32 Teams in 32 Days: New York Giants
“Finish strong.” Tom Coughlin instilled that mantra in the 2011 New York Giants, who rattled off six straight wins to clinch the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl. Big Blue found itself in the same position in Week 15 of 2012, needing a couple of wins to come out on top of an NFC East dogfight. But two blowout losses to the Atlanta Falcons and Baltimore Ravens exposed a defense that was missing its pass rush and an offense that was short on weapons.
After an offseason in which they said goodbye to some regular faces to put their trust in younger talent, will the 2013 Giants have what it takes to once again finish strong?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Go Deep, Eli
Though he couldn’t match his remarkable 2011 campaign, Eli Manning finished 2012 with a Top-10 PFF quarterback grade for the fourth straight season. After a jaw-dropping +12.1 grade when under pressure the previous year, Manning fell to a mere mortal -4.2 mark in 2012. But he also seemed unable to use the weapon that powered him to so success in 2011: the deep ball.
As his Super Bowl strike to Mario Manningham showed, few can attack the deep sidelines like Manning can. His 1,490 Deep Passing yards in 2011 are the most by any quarterback since 2008. But Manning wasn’t as willing to throw deep in 2012. The efficiency was still there, as he increased both his yards per attempt and touchdown rate on deep passes while decreasing his interception rate. What changed was his frequency of deep attempts, down from 18.5% in 2011 to 12.7% in 2012. After setting a PFF record with 109 deep attempts in 2011, he threw just 68 in 2012. If Manning is going to replicate his 2011 success, going deep can get him there.
2. Randle Rising
If you’re wondering why Manning wasn’t as willing to test opposing safeties in 2012, look no further than his wide receivers. With Mario Manningham gone and Hakeem Nicks hampered with injuries, Manning often didn’t have that deep threat to work the sidelines. He should this season. Rookie Rueben Randle took strides late in the season, earning our Best Offensive Sub award for a two-touchdown effort in Week 17. His +5.3 season grade was the highest for any WR with less than 350 snaps. With 189 of his 298 yards coming on Deep Passes, Randle could fill Manningham’s shoes nicely.
Victor Cruz had a lackluster second half and a poor Drop Rate in 2012, but his 867 Slot Yards were the second-highest total in the league, and his 2.30 Slot Yards Per Route Run were also one of the NFL’s best marks. Despite a disappointing season on the surface, Nicks’ +11.1 grade tied for 20th-best among wide receivers. If he stays healthy and Randle blossoms, this receiving corps has the potential to once again be one of the NFL’s best.
3. Beatty On The Blind Side
Back in February, I argued with fellow PFF analyst Gordon McGuinness that re-signing Will Beatty should be the Giants top priority of the offseason. The third-year left tackle was the only Giants offensive lineman to earn a positive grade in 2011, making it even more improbable that New York won the Super Bowl after he was lost for the season. Beatty stayed healthy all of last season and flashed his full potential. With a stellar 96.3 Pass Blocking Efficiency, he allowed just three sacks and no hits on Manning all season. A model of consistency, Beatty only twice received a negative grade for a game. And in a testament to his versatility, he was one of only six NFL linemen to surpass a +10.0 grade in both pass and run blocking. After locking up Beatty with a five-year extension, New York can rest easy on its blind side for the next half-decade.
4. Taking Back The Edge
Few position groups in the NFL are as respected as the Giants’ defensive ends, but their bark was worse than their bite in 2012. After collecting 20 quarterback pressures and a +10.6 grade in the previous year’s playoffs, Justin Tuck managed only four games with more than two pressures last season. Already an underwhelming run defender, Osi Umenyiora‘s +2.9 pass rush grade was the lowest we’ve ever given him. The big exception was Jason Pierre-Paul. Don’t let the dip in sacks fool you, “JPP” lined up all over the Giants’ defensive front, earned the highest run defense grade of any 4-3 defensive end, and still pressured the quarterback on 54 snaps.
There’s hope for a bounce-back season with this group. Assuming Pierre-Paul returns healthy, the Giants will again have one of the most powerful edge defenders in the game in 2013. The more two-dimensional Mathias Kiwanuka will replace Umenyiora on the line. And a season after JPP, Tuck, and Umenyiora accounted for 131 of the 134 pressures by the Giants’ defensive ends, it looks like New York will have some more depth at the position. Third-round draft pick DaMontre Moore has be a training camp standout, and his +5.0 grade after just one game is the highest we’ve given any defensive lineman this preseason. After a disappointing 2012 campaign, the Giants’ defensive ends may live up to their lofty reputation in 2013.
5. Jenkins Inside
As the Giants’ edge rushers underwhelmed last season, their linemates on the interior did little to pick up the slack. Linval Joseph‘s 24 run stops were seventh-most of among all DTs, but he is not much of a pass rusher. Chris Canty quietly earned a +6.6 grade, but injuries limited him to just nine games. And no other Giants defensive tackle mustered more than eight pressures on the season.
Enter Cullen Jenkins, a value free agent who could give New York a push inside that it hasn’t seen since the days of Keith Hamilton. Unfairly lumped in with the burning wreckage of the Philadelphia Eagles’ “Dream Team,” Jenkins has been one of the NFL’s best interior pass rushers in recent years. He has a +57.5 pass rush grade with 158 QB pressures since 2009. That’s 75% of the total in that period of every Giants defensive tackle combined. In just his sixth preseason snap as a Giant, Jenkins flung aside his blocker and buried Ben Roethlisberger for a sack. It doesn’t look like Jenkins is ready to slow down anytime soon.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Blocking Without Bradshaw
I cannot blame New York for parting ways with Ahmad Bradshaw this offseason. His deteriorating feet too often overcame his tremendous heart. But the Giants still have to replace the most complete running back in the league. In addition to his productive running and receiving, no back protected his quarterback the last few seasons as well as Bradshaw did. In 328 pass block snaps since 2008, he allowed a mere 10 combined sacks and hits on Manning.
David Wilson brings an explosive element to the Giants’ backfield, but he only pass-blocked on six snaps in 2012, surrendered a QB hit on one of them. And it’s not clear that Coughlin trusts Andre Brown to protect Manning either, as New York often used fullback Henry Hynoski as their third-down back when Bradshaw was injured last season. With an offensive line that has struggled tremendously at times, the Giants will no longer enjoy the frequent safety valve in pass protection that Bradshaw provided.
2. Blocking Without Bennett
When the Giants signed Martellus Bennett in 2011, it made perfect sense. The Dallas Cowboys backup had just posted the second-highest run block grade at his position, and Kevin Gilbride’s rushing attack demands a lot of blocking from its tight ends. “Black Unicorn” held up well in that area for the Giants, and Manning took advantage of Bennett’s previously underutilized receiving skills to make him our fifth-highest-graded tight end.
However, when New York replaced Bennett with Brandon Myers, I scratched my head. Though the Oakland Raiders’ tight end emerged as a productive receiver last season, his -20.4 run block grade was the worst at his position. Considering that only one Giants tight end under Gilbride has gained more than 800 yards in the season, it’s unlikely that Myers will match his receiving production from last season. And he’ll need a big improvement as a blocker to keep a big role in the Giants offense. Unless tight ends coach Mike Pope can work some serious magic, New York may have some trouble at the position in 2013.
3. What’s The Diehl?
I have to give credit to David Diehl. A fifth-round pick in the 2003 draft, he’s entering his 10th NFL season with a Pro Bowl and two Super Bowl rings under his belt. But the fact is, his tenure as a starter should have been up a long time ago. His -66.9 grade over the last three seasons is by far the worst of any offensive lineman. After shifting positions midway through the 2011 season, he finished as our second-worst offensive guard and eighth-worst offensive tackle.
A Week 2 injury sent Diehl to the bench last season, but not before be earned a -7.8 grade in just 71 snaps. Sean Locklear stabilized the right tackle spot in his absence, but his own injury returned Diehl to the starting lineup in Week 9. To no one’s surprise, Diehl surrendered a game-clinching sack to Lamarr Woodley on New York’s last offensive snap. There was hope that the Giants finally addressed this major hole with first-round draft pick Justin Pugh, but early reports indicate that New York may take their chances with Diehl for one more season. If that’s the case, Manning can again expect to see a lot of pressure in his face.
4. Suspect Secondary
A big reason the Giants’ pass rush is important is because they can’t always trust the back of their defense to hold up. Corey Webster had the second-best grade of any cornerback in 2008, but those days are far behind him. The 988 yards and eight touchdowns he surrendered in coverage were third- and second-most in the league, respectively. The Giants tried to make rookie Jayron Hosley their slot cornerback on nickel packages, but abandoned that plan midway through the season after he surrendered a 123.2 QB Rating there. Prince Amukamara allowed more than 50 yards in a game just once, but again missed time with injuries. New York brought back a familiar face this offseason in Aaron Ross, but he’s a gambler who’s susceptible to double-moves and has never finished a season with a positive coverage grade. The man with the best coverage grade for New York in 2012, Kenny Phillips, is now with the rival Eagles. This group will need significant improvement across to board, or they’ll again be exploited in 2013.
5. Linebacker Lull
For a franchise with such a rich history of linebackers, it’s been a while since the Giants found some consistency at that position. They were smart to move on from Michael Boley (-9.1 grade in 2012) and Chase Blackburn (-10.9). However, the men replacing them are largely unproven. Mark Herzlich is projected to start at middle linebacker, but he has not fared well when given extended snaps. Spencer Paysinger has yet to take more than 31 snaps in a game in his two NFL seasons. Keith Rivers, when he’s not injured, is more of a two-down run stopper. Aaron Curry is an intriguing reclamation project, but he’s struggled in coverage and continually hurts his team with penalties. The Giants have gotten by with a hodgepodge of nondescript linebackers in recent seasons, and they’ll likely have to do so again this year.
What to Expect?
The Giants have never started worse than 5-2 under Coughlin, but they also have a 14-21 record in November with him. A solid start followed by a midseason swoon feels like an inevitability for this team. Therefore, their season will once again come down to how they finish in December. If all breaks right, young players like Randle, Moore, and Amukamara will take big strides. Others like Pugh, Herzlich, and Paysinger could also make unexpected contributions. Even if they don’t, we know that Manning and his receivers can carry the Giants, because they already have. In 2011, New York won it all with the NFL’s 32nd-ranked rushing attack, its second-worst offensive line, and a defense that didn’t find itself until December. If Big Blue’s passing attack steps up again, particularly in a division as up-for-grabs as the NFC East, you can bet on the 2013 Giants to finish strong.
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