatty has forced first round rookie Ereck Flowers to play out of position on the blindside. Flowers is a big, physical mauler who plays with a mean streak in the running game, but he lacks ideal foot speed to protect the blindside. He's still miles better in protection than right tackle Marshall Newhouse, who's been one of the worst starting tackles in the league this season. Offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's system calls for a lot of quick-hitting, uptempo plays in the passing game, which has helped mitigate this obvious weakness, but Chandler Jones should get plenty of chances to pad his league-leading sack total this week. That weakness at tackle could also make this an advantageous week for Jabaal Sheard to return, as he's returned to practice as a limited participant for the first time since injury his ankle back in Week 6 against the Colts.
OBJ is clearly the weapon to stop on this Giants offense
When Eli Manning does get protection, Odell Beckham Jr is clearly his go-to guy. With 92 targets, 59 catches, 759 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns, Beckham Jr nearly doubles his closest teammates' production in the passing game. His yards per catch (12.9) and catch percentage (64.9% of targets) are actually down from his rookie year, but Beckham's combination of great route running, incredible hands and explosive run after the catch ability make him one of the league's best offensive weapons. The Patriots haven't faced a receiver of his caliber since Week One and Antonio Brown.
As good as Beckham is, the drop-off from him to the number two and three options in the passing game is steep. With Cruz missing the entire season, the number two receiver role has been filled by former second round pick Reuben Randle. At 6'4" and 205 pounds, Randle is a big target, but thats rarely translated to more than a possession receiver-type role for him. The third receiver is Dwayne Harris, an offseason signee from the Cowboys. Harris was signed to bolster the Giants special teams, but he's emerged after a quiet start to gain a role as a complementary weapon. He's already matched his career high in targets (31), turning them into 19 catches for 222 yards and three touchdowns. At 5'10", Harris isn't particularly tall, but he's a well built 200 pounds with explosive athleticism.
Like they did in that season opener against Antonio Brown, I expect the Pats to put their best corner on the opponent's best receiver. Malcolm Butler won't be expected to shut Beckham down (that would be an unfair expectation for anyone), but his reactive athleticism gives him a far better chance than anyone else in the Patriots secondary of competing in coverage and making Beckham work for every yard. Of course, I'd still give Butler help in the form of bracket coverage with a safety over the top. Bill Belichick has always game-planned to take away the opponents top threats, daring them to beat you with their lesser players. In this case, the dropoff from Beckham to the likes of Reuben Randle and Dwayne Harris is steep enough to devote as many resources as possible to limiting his impact on the game. Logan Ryan and Justin Coleman have played well against lesser receivers than Randle and Harris, and should be trusted to keep those two from killing the defense without much help.
The Patriots red zone defense catches a break this week, as top tight end Larry Donnell has been ruled out for this week with a neck injury. Donnell isn't necessary a dynamic passing game weapon, but he's a big capable target and easily the Giants best player at the position. Without Donnell unavailable, undrafted rookie Will Tye will likely get the bulk of the snaps at that position, with 2014 UFA Jerome Cunningham the only other available body with pro experience at the position. Patrick Chung has had a lot of success covering tight ends this year for the Pats, and he should see one of the easier assignments he'll face this year in Tye.
Vereen could expose the Pats linebackers in coverage
With Jamie Collins looking like he'll miss his second straight game with a mysterious virus, the Giants ability to throw to their running backs should be a concern this week. Old friend Shane Vereen has stepped into the passing down back role, playing nearly three times as many passing snaps as running. Pats fans are well aware of Vereen's ability as a pass catcher, which has made him a nice fit in McAdoo's offense. Among active players, he's currently the fifth highest graded receiving back in ProFootballFocus's rankings. Vereen's route running makes him a mismatch when he flexes outside and is matched in man coverage by linebackers. If Jonathan Freeny, who appears to be the Pats top coverage option at linebacker with Collins sidelined, sees a lot of time on him, it could be a matchup for the Giants to attack. Both Vereen and Jennings are also excellent in the screen game, which the Giants could use to try to slow down the Pats excellent pass rush.
That pass rush will be key to forcing Manning into committing turnovers. One of the keys for this Giants offense has been avoiding turnovers. Their nine turnovers is the third fewest in the league, and former league interceptions leader Manning has thrown just six picks all season. There's been some luck involved (the G-Men have only lost 3 of their 9 fumbles, but some credit is due to McAdoo, who has cut back on the riskier downfield throws that previously dominated the Giants attack in favor of shorter, higher-percentage passes. The numbers bear witness to this, as Manning's 65.9% completion percentage would be a career high, besting the 63.1% benchmark he set last year in his first season in McAdoo's system. His 14 interceptions last year were the second lowest output of his career, and he's on pace to challenge that this year.
New York defense
Things look less rosey on the other side of the ball, where the Giants are fortunate to rank 19th in the league in scoring defense (25.1 ppg allowed). They rank dead last in yards (3,803) and first downs (215) allowed, have a league-low 9 sacks all season, and rank 27th in the league in opponents net yards per attempt (7.3).
However, they face a Pats offense that could be limited by their injury situation at tackle. If Sebastian Vollmer is unable to get through the league's concussion protocol in time to get cleared for Sunday, the Pats could once again be down to one true tackle, Cameron Fleming, on the roster. Despite his noteworthy struggles in pass protection, Fleming closed out last week's game protecting Tom Brady's blindside, with center Bryan Stork playing out of position at right tackle.
The Patriots were largely able to survive that emergency scenario due to their ability to establish the run. It could be a good week to once again lean on the running game, as the Giants run defense has steadily trended downhill after a promising start. For the season, they've allowed opponents to rush for 4.3 yards per carry, but they've given up 150.8 yards per game on the ground over their past five games, allowing 4.89 yards per carry over that span. They also lost their best run defender by far, defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins, who was placed on season-ending injured reserve this week after tearing his pectoral muscle.
With Hankins out, the early down work will likely go to the uninspiring duo of 2012 seventh round pick Markus Kuhn and 2014 third rounder Jay Bromley. Bromley has flashed as a reserve this year, but at 6'3" and just 305 pounds, he's a bit undersized and better suited to penetrate gaps than to occupy them. In fact, with Kuhn (6'5", 299) and veteran pass rush specialist Cullen Jenkins (6'2", 305) rounding out the rotation, the Giants simply don't have anyone with 2015 experience with the body type to fill the gap-plugging role the 320 pound Hankins excelled at. Perhaps Montori Hughes, a 329 pound disappointment as a 2013 fifth round pick by the Colts, will get his first snaps of the season after getting activated from the practice squad.
JPP's return should bring a badly needed boost to the Giants pass rush
While the middle of the Giants defensive line is weak, their ends should provide decent resistance on the edge. Youngster Kerry Wynn and veteran George Selvie have been two of the better edge defenders in the league against the run this season, and they're joined in the rotation now by Jason Pierre-Paul. Pierre-Paul, who made his season debut last week after missing the first half of the season due to a bizarre fireworks accident, has been an elite run defender at his position for most of his career. He'll likely ratchet up his workload from the 47 snaps he played last week, leaving Wynn and Selvie to split the early down work on the other side.
Adding Pierre-Paul to the mix should also greatly improve the Giants struggling pass rush. Former Broncos first round pick Robert Ayers has quietly developed into one of the league's best pass rushing specialists, and he'll team up with JPP on passing downs to give the Giants a suddenly dynamic duo on the edge. Damontre Moore, who'd been ineffective as a pass rushing specialist this season, will likely see his snaps continue to be cut dramatically in favor of that duo, with the aforementioned Jenkins providing a threat on the interior.
With two edge rushers capable of exposing the Patriots situation at tackle, the need to establish the run is intensified. The Giants are currently a bit banged up at linebacker, with neither Uani Unga nor JT Thomas practicing so far this week and veteran Jon Beason on injured reserve. Last year's fifth round pick, Devon Kennard, is the lone remaining healthy starter. He's an effective thumper against the run, but can be exposed in coverage. The same can be said about veteran Jasper Brinkly, who'll be thrust into a larger early down role with Unga and Thomas likely unavailable. Getting a hat on those two will be critical, as the Patriots ability to block linebackers at the second level was key to LeGarrette Blount's big day last week against the Redskins. The third healthy linebacker is former Patriot Jonathan Casillas, who is an undersized coverage specialist.
Establishing the run would also open up play action, which is any struggling offensive line's best friend. The Giants have particularly struggled to defend opposing tight ends this season, which combined with effective play action could make Rob Gronkowski an especially nightmarish matchup in coverage. Both Kennard and Brinkly are run-first defenders who lack the mobility to stay with Gronk, while the 6'1, 225 pound Casillas simply lacks the size to contest him. Things aren't particularly better for the G-Men at safety. High second round pick Landon Collins came advertised as a solid in-the-box safety who could struggle at the pro level in coverage, and that is exactly how his rookie season has played out thus far. Free safety is manned by another former Patriot, Brandon Meriweather, who has the range to be effective in coverage but has always negated that talent with poor angles and instincts in the passing game. Gronk should absolutely feast, and Scott Chandler could see some mismatches in coverage too, as the Pats figure to play plenty of two and three tight end sets to try to keep that run threat going.
The lack of good coverage options from the linebackers could make this a favorable week to ease James White into the mix as the Pats new passing down back. While Brandon Bolden could be in the mix as well, White remains the favorite to play the bulk of Dion Lewis' vacated snaps after playing that role when Lewis was unavailable against the Jets earlier in the season. After a disappointing rookie season, White has flashed in his limited chances this year, displaying some shiftiness when he gets the ball in space. The screen game was another tool the Pats used heavily to compensate for their situation at tackle last week, and getting White going with some screens and dump-offs would be a great way to get his confidence up while helping to tame the pass rush. White's work in pass protection bears watching, as that's an area Lewis excelled in.
DRC is a premier cover corner
While the middle of the field remains a big weakness, the Giants have a true number one corner in Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who ranks 10th amongst corners in coverage grade from PFF. His bookend, former first round pick Prince Amukamara, isn't far behind at 12th in coverage grade, but he's likely to miss another game this week after tearing his pectoral muscle back in Week 5. The absence of Amukamara has forced 2012 third rounder Jayron Hosley into a starting role, and he's largely struggled as opposing quarterbacks have avoided DRC to pick on him. 2012 seventh round pick Trevin Wade has leapfrogged veteran Trumaine McBride on the depth chart to take over the nickel corner role, where he's at least been competitive if not stellar in coverage. With Brandon LaFell starting to round into form, the Pats have a deadly trio of Julian Edelman, LaFell and Danny Amendola, with any of those three presenting major mismatches for the depth corners behind DRC on this Giants team. If the running game, play action and Brady's quick release can keep the Giants pass rush at bay, the Pats quarterback should be able to pick on those mismatches with ease.
Perhaps the biggest key for this game will be avoiding turnovers. The opportunistic Giants have survived despite some ugly statistics by forcing 21 turnovers, the second highest total in the league. They make it a point to hold up ball carriers to create attempts to rip the ball out, as illustrated by their 12 forced fumbles through nine games (they've recovered 8 of those). They've also picked off 13 passes already, which is the fourth highest total in the league. Of course, the Patriots have been excellent of taking care of the ball, with a league low 5 turnovers. They've only committed a turnover in three of their 8 games, and will have to continue to avoid making the kind of mistakes that can keep an opponent that is inferior on paper in the game.
The Patriots have a major advantage in the game's third phase most weeks, but they face a worthy opponent this week in the Giants. A large part of this is the aforementioned signing of Harris, who has provided the spark the Giants were hoping to get from him in their return game. Harris has been particularly dangerous on kickoffs, where he leads the league with 33 yard per return average. He had a 100 yard game winning touchdown return against the hated Cowboys, and also has a 41 yarder to his name this year. He's been less consistent on punt returns, where he averages 7.8 yards per return, but a 29 yard return illustrates that he's a threat when given space there as well.
The Giants have supplemented their return game with solid performances from their kick and punt coverage teams. While they have allowed one touchdown on a kick return, they've held opponents to just 21.1 yards per return on kickoffs. They've been especially stingy covering punts, where opponents have mustered just 6.4 yards per return. Overall, the Giants have started their average possession from the 28.6 yard line, while opponents have started from 23.7. That's a field possession advantage that has helped the Giants compensate for some of their poor yardage statistics, and a case of strength meeting strength when matched up with the Patriots equally impressive units.
The kicking game rests on the ever reliable foot of Josh Brown, who has made every field goal he's attempted this year. A lone missed extra point is the only blemish on his 2015 performance. Meanwhile, punter Brad Wing has produced the kind of hangtime that allows his coverage team to get down the field and limit opponents chances of breaking a big play.
Sure, these games were all with vastly different rosters, but it bears repeating. Tom Coughlin is 5-1 in his head coaching career against Bill Belichick, with two Super Bowl wins. No one else has come remotely close to having that kind of success against the Patriots under the Hoodie.
Now, that history won't gain any yards, score any touchdowns or make any halftime adjustments on Sunday. However, the fact remains that it's damn near impossible to enter this matchup without the Giants history of breaking Patriots fans hearts at least someone on the back of the mind. With the Patriots once again chasing an undefeated season, this time in a defiant backing of Tom Brady, nothing would make the Giants home crowd happier than dealing the Brady/Belichick era Pats another crushing loss.
With that said, that history should just be more fuel on the fire for a Pats team that has been hyper focused all season. Despite their flaws, the Giants have enough strengths to provide a real test to this undefeated run. The Pats will certainly have to put out a better showing than their sloppy performance against Washington, and the situation at offensive tackle absolutely bears monitoring. However, this is still a game the Pats should win, and barring an uncharacteristically poor performance, look for them to earn the "W" and keep the pursuit of perfection alive.