Countdown to Camp: Can Special Teams Make a Difference for Giants in 2020?
The Giants roster isn't without its holes in 2020. But one strength the Giants should be able to depend on is a special teams unit that makes more plays than it gives up.
Last year the Giants kick-off unit gave up the lowest return yard average in the NFL and finished eighth in punt return yards allowed average.
Meanwhile, the return game averaged the most yards on kick off return per game in the NFL and punt return finished with the fourth-best average in the league.
One could look at the 2019 Giants as evidence that good special teams play is not enough to win games, as the good field position the unit set up was not enough to offset the poor play by the offense and defense on a week-to-week basis.
But it did play a pretty big part in helping the Giants secure what may have been their signature win in 2019.
In Week 3 against the Bucs, punter Riley Dixon booted four of his five punts for a net of 49 to 52 yards. Then the Giants punt coverage brought down Bucs return man Bobo Wilson three different 1-yard returns, a 2-yard loss, and an 8-yarder, never letting the Bucs start a drive near midfield.
In a game that would ultimately be decided by one point, the special teams unit did just as much to help preserve a crucial win for the Giants organization.
Several other times throughout the season, efficient special teams play helped keep games close and give the Giants a chance.
Against the Eagles in Week 14, Dixon delivered a season-high nine punts for 43.6 net average yards with two downed inside the 20-yard line.
The Giants were able to take a 17-3 lead into halftime due in part to a punt downed at the 53-yard line and a 53-yarder boot the Giants' six-yard line.
The field position helped keep the Eagles offense out of rhythm, at least in the first half as Philadelphia came back to tie the game at 17 in the fourth quarter.
With the game tied inside of two minutes, Dixon executed a 44-yarder from the Giants own 32-yard line to push the Eagles out of field-goal range and send the game to overtime, but at that point, special teams had done everything it could.
The defense gave up a game-winning touchdown drive in overtime and wasted a career punting performance from Dixon and effort from Giants' entire special teams unit. However, that unit can still give the Giants plenty of opportunities to finish games in 2020.
The most significant difference the special teams unit might have to make in 2020 is going beyond efficient coverage and making the plays that the offense and defense can't seem to make.
The Giants were not able to score a touchdown on special teams last season, and scoring just one could have possibly delivered at least one more win in any of the five losses determined by one possession in 2019.
Finding ways to score on special teams, and create turnovers, should be a priority for new head coach Joe Judge, who comes from a special teams background and knows how big of a difference those types of plays can make on the final score and overall momentum of a game.
The Giants will have to rebuild its special teams core and find new players to fill the holes left by the departures of Pro Bowler Michael Thomas, gunner Antonio Hamilton, and core member Russell Shepard.
They can, at least, take solace in the fact that Judge retained special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey, and brought in veteran special teams ace Nate Ebner from the Patriots.
The Giants special teams unit will certainly not be the top priority for Judge and the Giants this year. Improving the offense and defense and developing the core of young starters on those sides of the ball will be the key to winning games.
But having a special teams unit that boasts efficiency and playmaking ability will put those young players in a position to capitalize on field position opportunities and finish games in 2020.