Can the Giants improve their catastrophic 1-5 record this weekend when they host the Carolina Panthers? It's a question on many minds within the Giants' facility, especially considering the Panthers are in a much different position than the Giants' last two foes.
Carolina sits at 3-3 with three straight losses, two of them being home games. They now have to travel to MetLife Stadium and face a spiraling Giants team that seems to be dealing with a new injury every day.
New York's playoff hopes are all but over, and many view the team as despondent, with some even wondering if the team quit on Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.
That's debatable, but a win against the Panthers could be the necessary shot in the arm to steady the ship, especially on the defensive side of the football. It would also give quarterback Daniel Jones confidence amid the injury-related absences of receivers Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney and running back Saquon Barkley, plus the uncertain statuses of receivers Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton and tight end Evan Engram.
A healthy Shepard will be vital to this potential victory, and Slayton's presence will also help. This is a winnable football game for the Giants as both these teams are unstable and dealing with injuries.
If the Giants are going to win this football game, they have to play complementary football, and following these keys to the game will help as well.
Key 1: Pressure Sam Darnold
New York sports fans know Sam Darnold all too well. The third overall selection by the New York Jets (one pick after Saquon Barkley) fizzled out in the Big Apple. His circumstances weren't great, and he started to prove his reliability earlier in the season but has regressed with stiffer competition in the last three weeks.
Darnold has turned the football over seven times in the last three losses, including six interceptions, with some of them being egregious. The Cowboys, Eagles, and Vikings all applied pressure on Darnold, forcing him to make poor decisions with the football.
Patrick Graham has to find a way to get pressure on Darnold through his schemes. Thus far, the Giants pass rush has been invisible--and sorry, but we don't want to hear about how well they've contained mobile quarterbacks. While we realize sacks aren't everything, at the very least, they should be getting quarterbacks off their marks, something they haven't done much of this year.
Panthers' head coach Matt Rhule emphasized plans to run the football after last week's loss. Darnold has dropped back to pass 48, 42, and 46 times in the previous three weeks, respectively. That will not be the plan against the Giants, especially if the Giants can't score.
So what can Graham do to generate a pass rush? We'd like to see him try five-man pressure packages in select spots, tighter coverage, and hopefully find a way to get Williams out and about.
The Panthers' offensive line is one of the worst in the league. There's no Pat Elflien; that forces Michael Jordan to start, and he can be exposed. Graham can rely on the front to stop the run, forcing more passes which is where the pressure needs to get in on Darnold.
Throw off the timing and rhythm, disguise Logan Ryan's robber role in the seam, and if Darnold bites, catch the ball if it hits a defender in the hands to help the offense out with a short field.
Key 2: Get the football out quick
The Giants are missing left Andrew Thomas, center Nick Gates, and left guard Shane Lemieux. They're starting Matt Peart and Nate Solder at both tackle spots, and they could be looking at a rotation at left guard now that Ben Bredeson is off the injury report.
It's not a great situation, and when you toss in that the Panthers have the highest pass-rush win rate at 53%, according to ESPN, it's a scary situation.
Not only did the Panthers sign Hasaan Reddick last offseason, a player too familiar with the Giants after sacking Daniel Jones five times last season, but they also have Brian Burns, Yetur Gross-Matos, Derrick Brown, and Da'Quon Jones. It's a mismatch that heavily favors the Panthers.
Panthers defensive coordinator Phil Snow loves to bring pressure and disrupt quarterbacks. With his current offensive line, Jones against this Panthers' pass rush isn't a great matchup if the Giants' offense isn't ready for aggressive, fast football.
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Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett has to rely on the quick game to keep Jones upright in this matchup when passing the ball and use the aggressiveness against the Panthers. Get the screen game going with Devontae Booker and the tight ends to keep Carolina honest, and try to get the running game going as well.
Shepard's health is another pivotal aspect of this matchup. With no Toney, Shepard's quick release and ability to create separation in tight spaces would help the Giants in a quick game, especially when these Carolina cornerbacks are in press alignments. (Shepard is currently listed as questionable on the injury report, but there was optimism he'll be good to go Sunday as of Friday.)
Former Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore could make his Panthers' debut Sunday, leading to more man coverage, so slant/flat timing has to be in rhythm if the Giants want to move the chains and slow down the Carolina pass rush.
Key 3: Get Devontae Booker going
There's no mistaking Booker for Saquon Barkley, but Dave Gettleman pursued Booker in free agency for a reason. He can handle a full complement of snaps, and he's adequate to play a three-down role while being solid in pass protection.
Carolina started the year with one of the better run defenses in the league, but linebacker Shaq Thompson is out with an injury. Through the last three games, Carolina has allowed an average of 178 rushing yards per game, though to be fair, they played the Vikings and Cowboys, two teams with solid rushing attacks, during that period.
The Giants' offensive line isn't playing on the same page, but they have to try and take advantage of the lack of linebacker depth for Carolina. The Panthers will attempt to do the same thing with the Giants missing Blake Martinez. New York can't lose sight of running the ball if they keep this game close. It will slow the pass rush down and lead to more time of possession, giving the defense a break.
Key 4: Fix red zone issues on both sides of the football
The Giants defense ranks second in red-zone touchdowns allowed per game. It's not a statistic to be proud of at all. This needs to be fixed, and Graham's unit must find a way to resemble their 2020 self.
Carolina has relied on Sam Darnold's legs in the red zone and many zone-read actions with the running backs. Former Jets receiver Robby Anderson caught a red zone touchdown last week but has been wildly inefficient on the season. Dan Arnold, a big-bodied tight end, was traded two weeks ago to Jacksonville.
Stopping D.J. Moore in the red zone has to be a point of emphasis for the Giants defense. Moore was never known as a red-zone threat, and he's not overly big, but he's dangerous at creating space in tight quarters.
It seems like offensive coordinator Joe Brady has been designing more plays specifically for Moore in the red zone, so stopping him could be key to forcing Darnold off his first read, which could lead to some mistakes.
On the other side of the ball, Jason Garrett has to be better in the red zone. This Giants team over the last two seasons defines long 14-play drives that end in three points. New York has to find a way to convert field goals into touchdowns. It may require a lot of in-game adjustments from Garrett against Snow, but the inefficiency is a big reason the Giants' offense hasn't been great.
Key 5: Limit turnovers
The Panthers are a team that can be beaten if the Giants win the turnover battle. Jones has progressed since his rookie season in turning the football over, but in a fit of desperation last week, he turned the ball over four times. The Giants should rely on the rushing attack and the quick game to detract from Snow’s pressure packages to mitigate Jones' turnovers.
Jones has to be aware of the Panthers’ defense pre- to post-snap. The protection needs to know where extra rushers are coming from, and the communication can’t struggle this week.
Jones also has to throw hot when opportunities present themselves. As previously noted, this is a winnable game for the Giants, but they can’t lose the turnover battle, abandon the run with hurt receivers, and not pressure Darnold.
Sunday should be interesting and very telling.
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