You and I have the same number of sacks, fumble recoveries and interceptions as all of the players on the Giants defense combined after the first two games of the season.
No, congratulations are not in order for us.
Zero sacks and zero takeaways on 115 defensive snaps would be an unacceptable lack of productivity for any NFL defense, but it is especially alarming for the Giants. Coordinator Wink Martindale’s scheme is designed to create chaos by pressuring quarterbacks into making bad decisions.
Instead, the Giants are one of four teams without a takeaway. They are the only team without a sack.
“They’ll come,” safety Xavier McKinney said, “and once they come, they’ll come in bunches.”
Until they do, what is going wrong?
For starters, the Giants’ signature blitzes have been remarkably inefficient
The Giants actually are blitzing more frequently (42.1 percent of quarterback dropbacks) than when they led the NFL in that category last season (39.7 percent), according to Pro Football Reference.
But, while they are sending extra rushers at the fourth-highest rate in the league, the Giants rank No. 27 in hurried throws percentage (3.5) and No. 18 in pressure percentage (19.3). The rankings were more closely correlated last season.
Part of that dip no doubt is related to the wacky circumstances of the first six quarters of the season, when the Giants were outscored 60-0 — with the offense and special teams both allowing touchdowns.
As a result, the Cardinals and Cowboys could pivot to more conservative offensive scripts because of big leads — a plan that backfired on the Cardinals, who were forced to punt three straight times when the Giants’ defense made its contribution to a 21-point comeback win.
“Looking across the league,” outside linebackers coach Drew Wilkins told Post Sports+, “when you are able to create situations that are high-leverage, third-down, two-minute situations, that’s when you can really turn up a pass rush.
“We understand playing great first- and second-down football earns those opportunities; building a lead in the game earns those opportunities. Our techniques and fundamentals will create those opportunities. When we get them, it’s making the most out of them.”
But the Giants’ offseason decision to beef up the run defense — after ranking No. 30 in yards per carry allowed last season — seems to have been a zero-sum game.
Signing predominantly one-trick defensive tackles A’Shawn Robinson and Rakeem Nunez-Roches, as well as drafting facsimile Jordon Riley in the seventh round, was supposed to allow more breathers for workhorses Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams so the duo would be fresher to rush the passer.
Those additions came at the cost of resources available to add a pass-rush-first defender in time for training camp, so the Giants ran it back with edges Kayvon Thibodeaux, Azeez Ojulari, Jihad Ward, Oshane Ximines and Tomon Fox. The early returns are not good — highlighted by the Cardinals scoring all three of their touchdowns when Lawrence and Williams were subbed out of the game.
It seems the Giants realized weeks ago that their pass rush was too light, prompting trades that brought in Isaiah Simmons and Boogie Basham and relegated Ximines and Fox to the practice squad after camp ended.
But both newcomers still are getting up to speed on the playbook — Simmons played just 13 snaps to lower-ceiling fellow inside linebacker Micah McFadden’s 49 in Week 2 — and Basham faces the additional challenge of transitioning from a traditional 4-3 defensive end to more of a 3-4 outside linebacker.
“He’s understanding that, ‘Some of these calls match up [to what I know] and some of them are different, so I have to put them in different buckets and learn them that way,’” Wilkins said. “He’s attacked the detail, he’s a worker and he throws his body in there. Credit to the personnel [department] for identifying a guy out there who really fits our scheme.”
But if the Giants are relying on Simmons and Basham to generate a pass rush, something has gone wrong. And it has so far.
Thibodeaux (the No. 5 overall pick in the 2022 draft) and Williams (whose $32.2 million salary-cap charge is the third-largest in the NFL this season) have been invisible in two games. Neither had so much as a tackle against the Cardinals, and they have six combined pressures on 82 pass-rushing snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Ojulari, the Giants’ most efficient pass-rusher, is sidelined by a hamstring injury after injuries to both hamstrings caused him to miss 10 games last season.
Lawrence has the fifth-highest pass-rushing grade among the NFL’s interior defenders, according to Pro Football Focus, but he is lacking the splash plays that defined his 2022 breakthrough season (7.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss) and helped the Giants finish No. 13 in sacks.
“Dallas was getting the ball out pretty quick, and last week [against the Cardinals], it was a lot of RPO play-action,” middle linebacker Bobby Okereke said. “If you play dropback pass and line up our front four, we’ll get sacks.”
Opponents would be foolish to take on that challenge, however, so the Giants need to adjust.
The likelihood of forcing a turnover decreases without backfield pressure. Okereke committed a pass interference penalty that wiped out safety Jason Pinnock’s interception against the Cardinals.
When the Giants went nearly six full games without an interception to start last season, they still were getting drive-disrupting plays in the form of six fumble recoveries and 11 sacks during a 4-1 start. That’s not the case right now.
“For me and the back end, we are stressing these turnovers,” McKinney said. “Whether that’s punch-outs, whether that’s interceptions, any way we can get it, that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Want to catch a game? The Giants schedule with links to buy tickets can be found here.
The backup plan
Saquon Barkley can talk the talk and walk the walk, but he can run on a sprained ankle?
Head coach Brian Daboll refused Tuesday to rule out Barkley for Thursday’s game against the 49ers despite reports he will miss three weeks due to a sprained ankle. He plans to make a game-time decision on Barkley.
What’s really going on here?
Well, part of it is Daboll’s sensitivity to competitive advantage and his Belichickian belief in never ruling out a player that an opponent has to spend time preparing to face.
Another part is Barkley trying to talk his way into the lineup behind the scenes because he believes he can always do something to help his team win, even at less than full strength — and that competitor’s mindset is not going to change just because he is not signed to a contract beyond this year and could be risking millions of dollars by leaving himself susceptible to a greater injury.
But history shows the Giants err on the side of caution with injuries and tend to keep players out longer than expected rather than rush a return.
It also shows that, while Barkley has been labeled a “quick healer” by three different Giants coaching staffs, he has taken awhile to round back into form after his two previous ankle sprains: He averaged 2.6 yards per carry in his first four games after returning in 2019 and 3.5 yards per carry in his first six games after returning in 2021.
Putting aside the torn ACL that sidelined Barkley for 15 games in 2020, let’s look at how the Giants have fared in the seven games Barkley has missed due to ankle sprains:
Nov. 7, 2021: 23-16 win vs. Raiders
31 carries for 149 yards (leader: Devontae Booker, 21 for 99)
Nov. 1, 2021: 20-17 loss vs. Chiefs
20 carries for 72 yards (leader: Booker, 15 for 60)
Oct. 24, 2021: 25-3 win vs. Panthers
31 carries for 103 yards and a TD (leader: Booker, 14 for 51 and TD)
Oct. 17, 2021: 38-11 loss vs. Rams
18 carries for 60 yards and a TD (leader: Booker, 12 for 41)
Oct. 10, 2019: 35-14 loss vs. Patriots
16 carries for 52 yards (leader: Jonathan Hilliman, 11 for 38)
Oct. 6, 2019: 28-10 loss vs. Vikings
20 carries for 64 yards (leader: Hilliman, 9 for 20)
Sept. 29, 2019: 24-3 win vs. Washington
37 carries for 164 yards and a TD (leader: Wayne Gallman, 18 for 63 and a TD)
Are the Giants better equipped to survive without Barkley now? Well, that could depend on rookie Eric Gray, who is listed as the fourth-string running back, but could add the explosive ingredient the Giants didn’t have when turning to backups of the past.
Matt Breida, who is first up behind Barkley, has had 10 or more carries in a game just once since Nov. 11, 2019. The top 12 rushing performances of his seven-year NFL career (61 yards or more) all happened on or before Nov. 20, 2020, when he was the 49ers’ primary back. He is best used as a part-time ball-carrier and a third-down pass protector.
Gary Brightwell has 33 carries for 150 yards (an impressive 4.5 yards per carry) and a touchdown over a three-year career spent mostly on special teams. But doubts that he could develop into a featured part of a running-back-by-committee contributed to the Giants using a fifth-round pick on Gray.
Gray, who is handling punt and kickoff returns to begin his NFL career, averaged more than 17 carries per game on his way to 1,366 yards and 11 touchdowns at Oklahoma last season.
He did not show that same explosion during his first NFL preseason (2.1 yards per carry), but if the Giants are going to go with a rotation until Barkley returns, expect Gray to be part of it so that he can be evaluated for a future that might get sped up when Barkley becomes a free agent in March.
Asked and answered
Here are two questions that have come up recently that we will attempt to answer as accurately as possible:
Who will be the odd man out in the receiver rotation?
The Giants are on the verge of one of those cliched “good problems to have” that you “deal with if and when it happens.”
If Wan’Dale Robinson — who was inactive for the first two games while continuing his recovery from last December’s surgery on a torn ACL — returns Thursday against the 49ers, the Giants’ top six receivers will be healthy.
That’s remarkable when you consider that last season the position was so injury-depleted the Giants started a practice-squad elevation, Marcus Johnson, in Week 5 and a signing off of the Bills practice squad, Isaiah Hodgins, in Week 11 despite it being just his second week with the team.
It’s even more remarkable when accounting for the extensive injury histories of Sterling Shepard and Parris Campbell.
Daboll said it is possible the Giants could activate all six as part of their 53-man roster, which wouldn’t be unusual except that Hodgins, Shepard, Campbell, Darius Slayton and rookie Jalin Hyatt have combined to play zero special-teams snaps over two games. Robinson played zero as a rookie last season.
Having six active receivers with no special teams value is rare. So, if one of those six is a healthy scratch to make room for another body that can cover kicks and punts, it could be the venerable Shepard, who is carrying the smallest workload (24 snaps) so far.
Slayton (103), Hodgins (92) and Campbell (92) have played more than two-thirds of the offensive snaps, and Hyatt’s role (39) seems ready to expand after his two big plays last game.
Robinson and Campbell also have rushing experience if the Giants need to get tricky to fill the void created by Saquon Barkley’s likely absence.
Is the Giants schedule as difficult as advertised?
Simply? Yes. Maybe even more so.
When the NFL schedule was first released in May, the Giants were projected to have the fourth-toughest slate based on their opponents’ winning percentage (.549) last season. Using that measuring stick is foolish, though, because teams change so much from one season to the next.
Except the Giants’ schedule looks even more daunting after two weeks of results than initially anticipated. Their remaining 15 opponents have a combined record of 22-8 (.733).
Eight of those 15 games are against teams that are off to 2-0 starts (including two games apiece against the Eagles and Commanders). Only one is against an 0-2 team — and nobody is counting the Patriots as an automatic win, especially not Daboll, a Bill Belichick protégé.
The Giants asked the NFL to schedule back-to-back road games on the West Coast so they can minimize travel miles by staying on the West Coast between games, as they did by holding walk-throughs at Arizona State University’s indoor facility Monday and Tuesday after beating the Cardinals. But facing the vaunted 49ers on a short week of preparation is no gift.
The Week 4 home game against the Seahawks on “Monday Night Football” — with one more day’s rest than teams usually get after playing on a Thursday — will be portrayed as a big swing game for the season. Rightfully so.
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